Monday, June 24, 2013

Langford Peel's Tombstone

When Helena became the territorial capital in 1875, the capital city wanted its buildings and community resources to showcase its importance. A federal assay office—one of only five in the nation—opened in Helena in 1876, and so did Central School, the first school in the territory with  graded classrooms. The rise overlooking the gulch was the best, most visible location to build the school, but that entailed moving part of the City Cemetery, active since 1865. It was neither an easy nor a pleasant task, moving a cemetery. Most graves were unmarked, and so in many cases it was a game of move-them-when-you-find-them. The method of burial in roughly and hastily made pine boxes or worse left corpses in various stages of decomposition. This made removal difficult and grisly. Another problem was where to put the newly unburied dead. Lewis and Clark County created Benton Avenue Cemetery in 1870, and so it provided the solution to the latter problem. Benton Avenue became the receptacle for burials clearly marked with tombstones or wooden markers as well as unmarked graves encountered during the digging of the school’s foundation. Among the graves transferred to Benton Avenue was that of desperado Langford Peel, killed in a saloon affray in 1867. A tombstone, five feet tall and expertly carved, marked his grave. The enigmatic inscription read in part, “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the lord. I know that my redeemer liveth.” Peel’s contemporaries viewed it not as religious, but rather as a curse against Peel’s murderer.

Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives
Wilbur Sanders took the wooden tombstone to his house at nearby 7th and Ewing. There it rested in his attic until the 1930s when it was rediscovered and given to the Montana Historical Society. It remains in the collection today, a rare, well-preserved relic of Helena's earliest history. Peel himself lost out; his new grave at Benton Avenue was, and is today, unmarked.

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