Lynching Montana’s History, Part 1

By John O’Connell,

A key feature of human existence is that despite the development of religion, philosophy, and psychology our behavior towards our fellow men and women hasn’t seemed to evolve into something more noble or at the very least something better than what I imagine we exhibited when modern humans first walked the earth. It is so remarkable that the Bible mentions the phenomenon in Ecclesiastes 1:9. “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”  

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There is also this from that observer of human behavior, Edgar Allen Poe. “I have no faith in human perfectibility. I think that human exertion will have no appreciable effect upon humanity. Man is now only more active – not more happy – nor more wise, than he was 6000 years ago.”

Le Moustier Neanderthals (Charles R. Knight, 1920)

Remaining the Same

This is difficult for some to accept. As a species we take great pride in our ability to adapt to our circumstances. We have problem-solved our way forward throughout our existence. We are not still huddled around a fire shivering from the cold and the howls of predators in the night. We have invented languages, art, the wheel, antibiotics, and the airplane. We have conquered the highest mountains, dove deep into the oceans and traveled into space and then to the moon. People can now fly into space as tourists like it is an amusement park ride. We are in fact a very big deal.

In the face of these facts how can I say we haven’t evolved?

Answer: Our basal behaviors haven’t changed.

 Selfishness, jealousy, bigotry, pride, generosity, loyalty, rage – all the basic human emotions and motivations are still within us and our striving to control and harness them has yielded mixed results at best. In general, we are urbane creatures with a not very well-hidden secret. In a blink of an eye, we can go from laughing and watching the Super Bowl to becoming a seemingly crazed maniac who smashes the tv with a baseball bat because of a penalty called on one team.

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 Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for a reason. It’s a warning. We have both these fictional characters inside of us and Hyde is always on the verge of breaking free of the chains that restrain him from wreaking havoc on our lives. Only our conscience and morality keep those chains fastened tight and the bonds of conscience and morality are frail indeed.

 So, it should not be surprising that our behavioral reaction to a solution can be as problematic as the issue it was created to remedy. COVID vaccines are an obvious example. The vaccines demonstratively produced a great deal of good for society. People’s rejection of the vaccines, no matter their reasoning, has arguably produced harm. There is no convincing them of the error of their ways because they are too invested in what they think they know. In other words, they would have to admit they were wrong. Pride, one of the Seven Deadly Sins, stands in their way.  What the rest of us are supposed to do about it is such a tangled web of religious faith, law, politics, ignorance, and righteous wrath (another Deadly Sin) that it doesn’t seem likely a solution can be found before the virus fades on its own.

No Progress In the Face of a Pandemic

I believe that there is one behavior, perhaps more than any other, that impedes progress in our search for answers for difficult societal issues like the pandemic. It is our ability to reimagine the past, even the recent past, into something that never existed. I’m not sure what the purpose of this behavior is besides making us feel better about ourselves, but I do know its ultimate effect. It’s impossible to learn from the past when we remake it into something more acceptable to us than what actually occurred.

Just so there is no misunderstanding, this series of articles is not a defense or attack on Critical Race Theory. Frankly, I’m not sure I understand C.R.T. completely as it is currently defined so I’m going to hold off until I’m confident in my research. Please don’t send me definitions. I prefer to do these things in my own way.

It is also not an attack on any political party or politician. As far as politics goes, there is enough blood on everyone’s hands to go around. I know people hate the “both sides” argument but that’s too bad. It’s true. Both sides are guilty of what they accuse each other of, and it’s been that way since the founding.

1870 vigilante execution of Arthur Compton and Joseph Wilson in Helena, Montana Author Unknown

Montana Vigilantes

Here in Montana, we have a Vigilante Day parade in Helena each year with floats, prizes, food, and entertainment. Vigilante Day honors the vigilantes of Virginia City and elsewhere who, between the 1860s and 1880s, captured evil doers, tried them in a “miners court” and hanged them publicly for the crowd to see. The capture, trial, and hanging, often took place on the same day sometimes in the street if there wasn’t a building big enough to hold the spectators.  

Justice was quick and efficient. The legal proceedings were headed up by the President of the Mining District and the accused was tried based on the district’s rules. Sometimes there were actual juries but other times a vote was taken on guilt or innocence by the crowd. There were no jails, so punishment was either a whipping, being run out of town, or a hanging. You must understand that there was no real law in territorial Montana at least not as we understand law. The general attitude was that the miners had no choice but to handle crime the best way they could. However, dozens were lynched, some for non-capital crimes, even after Montana became a state in 1889.

