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True crime. Casually done.

Theodore Edward Coneys: The Denver Spiderman

If you’ve listened to a few episodes of the show already, you’ll probably be well aware that we don’t take too kindly to ghost stories muddying the waters of our true crime cases. Like the world’s greatest detective Scooby Doo, we’re all about ripping that [dollar store/pound shop] mask off, and revealing the human culprit hiding underneath. Often what you find is far more disturbing than any ghost or goblin. 

Still, there are some criminal cases out there which send a chill up the spine of even the most staunch rationalist. That’s because what they reveal is a troubling fact: some houses really are haunted, just not in the way that you might expect. 

That’s what we’ll be exploring in today’s case — the tale of a real-life haunting with deadly consequences. Fair warning: this one has the potential to set your paranoia ablaze, so if you live alone, you might want to give it a miss. 

But if you’ve got the nerve to stick with us, prepare for your nightmares to be filled with the face of Theodore Edward Coneys: The Denver Spider Man…

Theodore Edward Coneys
Theodore Edward Coneys

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A Supernatural Slaying

It’s the 17th of October 1941. Septuagenarian Phil Peters is living alone at his house on the north side of Denver, while his wife recovers from a fractured hip in hospital. This was back when even knowing how a stove worked was enough to brand a man a pansy, so the retired railroad official has been collecting his evening meals from a neighbor while his wife is away from home. 

This evening he was late for dinner. Darkness came, and the neighbor waited a little while longer to see if he would eventually turn up. Phil had been struggling to adjust to life alone in the house, so she worried that he was holed up in a depression, or worse — he could have taken a fall down the stairs. 

When she went round to check up on the old man, she found all the lights in the house turned off — strange, as he would have checked in first, if he had somewhere else to be. Nobody answered when she rang the doorbell, either. The good Samaritan went to enlist the help of some other neighbors, who resolved to get inside and check if Mr Peters was alright. 

The place was locked up tight though — every window and door bolted shut. Eventually one girl managed to pull back a window screen far enough to clamber inside, while the others lifted her up. After scrambling up from the floor of the house, she called out to the elderly occupant, with no reply. 

So she crept through the rooms, not wanting to startle him if he was still inside. It was her who got the fright, however: when the girl made it through to the downstairs bedroom, she found Mr Peters’ bodying a pool of blood, and screamed loud enough that everyone outside could hear. Their worst fears were confirmed — in fact, they were exceeded: not only was Mr Peters dead, he had been viciously murdered. 

Phil Peters had over a dozen skull fractures, alongside many more bruises and lacerations on his body, suggesting a brutally violent end. It appeared that many of the worst injuries were inflicted even after death, as his attacker continued attacking the corpse. 

Nothing appeared to have been stoled from the house, so the incident was unlikely to have been a burglary gone wrong. Even more mysterious was the fact that there was no indication anyone had come or gone from the house. The police, like the neighbors who came before them, found every entrance to the house locked from the inside. 

There was no sign of forced entry apart from the bent window screen, which was caused by the neighbors who broke inside to find the body. Whoever had killed Phil Peters had simply disappeared into thin air…

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Spooky Sightings

A few months after the murder, Mrs Peters’ hip was fully healed, and she faced the grim prospect of returning to the home where her husband was beaten to death — the same home they had shared together since 1899. To make matters worse, some unsettling rumors had started to spread around the neighborhood.

The house was supposed to be unoccupied, but a group of children reported seeing a light flickers and off in one of the windows. That might be explained away as the overactive imaginations of young’uns, but just days later a woman from the neighborhood claimed she spotted a ghostly face peer out at her from a darkened window. 

But Mrs Peters wasn’t ‘fraid of no ghosts; the grieving widow didn’t let the rumors put her off returning to the comfort of her own bed. Not long after she did, she took a minor fall and damaged her hip once again, but refused to be taken back to hospital.

Instead, her family enlisted the help of a home care nurse and housekeeper, who took up residence in one of the spare rooms. This was a short-lived arrangement, because soon the nurse started to hear strange scratching noises from inside the walls, and found objects left out of place in the mornings. 

