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Montana Vigilantes

and the Origins of the 3-7-77

by Fredrick Allen

From Montana The Magazine of Western History, 54 (Spring 2001), 3-19; this article is presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society.  All rights reserved, © 2001.

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What is certain is that once launched, the numbers took on a life of their own. After their initial appearance in the Daily Herald, the numbers ran again the following Friday, November 7, 1879, suggesting that a further sweep of undesirables was underway in time for the weekend, when drunken unruliness typically peaked. The numbers appeared for five consecutive days in boldface type on page three above the Brevities section of local news, abruptly ceased, then appeared again toward the end of the month and later in December.

Hoping to allay fears about their mission, the vigilantes apparently sent word to the territory’s newspaper editors that they did not intend to resume lynching or engage in extralegal activity. Woolfolk of the Helena Independent, who at first hotly criticized the vigilantes, soon was writing that they actually supported the court system and intended to help carry out the law, not supersede it. No violence occurred. The vigilantes’ restraint was just as well, since it turned out that the two men accused of murdering John Denn provided alibis and were exonerated. Had they been lynched, an irrevocable injustice would have stained the new vigilance committee.48

Still, it was only a matter of time until someone defied the vigilantes and challenged their powers of enforcement. One of the men exiled from Helena, an ex-convict named Cronan, got as far as the nearby community of Jefferson City and decided to stay. The vigilantes were notified, and in February 1880 a group of them rode out of Helena, seized Cronan, gave him forty lashes, and warned him to keep moving out of the territory.49 The beating had the desired effect, and Montana enjoyed unusually calm years in 1880 and 1881. But the incident served notice that the vigilantes could expect to be tested again.

The Utah and Northern Railroad reached Butte and delivered the first passenger train there just before Christmas 1881. By February 1882 the Butte Miner was complaining of a rash of “sneak thieving,” and in early April its pages reported that nearly five hundred newcomers were in town, many without jobs or means. On the morning of Sunday, May 14, 1882, residents of Butte awoke to find the numbers 3-7-77 chalked on doors and thresholds across the city. Over the next two days, as an armed patrol scoured the streets at night, some forty men left town, many headed for Deer Lodge, the next stop on the railroad line.50

In Helena, Fisk’s Daily Herald warned that the vigilantes would soon have to put on their “war paint” again, and in June 1882 the numbers were posted around the city along with a new embellishment: a skull and crossbones. The numbers went up in Fort Benton, and a “billiardist” named Blackburn was reported to have boarded the first steamship headed back east. In Billings, a town built around the arrival of the Northern Pacific, a vigilance committee posted the numbers and “drove out in a body the entire lot of roughs, vagabonds and female nuisances,” the first recorded instance of the banishment of women.51

Emphasizing the difference between these new urban vigilantes and their gold-camp counterparts a generation earlier, Wilbur Fisk Sanders made a point in spring 1882 of publicly disparaging the use of coercion against people he considered mere riffraff. Sanders, the pioneer lawyer whose daring prosecution of a suspected highwayman at a people’s court in 1863 emboldened the first vigilantes to take action, wrote a letter to the Daily Herald urging tolerance of beggars and suggesting the establishment of a lodging house “where strangers could be accommodated for a day or two without charge, comfortably.” The police and courts could handle the criminal class, he argued, and only if they failed should “harsher methods” be considered. “But it is the height of folly,” Sanders added sharply, “to presume that he who asks lodging or bread is a criminal, and to visit upon . . . [him] the penalties of a Vigilance Committee would be heinous crime.”52

Simple intimidation worked for the vigilantes for a time, but eventually their bluff was called. In 1883 a mob in Dillon seized an accused killer named John A. Jessrang and attempted to force a confession from him by putting a noose around his neck and repeatedly hauling him off the ground to the point of near strangulation. When Jessrang refused to admit the crime, his chastened tormentors concluded he might be innocent and returned him to jail. Fisk, writing in the Daily Herald, responded angrily that Jessrang was guilty “beyond all doubt” and deserved to be lynched. With this open call for summary execution, Fisk crossed an important line. Three weeks afterward, another mob broke into the jail at Dillon and hanged Jessrang in his cell. A short time later, in March 1883, two men were lynched at Greenhorn, twelve miles from Helena, when a self-appointed posse accused them of setting a fire. Fisk wrote again of his approval of the killing. Appalled, Justice Wade exhorted the sheriff to track down the members of the mob, but no arrests were made.53

Decius Wade (above, 1880), Montana Territory's chief justice, despaired over the resumption of vigilante justice in 1879 and urged a grand jury to hasten the indictments of a dozen men then in jail and charged with homicide.

