Posts filed under 'Montana'

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

Add comment April 7th, 2017 Headsman

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.

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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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1935: George Criner, “anything can happen to anybody”

3 comments October 16th, 2014 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

“A few minutes before this happened if anyone had told me that I would be here, I would have said they were crazy. But remember, anything can happen to anybody. You can walk out on the street and die of heart trouble. Or you can go out on the street and get run over. I think that will be all.”

-George Criner, convicted of murder, hanging, Montana. Executed October 16, 1935

Criner came home very drunk one night and tried to take his girlfriend’s diamond ring. She refused to let him, and he beat her with an iron poker and cut her with a pocketknife, then shot the police officer who tried to intervene. At the preliminary hearing, Criner said that he very much wished he hadn’t been there.

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1883: Ah Yung

Add comment August 16th, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1883, Chinese immigrant Ah Yung, aka Ah Kee, was hanged in Missoula, Montana.

As Tom D. Donovan notes in his book Hanging Around The Big Sky: The Unofficial Guide to Lynching, Strangling and Legal Hangings of Montana, his execution had three distinctions:

  • The first (of nine) legal executions in Missoula County;
  • The first Chinese person hanged in Montana;
  • The quickest reported hanging, with death declared in only a minute and a half.

Ah Yung was condemned for the January 29, 1883 murder of Chung Yu, the paymaster of the Wing See Company.

However, the authorities believed his murder was the least of Ah’s crimes; he was suspected of killing no fewer than seventeen people, two whites and fifteen Chinese.

Ah Yung shot and killed Chung Yu and wounded another man during a botched robbery, then fled the scene. The authorities offered a $400 reward for his arrest, and he was captured a month after the murder at Frenchtown, Montana. But, as Donovan records, “because of some bizarre reason, there was a question whether or not the reward was going to be paid for his captor released the prisoner.”

Fortunately, the murderer remained free for only a few days and didn’t have the opportunity to commit any more crimes before he was captured again, and this time sent to jail in the newly incorporated city of Missoula.

Chinese immigrants, especially drawn by gold strikes,* were a sizable constituent in frontier Montana as throughout the American West. A Montana travelogue in the Nov. 25, 1882 Utah Salt Lake Tribune

“Gangs of Chinamen clearing away the forest and underbrush … laboring with pick, shovel and wheelbarrow.” This was the Northern Pacific then under frenetic construction through forbidding Rocky Mountain terrain in subzero temperatures. In Missoula itself, “Celestials” were “numerous enough to form a Chinese quarter. They have an eye to business, and where you find a live, busy camp or town in this remote region, there, too, you find the inevitable Chinaman.”

A Presbyterian minister and a Catholic priest attempted to offer pastoral counsel to the condemned man, only to discover that he was utterly ignorant of religion. Pressed to confess, Ah Yung refused and kept repeating, “Me no kill him,” — a statement he held to his dying moments.

* Welcomed initially, the Chinese were an increasingly contentious presence in Montana (and elsewhere) in the 1880s. Still, there were over a hundred independent Chinese mining operations known in Montana at this time.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Milestones,Montana,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions,USA

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1901: James Edward Brady lynched for criminal assault

Add comment October 2nd, 2013 Meaghan

(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.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Businessmen,Common Criminals,Crime,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Lynching,Montana,Other Voices,Public Executions,Rape,Sex,Summary Executions,USA

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1883: Heinrich “Henry” Furhmann, oldest hanged in Montana

Add comment May 2nd, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1883, Heinrich “Henry” Furhmann was hanged in Helena in the then-territory of Montana. He was the first person hanged in that city, and at seventy years old, the oldest person ever executed in Montana.

A non-English-speaking German national who walked with a cane, Furhmann was tiny. There was even speculation that at less than 100 pounds, he didn’t weigh enough to stretch the rope.*

Furhmann was executed for the murder of his son-in-law, Jacob Kenck, whom he’d shot three days before Christmas the previous year. While Kenck was standing in the doorway of his saloon on upper Main Street, talking to another man, Furhmann walked up to him from behind and shot him in the head.

The victim collapsed immediately, but didn’t seem to realize what had happened: as a crowd gathered around him, he said, “Boys, what is the matter? Is somebody hurt?” He passed out and was carried home, where a doctor was summoned to tend to his wound.

Furhmann was arrested immediately and, when told Kenck might survive, said he was sorry and would kill him again if he could.