Her creeping sense of dread came to a head one cold January evening, when she stepped out of her room in the middle of the night to investigate a sound, and had an encounter with the ghostly presence itself. Years later, she told The Denver Post:

“Just a few minutes ago, I heard a sort of tapping. I had heard it before, but I thought it was only some woodpeckers. But this time I walked into the kitchen, and I saw the door to the stairway that leads upstairs slowly open,” 

Then, the specter started to slip through the doorway:

“A foot came out and then I saw a thin white hand on the door! I screamed and the man ducked back into the stairway and I heard him running up the steps.”

The nurse very sensibly noped right out of there after her brush with the supernatural, and promptly drafted up a resignation letter. She never returned to the house. The police were called that night, but by the time they arrived there was no sight of any intruder. They chalked it up as another case of silly superstition.

At the time she never revealed exactly why she was leaving, just that she believed the house was haunted with an evil spirit. One of the neighbors decided to take her place, rather than leave the poor, bereaved old woman to fend for herself. It wasn’t long before she had a similar experience of the paranormal. 

When she heard something topple over downstairs late at night, she crept down the stairs to check it out. Near the entrance to the kitchen she spotted the ghost: it was a ragged and demonic-looking thing, wearing tattered rags, with long, spindly limbs and yellowed eyes. When she screamed, the apparition disappeared from sight, and was nowhere to be found when the police arrived.

Rather than leave his mother at the mercy of a demon, Mrs Peters’ son demanded she move in with him until something could be done about the strange happenings in the house. Given the similar reports given by two separate witnesses, police officers were posted on a lookout across the street from the now-empty home. This only lasted a few weeks, when — given the lack of any spooky happenings — the surveillance was abandoned. Over the following months, officers would stop by to check on the place, in case the mystery man showed himself again.

This little gothic ghost hunting assignment wasn’t their usual beat, and they probably expected it to be pretty uneventful. It was just a bit of daft superstition after all, right? 

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Spider Man: Home Squatting

That might be how things usually turn out in these cases, but the two cops sent out for a routine check out on July 30th 1942 were in for the shock of their lives. Late that afternoon, the postman came down the street doing his evening rounds. The officers watched as he dropped off some mail at the Peters’ mailbox, at which point they caught sight of movement at the living room window — the flash of a face between the curtains.

They rushed across the street to investigate, forcing open the front door to the abandoned home. By this point everything was caked in a thick layer of dust, kicked up in thick clouds with each step. They listened for any sign of movement. Long second passed without any sound. Then suddenly, they heard the click of a latch on the second floor: someone was in the house after all.

The officers ran upstairs to the source of the sound — a closet door at the end of the hall. As one of them swung it open, they spotted a pair of bony feet dangling from the ceiling. Obviously neither of the men had seen The Grudge, so they had no issues pursuing this skeletal apparition into the attic hatch through which it was fleeing. 

Detective Roy Bloxom leapt into the cupboard and reached up through the hole in the roof, snatching a scrap of cloth from the tattered trousers of the figure, then catching hold of its ankle. He was able to wrench it back through the tiny passageway, and bring the murderous ghost tumbling down to the ground with a piercing cry.

To their relief, the scrawny figure that lay on the ground before them was no vengeful spirit — it was a flesh and blood human. A man, who had been knocked unconscious in the struggle. Still, he looked about as close to the living dead as any man can be: starved and ragged, with long wild hair and a filthy beard, so thin that jagged bones poked through pale white skin all over his body, and the clothes on his back rotting away.

While they waited for an ambulance to arrive, one of the men decided to poke his head through the hole in the closet ceiling — that’s about all he could fit through the tiny opening. Officers had noticed the hatch previously, but its small size meant they ruled out the possibility of any grown adult being able to get through it. The occupants never bothered using it anyway, and it was jammed shut when the cops tried to open it, so they decided just to leave it that way.

Now though, they were able to look up inside. It was a tiny space, just 27 inches high and 57 wide. The sort of place that costs £1000 a month in London — yes, that’s how dehumanizing the ghostly occupant’s existence was. 

By the looks of it, he had been living there for some time. An ironing board was laid out on the floor as a makeshift bed, piled with filth-encrusted bedding and old magazines. Spider webs hung thick around the single dim bulb illuminating the space. 

The stench was so overpowering that the officer could only bear to look for a few moments before pulling his head out and returning to the main mystery below. Who the hell was this filthy miscreant lying on the floor in front of them?

