VIRGINIA CITY (AP)
Researcher says he’s found origin but still doesn’t know what numbers mean.
— Journalist and historian Rick Allen says he has tracked down the origin of the mysterious numbers associated with the Montana vigilantes — 3-7-77 — but he still doesn’t know what they mean.
The numbers have no connection to the original band of vigilantes that hanged 27 men in 1864 to clear the countryside of thieves, road agents and murderers, Allen says. He believes the numbers come, instead, from a second vigilante movement 15 years later.
Allen, a former political editor of the Atlanta Constitution and CNN commentator, made his claim in an article in the spring issue of “Montana, The Magazine of Western History.” He reached his conclusion while researching a book on Henry Plummer and Montana’s vigilante era.
No one has unearthed an authoritative explanation for 3-7-77, but theories abound. The numbers have been called the dimensions of a grave, or the amount of time vigilantes gave undesirables to get out of town. Some said they were somehow associated with the Masons.
The 3-7-77 numbers have been part of the Montana Highway Patrol’s shoulder patch and car door insignia since 1956 as a tribute to the “first people’s police force.”
Allen believes the first mention of 3-7-77 appeared in newspapers in November 1879, following the murder of a liquor salesman and the trial of his killer. The numbers were posted on fences and walls around Helena.
The period had been relatively crime-free, but a new element of undesirables was beginning to drift into the area, and some newspaper editors recalled favorably the exploits of the earlier vigilante movement. Then, Allen said, the robbery of the Henry Elling bank in Virginia City on July 30, 1879, opened the door to a resurgence of vigilantism.
None of the usual explanations for 3-7-77 satisfied Allen. But a small article in an old newspaper about a price war between two stagecoach lines gave him his favored theory. It said the price of the ticket between Helena and Butte had dropped from $8 to $3 and the stage left at 7 a.m.
So, suggesting someone clear out of town in a hurry could have been expressed as 3-7, Allen believes.
“There’s no way that I could prove that’s what it is,” he said. “But it does seem feasible. I still don’t have an explanation for what the 77 means.
“I do believe the numbers were meant to evoke the spirit of the original vigilantes,” Allen said. “I think they were meant to be mysterious. An inside joke, if you will.”
Allen hopes his articles help unlock the mystery. He believes someone’s attic or basement holds an old diary of one of the instigators of 3-7-77.
“I’m wide open to being proven wrong,” he said. “I’m not sure that anyone has ever made a similar assertion. I just can’t find any evidence that the numbers were used before 1879. I think that’s a surprise to a lot of people.”