But Furhmann’s disappointment didn’t last long: Kenck died within hours.

The old man had moved to Montana from his native country a decade before, after his daughter, who had emigrated before him, raised the money for his passage. She sickened and died several years after his arrival and Furhmann blamed her husband, Kenck, and nursed a bitter grudge against Kenck the way Kenck hadn’t nursed his late wife back to health.

After the emigre’s arrest he admitted he’d been plotting the murder for a year and had been carrying a gun everywhere he went, waiting for his chance.

News of the murder rocked the community, and that night a crowd gathered in front of the jail. Tom Donovan, in his book Hanging Around The Big Sky: The Unofficial Guide to Lynching, Strangling and Legal Hangings of Montana says they were a mixed lot: “interested citizens trying to maintain law and order as well as angry members of the community who wanted to take care of business, with a sprinkling of curious folks wanting to see how it would all turn out.”

There was quite a lot of shouting, but no actual attempt to storm the jail, and eventually the mob dispersed. The curious, perhaps, went home disappointed.

Given the fact that Furhmann shot the victim at literal high noon on literal Main Street in front of witnesses, it’s surprising that the jury deliberated a full 24 hours before convicting. When jurors returned with the condemnation — after it was translated for the defendant — he responded indifferently, “It is what I expected.”

He didn’t hope for clemency, just for the more-honorable death of a firing squad. Nein!

Furhmann died with a smirk on his face. His last words, referring to Jacob Kenck’s brother, were, “Now Chris Kenck will laugh.”

After his death, doctors removed and examined his brain, which turned out to be of average size and perfectly ordinary in appearance.

* Not that it was being used in Big Sky Country, but the classic drop tables/formula would potentially imply a fall of more than three meters to develop the necessary force to break such a slight man’s neck.

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1864: Five Virginia City road agents

Add comment January 14th, 2013 Headsman

The frontier town of Virginia City, Montana, saw a quintuple hanging on this date in 1864, authored by the local vigilance committee.


(cc) image from Rich Luhr of the hanged men’s gravestones at Virginia City’s Boot Hill. (It’s one of several American West cemeteries known as “Boot Hill”)

A miners’ boom town since prospectors struck gold nearby the previous year, Virginia City was even, briefly, the capital of the Montana Territory.

For order, it depended upon a Vigilance Committee of local grandees … and that committee had just days before carried out the hanging of Henry Plummer, the sheriff of the nearby mining town of Bannack and a reputed outlaw gang boss.

Plummer’s supposed “road agents” did the wilderness-trail robbery act familiar of the western milieu, but on a nearly industrial scale: it was suspected that “horses, men and coaches” traveling around Bannack and Virginia City were systematically “marked in some understood manner, to designate them as fit objects for plunder.”

The next act in the Vigilance Committee’s confrontation with these highwaymen and bywaymen was to bust up the Plummer network by seizing and hanging five supposed road agents on this date.

The evidentiary basis for these conclusions was varied, and in most cases less than what you’d call ironclad; the club-footed cobbler George Lane was thought to be marking stages for outlaws to hit, but the crippled rancher Frank Parish? Or Jack Gallagher, who wasn’t even on the list of wanted road agents the vigilantes were working from?

(The Vigilance Committee’s Parish Pfouts would record in his diary “that every man executed by the Vigilance Committee at that time was proved to be a murderer or highway robber.” The unsavory whiff of lynch law notwithstanding, those vigilantes have not wanted for latter-day defenders.)

This text summarizes all the accused men’s backgrounds, including the colorful Boone Helm.

Upon the Vigilance men’s summary and predetermined judgment, the quintet was marched down the street to a then-unfinished log structure and strung up on an inside beam.

That log store can still be seen in Virginia City, where it’s kitschily advertised as the Hangman’s Building.

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1926: Tony Vettere, who put up a fierce fight

Add comment October 1st, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1926, triple murderer Tony Vettere was executed on the “Galloping Gallows” in Butte, Montana. He would be the last person judicially hanged in that city.

The previous year on November 22, the Italian-born Vettere had encountered John Deranja about a mile outside of the town of Meaderville, a suburb of Butte in Silver Bow County. For no apparent reason, Vettere shot Deranja in the left side and killed him instantly.

That was at 9:15 p.m.