In modern times, vigilantism is generally looked upon as anarchism and mob justice, completely opposite of the basic tenants of our justice system. In Montana, vigilantism is often looked at as something to be admired. We have parades, mostly made up of high schoolers, riding on floats adorned with gallows. The shoulder flashes of our Highway Patrol have the numbers 3-7-77 embroidered on them. Those numbers, according to one legend, were painted on doors as a warning from vigilantes to suspect criminals: Get out or we will deal with you, and you know how that will end. The parades and symbols today apparently are supposed to remind us of a time when justice was better served. When vigilante justice was real justice.

How often have you heard someone proclaim that a time (usually the proverbial “when I was growing up”) was the best? The speaker will inevitably proclaim that we didn’t have these modern problems then. Their reaction to someone pointing out society’s evils “back then” is usually not positive at all. Perception is reality, self -perception defines us and we want that definition to mean something positive and self aggrandizing.


Dangers of Reimagining the Past

A problem arises if we define ourselves partly based on a history that we have invented or was invented for us. We are then partly living a lie. How does that lie, held up like a banner, affect our ability to live productively in a civil society?

What is even more worrisome is that this power to reimagine the past writ large can be used against us with unimaginable consequences. Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy are prime examples of entire countries being guided into a nightmarish future based on the average citizen being duped into believing in a fanciful, glorious past.

Italian fascism under Mussolini was based largely on nationalistic, ethnocentric, and expansionist philosophies. In Italy it was called  spazio vitale  or “living space”, but their unifying identity in the glorious past focused on ancient Rome.

Benito Mussolini taking tribute in front of statue of Caesar

Italy had been a decentralized series of states for hundreds of years. Since the 1830s, various politicians had pointed to the unity of the Roman Empire as something to resurrect. Mussolini’s fascism not only promoted that idea but also opposed class conflict and promoted “revolutionary nationalism” which would destroy class lines creating equality, something very popular with many lower-class Italians.

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Mussolini, through a series of legal and illegal wrangling, gathered all power unto himself.  Multiple successful military adventures in Spain, Greece, and East Africa looked to be reinstating Italy’s colonial and imperial grandeur making him both popular with the people and increasingly bold in his governance.

On the other hand, is Germany. Germany had been devastated by World War I and reparations outlined in the Versailles Treaty. The citizens came to fervently believe in the Nazi creed which was based on the tenants of Italian fascism but substituted Pan-Germanism, ethnonationalism, and lebensraum (living space for the German people).

Nazi propaganda harkening back to the Teutonic Knights (Source: and Olive Drab)

The Nazis persuaded a large swath of the population that ethnic Germans were superior to all other people and needed to acquire and populate new territory with people possessing Nordic traits. Logically, this necessitated the elimination of people who did not possess Nordic traits. It was necessary to eliminate some people to keep the German people’s bloodlines pure. The military needed to expand far beyond the limits imposed on it by the Allies after World War I in order to acquire the territory needed to provide Germans with their living space. The Nazis eliminated from the common parlance and news media any mention of the inglorious Weimer Republic and instead created a noble and enviable history of Germany going back to Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire in 800 AD.

Both German and Italian citizens readily accepted this imaginary image of themselves, and their respective country’s history. Once these lies were entrenched in the people’s psyche it was not difficult to enthusiastically launch wars of conquest or dehumanize, round up and destroy political enemies, academics, priests, schoolteachers, and those considered less than human like Jews, Roma, Slavs, the developmentally disabled, and LGBTQ people.

To this day there are some who don’t believe any of the Holocaust happened. There are also some who don’t understand what the Holocaust was even about.

 I have a rule about comparing or even commenting on anything to do with the Holocaust or the Nazis so as not to diminish the horror wrought upon the victims. Still, not long ago I saw a story about protestors in Washington D.C. wearing yellow arm bands depicting the Star of David and marching at the Lincoln Memorial. They were expressing outrage at vaccine mandates in general and were specifically outraged at restaurants requiring proof of vaccination before allowing entry. Anyone who conflates restaurant entry requirements during a pandemic to marking a population for easy round up and transportation to enslavement and death is showing signs, perhaps deceitfully, of reinventing the past to justify present day bad behavior. To be fair, they could also just be ignorant.

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 Then there is this. An American political party, the GOP, recently proclaimed they would make America Great Again. Some in the party even claimed they achieved it. However, they could never point to when we were great as a nation nor explain when we stopped being great. They also can’t point to the greatness achieved during the four years the Republicans had the presidency.  I believe what they came to realize is that the politically and psychologically smart thing to do was allow their followers to reimagine the past and determine for themselves exactly when America was great. It didn’t matter what time period was chosen. It only mattered that people had the idea of American greatness in their heads. If America had once been great, then they themselves could be admired patriots by fighting to restore that illustrious time. Who did they have to fight? Anyone who wasn’t a “real” American, anyone who opposed the Administration, anyone disloyal to the President or anyone seen to have contributed to the demise of the nation.