The danger of a return to extralegal justice quickly became clear. In June 1883 Butte’s vigilance committee seized an accused child molester and, after debating whether to hang him, finally settled on administering sixty-four lashes. The victim, insisting he was innocent, refused to leave town and walked the streets of Butte surrounded by friends. When the vigilance committee threatened him with death, he retreated to a nearby settlement, Centerville, where the sheriff supplied his group with rifles, raising the specter of a clash of arms. After a standoff, wiser heads prevailed, and the man submitted to arrest while the vigilantes agreed to let the courts handle the matter.54

Fisk, who might have been sobered by this episode, redoubled his advocacy of lynch law. He published the numbers again in July 1883, even though a prominent chronicler, Michael Leeson, was in town working on a history of Montana.55 Later that month, in Miles City, another town burgeoning with the arrival of the railroad, a man named Bill Rigney got drunk on a Friday night and was staggering home after dawn when he wandered into the home of the Northern Pacific’s resident top official and insulted the family in profane language at breakfast. A mob chased Rigney down and hanged him from the bridge over the Tongue River. Someone then torched the saloon where Rigney worked, and soon an entire city block lay in ashes. As in Butte, a standoff ensued between the vigilantes and their detractors, with serious violence averted once again by a narrow margin.56

Fisk’s thinking on lynch law crystallized soon afterward in an editorial he wrote about a hanging in Salt Lake City. A heavily armed black man named Harvey had run amuck there, killing the city marshal and wounding another man before being subdued and arrested. Hours later, a mob stormed the jail, seized Harvey, dragged him through the streets, and hanged him. Fisk was horrified, calling it a “brutal thing.” Then he got to the point:

We do not object so much to a decent, orderly lynching when there is particular atrocity in the crime and there can be no mistake as to the criminal. But this beating, kicking, clubbing, and dragging through the streets, both before and after death, is too brutal to allow excuse, and would better suit cannabal [sic] savages than men who pretend to be civilized.57

Wilbur F. Sanders (right), the lawyer who spurred the first vigilante movement by successfully prosecuting a suspected highwayman in 1863, criticized the later revival of vigilantism and called it "heinous crime."

Reading Fisk more than a century later, one marvels at the distinction he drew between good and bad lynchings. Mob violence was a terrible thing. But who could object to a decent, orderly lynching? Especially if the crime was atrocious and the criminal plainly guilty? What could be fairer or easier to carry out? That he could write as he did, without the least wisp of irony or uncertainty, might have marked Fisk as a simpleton in another time and place. Yet in 1883, in Montana Territory, his view represented the sincere belief among many respectable citizens that vigilante justice was still a workable, even indispensable tool of law. That Fisk was a liberal by today’s standards in other aspects of his philosophy—he supported voting rights and public education for blacks and gun control, for instance, while his wife was a temperance advocate—underscores the uncomfortable truth that in Montana many years ago (and in other parts of the United States as well) reasonable, educated, decent people blithely accepted lynching as public policy.

In 1884 the shadow of lynching passed from Montana’s cities to its vast, unsettled central plain, where Granville Stuart, one of the territory’s earliest pioneers, led some of his fellow cattlemen in a famous raid along the Musselshell River and shot or hanged some thirteen suspected horse rustlers.58 Stuart’s Stranglers, as they were nicknamed, became the stuff of legend, not least because a gentleman cattle rancher from nearby Dakota Territory, Theodore Roosevelt, admired them and tried to join their ranks. Roosevelt’s enthusiasm for vigilante justice, forged in Montana, continued into his presidency and helped shape his belief in the need for American imperialism.59

Labor agitator Frank Little was lynched in Butte in 1917 with a placard (above) pinned to his back that warned "others" of a similar fate.

