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1900: William Pepo, the first hanged in Teton County, Montana

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Today’s entry of the mystery man who was the maiden execution in Teton County, Montana unfolds via the period reportage of the Anaconda Standard.


Anaconda Standard, June 5, 1899

Great Falls, June 4. — William Pepo is guilty of the murder of Julius Plath. So the jury in Teton county has decided, but as his lawyers have decided to appeal the case, William may escape paying the penalty which a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree is supposed to carry.

All of the evidence was of the circumstantial kind, but it points clearly to the guilt of Pepo.

The facts of the crime, whose story has been told before in this column, are these:

One day during the last summer a ranch hand rode into the town of Choteau and sought the office of the sheriff. He said that the body of an unknown man had been found in a deserted cabin on the Muddy, with all the earmarks of foul play surrounding it.

No one knew the name of the dead man, and there was nothing to give a direct clue to it.

Several people had seen two men pass their places and one of them tallied in description with the dead man. One woman, at whose house the pair had stayed overnight, remembered that they came from Canada, and were evidently Germans.

William Hagen, the sheriff of Teton county, went to work on the case, and, following up slight clues, and helped perhaps a trifle by chance, came to the conclusion that the victim was Julius Plath of Pembroke, Ontario, who had been working on the Crows’ Nest Pass railway.

Then came the search for his companion, and after many months he was found working under an assumed name as a ranch hand near Spokane. He was arrested and brought back.

Then came some steady painstaking work, which followed the course of the two men up to where the body was found, and so thoroughly was this chain of evidence established that the denials of Pepo as to acquaintance with Plath, with the crime or with the neighborhood were not credited by the jury, although they debated the case all night before agreement.

Charles Simons, charged with having shot and killed Charles Buckley in a barroom row, was found guilty of manslaughter and the jury fixed the punishment at the minimum — one year in the penitentiary.


Anaconda Standard, Jan. 23, 1900

Special Dispatch to the Standard.

Helena, Jan. 22. — William Pepo, convicted in Teton county for the murder of Julius Plath, in the summer of 1898, will have to pay the penalty of his crime upon the gallows, unless the governor interferes, which is hardly possible, as the supreme court to-day affirmed the judgment of the lower court.

“We find no error in the record, and must affirm the judgment and order appealed from,” says the supreme court in concluding a decision by Associate Justice Hunt. The opinion deals with the various points raised by Pepo’s counsel, but finds none of them of sufficient merit to warrant an interference with the action of the lower court.

One of the errors assigned by Pepo’s counsel was the alleged misconduct of the jury, it being claimed that while the jury was deliberating on the case, the bailiff entered the jury room and remained several hours.

One of jurors, by the name of Dehass, made affidavit to that effect. The bailiff made counter affidavit to the effect that early one morning he entered the jury room, taking some lunch and bedding. All but four of the jurors were asleep. The four who were awake were talking in the other end of the room, but not about the case.

The bailiff took a two-hour nap in the room and then left. He swore positively that he heard not one word of the conversation. Some of the jurors made affidavit to the same effect.

“From the foregoing affidavits, we think it is fair to say that there was no misconduct on the part of the jury, which tended in any way to prejudice the substantial rights of this defendant,” says the court, in disposing of this contention.

Another alleged error was the action of the lower court in allowing a witness to relate a conversation between Plath and the witness, when it was claimed the defendant was not present. The decision find no error in this, since the same witness subsequently testified Pepo was present. The action of the lower court in refusing to give an instruction that a witness having a casual acquaintance with a party is not entitled to much evidence is sustained.

“We are also asked to reverse the judgment because the verdict is not sustained by the evidence,” continues the opinion. “To this assignment, we have given the most attentive consideration, and our judgment is that it is very seldom that a case presents itself which so entirely fulfills the exact requirements of the law in relation to the measure of proof demanded to sustain a conviction of murder, where the state relies upon circumstantial evidence.

