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Montana Vigilantes

and the Origins of the 3-7-77

by Fredrick Allen

From Montana The Magazine of Western History, 54 (Spring 2001), 3-19; this article is presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society.  All rights reserved, © 2001.

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John Denn was known to hoard large sums of money at his liquor store. A native of Germany and a former offcer in the Prussian army, Denn was drawn to the American West after the gold rush of 1849 and eventually settled in Helena, Montana. There he operated a lucrative business on Wood Street selling wine and liquor to hotels, saloons, and, occasionally, to individuals who rang his bell at odd hours. A gregarious man, especially when drinking, Denn spoke openly of his distrust of banks and bragged that he kept thousands of dollars in a vault on the premises. Friends worried for his safety.1

On the evening of Monday, October 27, 1879, Denn closed his shop, retired to his apartment next door, donned a nightshirt, and went to bed. Sometime in the night, a visitor roused him and asked for a bottle of whiskey. Denn lit a candle, put on a pair of carpet slippers, and took his caller downstairs to the cellar. He picked up a funnel and was bending down to turn the faucet on the whiskey cask when a heavy blow landed on top of his head, crushing his skull. He was found the next morning, curled almost into a ball, stiffened on the stone floor. His safe was open and empty.2

The murder brought an abrupt end to the period of relative tranquility that Helena had enjoyed during the 1870s and sent a wave of alarm through the community. It revived memories of Montana’s gold rush era, when a reign of violent lawlessness triggered one of the deadliest episodes of vigilante justice in American history. During the first five weeks of 1864, while the rest of the nation was preoccupied by the Civil War, a small corps of armed horsemen swept through the mining camps of the Rocky Mountain foothills in southwest Montana and hanged twenty-one troublemakers, including a rogue sheriff, creating a legend whose impact can still be felt today.3

The mysterious numbers 3-7-77, often posted on doors (as illustrated above), were used for years as a symbol of banishment in Montana. But contrary to widespread belief, they were never used by the original vigilantes of 1864 who hanged Sheriff Henry Plummer. The numbers actually appeared for the first time in 1879 to warn “undesirables” to leave Helena. Today the numbers appear on the shoulder patch and car door insignia of the Montana Highway Patrol (right) and are meant to convey a benign message of law and order.

Unless otherwise noted, all photographs are from MHS Photograph Archive, Helena

Random lynchings continued in Montana Territory throughout the 1860s until a back- lash against extralegal justice finally took hold around 1870. By then Montana’s reputation for summary executions was well established, and for the next decade the territory enjoyed a sort of pax vigilanticus. The discovery of gold in the Black Hills of Dakota Territory in 1876 contributed to the low crime rate by drawing off many of Montana’s prospectors and camp followers, reducing the population most prone to violent behavior.

Bradley and Rulofson, photographers

Thomas J. Dimsdale (above, right) heralded the work of the early vigilantes and helped secure their place as Montana’s founding fathers. But his book, The Vigilantes of Montana, never mentions 3-7-77. The “mystical numbers” appeared in print for the first time on November 3, 1879, in the Helena Daily Herald, published by Robert E. Fisk (above, left).

By the late 1870s, however, Montana was stirring with new settlement. Railroad construction, halted by the Panic of 1873, resumed its march toward Montana’s borders, with the Northern Pacific Railroad approaching from the east and west and the Utah and Northern Railroad from the south. Montana’s boosters craved the railroads as a desperate necessity. A newspaper editor proclaimed railroads more vital to Montana’s future prosperity than eventual statehood. Without them, one businessman warned, “in a few years there will not be enough of us left to make a corporal’s guard.” But the railroads also swept a tide of drifters ahead of their path, and in Butte, Helena, Bozeman, and other Montana cities, a rash of petty burglaries and vandalism aroused fears that the bad old days might be returning.4

Understandably, John Denn’s murder aroused a furious response in the newspapers. “His blood cries to Heaven for Vengeance,” swore editor W. A. Woolfolk of the Helena Independent. Robert E. Fisk, editor of the Helena Daily Herald, evoked the memory of 1864 and called for the organization of a vigilance committee. “There is no disguising the fact,” he wrote, that Helena at this time is the rendezvous of a score or more of very hard characters—men that have no visible means of a livelihood and that are watching for opportunities to rob and even murder, if necessary, to carry out their infamous purposes. Would it not be a wise precautionary step to invite some of these desperate characters to ‘take a walk,’ or shall we wait for other murders and robberies, or perhaps until they burn the town again?5

A coroner’s jury met within days, and its members were startled at one point when Denn’s neighbor rushed in carrying a tin box he had discovered in Denn’s apartment that contained nearly seven thousand dollars in bank notes. Denn’s assailant, it seemed, had missed his main cache and thus had killed him in vain. Alarmed at the violent feelings aroused by the crime, Judge Cornelius Hedges closed the hearings to the public. Denn’s brother-in-law testified that a former clerk probably had committed the killing, and the man was arrested along with an associate on suspicion of murder. The threat of a lynching was palpable.6

In this climate, on the night of Saturday, November 1, 1879, the numbers 3-7-77 were posted on fences and walls in several locations around Helena. It was the first time they had ever appeared. And no one knew what they meant.

