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.
Politics, unhappily, did not mature at the same pace. The first territorial governor, Sidney Edgerton, a Radical Republican whose Civil War passions were exemplified by his fevered defense of John Brown after the raid on Harpers Ferry, abandoned his post in autumn 1865 and returned to his native Ohio, ostensibly to put his daughter in school but more likely in frustration over dealing with a populace that was majority Democratic. In his place, the territorial secretary, Thomas Francis Meagher, became acting governor. Meagher’s path to high political office was unorthodox, to say the least. Banished from his native Ireland for agitation against the British, he escaped exile in Tasmania and fled to the United States, where he led an Irish brigade in the Union army during the Civil War and rose to the rank of general. President Andrew Johnson, at odds with his party’s Radical Republican wing, gave Meagher, a pro-Union Democrat, the job of territorial secretary in Montana.
As acting governor, Meagher soon began feuding with the territory’s Republican justices, undermining the fragile legal system. In Helena, on November 29, 1865, a drifter named James B. Daniels stabbed and killed another man, Andrew Gartley, during a drunken brawl in a saloon. Daniels was arrested by a deputy United States marshal, and the vigilantes stood back waiting to see how Lyman Munson, Justice Hosmer’s colleague on the federal bench, would handle the case. At trial a month later, after a change of venue to Virginia City, Daniels was convicted of manslaughter, sentenced to three years in jail, and fined one thousand dollars.23 Though fairly lenient, the punishment satisfied the vigilantes, who generally cared more about crimes against property—especially their own—than the inevitable fights of young men in bars. Some of Daniels’s friends, however, thought he had acted in self-defense and petitioned Meagher for a pardon, setting the stage for a terrible fiasco.
Meagher signed the reprieve for Daniels and ordered him released immediately. His stated reason was a belief that the victim had instigated the fight, but some believed Meagher was moved by empathy for a fellow Irishman, or for the thirty-two men, mostly Irish and Democrats, who signed the pardon petition. A newspaper editor suggested he might have been misled by “evil counselors.” Justice Munson insisted in later years that Meagher had acted on drunken impulse or, as he put it, “while under the influence of an unfortunate habit.” Whatever his motive, the fact was Meagher had grossly exceeded his authority. Under territorial law, he had the right to suspend the death penalty in capital cases and refer appeals to the president of the United States. But he had no power to lift a sentence or release a prisoner.24
Hastening to the capital at Virginia City, Justice Munson confronted Meagher and found him “still in his debauch,” refusing to rescind his decision. Munson ordered the prisoner re-arrested. But by then Daniels was headed back to Helena, where he had threatened to get even with the men who testified against him. A few days after he arrived, on March 2, 1866, vigilantes seized him and hanged him with his pardon in his pocket.25
The lynching of Daniels triggered an open debate about the practice of vigilante justice in Montana. The lawyers involved in the case held an “indignation” meeting in Helena to vent their anger at the outcome, with a large audience in attendance. A correspondent calling himself “Index” wrote the Virginia City, Montana Post in defense of the vigilantes, explaining that they had reacted to the sight of Daniels back in Helena “as if returning to triumph over those whose feelings he had outraged, and whose lives he had threatened.” But Nathaniel Langford, one of the early vigilante leaders, called the affair an “irreparable error.”26
The debate continued for the next several years, with the people of Montana treated to the spectacle of advocates and opponents of vigilantism arguing back and forth in newspaper articles and public notices. In March 1867, a poster was nailed up in Alder Gulch by anti-vigilantes threatening to retaliate “five for one” if any further lynchings took place. But the lynchings continued. The territory’s federal justices, plainly intimidated, took no steps to indict anyone for the killings, and Hosmer went so far as to renew his praise of the vigilantes. “They have not taken life wantonly, or for the mere purpose of killing,” he told a grand jury. “Their desire has been—still is—for a condition of society exempt from crime.” Vigilante leaders told Hosmer they would disband “as soon as they can feel assured that the Courts and Juries will meet the demands of society”—on their own terms, that is, and not his.27
In cases they deemed too minor to warrant death, meanwhile, the vigilantes meted out the occasional flogging, giving the target a so-called “rogue’s certificate” of whip marks on his back. Two thieves who stole a pig from the county jail and cooked and ate it were given thirty lashes each and forty-eight hours to get out of town. A child molester and an accused confidence man were similarly beaten and banished. Warnings were given to wife abusers to mend their ways or face a whipping.28
In none of this activity were the numbers 3-7-77 used. Lynching victims often had notes pinned to their backs, but the messages invariably were rendered in plain English, saying “Robber” or “Road Agent” or “Horse Thief” (and, in one instance of the supreme penalty for a petty crime, “Pickpocket”). Occasionally a longer message appeared. “This man was hung for robbing A. Slane of $1,180, and for other small stealings,” read a specific account pinned to the body of George Sanders, lynched on Helena’s Hanging Tree in 1865. In 1870, a Chinese teamster named Ah Chow was hanged in Helena for killing a European miner named John R. Bitzer, and a sign was put on his back reading, “Beware! The Vigilantes still live!”29
Contrary to some later accounts, Montana’s reign of extralegal justice never came to any formal, clear-cut termination. The pace of killing eventually slowed, especially after a notorious photograph was circulated of a double lynching from Helena’s Hanging Tree in 1870. Political stability arrived belatedly in the territory in the person of Benjamin F. Potts, a 330-pound Ohio Republican appointed governor in 1869 by President Ulysses Grant. Potts, who served in the post for more than a dozen years, avoided the partisan extremism of his predecessors and made peace with the territory’s Democratic leaders, including Montana’s congressional delegate, Martin Maginnis, another moderate.