Under this assignment the argument is advanced that the evidence as to the identity of the body is unreliable and unsatisfactory. Counsel makes the point that there was no direct evidence to identify the body found as that of Julius Plath, who was alleged to have been killed by the defendant, Pepo.

Section 358 of the penal code provides that ‘No person can be convicted of murder or manslaughter unless the death of the person alleged to have been killed, and the fact of the killing by the defendant as alleged, are established as independent facts: the former by direct proof and the latter beyond a reasonable doubt.’

This statute is taken from the New York code, which is identical in its language, with this exception, that the New York code provides that the death of the person alleged to have been killed and the fact of the killing of the defendant as alleged, shall each have been established as independent facts. But we think that the same rules of interpretation should be applied to the Montana statute that controls in New York. The evidence in all respects sustains the verdict of murder.

The murder of Plath was one of the mysteries of Northern Montana and a crime that was not explained for some time. In an abandoned claim on the Muddy river to the northwest of Great Falls, the body in a bad state of decomposition was found in June, 1898, by a farm hand, who went into the place to get a mower sickle

A piece of iron, covered with blood, showed the weapon used.

The body was dressed in clothing that afterwards assisted in the identification, although for the time being nothing was found to show who this murdered man was.

A locket lying on the floor and a memorandum book in the pocket of an overcoat hanging on the wall also assisted in the identification. One proved to be the property of Plath and the other of Pepo.

Pepo and his victim, it was subsequently learned, came to Montana together from the Northwest Territory.

Both left the railroad at Shelby. Plath is known to have had $120 in his possession, and this is supposed to have furnished the motive for the crime.

During the trial it developed that several persons had seen two men corresponding to Pepo and Plath. They said they were going to Choteau. A farmer directed them to the cabin where the body was found as a good place to sleep on the way.

Others remembered them by such identifications as the charm on Plath’s watch, the photographs of him sent from Canada, his clothing and other articles.

A reward by the authorities and diligent work on the part of the Teton county authorities, assisted by relatives and acquaintances of the murdered man in Canada, finally fixed Pepo as the murderer and Plath as the victim.

The murderer was arrested in Washington. This was nine months after the discovery of the body. Pepo, when arrested, was living under an assumed name. He carried the very watch that Plath was known to have owned. Pepo’s trial and conviction followed.

Judge Smith of Kalispell will probably sentence him to be hanged at Choteau in a few weeks.


Anaconda Standard, Apr. 4, 1900

Special Dispatch to the Standard.

Helena, April 3. — An appeal to Governor Smith in behalf of executive clemency for another murderer was turned down to-day, when the governor announced that he could not see his way clear to interfere with the judgment of the courts in the case of William Pepo, under sentence of death to hang at Choteau next Saturday, April 7. Pepo was convicted of killing Julius Plath in a cabin on the banks of the Muddy river, in Teton county, a few miles north of Great Falls.

The murder was committed June 14 or 15, 1898. The decomposed body of Plath was not found until several days after the crime was committed. A farm hand who had occasion to enter the cabin to procure a mowing machine sickle came across the body lying upon a bunk in a sickening state of decomposition.

There appeared to be no clew to the murderer and it was several months afterward before suspicion was attached to Pepo. He was brought back to Montana, tried and convicted. The supreme court refused to grant him a new trial and he was sentenced to expiate his crime upon the gallows.

J.G. Bair, his attorney, appealed to the governor for a commutation of sentence to life imprisonment on the ground of lack of evidence to connect Pepo with the crime. The governor has been examining the record in the case for several days and this afternoon he sent a letter to Mr. Bair stating that he could not interfere. The letter was very brief. It follows:

I have finished reading the transcript in the matter of the application for executive clemency for William Pepo. In this case the evidence is so convincing and clear the jury could not have reached any other conclusion. It shows a most cold-blooded murder and there is no doubt Pepo was the murderer. I must absolutely refuse to interfere with the sentence of the court.

Pepo is said to be without a friend in the world save the Choteau attorney who sought to save his neck. His execution will be the first legal hanging that ever took place in Teton county.


