Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Paul Maclean’s Unsolved Murder

Norman Maclean’s novella, A River Runs Through It, has an interesting back story. As youngsters, Norman and his brother Paul lived in Helena and Missoula where their father was a Presbyterian minister.

From The Norman Maclean Reader, University of Chicago Press
The brothers were fighters and daredevils, and some still remember their antics. Paul later worked for the Helena and Great Falls newspapers, earning a fine reputation as House reporter during the 1930s legislative sessions. In 1938, Norman was teaching at the University of Chicago, and Paul had almost completed his masters degree in English there. In the wee hours of May 3, 1938, Paul was beaten to death in a back alley. Terry Dwyer of the Great Falls Tribune worked with Paul and knew him as a good reporter, but also as a man who would never back down from a fight. Many believed Paul’s murder was mob related—that he owed money, or knew something for which he needed silencing. But the murder was never solved, and Norman had to come to terms with his brother’s death. After he retired from teaching Shakespeare, Norman, at the age of seventy, took up writing. He cast his wild brother as that artistically perfect, but flawed, fly fisherman in A River Runs Through It. As Norman wrote the novella so many years later, he confronted demons of the past, discussing his brother’s death publicly for the first time. Norman’s daughter, Jean Maclean Snyder, told the Livingston Enterprise that her father believed you come to terms with something by understanding it. Norman finally reconciled Paul’s senseless death through his writing. “All good things,” he wrote, “come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”

From More Montana Moments
P.S. Remember this unsolved mystery?


  1. Helena District Judge Henry Keenan knew both Paul and Norman well and covered the Montana 1937 legislative session working for Paul. He has a lot of insight on the murder and feels it wasnt mob related.He knew Paul as feisty ,belligerant and would fight at the drop of a hat.Judge Keenan said Paul was a good reporter though. He thought very highly of Norman and also his wife Jessie ;
    Frank Schlenzig

  2. Hi, I am a cousin to Paul Davidson and Norman Fitzroy Maclean from Canada. Norman and Paul's dad stayed on our farms in Manitoba in 1889 and was introduced to Clara by my great, great grandfather and his cousin who is also a Maclean. We were told Paul's death had to do with his gambling debts as being also related to his mother's side as well. We have. It in our family books in Manitoba he was killed in Chicago. If you need more info on Norman or his dad I would be glad to help.

    Andrew Kelly

    1. Yes, I agree that the murder was probably over gambling debts. I have written another piece on this topic elsewhere and done quite a bit of research. Should I ever expand it, I would definitely be most interested in talking with you. Thanks for your comment!

    2. My email is

  3. Here is what I know, which information I have shared with Norman's daughter who is a well respected attorney here in Chicago. I am 65, and have lived in Chicago all my life, having graduated from Northwestern. When I was 16, my father cautioned me about the dangers of my gambling since he had a friend who was beaten to death for gambling debts. Immediately afterwards, my father started sucking air as if he had said something he had not meant to say. Seven years later I confronted my father about my feelings that he had some deep dark secret in his past. Once again, he looked totally freaked out. (My sister who is a high powered lawyer who has a national reputation came to a similar conclusion.) But my father went to his grave without revealing his secret in part because he quit drinking in 1947 when my sister was born. In 1938, my father lived on the 6400 block of South Vernon in Chicago, which is exactly one full block away from the 6400 block of South Rhodes, which is where Paul was killed. (Only Euclid Avenue is in between.) My father was a wild man free spirit outdoors fisherman womanizer booze hound who was from North Dakota, and he was a Presbyterian. Paul was the same except that he was from Montana. Given that Chicago was (and to a lesser extent still is) a city of neighborhood bars, I would be very surprised if he and Paul did not know each other. (Indeed, what attracted me so much to the movie of "A River Runs Through It," was the similarity between Paul's character and my father's was as to what imagined him as a young man in his twenties. In the movie, Paul is killed in Montana, and only in the past five years did I discover the true facts of Paul's death. It blew me away.

    1. Thank you for your perspective and your comments! I agree with you. It was a small world (and still is) in many respects. They likely did know each other, and maybe your dad knew something about the murder. So interesting to speculate! Thank you!

    2. The fact all the bones in his hand were broken indicate a couple things. First, breaking a hand in the gambling world is the punishment for cheating although it could be related to debt. Second, that his hand was either broken in a vice or with a sledge hammer. In that case my guess is he was tortured/punished and murdered somewhere other than the alley his body was discovered in. The alley was simply a body dump.

    3. I just don't understand in the movie why Paul had to be murdered in Chicago rather than Montana. I love the flick so much, so that difference blew me away.
      Does anyone have any idea?
      Ken - Osaka, Japan

    4. He was killed in MONTANA in the flick. Sorry about the typo. Ken

    5. I have an idea why he was killed in Montana and not Illinois. It's a fictitious story, that's why its called a n-o-v-e-l lol

    6. Yep, and you put your rear end on your head instead of your brains when you wake-up.

      I am Paul's cousin and his death was real just the place where he died was not.

  4. Many theories spun from my cousin Paul's death, from the Indian lady he went with in Montana, Montana, the baseball game in the 1930's with a black lady to gambling debts. My guess, (if I had to put money on it lol) is gambling debts. You can take the gambler out of the one environment, however, when that environment follows you that is a different story.

  5. Hi Ken;

    I am Norman Maclean's cousin from Canada and I think I can help you about why Paul was killed in Montana instead of Chicago in the book and movie.

    1) Norman did have regrets in bringing Paul to Chicago because of his behavior and attributes he brought along with him.

    2) Norman was most likely writing about in some cases an apology for about Paul's death, in some cases the emphases on words etc.

    3) Norman wrote in the book as well he was killed in Montana. Reasons unknown.

    Hope this helps.

  6. Hi Andrew,

    Thank you so much for your prompt reply from Manitoba. I’m more than happy to have heared from you! You really helped not just me: my wife and a friend of mine, who all are 'haunted' by that movie and the book as well.

    In the movie when Norman goes “What do you say? Come with us (to Chicago)”, then Paul replies, “I’ll never leave Montana, brother”. So that scene, now I guess, is a point of frog, how Norman wanted the real life to be. Paul is murdered in Montana later anyway though. I guess I have not been aware enough of Norman’s feeling of regret while watching the movie over and over again. It’s a shame.

    Again, thanks a lot. I have been even thinking of planning to visit Lolo Hot Springs, where Paul was supposed to be murdered! Do not worry, thanks to your advice, we love the movie again, feeling like watching it again soon.



  7. Off topic, the film is brilliant with words. I think the answers you seek are in the poetry in the end of this film. The father's last sermon that Norman attended, adding the poetry. I think his words painted pictures that we would spend a lifetime trying to grasp a single word that could reach that deep.

    'Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. 
    I am haunted by waters.'

    'Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don't know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them - we can love completely without complete understanding.'

    In saying all this. I think from my perspective, Norman wanted to remember 'the fine fisherman' and the character of man his brother was in a whole, with regret lurking from his shoulder. He buried his brother more than once, through words. God bless.

    -Victoria Hope

  8. That is typical of that generation of Maclean's of not talking about somebody after they died.

    Us Manitoba Macleans had the same thinking.

  9. Paul's death is so sad. What a beautiful person, lost forever.

  10. I think that Paul saying he would never leave Montana and the book having him killed in Montana is a metaphor for never being able to take the Montana out of Paul. Probably, even though he was in Chicago, Paul still acted like he was back in Montana; drinking, gambling and fighting. Of which all three, more than likely, led to his death.