A territorial penitentiary was built in Deer Lodge in 1871, the courts gradually gained legitimacy, and Montana’s first legal execution finally took place in 1875, more than a decade after the initial rush of settlement.30 Later that year, a Methodist minister bought the lot where the Hanging Tree stood and chopped it down, claiming it was dead and in danger of collapse. A few of his fellow citizens grumbled, but the Helena Daily Herald’s Robert Fisk expressed a sense of nostalgia and confidence that its day had been outlived.31 By then more than fifty men had died.
The national centennial, in 1876, found Montanans in a tentative mood. Surface mining was nearly played out, and as many as ten thousand settlers, a third of the population, had packed up and moved away. More were leaving every day for the Black Hills. Governor Potts hounded General of the Army William Tecumseh Sherman, his commanding officer during the Civil War, for military reinforcements to suppress Indians and encourage the resumption of railroad construction.32 The rout of Custer at the Little Bighorn battle filled Montana’s white settlers with dread, as did the strange flight of Chief Joseph and the Nez Percés through the territory the next year, in 1877.
In Helena, which became the territorial capital in 1875, and in smaller Montana cities, leading bankers, merchants, lawyers, and other boosters confronted a sharp irony. Crime had been tamed at long last but partly because large numbers of people were fleeing. If Montana hoped to prosper, it would have to attract and welcome newcomers, and their ranks almost certainly would include some of the roughneck element it had taken fifteen years to subdue. For the Daily Herald, in April 1878 Fisk wrote an editorial urging new settlement, “for we want company, we want our resources developed, we want new kinds of business opened and all kinds of business extended; we want population to build up towns, open farms, multiply our herds, and help us the sooner to secure self-government and become a State.” Eleven days later, surveying the breed of passenger who arrived on the season’s first steamboat at Fort Benton, he adopted a far different tone and laid out a stark headline, “We Don’t Want Them.”33
In plain terms, vigilantism had worked pretty well, giving Montana a reputation as a place that did not tolerate crime or criminals. But the new arrivals, many of them flotsam from the continued economic dislocation caused by the Panic of 1873, knew nothing of the area’s vigilante tradition and did not seem at all intimidated.34 So Fisk and some of his counterparts in the territorial press took it upon themselves to trumpet the vigilantes’ legacy, hoping to maintain the benefits of extra-legal justice without an actual resumption of lynchings and floggings.
By the early part of 1879, the trickle of new settlers had become a steady flow, and Fisk wrote worriedly of a “horde on our borders” that he hoped might be held back “by public notice to the world that Montana is an unhealthy place for beggars.” In Helena, which had been ravaged four times by catastrophic fires, people were especially fearful of vagrants because they often built bonfires to warm themselves, while a more violent element occasionally engaged in arson to divert attention and create a cover for burglary. Rather than run anyone out of town, though, Helena’s city fathers took the humane, precautionary approach of appointing an employment officer who recorded the names and occupations of new arrivals and forwarded the information to potential employers.35
Helena was now a city of about four thousand, according to a profile in Strahorn’s New West magazine, that boasted “numerous and very creditable churches, schools, libraries, a well organized and efficient Board of Trade, a United States assay office, Masonic and Odd Fellows halls, good hotels, an asylum and hospital,” along with two strong newspapers. Another piece, in the Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Times, praised Helena’s leaders for their “metropolitan airs.” A return to public executions seemed unthinkable.36
Then, on July 30, 1879, Henry Elling’s bank in Virginia City was robbed in broad daylight. Two men held a pistol to the head of the cashier, collected $4,507 in cash, and rode off on horseback. Overnight Fisk’s nostalgia for vigilantism took on a new urgency. Likening the robbery to “the sudden crash of a thunderbolt in a clear sky,” he warned that it “suggests to many the wisdom of reorganizing the old Vigilance Committees and their extension into every corner of the Territory.” A day later, the Daily Herald complained of a “coterie of petty offenders” who were hanging around Helena and added, “The day approaches when an hour’s notice will send the crowd tramping from town. . . . It’s the sovereign remedy and should be applied. Public opinion will uphold it.”37
What seems noteworthy in Fisk’s heightened rhetoric is the absence of a reference to the numbers 3-7-77 or any other commonly understood symbol of banishment. The notion that the numbers stood for a deadline of three hours, seven minutes, and seventy-seven seconds has never made much sense, since the same period of time can be expressed as three hours, eight minutes, and seventeen seconds, and either way no explanation has ever been put forward to account for its curious specificity. But if some woolly tradition based on an eccentric time limit for leaving town had been in place, surely Fisk would have cited it instead of his commonplace reference to an hour’s notice. Similarly, the idea of 3-7-77 as the dimensions of a grave seems farfetched. Presumably a grave with a length of seventy-seven inches would be meant to accommodate a notably tallish man—six-foot-five, or close to it—yet in all the instances of men being lynched in Montana during the first dozen years of settlement, not one mention is made of any victim being of unusual height..
