Monday, October 27, 2014

Hangman's Tree

Virginia City placers dwindled and many transferred their stores and shops to Helena to “mine the miners.” The settlement boomed. William Sprague, an early settler, recalled that there were one thousand people at Last Chance Gulch by May 1865 and, “There was a good deal of shooting and hanging. The shooting was most all done by the gamblers, other people having very little trouble.”  By summer, there were three thousand residents. John Keene committed the first murder on June 7, 1865, when he killed Harry Slater outside a Bridge Street saloon. There being no government presence, Helena’s vigilance committee escorted Keene to the Hangman’s Tree in Dry Gulch. There he became the first of some dozen recorded victims who breathed their last on the gnarled branches. However, territorial Supreme Court justice Judge Lyman Munson observed upon arrival at Helena in July 1865 that some claimed the tree had already seen eight victims.
The venerable ponderosa pine stood until 1875 when the Reverend William Shippen chopped it down. He claimed flooding had loosened its roots, and the tree could fall on his barn and kill his horse. Citizens were incensed at the loss of this symbolic landmark, and hundreds crowded the neighborhood to take souvenir slivers of the tree. In 1913 when excavating for an addition on the home of Jacob Opp, workmen encountered the roots and found them as stable as if the tree were still alive. The tree’s exact location was on the property line between 521 Hillsdale and 528 Highland, just west of Blake Street.

Helena's Hangman's Tree appears on this map, drawn in 1875, just before the tree was cut down. Its placement is only approximate. Montana Historical Society Research Center Map Collection.
The activities of the Helena vigilante group—not the same as the group in Bannack and Virginia City—made a lasting impression on the community, and numerous eyewitnesses left accounts of their gruesome work. Rachel Parkinson remembered the morning she and a friend took an early-morning walk to the outskirts of town and came nearly face to face with the body of a man hanging on the scraggly tree. That same morning, children caught glimpses of the dangling corpse from their Rodney Street schoolyard. A few years later, as David Hilger and his young friends played marbles beneath the branches of the ill-famed tree, men arrived to scatter the boys so that ghastly business could be done. When the hanging was over, the boys resumed their game.

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