Anaconda Standard, Apr. 8, 1900

Special Dispatch to the Standard.

Great Falls, April 7. — In the yard of the county jail in Choteau this morning at 6:09 o’clock William Pepo was hanged for the murder of Julius Plath. He exhibited no nervousness or fear and his last words were:

Gentlemen, I have nothing to say, only that I am about to be hanged an innocent man.

It was the first legal execution in Teton county, and from start to finish went without the slightest hitch of any kind.

There were about 50 spectators. The only outside officer of the law present was Sheriff Hubbard of Kalispell.

After all visitors had left last night the condemned man employed his time in writing, playing cards and conversation with the death watch until 3 o’clock this morning, when he went to bed and dropped off to sleep at once.

At 5:15 a.m., when he was aroused by Deputy McDonald, he was sleeping so soundly it was necessary to call several times to awaken him. After getting up he greeted the guards pleasantly and ordered breakfast, but later countermanded the order with the remark that his time was too short to waste any of it in eating.

At his request Father Snell was admitted and talked with him alone for some time, after which he asked that Attorney Bair, who has defended him throughout, be admitted to his cell, and in a few moments’ conversation he bade him goodbye and reiterated his innocence. Rev. Cunningham next conversed with him and Pepo listened to him very attentively and answered him earnestly.

At 6 o’clock the death warrant was read to him in his cell by Under Sheriff Haggerty and he was led out into the corridor, where he bade an earnest goodbye to the officers who had been his keepers for the past 18 months, and spoke a pleasant word to each.

His arms were strapped down and the walk to the scaffold began, the condemned man walking firmly and without assistance between Deputies Devlin and Armstrong, followed by Sheriff Hagen and Under Sheriff Haggerty and Rev. Cunningham.


To the Gallows.

As they walked down the north side of the jail in the alleyway formed by the high board fence erected about the yard, the morning air was crisp and chill, and the condemned man, turning to one of the officers, said jokingly: “It’s a little cool out here; this must be like the weather they tell about in North Dakota,” and smiled pleasantly.

Some of the guards had previously been talking of North Dakota weather to him, and his last earthly joke referred to the conversation.

As he turned the angle of the building and stepped under the gallows, he faced the silent, uncovered crowd, who had been admitted a few minutes before, calmly and quietly, by far the most self-possessed man present, and looking them over, he bowed pleasantly three or four times to parties he knew and said in a low voice, though clearly and distinctly:

Gentlemen, I have nothing to say, only that I am about to be hanged an innocent man.

Sheriff Hagen placed the strap about his knees and the condemned looked down with apparent interest and carefully placed his feet together so as to assist the sheriff.

The noose was placed about his neck, but he never flinched a hair’s breadth.

Rev. Cunningham, in a low tone, recited the prayers for the dead. For a moment, Pepo closed his eyes, as if listening.

A meadow lark in the field outside the prison walls whistled its morning note loud and clear; the condemned man opened his eyes again and looked out upon the crowd of awe struck faces and uncovered heads and the early morning sunlight which he never again would see.

The voice of the minister, broken and low, sounded monotonously.

Pepo glanced up inquiringly and Sheriff Hagen dropped down over his head and face the terrible black cap, shutting out all view of the world and sunlight from William Pepo forever.

Instantly the sheriff sprang away and gave the signal to the unknown man in the box alongside the gallows; the 400 pound weight fell to the ground like a plummet and the body shot up in the air four feet and settled down again without a perceptible tremor or more sign of life than if a block of wood. His neck was broken instantly.

Drs. Brooks and Cooper watched the pulse that in 10 minutes was forever stilled, and in 20 minutes the body was cut down and placed in a coffin, and the long strain upon all the officials connected with the case was over.

For the Epworth league was left a long letter of thanks for their services to him. To Rev. Cunningham was left a letter with the superscription, “Not to be opened until after my death.” In this letter he said in part:

“I Am Not Guilty.”