Not to be outdone, the Daily Herald’s competition, the morning Independent, noted that vigilantes in Nevada had a practice of lassoing their targets and pulling them out of town, adding, “It would not be a bad plan for Montana towns to adopt this cheap but efficacious method.”38 Again, if Montana had an established means of effecting banishment, it seems odd that W. A. Woolfolk, editor of the Independent, would suggest looking elsewhere for a model.
It was in this atmosphere of renewed interest in vigilante justice that the murder of John Denn occurred. Four other homicides took place in Montana in the same week—two men shot each other in a bar fight in Bozeman, a land feud left another man dead in Butte, and a soldier shot a saloon keeper in Fort Benton—fueling a sense of spiraling disorder.39
The appearance of the numbers 3-7-77 in Helena on Saturday night, November 1, 1879, was duly reported in the pages of the Daily Herald the following Monday afternoon. Editor Fisk called them “cabalistic” and insisted that while they signified the revival of Helena’s vigilance organization, they had no known meaning. Their message, he said, was
that desperadoes, thieves, murderers and bad characters generally are not wanted in Helena, and that these miscreants will be given a ‘ticket of leave.’ Several, we learn, have already been notified to leave town, within a specified time, and . . . others will be served in the same manner.40
The striking thing, of course, is the notion that the numbers were meant to be mysterious from the very outset. Woolfolk disclosed that he had been asked by persons unnamed to print the numbers on the masthead of the Independent and had declined. Montana, he argued, would be ill served by a return to vigilantism. He singled out the lynching of Daniels in 1865 as a reckless abuse of power that proved “to all good citizens that the day had gone by when any secret and irresponsible tribunal should have power over the lives of our people.” The Daniels episode, Woolfolk mistakenly asserted, had brought an end to the activities of the first Helena vigilance committee.41
As in earlier times, the call for a revival of vigilante justice sparked a vigorous debate in the territorial newspapers. Editors in Butte and Fort Benton supported the idea, while their counterparts in Deer Lodge, Missoula, and Miles City echoed Woolfolk and warned of the consequences of a return to extralegal violence. Papers in Virginia City and Bozeman also covered the issue thoroughly, though without taking sides.42 Indicating he took the threat seriously, the territory’s chief justice, Decius Wade, urged the grand jury to hurry the indictments of the dozen men then in jail on homicide charges and “bring more slayers to justice.”43
In sum, there was no lack of discussion of vigilantism in Montana in 1879, yet not a single word appeared offering any explanation of the meaning of 3-7-77, the so-called “mystic figures.” Nonetheless, some clues exist and suggest a plausible solution to the mystery. First, it became clear in the weeks after the numbers appeared that these new vigilantes did not mean to kill anyone. No one was lynched, or even flogged. As Fisk stated in the Daily Herald, the vigilantes’ aim was the ouster of “a score or more of very hard characters” believed responsible for a rash of petty crimes in Helena. And in the days following the posting of the numbers, several men did in fact leave town, as evidenced by complaints from the city fathers of Butte, the nearest big town, sixty miles away, that their streets were suddenly “getting filled with tough characters” as a result of the purge.44
As it happened, Butte proved a very convenient dumping place for Helena’s unwanted. Two rival stagecoach lines were locked in a price war in 1879, offering a one-way ticket from Helena to Butte for three dollars, a sharply reduced amount so low that one observer joked, “At this rate it is cheaper to ride than to stay home.”45 The stage left Helena every morning at seven o’clock, and it does not strain the imagination terribly to suppose that the first two figures in 3-7-77 might refer to a three dollar ticket on the 7:00 a.m. stage out of town. If that was the case, the vigilantes were directing a specific message to a small target audience and probably would have wanted to keep the meaning a secret, especially from their counterparts in Butte who would not have appreciated the forced exodus of rowdies in their direction. Also, it is possible that the newly revived vigilance committee gave the tickets to some or all of their targets for free, a generous gesture they would not have wanted to advertise. Thus Fisk’s reference to the “miscreants” being given a “ticket of leave” might well have been literal, not figurative.
What, then, does the 77 mean? Unhappily, no revelation presents itself. A good guess may be that seventy-seven was the approximate number of men who joined the new vigilance committee. It corresponded closely to the seventy-five men in Helena who formed a militia in 1877 in response to Chief Joseph, and it could refer to the size of their ranks or the year they were active.46 It probably was meant to convey the idea, “By order of the Seventy-Seven,” echoing the famous San Francisco Vigilantes of 1856, whose members identified themselves by number and whose public notices were signed, “No. 33, Secretary.”47 Barring some rummaging in attics by descendants of those living in Montana in the 1870s, we may never know for sure.
23. Virginia City,
Montana Post, December 9, 20, 1865.
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.