John Keene stood with trembling knees upon the dry-goods box at the back of the wagon. A rope embraced his neck and his hands and feet were bound. The only thing that stood between him and death was the stillness of the horse.
But the mob of vigilantes slapped the horse and the wagon lurched forward. On that cool June day in 1865, Keene, a wayward desperado, became the first Helena man “lynched into eternity” by the hometown boys who left his body left to hang for days.
“I did not want to know by what name he had gone in life — that dreadful, 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,” Mary Ronan, a school student at the time, wrote of the man hanging in the distant tree.
“I have tried to forget,” she added, “but I have not forgotten.”
Helena’s hangman’s tree, a pillar of territorial justice, sat on the outskirts of Helena just east of Dry Gulch. There, below the mining camp’s version of “boot hill,” at least 10 men were lynched between 1865 and 1870, the last taking place when the vigilantes hanged Arthur Compton and Joseph Wilson for highway robbery and attempted murder.
While the crimes ranged from killing to simple theft (as was the case with the lynching of Tommy Cook in 1865), their fate was the same — a long rope, the slap of a horse and the inevitable tug of gravity.
The hangman’s tree has long since vanished but even so, its legend continues through wild stories and haunting rumors. Historians place the old ponderosa pine — a dying tangle of branches while used as a hangman’s tool — near the corner of Blake and Highland streets, not far from the mouth of Dry Gulch.
It’s here amid homes both old and new where residents are gripped by past stories and present mysteries. Spurs jingle across hardwood floors, shadows sweep around corners, sounds move in the night and ghostly figures come and go.
Some historians believe the bodies of the condemned still lie beneath the neighborhood’s soil. At least two coffins have been unearthed over the last 100 years and other bodies remain unaccounted for, meaning there’s no telling where they were interred.
“There were several people hanged, but we don’t know where they were buried,” said Ellen Baumler, a research historian with the Montana Historical Society and author of “Spirit Tailings.” “I don’t know who was buried there, but there’s a chance there are others buried there still.
“It’s certainly possible.”
In 1870, Arthur Compton and Joseph Wilson were awaiting trial for the evening robbery and the attempted murder of George Leonard, an inoffensive German who lived near Beaver Creek near the Missouri River.
Leonard had come to Helena to buy supplies. He stopped for drinks at Joe Reed’s Saloon on present-day Rodney Street before setting off for home at 6 p.m. upon his horse.
Compton and Wilson watched and waited. They rented two horses from Pacific Stables and set off in pursuit of Leonard, catching him near Spokane Creek. They fired seven times, hitting him once in the hip. When Leonard fell off his horse they beat him about the head with their pistols and left him for dead.
The problem was, Leonard didn’t die.
Helena resident David Hilger, a boy at the time, noted the actions that played out in the following days. Facing an angered crowd fueled by the vigilantes, attorneys delivered pleas from atop the “old Murphy wagon” while Judge Symmes pleaded for the prisoners.
Ignoring the judge, backed by the mob, Harvey English forwarded the motion, shouting, “All those in favor of taking Joseph Wilson and Arthur Compton and hanging them forthwith will signify by saying aye.”
Hilger remembered that day, writing, “I never in all my life heard a motion carried with such force, and it seemed the ‘ayes’ could have been heard at the top of Mount Helena.”
Compton and Wilson were doomed, their fates sealed. The mob hauled them across town to the dreaded Dry Gulch. They parked the wagon beneath the hangman’s tree and stood the two men upon a dry goods box set at the rear of the wagon. Jessie Armitage bound their hands and feet and adjusted the rope, as Hilger said, “with plenty of assistance.”
When the two men were asked if they had anything to say, Wilson remained silent, “standing defiant, erect and motionless.” Compton, however, said, “Boys, goodbye. Don’t lead the life I have the past few days.”
“He had to be supported on the box, as his knees trembled perceptibly,” Hilger wrote. “The all-ready was given. A quick stroke on the horse’s back and the wagon went forward with a jerk and the bodies of Joseph Wilson and Arthur Compton were swinging in the air.”
Compton’s neck was broken in the fall, but Wilson wasn’t as lucky. The noose apparently “slipped to the back of his neck and he died by strangulation.”
The men were pronounced dead after 15 minutes. An hour later, their bodies were cut down, placed in pine boxes and buried. Only then did the crowd begin to disperse.
Others would follow.
In September 1865, Tommy Cook was hanged for thieving, a sign pinned to his back stating he was a “pick pocket.” In October, Con Kirby swung from the tree without a note stating his crime. A paper in Butte nonetheless praised the act, reporting, “The good people of Helena have a way of doing these matters of necessity with a quiet determination which is very praiseworthy.”
In November, the vigilantes hanged George Sanders for robbing a man of $1,180 “and for other small steelings.” Ah Chow was soon hanged for murder, and John “Frenchy” Crouchet was lynched for robbery. Within five years, more than 10 men, possibly 13, would hang from the tree.
While the lynchings caused Mary Ronan to shudder, David Hilger and his young friends often played marbles below the tree, or climbed its dead branches. They were, Hilger wrote, fascinated by the grooves left by the ropes in the wood.