 
An outspoken opponent of vigilantism, Cornelius Hedges (pictured with fellow Masons, seated far left), while a probate judge in Helena, presided over the coroner’s inquest into the murder of John Denn. While many have speculated that the numbers 3-7-77 are a Masonic code, it is unlikely that the numbers have Masonic significance.

To this day, the most provocative pub- lic symbol in the state of Montana is a set of numbers—3-7-77—whose meaning is a complete and utter mystery to everyone living there.

For generations, the figures have been associated with the vaunted vigilantes who cleaned up the gold camps in 1864 and earned a place in history as great heroes. The first book published in the territory, Thomas Dimsdale’s The Vigilantes of Montana, praised and defended the hangmen’s work and heralded them as founding fathers, a portrait that endures.7 Today in Montana the name Vigilante graces various schools, stadiums, and businesses, including a theater company in Bozeman. And the vigilantes’ numbers, 3-7-77, have become a potent emblem of law and order. Most conspicuously, they appear on the shoulder patch and car door insignia of the Montana Highway Patrol, where they are intended to convey a mess age along the lines of “Serve and Protect.”

Folklore holds that the vigilantes used 3-7-77 as an ultimatum to banish malefactors whose presence was considered a danger to public order. The oldest, most popular interpretation of the numbers is that they represented an exact period of time—three hours, seven minutes, and seventy-seven seconds—that the vigilantes gave their targets to get out of town or face violent retribution. Another common version has the numbers as the dimensions of a grave: three feet by seven feet by seventy-seven inches. In more recent times, scholars have guessed that the numbers might be Masonic, reflecting the preponderance of Freemasons among the leadership of the early vigilantes.8

Hezekiah Hosmer (right), the first federal justice in Montana Territory, praised the Virginia City vigilantes but also urged them to stop carrying out executions. A critic blamed his “wavering” conduct on the bench for the resumption of vigilante activity.

The problem is that nowhere in the public record can one find a single instance when the numbers were used by the original vigilantes. Nor is there any evidence to support the various theories about their meaning. Instead, extensive research suggests that the actual first use of 3-7-77 was considerably later, more ambiguous, and arguably more sinister than previously thought. In 1864, at the time of the vigilantes’ hanging spree, southwest Montana lay beyond the reach of legally constituted courts and had to depend on self-appointed posses, street trials, and hired-hand lawmen to keep the peace. It was not until December 1864 that Hezekiah Hosmer, a federal judge appointed by President Abraham Lincoln, convened the territory’s first grand jury in the dining room of a hotel in Virginia City, Montana’s largest mining settlement, and began enforcing a formal criminal code. By then six more lynchings had taken place, bringing the number of victims to twenty-seven.9

Justice Hosmer, a Radical Republican and ardent abolitionist, chose not to rebuke the vigilantes. “It is no part of the business of this court,” he said in his charge to the grand jury, “to find fault with what has been done.” The vigilantes, he argued, had “assumed the delicate and responsible office of purging society of all offenders against its peace, happiness, and safety,” a purge that included hanging Henry Plummer, the sheriff suspected of masterminding a wave of stagecoach robberies. Plummer, the judge said, was “the greatest villain of them all, with hands reeking with the blood of numerous victims.”10

Hosmer’s exoneration of the vigilantes may be explained in part as a matter of prudence, since two of their leaders, James Williams and Thomas Baume, were sitting before him as members of the grand jury. But Hosmer went on to take the bolder step of telling them they must stop. “Let us erect no more impromptu scaffolds,” he implored. “Let us inflict no more midnight executions.” If any further lynchings took place, he added, making his warning explicit, he would ask the grand jury to indict the perpetrators for murder.11

From the moment of Justice Hosmer’s admonition, the nature of vigilantism in Montana changed. Publicly, at least, the vigilante leaders had little choice but to pledge obedience. Their chief apologist, Thomas Dimsdale, editor of the weekly Virginia City, Montana Post, praised Hosmer’s “masterly manner” and added, “We think that none of the Vigilantes can feel hurt, or even otherwise than gratified by the excellent remarks.”12

