Montana hell-raiser Joseph ‘Jack’ Slade was hanged in one of the more troubling incidents of frontier vigilantism. Various accounts say he was killed on March 10, even March 19th. His tombstone states it was March 9, 1864.
Slade stood out even among the many rabble-rousers who inhabited the wild frontier-mining town of Virginia City, Montana. When he was sober, townspeople liked and respected Slade, though there were unconfirmed rumors he had once been a thief and murderer. When drunk, however, Slade had a habit of firing his guns in bars and making idle threats. Though Slade’s rowdiness did not injure anyone, Virginia City leaders anxious to create a more peaceable community began to lose patience. They began giving more weight to the claims that he was a potentially dangerous man.
The year before, many of Virginia City’s leading citizens had formed a semisecret “vigilance committee” to combat the depredations of a road agent named Henry Plummer. Plummer and his gang had robbed and killed in the area, confident that the meager law enforcement in the region could not stop them. Determined to reassert order, the Virginia City vigilantes began capturing and hanging the men in Plummer’s gang. As a warning to other criminals, the vigilantes left a scrap of paper on the hanged corpses with the cryptic numbers “3-7-77.” The meaning of the numbers is unclear, though some claim it referred to the dimensions of a grave: 3 feet wide, 7 feet long, 77 inches deep.
In the first two months of 1864, the Montana vigilantes hanged 24 men, including Plummer. Most historians agree that these hangings, while technically illegal, punished only genuinely guilty men. However, the vigilantes’ decision to hang Jack Slade seems less justified. Finally fed up with his drunken rampages and wild threats, on this day in 1864 a group of vigilantes took Slade into custody and told him he would be hanged. Slade, who had committed no serious crime in Virginia City, pleaded for his life, or at least a chance to say goodbye to his beloved wife. Before Slade’s wife arrived, the vigilantes hanged him.
Not long after the questionable execution of Slade, legitimate courts and prisons began to function in Virginia City. Though sporadic vigilante “justice” continued until 1867, it increasingly attracted public concern. In March 1867, miners in one Montana mining district posted a notice in the local newspaper that they would hang five vigilantes for every one man hanged by vigilantes. Thereafter, vigilante action faded away.
By: Preston Montfort