I am not guilty and consequently should not be held responsible for the crime. If this crime is really and truly atoned for by the ator in this world while you live, I hope you will tell those that have been instrumental in fastening it on me that they have my forgiveness as I have been forgiven. When you read this I will stand before the throne of God, whose grace passes all understanding. Amen.

Those are his last written words, and from them can be seen how strongly he urged his innocence and how far from any such thing as an admission he stood.

Since the action of Rev. Warman in the matter of Hurst‘s confession he has been particularly anxious to impress upon every one his innocence and feared lest some one should allege some such thing of him after his death.

He was buried this afternoon, Rev. Cunningham conducting the services.

With the hanging of William Pepo, the man of mystery, was closed a chapter in the book of one man’s life which will never be read by mortal eye, for just as sure as was his taking off, his name was not Pepo, and some time in the past he has trod walks of life other than those which he has during the time that the evidence in his case has been traced to him.

Looking at him last night calmly smoking and chatting cheerfully with those about him it was hard to recognize about him any of the accepted tributes of the common murderer. Pleasant faced, intelligent, well read, iron nerved and ready witted, he showed by every action the man of education and good raising. He refused at all times to give any chance for his photograph being taken, even by a kodak, and his last statement to Attorney Bair, the one man nearer to him in the effort to save his life than any other, was,

They do not know my name, nor do you. I shall not bring disgrace upon my family by letting them know that I have died a felon’s death. I will carry it with me out of the world.

A Man of Mystery.

Absolutely nothing has been learned of his past life further than six years back except what he himself has told and that, when investigated, was found not to be true.

He has not asked that one human being be sent for, nor had he ever mentioned the name of a person whom he wished to know of his terrible position.

Of his past life he has been as silent as the tomb except as to the indefinite stories mentioned.

That a man of his age, intelligence, ability and strong personality should not have in the wanderings of a lifetime one single friend or relative to come forward at such an hour, if called upon, seems incredible. In speaking with Under Sheriff Haggerty yesterday he referred to the Hurst and to the Calder cases. Of Rev. Mr. Warman he spoke very bitterly for giving publicity to the Hurst confession, and said Hurst’s wife and family would curse him for his action in the case until their dying day.

Speaking of Calder, he said:

I had made up my mind to go out of the world as Calder did, cursing God and man, but Rev. Mr. Rogers’, Rev. Mr. Cunningham’s and Father Snell’s talks to me have changed my mind, and I forgive every one connected with my trial. I firmly believe there is a God and I will go to Him expecting to receive the justice in the other world which has been denied in this world.

He expressed thanks for the favors which the sheriff’s office had shown him, breaking down for a few moments and shedding tears. Yesterday, Rev. Mr. Cunningham and members of the Epworth league had services in the corridor, as they have had every day for the past week, and at his request sang certain hymns.

Not once since a week after his sentence has his appetite failed him, and his sleep has been as regular and peaceful as a child’s.

His Iron Nerve.

His favorite pastime when no visitors were present has been playing cards with the death watch, and when he won he laughed as heartily as if he never had a care in the world.

Yesterday his beard was trimmed up and he was dressed in a new suit of clothes, and when the Standard reporter visited him he was received as courteously as though an invited guest.

Pepo was smoking and politely passed a package of cigars out through the iron bars, urging acceptance with the uncanny remark that there was more than enough to last him until 7 o’clock a.m. and after that he wouldn’t need any.

In the corridor with the death watch were many who came to visit him, and as Pepo recognized each one he shook hands heartily and expressed his pleasure at his meeting them and talked pleasantly on the topics of the day, alluding every little while to his own case as though it were an incident which he did not care to have those present feel any embarrassment in commenting on.

To one of the death watch he laughingly related the fact that “Tom” was to be one of the watchers.

“Did you think of it?” he continued. “You and Tom were the death watches the first night of my sentence, and now you will be with me my last night.”

The incident did not appear to strike the death watch addressed as at all humorous, but Pepo laughed softly again at the recollection.