While attention was drawn to the cattlemen, the work of the urban vigilance committees continued unabated. In 1885, a prisoner named Con Murphy sawed his way out of the Helena jail—his second escape—and was captured after a shoot-out in which he wounded a policeman. A mob seized him, hanged him, and pinned a card with 3-7-77 on his back, marking the first time the numbers were directly associated with a lynching. Appropriately, perhaps, a young man who witnessed the event took the card from Murphy’s back and presented it as a gift to Fisk’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Grace. Afterward, Fisk’s wife, Lizzie, wrote her mother in Connecticut, asking, “What did you think of the hanging? I have wondered how it would impress eastern people.”60

Eastern people, for the most part, were not impressed one way or the other. According to research compiled by historian Richard Roeder, lynchings and banishments in Montana continued right on through the achievement of statehood in 1889 and into the twentieth century.61 The “mystic figures” continued to appear and took on a sort of split personality. They were used with obvious, malicious intent by anonymous agents from time to time to terrorize various groups and individuals, but they also were bandied about lightly as a token of frontier nostalgia. As early as 1882, the members of a men’s glee club in Helena styled themselves the “3-7-77 Boys.”62 Because of the deliberate confusion about the meaning, an erroneous idea took hold almost from the outset that the numbers had been used by the first vigilantes.63 The heroic stature of the early vigilantes, meanwhile, was reinforced at almost every turn by historians and journalists.

In 1917 radical labor leader Frank Little, a member of the far-left Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, arrived in Butte and began attacking America’s recent entry into World War I. Speaking before large crowds of copper miners, Little called President Woodrow Wilson a “lying tyrant” and denounced United States soldiers as “scabs in uniform.” This proved to be free speech at its most dangerous. Tensions between labor and management in Butte’s copper industry already were high, and the state of Montana as a whole was gripped by a fever of hyperpatriotism and intolerance for dissent. In the early morning hours of August 1, 1917, six masked men seized Little in his boarding house, dragged him through the streets, and hanged him from a bridge. A sign was placed on his back with the numbers 3-7-77 and the initials of six other men threatened with the same fate. Though Burton K. Wheeler, then a federal attorney, condemned the affair as “a damnable outrage,” no arrests were made.64

By the early part of the twentieth century, the "mystical numbers" 3-7-77, mistakenly associated with the first vigilantes, were used to promote tourism in an undated brochure (right) published by the Vigilante Trail Association.

Far from tarnishing the mystic figures, the lynching of Frank Little heralded the beginning of a period when veneration of the first vigilantes reached new heights. In 1920, hoping to profit from the advent of family vacations by automobile, state officials renamed the routes in southwest Montana from Yellowstone National Park to Butte and Helena the Vigilante Highway and designed red, white, and blue disks with the numbers 3-7-77 in the middle to mark the way.65 Two years later, in 1922, the numbers appeared in Missoula, not to frighten anyone but in recognition of a meeting of the Montana Society of Pioneers.66

For the most part, these celebrations of vigilante history were undertaken innocently, free of any intent to promote or even contemplate extralegal justice. In 1924 the principal of Helena High School, A. J. Roberts, was casting about desperately for some new tradition to replace the annual “senior-junior fight,” in which boys from the senior and junior classes picked a spring day at random in which to challenge each other to fisticuffs, with resultant physical injuries and property damage. Roberts’s brainstorm was a Vigilante Day Parade through downtown Helena with the students competing peacefully to build prizewinning floats. It took hold, and in 1931 Twentieth Century–Fox and Paramount both filmed the parade, giving it a national audience.67 The parade remains a popular event to this day.

Gaining a final gloss of respectability, the numbers 3-7-77 were added to the Montana Highway Patrol shoulder patch in 1956. Promoted to superintendent that year, Alex Stephenson personally designed the new insignia as a tribute to law and order. A rock-jawed, old-school lawman, Stephenson was entirely ignorant of the numbers’ convoluted history and believed they simply represented the vigilantes of 1864. “We chose the symbol,” he explained later, “to keep alive the memory of this first people’s police force.”68

As in the rest of the country, lynching in Montana faded from acceptance during the twentieth century, and the meaning of the vigilantes’ numbers receded further into the mists of folklore. Longtime Montana Supreme Court chief justice Lew Callaway, whose father was an early territorial secretary and a friend and neighbor of James Williams, the executive officer of the 1864 vigilance committee, insisted that the numbers stood for a period of time, giving that theory a great deal of currency.69 Some skeptics believed that Callaway, a prominent Mason, meant to discourage an alternate hypothesis that the numbers were some kind of Masonic code that pointed a finger at Freemasons as the core organizers of the vigilance movement.70