I have written before about looking for answers to today’s problems in the past. I would now add, that we need to look at the actual past. While searching for solutions, I was reminded of how often we are the problem and the solution, yet we so rarely recognize it.

Political animus of the past two years combined with society’s reactions to COVID policy is sometimes described as being without precedent in our history. Some insist we never had government overreach, especially on the local level, like we have now. They complain about rights being taken from them. They bellowed that the Constitution was not being followed and that people were committing treason.

These points of view are not supported by our history as a nation or a state. Our government in Montana has done far more onerous, unconstitutional, and I would argue, illegal things and only a mere 100 years ago.

A War a World Away

Researching the Pandemic of 1918 in Montana led me to read about World War I, or “The Great War,” and Montana’s involvement in it.  The events that led up to the war had been building for years on a continent 5,000 miles away from Montana. The final blow, and the act that triggered the war, resulted from a combination of bad driving by a chauffeur and a lucky break for a revolutionary.

In June of 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was shot in his touring car by a 19-year-old Serbian revolutionary, Gavrilo Princip. Princip thought he had missed his chance for assassination of the Archduke when his group inaccurately threw bombs at his car. The bombs bounced off leaving the Archduke unhurt.

Princip was eating a sandwich on his way home when the Archduke’s chauffeur took a wrong turn heading out of the city, pulling up directly in front of the young Serbian. Princip promptly pulled out his pistol and shot the Archduke in the neck and shot his wife in the abdomen. Both died on the way to the hospital.

Archduke Ferdinand was the presumptive heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary and his assassination by a Serbian led to a declaration of war by Austria-Hungary on Serbia. This set off a chain of war declarations between military alliances on both sides including all the major European powers at the time.  The United States however remained neutral. President Woodrow Wilson and his administration tried their best to persuade both sides to cease hostilities.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Before and following the multiple declarations of war, the United States was shipping a great deal of metals, lumber and wheat to our traditional allies, France and Great Britain. Montana’s mines, lumber mills, and farms all increased production, profiting from the increase in prices for these products due to military build-ups and war time shortages. Both Great Britain and Germany began pressuring the United States into providing military help which President Wilson resisted. He believed the country was in no mood for European problems.

President Woodrow Wilson

Then, in 1915 a German submarine torpedoed the passenger ship, Lusitania, killing over 1100 people including 128 American citizens. American attitudes about the war started to change from one of neutrality to one of needing to enter the war to stop Germany’s “aggression.” This was a tumultuous time for Montana where, inside of four years, we experienced great social upheaval: labor strife, mining disasters, women’s suffrage, prohibition, drought, as well as the influenza pandemic of 1918.

RMS Lusitania

Councils of Defense: Mandated Vigilante Justice

The United States did not enter the war on the side of the Allies until April 6, 1917. Since it was a time of war, certain measures were desperately needed. President Wilson ordered every state to form a “council of defense.” Each council would carry out a four-point plan mandated by the federal government. Therefore, in April of 1917, Montana Governor Samuel V. Stewart, by Executive Order (conveniently signed right after the legislature adjourned), formed the Montana Council for Defense to meet the requirements of the federal government.

Governor Samuel V. Stewart

The mandated goals of the Council covered the following four purposes: raise money for the war effort; recruit able-bodied men; increase food production; and promote support for the war effort. Yet Governor Stewart had serious obstacles to overcome to achieve these goals.

Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman ever elected to Congress, had voted no on the declaration of war based on principle. She was a pacifist. She had significant support across the nation. However, many Montanans were outraged by her vote as were tens of thousands of other Americans. Newspapers condemned her, large public demonstrations supporting the war sprang up. Yet not all Montanans agreed.

Many Irish Montanans did not want to support England who they believed had persecuted them and their families back in Ireland. German Montanans still loved their homeland and did not want to fight her. Pacifists of course were all against the fighting on principle. Perhaps the most problematic opposition to the war came from Butte. The labor union, Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was vehemently opposed to the war and used that opposition to gain members. The union decried the war effort as a rich man’s war. They said that the working man made wealthy men richer with their labor, they didn’t need to die in Europe for them as well.

Anselmo Mine Head Frame Butte, Montana

 Butte was no stranger to union unrest. Troops had quelled union-related violence on six different occasions over the previous three years but the IWW opposition to the war was influential with ordinary citizens. Leadership both in government and industry realized opposition to the war could lead to slow downs in production which would endanger weapons manufacturing because of the massive quantity of zinc and copper that came out of Butte.