At first he was disinclined to speak of his case for publication, as he believed the newspapers had not treated him fairly, but later he talked quite freely. He asked his attorney, who was present, to write a contradiction of a statement which appeared in a Dupuyer paper, in which he was quoted as saying that certain men in Washington would testify that he was working in that state June 15, 1898, which was the supposed date of the murder of Plath.

He dictated the writing, took the sheet of paper and read it with satisfaction and signed his name without a tremor, asking that Under Sheriff Haggerty and the Standard men sign it as witnesses. The statement reads:

His statement.

In an interview published in your paper some time since you quoted me as having said that I could obtain evidence from Washington showing I was there, in Washington, on or about June 15, 1898. This is a mistake; I meant to say I could get witnesses there who would testify that I was in Washington at work on the date that James Hannan testified to having seen me trying to cross the mountains, namely, on July 29, 1898.

In explaining this, Pepo said:

I don’t wish any injustice done my attorney; had I been able to secure such evidence I would have told him and I would not now be here with but six or eight hours to live; such evidence would have cleared me. Men would testify I commenced work there on July 4, but that would not do. I don’t know when I commenced to work there myself, as I was drunk for a long time. When the sheriff arrested me in Washington for murder I was never so surprised in my life. They say I was seen here after the murder. I never was in Choteau in my life until brought back by the sheriff. On June 14, when I am said to have done this thing, I expressed a package in Lethbridge at the express office there. The newspapers did not treat me fairly. They condemned me before I was tried and branded me a low-browed murderer. Had I friends to call upon, and state my side, the case might have been different. I am innocent and God knows it. But it is all over now, and I don’t want to make you people sick of listening to my troubles. They will soon be over, anyhow; let what is gone by go: it can make no difference now and talking of it does no good.

And all this without the slightest attempt at bravado or whine. One of the guards offered him a whiskey cocktail, but he refused it and said, smilingly:

No; I have had one and that is enough now; I don’t want you to think I need or wish courage to meet the end.

All the evening of the many who visited him he was the most calm and unembarrassed. His voice was clear and even and at no time did he evince the slightest excitement or nervousness, and, though he referred quite frequently to his coming death, it was without regret or a semblance of more interest than if it were the getting of his morning meal.

A little white kitten romped upon the floor of his cell and he expressed concern as to what would be its fate after the morning, when he would be taken away and he could feet it no longer. One of the officials promised to look after the kitten and he seemed much relieved.

For quiet, unostentatious iron nerve and calm placidity in the face of death upon the gallows, Pepo’s every word and movement last night and also this morning must stand alone.

Either he went to death innocent, which the evidence flatly disproves, or his career in crime has sent more men than Julius Plath out of the world unshriven.

He was not in the class of most moral degenerates and must go down, if guilty, as an iron-nerved prince of criminals, who played his last card, and losing, paid the forfeit with his life without the quiver of an eyelash.

The crime for which William Pepo to-day suffered the death penalty was the murder of Julius Plath in a cabin on the Muddy river, about 20 miles from Choteau, in Teton county, about the 15th of June, 1898. The case throughout was circumstantial and most remarkably illustrates that “murder will out,” no matter how carefully guarded.

Pepo and Julius Plath were acquainted in Canada, and early in June, 1898, left Lethbridge together to come to the United States, Plath having $120 in currency on his person.

They came in over the narrow guage [sic] and beat their way over the railroad as far as Pondera, where they left the railway and started together for Choteau.

The last seen of them was June 14, when they were directed to the cabin where the murder was committed.

On June 29, parties finding the cabin door fastened forced it open and found the body of a man who the evidence afterwards tended to show was Plath. The dead man had been killed while asleep by having his skull crushed by a large iron bolt, which was found lying near.

All the dead man’s clothes were taken charge of by the authorities and afterwards identified as belonging to Plath. Near the body was found an overcoat, in the pocket of which was a memorandum book belonging to and written in by Pepo.