By 10:00 p.m., Vettere was on North Main Street in Meaderville and saw Joseph Cicarelli standing in front of a house talking to another man, Antone Favero. Vettere called out Cicarelli’s name, raised his shotgun, and fired on both men. Cicarelli was hit in the shoulder; he died within minutes. Favero got it in the abdomen and lived long enough to get to the hospital and make a statement implicating Vettere. Then he, too, succumbed at midnight.

By this time, Vettere had already attempted a fourth murder: he shot at still another Meaderville man, Angelino Gucciono, but missed. Gucciono hit the ground when he heard shots and the woman he was walking with legged it for the nearest house, where the occupants let her inside. Vettere chased after her and broke several of the house’s windows, but didn’t go in; instead, he fled the scene.

The next day the police found him hiding, unarmed, in a gully eight miles outside of town. His murder spree seems to have been motiveless: he had had some problems with Gucciono, but that had been years ago, and he didn’t seem to have had anything against the other men.

Vettere, according to witnesses, was drunk during the late afternoon hours on the day of the murder, but by 10:30 he appeared to be sober.

The victims left behind eighteen children between them.

Some people, even before his shooting spree, thought Vettere was crazy. He behaved erratically in jail and claimed he didn’t remember the murders. His lawyer claimed he “spoke incoherently on many different subjects” and didn’t seem to know why he was locked up. The court decided he was legally sane, however.

The portable (horse-hauled; hence the name) gallows were set up in the foyer of the old jail, which is today the Butte police department. According to the Billings Gazette, hundreds crowded in to witness it.

“A hanging was a pretty big social event,” Butte Archives volunteer Jim McCarthy told the paper. “The sheriff would send out invitations in those days.”

After his inevitable conviction and death sentence, Vettere became one of the few condemned men who actually put up a physical resistance en route to the gallows. Amateur historian R. Michael Wilson describes it:

During his final days Vettere was visited by Father J.M. Gilmore but his reaction to the priest was so violent he was not permitted to be with the prisoner alone. On September 30 the prisoner asked to see Judge Lynch [yes, that was the judge’s real name], but he refused to visit the man in his cell. Vettere would not rest that final evening and paced his cell, tensed as if ready to spring, and when the deputies entered the corridor Vettere yelled out, “Where are all these men come from.”

Undersheriff Robinson entered his cell at midnight to take him into the corridor for the reading of the death warrant but Vettere pulled a three foot piece of pipe from his bed clothes and attacked the undersheriff. Robinson backed out of the cell with Vettere close behind, and in the corridor of the jail Vettere pulled out a makeshift knife made from a spoon and, flailing about with the pipe in one hand, tried to cut the officers. He yelled, “You can shoot me but you won’t hang me,” and said, “I kill every man who come here. Get Judge Lynch. I want to kill him,” and then, “Viva Mussolini!” Sheriff Larry “Jack” Duggan demanded the pipe, but Vettere refused saying he would kill everyone. Two canisters of tear gas were brought in and he was sprayed from two sides, and the officers finally managed to herd him back into his cell, where he was gassed for fifteen minutes.

He was finally overcome by choking, dropped his weapons, and retreated onto his cots. The deputies then rushed in, overpowered him, and his wrist and arms, knees and ankles were bound with straps. He was carried onto the gallows and as he stood on the trapdoor he recovered his senses and began cursing everyone.

After death, Vettere’s brain was removed and examined by two doctors, who found no visible anomalies.

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1943: Phillip Coleman, the last man hung in Montana

6 comments September 10th, 2012 Meaghan

(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.

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1896: Bill Gay, prospector

2 comments June 8th, 2010 Headsman

This date in 1896 saw the Helena, Mont., hanging of frontiersman Bill Gay.


A ticket to Bill Gay’s hanging in December 1895 — which was, obviously, postponed.

As a prospector a generation earlier, Bill Gay had actually struck gold in the Black Hills, not far from Deadwood, S.D. The settlement that grew up around his claim, Gayville, was briefly in contention to be a key entrepot in the covered-wagon trade stripping Sioux land of precious metals.

Alas, Gayville burned down and became a ghost town, just like its founder became a ghost.

Maybe it was Bill Gay’s candle burning at both ends that caused the conflagration. The temporarily wealthy Gay (sporting furniture imported from the east coast!) had the pull to marry a dance-hall hottie … just, not so much pull that he had total impunity to ice a younger rival for his wife’s affections. After serving a turn in the clink for that murder — an abbreviated turn; the guy was rich, after all — Gay was back to square one as a prospecting plainsman, and moved on to Montana.