The idea of a specific Masonic origin for 3-7-77 was first advanced by historian Rex Myers in 1974, and it is tempting. The numbers three and seven have significance in Masonry and the number seventy-seven has a tantalizing place in the history of Masons in Montana. In autumn 1862, during the first season of the gold rush to Bannack, a man named William Bell fell ill with mountain fever. On his deathbed, he asked for a Masonic funeral, and seventy-six Masons came forward the next day for the ceremony. Counting the Mason in the coffin, the theory goes, there were seventy-seven Masons in all, and realizing their strength in numbers, they soon joined forces and formed the vigilance committee that cleaned up the gold camps.71

Invented by a Helena High School principal to replace the violent ritual of an annual fistfight between junior and senior boys, the Vigilante Day Parade (above, circa 1937) quickly became a popular—and peaceful—tradition, one that continues today.

The problems with this reasoning are plentiful. The vigilantes of 1864 included substantial numbers of non-Masons in their ranks, making it unlikely that a Masonic reference would have been adopted as a sign. In any case, Masons are not in the habit of advertising their secret symbols in public. Moreover, the numbers were not used in 1864, as widely believed, but in 1879, fully seventeen years after Bell’s death, long after the original vigilante leaders had departed from the field. Making a Masonic context even more unlikely, in 1879 the grand master of Montana Masons was Hiram Knowles, who had just retired after eleven years as a territorial justice and was an ardent enemy of vigilantism. And the grand secretary of the Masons was Cornelius Hedges, the probate judge of Lewis and Clark County who had presided over the coroner’s jury in the John Denn case.72 The use of numbers suggesting a link between the vigilantes and the Masons would have embarrassed and angered both men.

Finally, giving the matter a suspiciously modern provenance, the story of the seventy-six Masonic mourners did not become widely known until the twentieth century, when a Masonic secretary found the account in the records of the Grand Lodge in Helena and passed it along to a journalist.73 The story was then popularized by an amateur historian, Charley Towne, the publicity director of the Montana Power Company, who often told it on his radio show in the 1930s.

Over time, the numbers have lost much of their sting, but it is hard to imagine any Montanan not feeling a shiver of apprehension if he found 3-7-77 chalked on the front door or sidewalk one morning. Indeed, in 1974 the mayor of Virginia City abruptly resigned after someone sent him a card marked with the numbers during a political protest.74

Given Montana’s continued appeal to various freemen, militias, survivalists, separatists, supremacists, soldiers of God, and other off-kilter sorts, including the most notorious mad bomber of our age, perhaps the time has come to consider retiring a set of numbers whose use for many years was a call for open defiance of the police and courts and rule of law.

FREDERICK ALLEN is a former political editor of the Atlanta Constitution and commentator for cnn. He is the author of a history of the Coca-Cola Company, Secret Formula (1994), which has been translated into seven languages, and of Atlanta Rising (1996), a book about the forces that shaped modern Atlanta. He lives in Atlanta and Bozeman, and is working on a book about Sheriff Henry Plummer and the legacy of vigilantism in Montana.