The dead man was unidentified and was buried unknown.

Months after, when the murder had almost been forgotten, a letter came from Plath’s brother in Toronto, Canada, asking for the whereabouts of Julius, and by chance it fell into the hands of some one who thought it worth while to refer it to the authorities.

Further inquiry brought a photograph of the dead man, and this photograph was the first link in the chain which brought William Pepo to the gallows to-day and gave Sheriff Hagen the first ray of light upon a murder whose darkness seemed impenetrable.

The dead man when found was too badly decomposed for identification, but a man who had seen Pepo and Plath traveling together identified the photograph as being that of the smaller of the two men.

The clothing shown in the photograph also corresponded exactly with that found upon the dead man. The photograph was taken by Neapole, Pembroke, Canada, and is marked “exhibit D.” Later Plath’s brother came from Canada and identified the clothing as that of his brother Julius.

Then began the search for Pepo, who had disappeared as completely as though the earth had swallowed him up. Search was unavailing, until one day a letter came from a young lady to friends in Canada, who stated that she had met Pepo, but that he was going under the name of William Ferris and did not wish her to say anything about it.

The letter was from Davenport, Wash., and the young lady was unaware that Pepo was wanted on any charge; and again the hand of fate pointed out the murderer when all chances of discovery seemed buried forever.

The information was correct. Pepo was found in Davenport under the name of William Ferris, and was promptly arrested in May last and brought to Choteau, where link by link the evidence was forged against him, and last June he was found guilty of the murder of Julius Plath and sentenced to hang on July 17.

John G. Bair of Choteau was appointed to the defense of Pepo and County Attorney Erickson prosecuted. On both sides the battle was a stubborn one and well contested, but the evidence for the prosecution was too strong to overcome.

After the sentence Pepo’s attorney continued the fight and carried the case to the supreme court on appeal, and the doomed man was given a brief respite, but the judgment of the lower court was sustained, and on the 6th of last month Pepo was again called before Judge Smith in the court room at Choteau and for the second time listened to the death sentence, which was carried out to-day.

During the trial and after Pepo refused to allow his picture to be taken and in going to and from the court house pulled his coat collar above his neck to baffle any chance for snap shots. The accompanying pictures is a very good one and is from a pen sketch done by W.H. Clinkerbread, the Choteau artist. [Unfortunately the picture alluded to does not in fact appear in the paper. -ed.]

Pepo was a German and had not a friend, relative or acquaintance in the United States. He was a man of large frame, weighing about 180 pounds, and being 5 foot 10. He was 40 years of age.

After his second sentence for a while he refused to eat and expressed the intention of starving himself, but his fortitude was unequal to the task and he gave the trial up.

Although without money, his case was fought by his attorney to a finish just the same, and 10 days ago Mr. Bair went to Helena and personally appeared before Governor Smith and made a plea for life imprisonment for his client on the grounds of the evidence being circumstantial throughout and that there was a chance for a reasonable doubt.

When Mr. Bair appeared before the governor the case of Hurst, who was hanged at Glendive, had just been presented, with petitions containing 7,000 names, asking for clemency. For Pepo the case was different. He was unknown, without a dollar and had not a relative or friend in the state but his attorney to speak for him; but the result was the same.

The governor refused to commute the sentence of either man — the one with relatives and thousands of friends petitioning, the other without a friend save his faithful attorney. Hurst was hanged on March 30 and Pepo to-day. In refusing to commute the death sentence in Pepo’s case Governor Smith wrote his attorney Tuesday:

Mr. J.B. Bair, Choteau, Mont. —

Dear Sir: I have finished reading the transcript in th ematter of the application for executive clemency for William Pepo. In this case the evidence is so convincing and clear the jury could not have reached any other conclusion. It shows a most cold-blooded murder, and there is no doubt Pepo was the murder. I must absolutely refuse to interfere with the sentence of the court. I am, very respectfully,

ROBERT B. SMITH, Governor.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Known But To God,Montana,Murder,Theft,USA

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