Old Montana Justice Was Swift, Deadly Research Into Hangings A Contrast To Today’s Death Row Cases
Justice was swift for 25-year-old Philip “Slim” Coleman, who was hanged in the Missoula County Jail on Sept. 10, 1943, less than seven weeks after a murder he committed during a robbery.
Coleman was the 70th, by one historical account, and the most recent person to die by legal execution in Montana. All were hanged.
It was the state’s speediest execution ever, county officials said at the time. Coleman was arrested and charged July 26, the day after the murder; was arraigned and pleaded guilty Aug. 2 and the next day was sentenced to hang.
“In all, only 47 days elapsed from the time of the murder to the springing of the gallows trap,” The Daily Missoulian reported, continuing a Montana tradition of swift and deadly retribution.
In sharp contrast is Duncan Peder McKenzie Jr., who on May 10 is scheduled to be the 71st person to die by execution and who, according to his lawyer, has been on death row longer than any other inmate in America.
McKenzie, 43, was condemned for the 1974 kidnapping and torture murder of Conrad-area school teacher Lana Harding, 23. His original execution date was 20 years ago today; appeals in state and federal courts long ago pushed that date into obscurity.
Slim Coleman pleaded guilty in the brutal stabbing death of Rosalyn Pearson and was implicated in the bludgeoning death of her husband, Carl, at their home at Lothrop, 24 miles west of Missoula, on July 25, 1943.
Not until 1983 did Montana add lethal injection - the means chosen by Duncan McKenzie - as an alternative to hanging for those sentenced to death.
Coleman was pegged by Robert G. Raffety as the 70th person legally executed in Montana. Raffety’s 1968 University of Montana master’s thesis on capital punishment has been the only attempt at a comprehensive listing of hangings - legal and otherwise - that took place in Montana since the vigilantes imposed frontier justice in the gold-rush towns of Bannack and Virginia City.
According to prominent Montana pioneer Granville Stuart, the first person to be hanged in Montana was C.W. Spillman. He died Aug. 26, 1862, at American Fork, a small settlement on Gold Creek near Drummond, the site of Montana’s first recorded gold strike four years earlier.
A year later, Aug. 25, 1863, the outlaw sheriff of Bannack, Henry Plummer, hanged “in legal form” John Horan for murder. Horan was a member of Plummer’s criminal gang, and it wouldn’t be long before Plummer himself would face the gallows.
The 1862-63 gold rush to Bannack and Virginia City brought a considerable population to a remote area where no government exercised any real authority.
“From mid-1862 until the end of 1863, anyone who traveled this area literally risked life and limb,” historians Michael Malone, Richard Roeder and William Lang said in their book, “Montana: A History of Two Centuries.”
“Most of the disorder arose from a violent gang of road agents who followed the gold rush over the Bitterroots from the mining camps around Lewiston, Idaho. Their leader was Henry Plummer, one of the most amazing of Western outlaws.”
Plummer and his gang of about 30 desperadoes - who called themselves the “Innocents” - are believed to have killed more than 100 people between the winters of 1862 and 1864. In reaction to the violence, local businessmen formed a “vigilance committee,” modeled after a similar group in San Francisco in the early 1850s. Its members were called vigilantes, a Spanish word for watchman or guard.
They broke the back of the Innocents, obtaining a list of their names from one outlaw and hanging every member they could find - a total that ranges from 24 to 30 in various historical narratives.
Henry Plummer was strung up on Jan. 10, 1864, at Bannack.
But the vigilantes weren’t always careful about whom they hanged. There were numerous lynchings with little or no evidence of guilt. In one instance a luckless traveler en route from Bannack to Salt Lake City overtook and rode alongside a man who turned out to be a horse thief. Vigilantes who were trailing the thief hanged both men.
Raffety, in his 1968 thesis, documented 84 lynchings in Montana since territorial days, along with his tally of 70 legal hangings. He found, however, that inadequate records, uneven newspaper coverage and discrepancies in historical literature made it impossible to compile a complete list of vigilante hangings in Montana.