More to the point, the vigilantes could no longer operate openly and with complete impunity as they had in the past. Most of their executions had been carried out with military precision, in full public view during daylight hours, by leading citizens who did not bother to conceal their identities beneath masks or hoods. From that time on, if they were to continue, they would have to behave furtively, like night riders, with a resultant loss of their moral authority. In the days after his address to the grand jury, Hosmer disclosed later, some vigilante leaders approached him privately and pledged to give the courts a chance to operate. And for the next six months, the executions ceased. Virginia City was named the territorial capital, heightening the need for decorum. “Law now reigns supreme,” editor Dimsdale exulted. Meanwhile, the rush of new settlement shifted to Helena, a hundred miles to the north, where a gold strike at Last Chance Gulch proved to be rich and extensive.13

Montana’s infant rule of law was tested in spring 1865 when Virginia City and the towns in Alder Gulch faced a severe flour shortage. As a harsh winter lingered, blocking the trade routes to the territory, prices rose steadily and eventually reached a hundred dollars for a hundredweight of flour. A group of self-styled “regulators” took to the streets vowing to commandeer any supplies they could find. But they found their path blocked. Backed by twenty-three armed deputies, Sheriff Neil Howie faced them down and sent them home. Two weeks later, still hungry and convinced that merchants were hoarding supplies, the vigilantes regrouped and seized flour from several businesses, but they refrained from violence and scrupulously paid the merchants what they deemed a fair price. The peace held.14

Had Justice Hosmer made the most of his opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness of the courts, Montana’s vigilantes might well have faded from view. But he did not. Hosmer presented an odd figure of authority. He had a protruding lower lip that one observer thought made him look like a member of the Hapsburg dynasty. He was gray-headed at fifty and looked a decade older than his years. The author of a novel, Adela, the Octoroon, that had proved popular in antislavery circles, he seemed to take greater pride in his literary efforts than his judicial rulings. More significant, he failed to preside over convictions. The first several murder cases he handled resulted in acquittal, souring the vigilantes on his abilities. One critic described him scornfully as “vacillating in opinion and wavering in decision.”15

In Helena, which experienced the same growing pains that afflicted Virginia City, the first of a series of extralegal executions took place in June 1865. Intervening in the case of a barroom slaying, a citizens’ group descended on the sheriff, seized his suspect, tried him before an informal public jury, and hanged him the next day from a large pine that soon became known as the “Hanging Tree.”16

In September 1865, nine months after Justice Hosmer’s speech, a public notice was posted in Virginia City announcing the revival of the vigilance committee there and vowing “to inflict summary judgment upon any and all malefactors in any case where the civil authorities are unable to enforce the proper penalty of law.” Lynchings in Virginia City resumed a few days later when two suspected horse thieves, John Morgan and John Jackson, were found one morning dangling from the frame of the corral at a slaughterhouse. By the end of 1865, the death toll from vigilante justice in Montana had reached thirty-five.17

The lynching of James B. Daniels (above) in Helena on March 2, 1866, triggered a public debate about the practice of vigilante justice in Montana. Convicted of manslaughter for a death that occurred in a saloon brawl and sentenced to prison by Justice Lyman Munson (below, 1865), Daniels was pardoned by acting territorial governor Thomas Meagher. Angry vigilantes hung Daniels with the pardon in his pocket.

Montana’s appetite for lynchings, while not unique in the frontier West, proved so robust that it began to raise eyebrows in neighboring states and territories. In April 1865, authorities in Idaho refused to extradite an accused killer back to Montana, citing worries that he might be executed by a mob.18 Later that year, Nevada’s Carson City Carson Appeal took aim at Montana’s vigilantes and warned, “Human depravity is developed very often among men who take the law into their own hands.”19 In Salt Lake City, Utah, a lawyer who was banished from Montana by the vigilantes sued for damage to his reputation and won an initial judgment of eight thousand dollars.20 Concerned about the territory’s image, editor Dimsdale protested that the vigilantes were “not a mob” but a steadying influence that had created “a state of profound tranquility—the merchant, mechanic and laborer again begin to feel secure in their lives and the proceeds of their industry.”21

By the end of 1865, Montana had a population of nearly thirty thousand and a mining industry second only to California in production of gold. Its cities were increasingly cosmopolitan, the early tents and log cabins gone in favor of frame houses, the main streets lined with two-story shops and hotels. Virginia City boasted two churches, a theater, and a lyceum. Books and newspapers were widely available. Visiting singers, actors, and lecturers competed for audiences. Boxing matches drew crowds in the hundreds. A resident of Helena recalled listening to the din one Sunday morning as a preacher and a horse auctioneer tried to out shout each other. “What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” cried the preacher to his congregation, while on the street, the auctioneer answered, “I am only offered forty-five dollars! Do I hear any more?”22


