Wherever people gather in community, there will be crime. Crime comes in waves, the tides often pushed by economic forces, sometimes by envy and quite often, especially in incidents of violence, by alcohol.

Helena has been no exception.

Helena hanged its first murderer in June 1865. The estimated population of Helena then was around 1,000. The man hanged was John Keene, who murdered Henry Slater. If that murder was the only one in Helena that year the murder rate was 100 per 100,000. The population of New York City in 1860, the most populous city in the nation, was 805,651. The city’s coroner reported 100 homicides that year.

On June 23, 1865, at the same time Helena was dealing with its first murder and hanging, Confederate Brigadier General Stand Watie surrendered his regiment, in Oklahoma, the First Cherokee Mounted Rifles, comprised of Cherokee, Creek and Seminole Indians. He was the last Confederate general to surrender.

In 2011, there were two murders in Helena. With the population factored in the rate was seven per 100,000. Some years Helena has had no killings -– a murder rate of zero.

Since 1930, crime reports have been collected by the federal government. Crime rates are reported as the number of incidents per 100,000 people. The smaller the population, the greater weight each event has in the crime rate. Failure to pay attention to population can result in a skewed view of a community’s crime problems.

In the five years following the hanging of John Keene, Helena’s Hanging Tree hosted at least 11 more people. The whole state of Montana has executed three people since 1976. Before 1976, there were 71 executions in Montana.

By way of perspective, recall some other events in the U.S. around the time of Helena’s first hanging. Six months earlier (Nov. 29, 1864), 700 Colorado Territory militiamen attacked a peaceful village of Arapaho and Cheyenne Indians and slaughtered somewhere between 70 and 163, two-thirds of them women and children -- the Sand Creek Massacre. It was a genocidal act.

Helena last put its ponderosa pine Hanging Tree to use in April of 1870 with a double hanging. The two men hanged were Joe Wilson and Arthur Compton, whose crime was beating and robbing an intoxicated rancher. The Helena Weekly Herald was outraged at the robbery and beating: “Search the records of Montanan from its earliest history down to the present time, and a crime the like of this so fiendish, so cold blooded, will find no parallel.”

The hanging of Wilson and Compton did not go well. In a proper hanging the subject’s neck is immediately broken resulting in quick death. One of the men hanged in the double execution, Joe Wilson, struggled for eight minutes before he died of strangulation.

Five years later, a Methodist Episcopal minister cut down the Hanging Tree, claiming that its roots had been undermined and he feared it would fall on his barn. The site where the Helena Hanging Tree once stood is along the back property lines of 521 Hillsdale Street and 538 Highland.

According to national statistics for 2012, your automobile was much less likely to be stolen in Helena, as compared with the national averages. But, you were, statistically speaking, much more likely to be raped.

Trends in Helena’s crime rates show that violent crimes (murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery and aggravated assault) rose from 55 in 1980 to 99 in 2005, an 80 percent increase.

Violent crime rose rapidly in the U.S. in the 1800s, and the homicide rate soared. In the 1840s the U.S. spent more money on law enforcement than any other country, but violent crime continued a steady increase until the late 1930s. Perhaps this is fuel for the argument that throwing money at a problem does not ensure a solution. (It has been posited that one way to lower the crime rate is to cut the number of police officers, which would surely cut the number of arrests, lowering the crime rate.)

Nationally, the violent crime rate has been in a steady decline since 1993, when it was 747 per 100,000, compared to about 387 per 100,000 in 2012. But population plays a big part. The population of Helena in 2005 was around 27,500. The U.S. population was 296.5 million.

Over the longer term, however, according to a 2011 Carnegie Mellon University study, “Since the early 1900s, the homicide rate has been on the rise in America. Today, Americans have a higher risk of being murdered than do any other first-world democracies.”  

The vigilante spirit of early Montana is celebrated, but today such actions would be capital crimes.

The most renowned employment of street justice, vigilante law enforcement, was by the group that assembled during the first five weeks of 1864  to round up those they deemed responsible for criminal acts in the gold camps. There were no trials. The group hanged at least 21, including a rogue sheriff, Henry Plummer, who was alleged to have been responsible for several stagecoach robberies.

In 1864, the first federal judge appointed for the territory viewed the Vigilantes with some sympathy. The Vigilantes “assumed the delicate and responsible office of purging society of all offenders against its peace, happiness and safety,” said Judge Hezekiah Hosmer.

The hanging of James Daniels on March 2, 1866 is a good example of how flexible the rule of law was in Helena’s early days.

Daniels was convicted of manslaughter for killing Andrew Gartley in a poker game in a saloon. The two men got in a fight over allegations that Gartley was cheating. Gartley pulled a gun, Daniels pulled a knife, and Gartley was stabbed to death.

Daniels’ trial was held in Virginia City. He was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison and a $1,000 fine (the equivalent of $15,000 in 2014).

The territorial governor, Thomas Francis Meagher, set Daniels’ sentence aside, and he was released after serving only three weeks in prison. Daniels returned to Helena, bent on revenge, but he was hanged by a mob an hour after his return. 

Famous madams 

In addition to the rough-and-tumble culture of its early mining days, Helena has a history of providing goods and services that are viewed with a jaundiced eye and today are crimes in every state except Nevada.