The detectives called their captain, an officer named James Childers, who went on to become chief of police. Years later he recounted his experience of that day with the descriptive power of a frustrated novelist, telling the press how he was faced with: 

“…the strangest looking human I had ever seen. He was a tall man, just under 6 feet, but thin as a wilted weed. His dirty hair hung low over his ears, and his skin was the ugly, unwashed gray of an overcast sky.”

This strange, sickly character would later pick up the nickname the Denver Spider Man of Moncrieff Place, on account of his arachnid-like lifestyle. The press cooked up the nickname when Detective Fred Zarnow told them about his crawl space abode, saying “A man would have to be a spider to stand it long up there.”

He was the first person to fully enter the attic, having drawn the short straw as the smallest-built officers at the precinct. When Zarnow climbed up to get a better look at the place, he ended up vomiting from the stench. Stashed away up there, he found a stock of canned foods, a homemade radio, and a power outlet rerouted from the house’s main supply.

By this point the occupant had been carted off to recover from the ordeal under police custody. To find out the Spider Man’s true identity, the detectives would have to wait until he was back on his feet…

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Who Was He?

Once the skeletal squatter regained consciousness, he proved surprisingly compliant for a murderous attic goblin. Given his condition, all it took was a few good meals and a hot cup of coffee to coax him into sharing his life story.

As it turned out, he began living as a spider after going on an ill-fated high school field trip and witnessing the tragic murder of his uncle Ben who — oh hold on. Sorry, wrong Wikipedia. The origins story of Denver’s very own Spider Man was actually far more depressing than that. 

Born in 1882 as Theodore Edward Coneys, he lost his father at just five years old. He and his mother moved around several cities before eventually settling down in Denver. Young Theodore was a troubled kid, and ended up dropping out of school at an early age. 

It was in part due to the health problems which plagued him throughout life; Theodore was told from a young age that he wouldn’t live to adulthood. Every time his mother sought a fresh opinion from a new doctor, they told her the same thing: her son would be lucky to see 18. He was nearing that fatal deadline when he made the acquaintance of a man in his twenties named Philip Peters, who shared his interest in music.

After meeting at a club for guitar and mandolin players, the sickly youth would often come to Peters’ home, which he hadn’t long since bought with his new wife. He’d stop by from time to time for a jam with the rest of the mandolin crew, or just to have dinner with the newlyweds.

This kind of social contact was bittersweet for the young man; the company of friends largely just served to embitter Theodore against the world that was denied him by his ailing health. He had no girlfriends growing up, and his mother prevented him from getting a job or playing sports. 

As a result, he became an outcast among his peers, preferring a reclusive life to their constant mockery. Eventually he even stopped coming round to Philip Peters’ house. It would be several decades before he graced that doorstep again.

In the interim, he swung from crisis to crisis, beginning with the bankruptcy and death of his mother, who was scammed of her life savings and home. After she passed, Theodore Coneys took off into the world. He lived far longer than every doctor’s estimation, but without ever finding much worth living for.

After stints spent sleeping rough, he managed to land an advertising job at the Denver Brass Works, but wasn’t able to stick it out for long. Eventually he was forced into the life of a hobo during America’s Great Depression, traveling to California and sleeping under a bridge, then slowly moving from state to state until he reached New York. There he took a job as a salesman, which fell through within a few months. 

That was Coneys’ last attempt at fitting in with normal society. Time and time again he was beaten and battered down, and all he now wanted was a quiet spot to escape the world for the rest of his days…

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The Murder

In September 1941 he decided to retreat back to Denver, where he sought out the charity of some old acquaintances. High on the list of people he planned to contact was Peter Philips — one of the few people who had treated him with genuine kindness in his teenage years. 

Coneys made his way back to 3335 West Moncrieff Place for the first time in nearly three decades. When he got there, he found there was nobody home. He tried the door, which had been left unlocked, as was the norm in that safe part of town. At first he only intended to steal some food and money, but as he wandered around the empty house, another notion crept into his mind.

Now in his sixties, the elderly invalid’s health was in a poor state. One more winter spent sleeping rough would probably be the death of him, and look how much space his old acquaintance had in this warm, comfortable home! He searched around for a hidden spot to rest his head, and eventually found the tiny attic hatch in the closet.

