Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Gruesome Legacy

Violence in Montana’s mining camps affected everyone, and Helena’s Hangman’s Tree was a community icon. Mary Ronan recalled in her memoir, Girl from the Gulches, that one morning she and her classmates saw a man hanging from the tree. She never forgot  “…that pitiful object, with bruised head, disarrayed vest and trousers, with boots so stiff, so worn, so wrinkled, so strangely the most poignant of all the gruesome details.” Nearly seventy years later as she dictated her memories to her daughter, Mary still remembered.

David Hilger recalled climbing the tree’s dead branches as a youngster and examining rope burns on its lower limbs. He and his friends played marbles beneath it. On April 30, 1870, vigilantes interrupted their game for the lynching of Arthur Compton and Joseph Wilson. Once the double hanging was over, according to Hilger, the boys resumed their game. These were the last two recorded hangings on the Hangman’s Tree.

Records show that some of the tree’s victims were buried in various Helena cemeteries, but the burial places of others are unknown.  At least two coffins have surfaced in the neighborhood where the Hangman’s Tree once stood. In 1900, a workman digging a foundation for an addition in a backyard uncovered one coffin. A crew hit the other working on gas lines on Davis Street in 1931. Were these victims of the Hangman’s Tree? Both burials were in close proximity to the spot where the tree once stood.

This photo of James Daniels' hanging in 1866 clearly shows his high-topped boots.
Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, 948-124
David Hilger examined the contents of the pine box discovered in 1931. Along with shreds of clothing were the remains of the victim’s unusual high topped boots. Hilger compared the boots with a photograph of the 1866 hanging of James Daniels. The boots, further described as “wrinkled,” seemed to match those in the photograph. If the remains were those of Daniels, the boots could be the ones that Mary Ronan described.  

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