Don’t cross him, don’t boss him
He’s wild in his sorrow
— Willie Nelson, The Red Headed Stranger
Jack Slade (1) was hanged at Virginia City – in what was then Idaho Territory– by the local Committee of Vigilance on March 10, 1864. According to Frederick Allen’s tabulation, Slade was the 23rd (of a total of 57) outlaws strung-up by the committee over the course of its half-dozen-year-long period of activity.(2) What’s interesting about Slade’s execution – at least from an alcohol history perspective – is that he’d committed no capital crime. Slade, by most accounts, was simply a bad drunk, a hellraiser, and also oftentimes, when in his cups, an insufferable bully. Nathanial Pitt Langford, an early chronicler of this vigilante movement – in an area that became part of the new Montana Territory in May, 1864 – closed his chapter on Slade by quoting a friend’s lamentation on the man (3):
“Slade was unquestionably a most useful man in his time to the stage line, and to the cause of progress in the Far West, and he never was a robber, as some have represented; but after years of contention with desperate men, he became so reckless and regardless of human life that his best friends must concede that he was at times a most dangerous character, and no doubt, by his defiance of the authority and wholesome discipline of the Vigilantes, brought upon himself the calamity which he suffered.”
Frederick Allen’s recent and excellent monograph on the same vigilante movement quotes the account of an eleven-year-old girl, Molly Sheehan, regarding one of Slade’s drunken episodes (4):
I was alarmed by a clatter past me of horse’s hooves and the crack of pistol shots. A man galloping his horse recklessly down the street was firing a six-shooter in the air and whooping wildly. Suddenly he reared his horse back on its haunches, turned it sharply, and forced it through the swinging door of a saloon. I sidled into the first open doorway that I dared enter. “That’s Slade,” said the storekeeper, “on one of his sprees, shootin’ up the town, scarin’ women and children. That smart aleck orter be strung up.” He led me out the back door and warned me to run home quickly and stay out of range of stray bullets. “He’ll get his needin’s yit,” he threatened.
Langford wrote of the power of alcohol over Slade – and, as well, of the man’s charm, courage, and indisputable talent as a frontier packer (5):
As with all men of ardent temperament, his habits of drinking, by long indulgence, had passed by his control. He was subject to fits of occasional intoxication, and these, unfortunately, became so frequent that seldom a week passed unmarked by the occurrence of one or more scenes of riot, in which he was the chief actor. Liquor enkindled all the evil aspects of his volcanic nature. He was as reckless and ungovernable as a maniac under its influence, but even those who had suffered outrage at his hands during these explosive periods, were disarmed of hostility by his gentle amiable deportment, and readiness always to make reparation on the return of sobriety. His fits of rowdyism, moreover, always left him a determined business man, with an aim and purpose in life. As a remarkable manifestation of this latter quality, soon after he went to Montana, a steamboat freighted with good from St. Louis, unable from low water to ascend the Missouri to Fort Benton, had discharged her cargo at Milk River, in a country filled with hostile Indians; and Slade was the only man to be found in the mines willing to encounter the risk of carrying the goods by teams to their place of destination in the Territory. The distance was seven hundred miles, full half of which was unmarked by a road. The several bands of Blackfeet occupied the country on the north, and Sioux on the south. Slade collected a company of teamsters, led them to the spot, and returned safely with the goods, meeting with adventures enough on the way to fill a volume.
Yet Slade’s luck ultimately ran out. Not all of the good citizens of Virginia City approved of Slade’s hanging. The vigilance committee however continued thereafter with its gruesome task. The vigilantes filled a law enforcement vacuum created by the newness and rapidly expanding populations of the mining settlements of Bannack, Nevada City, and Virginia City. This area’s long travel distance from Lewiston, the Idaho Territory’s first capital, across the rugged Sawtooth mountain range, also contributed to its lawlessness and to the helplessness felt by the local respectable citizenry. If matters were not bad enough already, Bannack’s sheriff, the notorious Henry Plummer, was one of the first outlaws and ringleaders hanged by the vigilantes when their committee commenced its righteous campaign.
So pressing was the felt need for extra-legal law enforcement in the 1860s that this vigilante movement is still fondly remembered with respect and reverence in today’s Montana. As Allen recounts (6):
To this day, the men who banded together and killed the sheriff are revered as great heroes in Montana. The shoulder patch worn by members of the Montana Highway Patrol bears the numerals 3-7-77, the mysterious warning the vigilantes posted on doors or tent flaps when they wanted to drive someone into exile. A high school in Helena, the state capital, calls its football field Vigilante Stadium and its yearbook The Vigilante. Bozeman has a Vigilante theater company. Several of the vigilante leaders went on to successful careers as legislators, lawmen, governors, and judges. One was a founder of Creighton University, another served as U.S. Senator when Montana achieved statehood. Their exploits have been written about by authors of every stripe, from hacks to Mark Twain, and even caught the attention of Charles Dickens.
What shall we make of the execution of Jack Slade, the very rowdy drunk? One perspective, offered in Allen’s book,(7) suggests the hanging could have been avoided if Virginia City had been equipped with a proper jail. New and rapidly growing mining towns in the West often lacked such facilities. Banishment wasn’t always a reliable option either; bad men sometimes returned to their old haunts after a several-month hiatus.
Another clue to justification for Slade’s hanging doubtless resides in young Molly Sheehan’s account, with its warning from the storekeeper to hasten home and avoid stray bullets. Once a business elite, women, and children became part of burgeoning mining towns, the perceived threat posed by drunken escapades and the heedless use of firearms increased sharply. As Langford’s correspondent put it, “…he became so reckless and regardless of human life that even his best friends must concede…” that he brought his demise upon himself. I suspect that still another factor was at work too. Early mining communities sorted themselves into two discernable population subgroups: namely, the collegium of the respectable and the collegium of the not-respectable. The vigilante movement acted on behalf of the former against the latter, not always bothering overly much about the specifics of whatever offense against public order prompted their deadly response. Jack Slade started out on the right side of this divide but ultimately drifted irretrievably to the other side.
The hanging of Jack Slade sheds an oblique light on the circumstances of the western frontier that helped animate the American temperance movement in the mid-19th century. Repeated drunkenness combined with wild whooping and heedless pistol shooting could even become — at least in Slade’s singular case — a death-penalty offense. Langford’s account added a final touch of irony to Slade’s violent end. “The body,” he wrote, “was placed in a tin coffin filled with alcohol and conveyed to the ranche, where it remained until the following spring, when it was taken to Salt Lake City and buried in the cemetery.” (8)
(1) On Slade’s name: Nathanial Pitt Langford (see note 3) referred to Slade as “Joseph A. Slade”; Frederick Allen (see note 2) noted in passing that Slade’s given name might have been “James,” “John,” or “most likely” “Joseph.” Noted western journalist, Adam Aulbach, however, called him “Jack,” the name I’ve employed in this piece (Aulbach, “I Saw Them Hang Jack Slade!” The Journal: Official Publication of the Western Outlaw-Lawman History Association, 2(2):5-9, 13, (Fall) 1992.
(2) Frederick Allen, A Decent Orderly Lynching: The Montana Vigilantes, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 3004, pp. 365-366.
(3) Nathanial Pitt Langford, Vigilante Days and Ways: The Pioneers of the Rockies: The Makers and Making of Montana and Idaho, Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co., 1912, p. 462.
(4) Allen, p. 274.
(5) Langford, pp. 450-451.
(6) Allen, p. xvi.
(7) Allen, pp. 278-279.
(8) Langford, p. 461.