Anyone with a normal frame would have struggled to fit through, but Coneys was stick thin from living off scraps for years. He was able to slip through without issue, and fell into the best sleep he had enjoyed in weeks. While the Denver Spider Man slept in the tiny cubbyhole, he heard the legal occupant of the home return downstairs. 

Rather than crawl out of the ceiling for an unhappy reunion, he decided to stay completely still, and maintain his secret hiding space for as long as possible. Even if he let out the odd stifled cough, Peters was in his seventies, and didn’t have the best hearing. 

His visitor soon realized this, and got bolder in his wanderings around the home. At first the spider in the attic would only descend to eat whenever Philips left the house, but eventually he graduated to far creepier methods. In his statement to police, he’s quoted as saying:

“Whenever I heard him downstairs, I kept real still. Then I got bolder and used to shadow

him from room to room. It was sort of a game. It gave me a thrill. It was the first time in my life I’d ever had anyone at my mercy, but I didn’t want to hurt him.”

But that’s exactly what he did. On that night in October, about five weeks after the unwanted visitor set up in the attic crawlspace, he was caught red handed at the refrigerator door. He thought his host had gone out for the evening to visit his wife, but actually he had only been sleeping on the couch.

When old man Philips found the disheveled hobo raking through his refrigerator, he swung at him with his cane. A struggle ensued, and Coneys managed to get his hands on an old handgun, which he used to beat his old friend around the head. Philips fled to the living room, but his attacker landed another solid hit before he could call for help.

The gun broke apart from the impact and Philips fell down unconscious, so Coneys left him be. At this point, he claimed he only planned to steal some money then make a break for it. Seconds later though, he heard the homeowner stumbling to the master bedroom, so Coneys grabbed an iron poker from the side of the stove, knocked Philips down again, and kept beating the elderly man’s skull until he was dead — 37 devastating strikes in total.

After brutally murdering his unwitting landlord, Coneys cleaned the murder weapon, and retreated to his squalid little fortress of solitude. He was still there when the commotion unfolded downstairs, and the police came to investigate his crime. In fact, he had been sitting on top of the hatch when the cops tried to open it!

Thankfully for Coneys, those cold callers left his little doorway that evening, and he was free to continue living in the crawl space for many months more. People downstairs came and went, and he endured a few close calls when he was spotted during those nighttime kitchen raids. Few of the reports make any mention of his toilet situation, and to be honest, we should probably consider that a blessing. I’ll just leave it up to your imagination.

Through the chilly Colorado winter, Coneys’ teeth chattered throughout the night with the freezing temperatures in his hideaway, but still it was better than anything the outside world could offer him. This was the sort of lifestyle he had been dreaming of — completely sealed away from society. 

Once his victim’s wife finally vacated the house, he had finally achieved the reclusive solitude he had been craving all his life. His only contact with the outside world was the odd scowling glimpse of the mailman, before scurrying back to his miserable little man cave. 

The life of your average Twitch streamer, basically…

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A Terrifying Trend

Before we wrap up the story of the Denver Spider Man, we need to take a look at the wider phenomenon which he’s a part of. This is the part which is going to have you jumping at every little bump and creak in your homer the next few nights. Because although the story of Theodore Edward Coneys is pretty insane, it’s actually far from uncommon. 

In fact, there have been cases of secret squatters secretly popping up all around the world. For example, in 2018 a man in the Japanese city of Himeji went to visit his 90-year-old mother, who lived by herself. While he was cooking dinner for her, he heard a bang from upstairs, and went up to investigate. In one of the rooms, he found a young man sleeping on a futon on the floor. 

He had no idea who the man was, and neither did his mother, so he called the police. As it turned out, the twenty-year-old had likely been living there for about five months, although he refused to give any details to the police after his arrest — not even his name.

He probably picked the home of the elderly woman knowing that she wouldn’t hear him upstairs, and that she had pretty much written off the second floor of her home since she became too frail to tackle the stairs. Despite squatting in the woman’s home and stealing her food, the young guy wasn’t a total animal; in true Japanese fashion he was polite enough to leave his shoes at the front door when he entered, and somehow nobody noticed. 

