1943: Phillip Coleman, the last man hung in Montana

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On September 10, 1943, multiple murderer Phillip “Slim” Coleman Jr. was hanged in Missoula, Montana.

The African-American Coleman would be the last man judicially noosed in that state, and Montana didn’t execute anyone else at all for more than fifty years. (Duncan P. McKenzie died by lethal injection in 1995 to end the drought.)

Coleman started his crime spree when he battered to death eighty-year-old Andrew J. Walton on July 3. The octogenarian was still alive when his sister found him the next morning, but he died in the hospital the next day without ever regaining consciousness.

With no witnesses or leads, the case quickly went cold.

On July 24, Coleman another man, Lewis Brown, were hired to work on the Northern Pacific Railroad thirty miles from Missoula. They had arrived at the train stop separately and it’s unclear whether they knew each other before, but on the same day they were chummy enough to start plotting to rob and kill their boss, Carl W. Pearson.

Late that night, Coleman went to Pearson’s home, woke him up and said Brown was ill and he had to come. Pearson grabbed a bottle of aspirin and headed out. There in the yard, Brown struck him on the head behind and left his body in the yard. Coleman went back inside, found Pearson’s wife Roslyn, and stabbed her to death in her bed.

The men spared the couple’s child, seven-year-old Richard; it was he who found the bodies the next day.

The murderers collected their loot, divided it between them and went their separate ways. Brown and Coleman were almost immediately identified as the prime suspects in the murder and picked up: Brown the day after the killings, and Coleman the day after Brown. Coleman was charged with Roslyn’s murder and Brown was charged in Carl’s death. Both were convicted, but Brown got only a life sentence and Coleman got the death penalty.

The condemned Coleman converted to Catholicism after his conviction, then, attempting to cleanse his soul, he summoned the sheriff and confessed to Andrew Walton’s murder. He had been a suspect since his arrest in the Pearson case, since the crimes were so similar, but had previously denied any knowledge of Walton’s death. Coleman got all of twelve cents, he said, from robbing Walton.

Amateur historian R. Michael Wilson, writing of the case, said, “He asked the sheriff to keep his confession secret in case the governor had a last minute change of heart and decided to grant a reprieve or communtation.”

Coleman’s hanging went off without a hitch.

6 thoughts on “1943: Phillip Coleman, the last man hung in Montana”

  1. Do you know if Coleman’s execution was public? My husband’s uncle witnessed it as a spectator when he was young. It scarred him emotionally for life. Just wondered if he sneaked in, or if it was public.

  2. My dad and mom lived next door when the murder happened. The Pearson’s son was spending the night. He went home that morning and found his dad in the garden. Mom went over and found the wife there was also a baby in the house that wasn’t harmed.

  3. Slim left a little mystery after his death. The day before his scheduled hanging, Coleman told of 23 other murders he had committed since he was 14 years old, growing up in St. Louis, Illinois. In a dictated confession the night before he died, he only gave details of eight of those murders. The confession is said to still be in Missoula but inquiries have not found it. It is also believed that none of Coleman’s confession was ever used to solve unsolved murder mysteries.

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