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1. Helena Daily Herald, October 28, 1879; Helena Independent, October 29, 1879.
2. Helena Daily Herald, October 28, 1879.
3. The twenty-one victims are listed in Thomas Dimsdale’s The Vigilantes of Montana (Virginia City, Mont., 1866).
4. Helena Daily Herald, June 12, 1883; P. W. “Bud” McAdow to Martin Maginnis, March 14, 1877, folder 14, box 2, MC 50, Martin Maginnis Papers, Montana Historical Society Archives, Helena (hereafter MHS Archives).
5. Helena Independent, October 29, 1879; Helena Daily Herald, October 29, 1879.
6. Helena Daily Herald, October 28–30, 1879.
7. Revisionists have done little to dent the vigilantes’ popular reputation in Montana. J. W. Smurr, in “Afterthoughts on the Vigilantes,” Montana The Magazine of Western History, 8 (Spring 1958), 8-20, questions the motives and propriety of the vigilantes’ executions and suggests that they relied on extralegal action mostly to avoid the expense and uncertainty of public trials. Clyde A. Milner II, in “The Shared Memories of Montana Pioneers,” Montana The Magazine of Western History, 37 (Winter 1987), 2-13, makes a similar argument. A trio of books by Ruth Mather and F. E. Boswell—Hanging the Sheriff: A Biography of Henry Plummer (Salt Lake City, 1987); Gold Camp Desperadoes: Violence, Crime, and Punishment on the Mining Frontier (San Jose, Calif., 1990); Vigilante Victims: Montana’s 1864 Hanging Spree (San Jose, Calif., 1991)—contain valuable research but reach the radical and unwarranted conclusion that Sheriff Plummer was a valiant hero while the vigilantes were villains. For an early critical view of the vigilantes, see Joaquin Miller, An Illustrated History of the State of Montana (Chicago, 1894), 257.
8. Lew Callaway, Montana’s Righteous Hangmen (Norman, 1982), 123-24; Rex C. Myers, “Vigilante Numbers: A Re-examination,” Montana The Magazine of Western History, 24 (Autumn 1974), 67-70. Merrill Burlingame discredited the Masonic thesis in “Montana’s Righteous Hangmen: A Reconsideration,” Montana The Magazine of Western History, 28 (Autumn 1978), 36-49.
9. Virginia City, Montana Post, December 10, 1864. My count of victims is taken mainly from the Virginia City, Montana Post and is the same as a list compiled by Merrill Burlingame. See folder 21, box 26, collection 2245, Merrill G. Burlingame Papers (hereafter Burlingame Papers), Merrill G. Burlingame Special Collections, Montana State University Libraries, Bozeman (hereafter MSU Libraries).
10. Text of Hosmer’s address reprinted in the Virginia City, Montana Post, December 10, 1864.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. James U. Sanders paper, August 5, 1917, “Writings,” folder 7, box 2, MC 66, James Upson Sanders Papers, MHS Archives; Virginia City, Montana Post, January 28, 1865.
14. The flour shortage is described in the Virginia City, Montana Post, April 8, 1865; and in an article by Robert G. Athearn, “The Civil War and Montana Gold,” Montana The Magazine of Western History, 12 (Spring 1962), 62-73. The term regulators originated in South Carolina in the 1760s and was replaced in popular usage by vigilantes after the Montana killings, according to Richard Maxwell Brown, Strain of Violence: Historical Studies of American Violence and Vigilantism (Oxford, U.K., 1975), 22, 101.
15. David J. Bailey, “Reminiscence,” SC 1471, MHS Archives. The description of Hosmer comes from Martha Plassmann, Governor Edgerton’s daughter, in Montana Newspaper Association “News Inserts,” April 13, 1925 (hereafter MNA “News Inserts”).
16. John Keene was lynched June 9, 1865, according to the Virginia City, Montana Post, June 17, 1865.
17. Virginia City, Montana Post, September 23, 30, 1865. The count is taken from reports of lynchings in the Post, supported by Burlingame.
18. George C. Hough, district attorney of the Second District, Idaho Territory, to Montana Governor Sidney Edgerton, reprinted in the Virginia City, Montana Post, April 8, 1865; Boise, Idaho Statesman, March 9, 1865.
19. Editorial reprinted in the Virginia City, Montana Post, November 4, 1865.
20. Nathaniel Langford to Samuel T. Hauser, May 8, 1865, folder 3, box 14, collection 37, Samuel T. Hauser Papers, MSU Libraries. Langford suggested luring the lawyer back to Montana “and then of course the Vigilantes will hang him.”
21. Virginia City, Montana Post, November 4, 1865.
22. Thomas J. Farrell testimony, box 50, collection 2336, Work Projects Adminstration Oral History, MSU Libraries.

From Montana The Magazine of Western History, 51 (Spring 2001), 3-19; this article is presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society.  All rights reserved, © 2001.

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