Pretty much the exact same thing happened in Jiangsu Province, China in 2014. A man named in the papers as Mr Wang discovered that money and food had gone missing from his apartment, and eventually tracked the culprit to a crawl space above his ceiling. The stowaway had been living there for about three months after accessing the space from outside, dropping into the two top floor apartments to loot their piggy banks and fridges from time to time. The squatter even had the audacity to sneak down and use Mr Wang’s kitchen while he was away at work.

These stories are relatively harmless compared to the Denver Spider Man. No harm was done apart from a little bit of petty theft, but the idea of an unwanted tenant in your home is creepy nonetheless. And as we’ve already seen, potential for these situations to boil over into violence is very, very real. 

Sometimes though, the motives are about more than just finding a warm place to sleep. In 2012, a woman in South Carolina woke up to a thunderous racket from above her ceiling — far too loud to be an animal. Initially she thought she was being haunted by a poltergeist, but when she called her adult sons to come help, they discovered her ex-boyfriend living in her attic. 

The woman had broken up with him over 12 years ago, shortly before he went to prison. He hadn’t taken it particularly well, and wrote her regular love letters from the inside. After his release, he went straight to her house and took up residence in her attic for two weeks. Worst of all: he had been watching her sleep through a ceiling vent the whole time. I wonder how many listeners just glanced over at their air vents just then…

One more story before we move on, and it’s by far the most unsettling of all. American writer Grady Hendrix told the story of a similar encounter on Twitter, writing how he stumbled across an intruder in his kitchen as a kid in the 80s. 

His sightings were written off as fantasy by his parents, until their unwelcome guest ended up passing away while hiding inside the walls. According to Hendrix, the thing that alerted them to the situation were the maggots dropping through the air vent in his room. The recently-deceased squatter had set up foam pad next to the vent to watch the kid in secret. I think it might be time to board up those air vents for good…

Similar stories have come out of Washington, Fukuoka, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Queensland, Ohio, and on and on and on. There’s a startling abundance of these cases out there. So much so that it really makes you wonder how many secret squatters have gotten away with it completely undetected. 

And how many of them might currently be doing so…

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Wrap Up

As for our original secret squatter, the Spider Man of Denver, he had been wrenched out of his cosy little corner and offered a sweet new pad at the Colorado State Penitentiary, where he was to serve a life sentence. After shacking up in a tiny attic coffin for over half a year, it was probably quite nice to have heating and a mattress to sleep on. When he was sentenced, he’s reported to have said “Now I feel safe. I’ll have a better home than I have had in years.”

He spent the rest of his life behind bars in relative comfort, before finally passing away in 1967, a full 67 years older than any doctors had ever expected for him. Like his fictional namesake, the Denver Spider Man was tougher than anyone expected. He endured more than his fair share of hardship over the years, never quite able to establish himself in a world that kept beating him down.

Don’t get me wrong, that’s no excuse for house breaking, and certainly no excuse for murder, but you have to admit that neither Theodore Coneys nor any of those who came after him would have even bothered to sneak into anyone’s home in the first place, had there been some alternative available. (Apart from that South Carolina vent pervert — zero sympathy for him)

But while homelessness continues to plague even the most developed nations, and shelters around the world are packed beyond capacity each night, these kinds of stories will continue to emerge from time to time. Meaning, the next time you hear a creaking in the walls, or you swear you had an extra can of beer in the fridge, it could actually be a sign that you’ve got an unwelcome plus-one living under your roof.

I’m kidding of course. What are the odds of this kind of true life gothic ghost tale happening to you? Near zero, right? It was probably just the pipes again…

Seriously though, you should probably check.

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Dismembered Appendices

1. The story of the original Spider Man has left a pretty strong imprint on pop culture over the years (and I’m not just talking about that deleted scene from the Avengers when Tom Holland climbs out of Thanos’ attic and pistol whips him to death). He was also the inspiration for a CSI plot line, an episode of the Simpsons, a Erle Stanley Gardner novel, and pretty much any media which borrowed the trope of the murderous guest in the attic.

2. How about one more lighthearted secret squatter story to take the edge off? A group of male students at Ohio State University rented a house off-campus in 2013, which they joked was haunted. After breaking open the door to what they thought was a utility closet, they discovered the fully-furnished room of Jeremy, a previous tenant who just chose not to leave. According to legitimate tenant Brett Mugglin, their secret roomie was actually “a really nice guy.” Who knows, maybe yours will be too!

Credits

https://history.denverlibrary.org/

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