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48. Helena Independent, November 16, 1879; Helena Daily Herald, November 22, 1879.
49. Helena Daily Herald, February 13, 1880.
50. Butte Miner, December 22, 1881, February 11, April 6, May 16–19, 1882.
51. Helena Daily Herald, May 20, June 14, 19, August 23, 1882.
52. Ibid., May 19, 1882. Sanders and Fisk were political rivals within the Republican Party.
53. Ibid., February 12, March 10, 19, 20, 1883.
54. Butte Miner, June 24, 26, 1883.
55. Helena Daily Herald, July 20, 1883; Michael Leeson, The History of Montana, 1739–1885 (Chicago, 1885), 304-5.
56. Livingston Enterprise, July 22, 1883; Miles City, Yellowstone Journal, July 28, 1883; MNA “News Inserts,” September 25, 1933.
57. Helena Daily Herald, August 27, 1883.
58. In Strain of Violence, Richard Maxwell Brown calls the 1884 episode “the deadliest of all American vigilante movements,” a superlative supported in the book’s appendix three, which counts thirty-five victims (p. 101). The actual number, however, appears to be considerably smaller. In “The Central Montana Vigilante Raids in 1864,” which appeared in the premier issue of Montana The Magazine of Western History, January 1951, Oscar O. Mueller argues that fifteen to eighteen men died at the hands of Stuart’s posse. In a 1980 University of Oregon master’s thesis, “Granville Stuart and the Montana Vigilantes of 1884,” Richard K. Mueller (no relation to Oscar Mueller) puts the figure at nineteen to twenty-two. My own count shows a maximum of seventeen, while Michael Malone, Richard Roeder, and William Lang’s reasonable and reliable Montana: A History of Two Centuries (Seattle, 1976) estimates on page 163 “at least fifteen” victims. Meanwhile, Brown’s appendix three cites thirty victims of vigilantism in Montana from 1863 to 1865, while my examination of the Virginia City, Montana Post raises that number to at least thirty-five. In either case, the distinction of “deadliest of all American vigilante movements” properly belongs to Montana’s earliest vigilantes.
59. On Roosevelt’s seeing imperialism as an extension of the frontier, especially in the Phillipines, see page 106 of Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth Century America (New York, 1992). On Roosevelt’s years in the West, see Carlton Putnam’s Theodore Roosevelt: The Formative Years, 1858–1886 (New York, 1958). Stuart rebuffed Roosevelt’s bid to join the vigilantes fearing his fame (and lack of discretion) might bring unwanted publicity.
60. Jacob Mathews Power, “Tracking Con Murphy,” Montana The Magazine of Western History, 30 (Autumn 1980), 52-56; grand jury charge, January 1885, MC 54, Decius S. Wade Family Papers, MHS Archives; Lizzie Fisk to Mother, February 15, 1885, folder 8, box 7, MC 31, Fisk Family Papers, MHS Archives.
61. Folder 30, box 40, collection 2346, Richard Roeder Papers, MSU Libraries. Roeder kept handwritten notes on numerous lynchings from 1885 into the early twentieth century.
62. Helena Daily Herald, July 17, 1882.
63. Ten days after their first appearance, the Independent asserted mistakenly that the numbers “represent the old vigilantes sign.” Helena Independent, November 11, 1879.
64. MNA “News Inserts,” August 6, 1917; Butte, Montana Standard, June 5, 1992. On the hysteria surrounding outspoken opposition to the war, see Dave Walter, Montana Campfire Tales: Fourteen Historical Narratives (Helena, Mont., 1997), 153-71.
65. State Department of Agriculture, Labor, and Industry, Montana: Resources and Opportunities Edition (Helena, 1920), 60; MNA “News Inserts,” March 15, 1920.
66. Missoula, Missoulian, August 25, 1922.
67. Helena Independent Record, May 28, 1939, May 13, 1999.
68. Spokane, Spokesman-Review, February 11, 1968. The patrol publishes a brochure that gives essentially the same explanation today.
69. MNA “News Inserts,” April 26, 1929.
70. Colin Rickards, “Freemasons, Felons, and the Montana Vigilantes,” Quarterly of the National Association and Center for Outlaw and Lawman History (Spring 1978).
71. Myers, “Vigilante Numbers,” 67-70. For a persuasive argument against the Masonic thesis, see Burlingame, “Montana’s Righteous Hangmen,” 36-49; and folders 21, 22, box 26; folder 1, box 27, Burlingame Papers. According to Burlingame, of the 168 men known or suspected to have been among the early vigilantes, only 29 were Masons.
72. Ancient Free and Accepted Masons of Montana Grand Lodge, Proceedings, 4 vols. (Springfield, Ill., 1879–1882), vol. 1.
73. MNA “Inserts,” March 12, 1934, August 26, 1935; Butte, Montana Standard, March 16, 1975. Nathaniel Langford, who presided at Bell’s funeral, described the ceremony but failed to mention the seventy-six mourners in his book, Vigilante Days and Ways, published in 1890. Nor did he discuss the numbers 3-7-77.
74. Butte, Montana Standard, March 16, 1975.

From Montana The Magazine of Western History, 51 (Spring 2001), 3-19; this article is presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society.  All rights reserved, © 2001.

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