Saturday, June 20, 2015

Helena: The Hanging Tree, Part l

Law was slow in coming to the Montana gold camps in the mid-1800s. The gold rushes brought a myriad of unsavory lawless characters into Montana territory.

Panning for gold/
With no law enforcement present “miner’s courts” were established but they were ill-equipped to handle the crimes that occurred in these wild camps and settlements.

The result was vigilantes took the law into their own hands. In the span of a few short months, from late 1863 to early 1864 vigilantes hung two- dozen men.

Helena in 1871.
Helena, Montana one of these early settlements was known for its Hanging Tree or "Murderer’s Tree" as it was known. More than 11 men were hanged on this tree from 1865 till 1870.

This ancient large Ponderosa pine stood east of the settlement at the head of Dry Gulch. Its bare massive lower branches--twenty feet above the ground-- reached out in a tangle.

Hanging Tree.
The Hanging of Compton and Wilson.
Click to enlarge
Montana Historical Society

Twelve-year-old Mary “Molly” Sheehan, later to become Mrs. Peter Ronan recalled coming upon one of these hangings on her way to school in 1865. At the age of 70, she described the sight--it being fresh in her memory--something she could not forget.

It was:

Mary Ronan's book,
Girl From the Gulches.
“A 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.”

This body was left hanging for three days as a warning to others.

David Hilger was a youngster when his family moved to Helena in 1867. He recalls climbing the Hanging Tree’s dead branches where rope burns were evident on the lower limbs.

He and his friends played marbles under this tree. One afternoon in 1870 as they played their game, it was interrupted.

Arthur Compton and Joseph Wilson were about to be lynched by an angry mob for robbery and attempted murder.

George Leonard, their victim, was a quiet German who lived near Bear Creek along the Missouri River. Leonard had traveled to Helena to buy supplies.

He stopped off in Reed’s Saloon for a few drinks. Compton and Wilson rented horses and watched and waited.

At 6:00 p.m., Leonard headed home on his horse. Compton and Wilson waylaid him at Spokane Creek. They fired seven times, hitting him only once in the hip.

When Leonard fell from his horse they pistol-whipped him around the head and left him for dead.

But Leonard did not die. David Hilger recounts an angry mob fueled by vigilantes approached the courthouse where the two men were confined.

The crowd forced their way in and took the two men to the steps of the courthouse where they conducted an impromptu trial.

“. . . All those in favor of taking Joseph Wilson and Arthur Compton and hanging them forthwith will signify by saying aye.”

Hilger remembered:

“I never in my life heard such a motion carried with such force and it seemed the ‘ayes’ could have been heard at the top of Mount Helena.”

The two men’s fate was sealed. They were marched to the Hanging Tree, where they were put in a wagon standing on a dry-goods box. Their hands and feet were bound together. Then they were asked if they had any final words.

Wilson remained silent, standing 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 because his knees were shaking.

Then the "all ready" was given and with a quick stroke of a horse’s back, the wagon lunged forward. The two men’s bodies were swinging in the air.

Compton’s neck was broken in the fall, but Wilson was not so lucky. The noose had slipped to the back of his neck, and he died of strangulation. Both men were pronounced dead after fifteen minutes.

The Vigilante hanging of Compton and Wilson.
Click to enlarge
The crowd did not disperse until the bodies were cut down and buried. Compton and Wilson were the last two to be hanged on this tree. Future executions were done on the gallows at the courthouse.

Afterward, David and his friends went back to playing marbles under the tree.

A photograph of this hanging hung in the hallway of the local Jefferson Elementary School for years as a reminder to the students “crime doesn’t pay.”

In Part ll of Helena: The Hanging Tree, the tree is chopped down, and a new eyewitness account of a ghost sighting is shared along with more recent sightings. All are scary.

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