In Castle, Mont., where he settled (another mining camp later turned ghost town; see Ghost Towns of Montana), Gay fell into a mighty feud with local newspaperman John Benson.

When Benson’s establishment “mysteriously” burned down, a posse was detailed to bring in Gay, along with Gay’s brother-in-law. They killed a couple of deputies in the process of (successfully) blowing town; the in-law, Harry Gross, was never caught, but Gay was apprehended in California and returned to face the music.

Despite the Herculean efforts of his daughter, Maud — the wire report of the hanging (this one printed in the next day’s Omaha Morning World-Herald) complained that “never in the history of Montana have more efforts been made to save a criminal a neck” — he hanged this morning, still protesting that old Harry Gross had been the dead-eyed triggerman.

There’s a nice exposition of Bill Gay’s life from Wild West magazine reprinted at HistoryNet.com.

Bill Gay has no known connection to New York City piano lounge Bill’s Gay Nineties, which is an obvious oversight on someone’s part.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Montana,Murder,Pelf,USA

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1917: Frank Little of the IWW lynched

4 comments August 1st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1917, Wobbly labor organizer Frank Little was abducted from his hotel and hanged from a railroad trestle in Butte, Montana.

An executive board member of the radical Industrial Workers of the World, the half-Cherokee Little had only rolled into Montana’s copper mining hub two weeks before. A roving agitator who had organized workers all around the west, he would be a signal martyr to America’s nascent Red Scare.

It was a fraught moment nationwide, and worldwide. After winning re-election on the slogan “He kept us out of war,” Woodrow Wilson upon his inauguration immediately (try to act surprised) got the United States into World War I. Just as it had in Europe, the question of war put American labor to the test: would it transfer opposition to war into resistance, or would it line up patriotically with its state?

This outstanding IWW poster (via the University of Arizona’s web exhibit on the labor deportations that had expelled Frank Little from Arizona just days before he arrived in Butte) pits the militant Wobbly position against the nationalist American Federation of Labor.*

And Little was one of the most stridently anti-war in his movement.

Either we’re for their capitalist slaughter fest or against it. I’m ready to face a firing squad** rather than compromise. (Source)

Anaconda Copper could nowise welcome this character’s arrival, where he would organize already-striking miners and mix in militant anti-war rhetoric with incendiary potential in the cocktail of immigrant workers being asked (in many cases) to wage war on their homelands.

The local labor conflict, an exceptionally brutal instance of a pattern across the country and especially in western mining country, was probably savage enough on its own to make Little a marked man. Whether his anti-war activity or his union activity motivated his death is not sure, but the dilemma was probably a false one for his killers just as it was for Little himself: they were two heads of the coin. As American troops poured into Europe, and particularly as the Bolshevik Revolution later in 1917 spurred a worldwide Communist scare (and a separate American military expedition), both public and private power violently pursued left-wing elements.

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

The film An Injury To One (review) deftly weaves those themes and others together into the tale of a crime which is also the tale of a time and place:

This note was found pinned to Little’s body. “3-7-77″, a Montana vigilante calling card, indicates the dimensions of a grave.

Officially (again, act surprised), it’s an unsolved crime. Even though the New York Times report the day after the hanging quoted a labor official claiming “certain” knowledge of five of the six men in the posse, and a prosecutor vowing, “it is a cold-blooded murder and every effort will be used to apprehend the men who did it,” nobody ever went on trial for lynching Little.

Company goons, likely aided by the infamous union-busting Pinkerton detective agency, are the presumed culprits. And it is the nature of lynchings to make extrajudicial the rough justice sought by a certain constituency, as expressed by Montana’s Helena Independent:

Good work! Let them continue to hang every I.W.W. in the state. The time has come. It is beyond the comprehension of the average citizen why the war department has not ordered certain leaders arrested and shot. The people will not stand for much more.

A massive funeral turnout brought federal troops to quash labor unrest in Butte … and in the years to come, the IWW would be hunted from pillar to post.

Pro-Wobbly sites give adoring biographical treatment and fairly extensive resource lists on Little here and here.

Little is buried in Butte. His grave marker reads:

Slain By Capitalist Interests For Organizing And Inspiring His Fellow Men.

* The AFL, now the AFL-CIO, remains the dominant institution in American labor today.

** Little undoubtedly had in mind the precedent of his fellow-martyr Joe Hill, executed judicially two years before in Utah.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Lynching,Martyrs,Montana,USA,Wartime Executions

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