In early June of 1917, the Speculator Mine fire killed 168 miners and injured scores more. Fifteen thousand miners went on strike demanding safer working conditions and better pay. The Company, the nickname of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, refused to bargain. The Company demanded government protection since the strike directly harmed the war effort. The miners and their union were declared traitors in all the newspapers which were mostly controlled or at least influenced by The Company. Since there were almost no independent newspapers in existence, much of the populace believed what The Company newspapers told them, and with troops on the streets of Butte, no one felt safe to publicly question what was going on.

Who Needs Civil Rights Anyway?

An IWW union man named Frank Little, a member of the union’s Executive Board, arrived in Butte and would not keep quiet. He spoke everywhere possible to any size audience about needing better working conditions and about the people’s right to free speech. He was involuntarily silenced on August 1, 1917.

Frank Little

Frank Little was dragged from his rooming house by six masked men and lynched from a railroad trestle. Before being strung up, he had been dragged by a vehicle, his head bashed in by a blunt object. His body was found with a note pinned to his thigh with the old vigilante numbers 3-7-77 written on it, a clear threat to other union leadership who dared speak out.

No one was apprehended or prosecuted for the horrific act.

Political Cartoon  Copper Trust to the Press: “It’s all right, pal; just tell them he was a traitor.”

The city of Butte panicked. The strike faded away and everyone went back to work, but the anxiety level in Butte, not to mention the rest of the state, rose to ever higher levels.

Hardworking Patriotic Watchdogs

At the same time, the Montana Defense Council in Helena was established and got to work. Since there was no legislative mandate or funding, the members of the Council would not be paid. Not that they needed the money since the eight members, including the Governor as its chairman, were bankers, a university president, a newspaper editor, two retail executives and a loan woman. None were working class.

They quickly formed 43 supporting councils, one in every Montana county where the members were appointed by the Governor. These county councils would have the same powers as the state council had in Helena. The county officials then formed “community councils” in their counties and opened them up to anyone who wished to join. Of course, only the most “patriotic” joined. Their job was to be the watchdog of the county and discover who was a loyal American and who was not.

The citizens deemed “disloyal” would be harassed and bullied. They would be unable to buy food or supplies in town. Their fences were cut. Windows broken. Barns caught on fire.

The state Council of Defense meetings were held in secret, pursuant to the Governors orders, so William Campbell, a member of the Council and editor of the Helena Daily Independent, released anti-German news through his newspaper. Citizens, knowing who Campbell was and knowing his position on the council, assumed these headlines were from official council meetings and must be true.

Conspiracy theories started to make everyone distrust each other. The Daily Independent ran a multitude of farcical reports feeding the public’s paranoia. Stories of German bombers flying over Helena. Stories of Butte spies sending information to the German High Command from a remote location west of Missoula via Mexico.

Campbell offered cash rewards for anyone who spotted German aircraft and could identify the owner of said aircraft.

The paranoia over the supposed German threat only grew, so in response the Governor declared a special session of the legislature in February of 1918.  

Sedition Law Enacted

The legislature made the Montana Council of Defense an official state agency with sweeping powers. The Council could investigate, prosecute, and sentence anyone they believed to be un-American. The Council was its own judicial system and legislature. No courts would stand in their way and the Council used this power quickly and decisively.

 Any man of working age found not to be working a full-time job was required to register as a vagrant. All parades, bonfires, dances, and public assemblies were prohibited except when granted permission by the Council. The German language was prohibited in schools, church, and even in private meetings on the street. Germans made up one of the largest ethnic groups in Montana and could not speak their own language in public or to worship in church.

As a result of these laws, people quickly came to realize they could get revenge on their neighbors and rivals merely by reporting to their local council that they were un-American. What was un-American? Not buying enough War Bonds. Questioning the legitimacy of the war. Questioning the burning of German language or history books. Speaking the German language at home.

Just a few of the Montanans arrested under the state’s sedition law. Everyone arrested under this law was finally pardoned by Governor Schweitzer. (Montana Historical Society photo)

The state legislature played its part as well. Firearm registration with the local sheriff was required of all citizens. They passed the Montana Sedition Law. It was illegal to say or write anything critical of the federal or state government, the military, the war, or any war programs. Montana’s Sedition Law was so thorough and spectacularly patriotic that even the federal government took notice. Not long after the special session of the Montana Legislature in early 1918, Montana’s Sedition Law, almost word-for-word, was passed and signed into federal law by President Wilson. It has been considered one of the most widespread violations of civil liberties in the twentieth century.

End of Part One. Part Two coming Soon!

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