Prostitution arrived in Helena early. The city’s first well-known madam arrived in Helena in 1867. Known in Helena as Chicago Joe, she also went by the names Josephine Airey and Josephine Hensley. Joe was born on Jan. 1, 1844 in Ireland. Her given name was Mary Welch. She had lived and worked in the red-light district of Chicago during the Civil War.

Joe was successful in her work as a madam in Helena despite the Montana Legislature’s unsuccessful attempts to outlaw her profession with an attempt to legislate morals in 1885. The Legislature passed an anti-hurdy-gurdy law (a musical instrument common in dance halls and saloons of the period). One crusading prosecutor was quoted as describing the dance halls such as Joe’s as “establishments wherein men’s souls are lured to the shores of sin by the combined seductive influences of wine, women and dance.”

Helena’s Chicago Joe, however, was a clever business woman and managed to evade all attempts to destroy her business. It took the economic collapse of the 1890s to ruin her. She died in 1899.

Helena’s last well-known madam set up shop in Helena in the mid-1950s. She was born in 1916 and graduated from Great Falls High School in 1933. Her given name was Dorothy Putnam. She became known as Big Dorothy in her professional endeavors.

Her establishment on Last Chance Gulch was known as Dorothy’s Rooms, but the rooms were not used as residences. Big Dorothy had taken over the business from another madam, Ida Levy, who had opened her bordello in 1927. Big Dorothy engaged in the means of establishing and maintaining community support — comparable to the practice of public relations today — by donating generously to local charities, including those run by churches and law enforcement.

Dorothy’s downfall arrived on the heels of federal assistance and was spurred on by a persistent county attorney, Thomas Dowling. She was awarded a $500 federal urban renewal grant in 1972 to help her refurbish her building. Dowling had tried to close her down earlier with a restraining order, but Dorothy kept on going. The federal grant put Dorothy’s business in the public spotlight.  

Two undercover investigators visited Dorothy’s Rooms. One of the officers paid $20 for a woman to take off clothes and roll around on a bed. County Attorney Dowling’s efforts were successful and police raided Dorothy’s Rooms on April 17. 1973. Dorothy died in a hospital 27 days later in Great Falls.

On the day Big Dorothy died, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of equal rights for women in the military in the case Frontiero v. Richardson.

Eleven days after police raided Dorothy’s rooms, the northern California town of Antelope was leveled when a hot brake shoe set a rail car alight, setting off thousands of 500-pound bombs. The explosions and fires continued for 32 hours. The accident resulted in the passage of the Transportation Safety Act of 1974.

Local reaction to Dowling’s attack on Big Dorothy was mixed, but a lot of it favored Dorothy. In one letter to the editor of the Helena Independent, a woman cited her father’s statement about it: “A town without a whorehouse is a stupid place to live.”

Dowling was said to have the “asinine morality of a pipsqueak.”

Gang activity

As the Roaring 20s came to a close, and the Great Depression began, organized crime was big news nationally. On Feb. 14, 1929, gangsters working for Al Capone executed seven gangsters who worked for Bugs Moran. It is perhaps the best known gang incident in American history — the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

The prohibition of alcohol had created the fertile soil for the rise of gangsters. Prohibition had been in effect nationally for a decade and would continue for four more years.

In October 1929, the New York Stock Market crashed. It was called Black Tuesday. What followed was the decadelong Great Depression.

Helena had its own gangland incidents in 1929, starting June 18  with the robbery of the Ronan State Bank. The robbers got away with $3,000 ($41,666 in today’s dollars).

The gang that was believed to have robbed the banks was comprised of Easton Boone and Martin Jensen (who went inside the bank wearing masks) and wheel men Martin Ernst and Joe Brennan. Other members of the gang were Tom Martin (older and believed to be the brains of the outfit), Floyd Grote and Robert Bowers. Also associated with the gang, described unkindly by historians as a “floozy,” was Breenan’s wife, Bobby Kelly. Kelly’s given name was Margaret Kelly.

The gang went on a crime spree that included a second bank robbery (the Missouri State Bank), strong armed robbery, dance hall robberies and highway robberies. The Montana Bankers Association offered a $2,000 reward for “dead bank robbers.”

All but two members of the gang were captured. It took a jury just 10 minutes to convict Martin and he was sent away for 50 years.

The “floozy,” Bobby Baker, was shot to death in Helena on Dec. 2, 1929, in an apartment on South Main. The headline about the incident read: “Gang Gun Silences Girl.” She knew too much. A bootlegger was tried for the crime, but he was not convicted.

Baker was buried at the Forestvale Cemetary in Helena. Her simple gravestone reads “Margaret Kelly 1907-1929."

Crime today

Helena today has not suffered from some of the crimes that have dominated the nation’s attention, such as mass school shootings or terrorist incidents, though John W. Aills killed one person and wounded another during a 1990 shooting at Carroll College.

Since 2004 the numbers of crimes in most categories have been level or even dropped a little.

In 2004 there were six arson cases in Helena. In 2012, 11.

In 2004 there were 37 auto thefts in Helena. In 2012, 89.

In 2004 there were 23 rapes in Helena. In 2012, 26.

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Terence Corrigan can be reached at terence.corrigan@helenair.com


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