The vigilantes had the run of the town, appointing the sheriff, court officers and even the jury. The actions troubled the town’s few judges, who struggled to bring a fair and balanced law to the mining camp. Justice Eyman Munson, in particular, argued that he and his fellow justices should stop the hangings, noting that all people deserved the benefit of a jury trial.
At the same time, however, the justices admitted that the vigilantes and their form of “juris prudence” was far cheaper, quicker and better than the legal courts, especially since the territory lacked adequate jails.
Despite the opinions, days in the mining camp inched on. The camp grew into the makings of a city, a new business district rising up from Last Chance Gulch. After Compton and Wilson were hanged, the Helena courts took a more active role in prosecuting the city’s criminals. That put an end to the town’s vigilante habits and cleared the way for more civilized and prosperous times.
The lynchings, however, simply moved from the hangman’s tree to the galloping gallows at the court house. In 1895, Sheriff Henry Jurgen would send out a public invitation, inviting the citizenry “to witness the execution of William Gay and William Biggerstaff” at the county jail.
But that was still years away. Back at Dry Gulch in 1875, a Methodist minister, the Rev. Shippen, considered the hangman’s tree, which sat dying on his property. He had built a brick home (on the corner of Blake and Highland today), along with a nice barn.
Despite the rumors, Shippen didn’t appear to have any qualms about the tree’s history. Rather, he simply feared it would fall onto his barn and kill his horse.
“So this guy is coming down Dry Gulch and he had a saw,” said Anna Jones, who has lived with her husband, John, in the house that Shippen built for the past 30 years. “Shippen paid him $2.50 to cut down the tree.”
Those who wanted the tree left standing dead or alive as a warning to scofflaws were reportedly outraged by Shippen’s act. They marched to his property and began cutting pieces off the felled tree as souvenirs. A few slivers remain in the Montana Historical Society’s archives.
Jump forward 140 years to a new city and a different time. The hangman’s tree is long gone, but Shippen’s house remains, as do the bodies buried nearby, lying, as some historians believe, below the city streets and, perhaps, under the homes surrounding the old “Boot Hill.”
“We have an old friend who grew up in the house one block up, and when he was a young boy and they were digging up the street, he saw them unearth a coffin,” Jones said, naming the year around 1935.
“It had one of the convicts who was buried unmarked and who’d had a party at the hanging tree,” she continued. “The boys clopped off a few of his finger bones, but they knew they shouldn’t have done it, so they went and hid them.”
Even Baumler, relying on historical data, notes the accidental discoveries of coffins and corpses in the area surrounding the hangman’s tree and Boot Hill.
“Around 1900, this guy on Highland Street had been digging a foundation in his back yard and he hit upon a coffin,” Baumler said. “Pieces of the coffin had deteriorated, but the body inside was pretty well preserved.”
The implications seemed clear; the body was that of John Keene, the first man to swing from the hangman’s tree in 1865.
The remains were taken to Ben Brooke Jr., the county coroner at the time. Brooke’s father, Ben Brooke Sr., had been present at Keene’s hanging. As he told it, Keene had died with a broken nose.
Upon inspection, the coroner noted, the corpse now in his possession also had a broken nose. Other details linked the corpse to Keene.
“What we do know for sure is that there was a body found in that backyard, and it was just a few yards up the hill from the location of the hangman’s tree,” Baumler said. “I feel confident there was another burial place back then for people convicted of these crimes, and this area would have been a logical place.”
Jones and her husband don’t believe in ghosts, but when their daughter visits, she hears voices nearby. The former director of the Historic Preservation Office allegedly witnessed a knife fly across the room, even though he was alone. He also found marbles placed about his residence, not unlike those David Hilger and his friend played with under the nearby hangman’s tree so long ago.
Nearby, Judy Littrell and Hector Cano said they, too, have heard and seen things they can’t explain.
“I was lying down in my bed and something woke me up,” Cano said. “Her son was standing in front of me, saying ‘Get away from me! Get away from me!’
“I said, ‘What are you talking about?,’ and when I looked up, I seen this one tall gentleman, bald and all white, with four figures behind him. He was trying to get hold of her son.”
Area resident Jeana White doesn’t believe the stories, but she does believe in the hangman’s tree. Standing on the balcony, she tried to picture it — its dead branches reaching out, its trunk gnarled and worn, the rope-smoothed grooves on its limb.
“I can’t quite picture it because of the way the ground was,” she said. “But I imagine the ground was probably sloped down and the tree came up out of it. It’s kind of weird to think about it.”
John Keene (murder)
Jake Seachriest (robbery)
Tommy Cooke (picking pockets)
Con Kirby (crime unknown)
George Sanders (robbery)
James Daniels (murder)
John “Frenchy” Crouchet (robbery)
Ah Chow (murder)
Arthur L. Compton (robbery and attempted murder)
Joseph Wilson (robbery and attempted murder)
Reporter Martin Kidston: 447-4086 or firstname.lastname@example.org