(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On this day in 1901, James Edward Brady was hauled out of his jail cell and hanged from a telephone pole on the corner of Main and Lawrence Streets at Haymarket Square in Helena, Montana. He had been arrested three days before in relation to his attack on Hazel Pugsley, a five-year-old girl.
On September 30, Brady, who had arrived in Helena from the city of Boulder, Montana only the day before, waylaid little Hazel while she was on her way to kindergarten. He convinced her to get on a streetcar with him and they didn’t get off until they were three miles outside town.
Hazel’s mother reported her missing after she didn’t arrive home from school, and a search was launched. Later that day, the police found her walking home alone. She was “a nervous wreck, and when the accused man was taken in front of her she began crying hysterically, at the mere sight of him.”
Brady was charged with “criminal assault,” a euphemism for rape.
He had once been a highly respected and influential man in the Yellowstone River area and was credited with bringing the first thoroughbred cattle into Montana, but he developed a drinking problem and somewhere along the line he fell from grace.
Brady had been in and out of trouble in Jefferson County before he moved to Helena, and in Boulder he had become overly familiar with several children. After the Hazel Pugsley incident, it came out that he’d lured at least four little girls to his cabin in Boulder and then molested them.
He was not criminally charged in that instance, but was warned to leave town or else. So he came to Helena.
Although Montana had a long tradition of lynchings and emotions were running high in the aftermath of Hazel’s attack, the sheriff wasn’t worried: Brady was housed in a secure stone jail with five locked doors between him and the outside. On the night of the lynching, the sheriff was asleep with his family as usual.
At 1:30 a.m. on October 2, a mob of thirty masked men pounded on the doors of the jail and demanded the prisoner. When they couldn’t get the jailer to answer the door, they stationed men around the building to keep watch while they started working on the door with a sledgehammer and a crowbar.
The mob easily broke open the outer wooden door, but the next door was barred. Jailer George Mahrt was awakened by the noise and mistakenly opened the barred inner door just as the lynch mob had broken through the outer door. Once inside the building, the men forced Mahrt to hand over his keys, unlocked the last three doors, and barged in on James Brady.
“What is it, gentlemen?” he asked.*
In spite of the early hour, a crowd of about 200 spectators gathered to watch as the vigilantes hustled the helpless Brady out of jail and force-marched him, already noosed, six blocks to Haymarket Square.
The spectators knew what it was.
The lynchers summoned a saloon-keeper who had witnessed Hazel’s abduction, to confirm for the assembling multitude that it was indeed Brady who took her. One of the masked lynchers then forced his way through the crowed and slugged Brady twice in the face; this may have been Peter Pugsley, Hazel’s father. (The same man would later go after Brady again, but the mob held him back.)
“Now, then,” the mob’s leader addressed his prey. “Brady, your time on earth is short. Have you any confession to make?”
Brady had little to say: only to reiterate his innocence, and ask that his last paycheck be sent to the Boulder School for the Blind where his niece was a student.
When asked if he wanted to say a prayer, Brady said he didn’t know how to pray and asked that someone pray for him instead. One of the mob said, “May the Lord help you, Brady; that is all I can say for you.”
Then his time was up.
Several people already positioned on top of the nearby telephone pole jerked Brady up from the ground violently, probably breaking his neck, and as Brady hung twitching and dying, the members of the lynch mob pulled off their masks and melted into the watching crowd.
In addition to the 200-some people who witnessed the lynching, another thousand or so viewed the body by moonlight before it was cut down.
Jackson (Mich.) Citizen Patriot, Oct. 2, 1901.
A coroner’s inquest was held later that day. Several people testified that they’d witnessed Brady’s death, but they all swore they were not part of the lynch mob and developed amnesia when asked if they recognized anyone who was.
The coroner’s jury ruled Brady’s death a homicide.
On October 3, Peter Pugsley — the father — was arrested and charged with murder. Investigators hoped he would provide them with other names, but Pugsley said he hadn’t been present at the lynching and produced an alibi, which friends backed up. He was released the next day on bail, his bond secured by several prominent members of the community.
Ultimately, a grand jury heard testimony from thirty-eight witnesses during an eighteen-day investigation. It then declined to indict Pugsley or any other suspect. Later, some of the jurors said it was impossible to name anybody connected with the crime because so many witnesses refused to answer questions, citing their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
However, someone did pay for what happened to Brady.
As amateur historian Tom Donovan writes of this case in volume two of book Hanging Around the Big Sky: The Unofficial Guide to Lynching, Strangling and Legal Hangings of Montana, “The Brady incident was the only case where an official was severely disciplined for losing a prisoner to a lynch mob. The Lewis and Clark County grand jury found that Jailer George Mahrt was incompetent and he was apparently fired.”
Not only had Mahrt, an experienced jailer, opened the inside door to the armed mob, he had also failed to notify the sheriff what happened until Brady had already been marched out of the jail. All he would have had to do to arouse the sheriff was press an electric panic button, which would have sounded an alarm at the sheriff’s residence.
In the aftermath of Brady’s death, officials in Butte, Montana announced he was also a suspect in the 1898 abduction and murder of nine-year-old Ethel Gill. She was missing for several days before her body was found in an outhouse.
Gill had been raped, beaten and strangled. Brady lived and worked in the same neighborhood where Ethel’s body was found. He quit his job and left Butte immediately after the murder, but wasn’t considered a suspect until after he was killed. Ethel Gill’s murder was never solved and Brady’s connection to the crime remains a matter of speculation.
* San Jose Evening News, Oct. 2, 1901.