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1 occurrence of roughing it
[Clear Hits]


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1 occurrence of roughing it
[Clear Hits]




AND sure enough, two or three years afterward, we did
hear of him again. News came to the Pacific coast
that the Vigilance Committee in Montana (whither Slade had
removed from Rocky Ridge) had hanged him. I find an
account of the affair in the thrilling little book I quoted a
paragraph from in the last chapter—“The Vigilantes of Montana;
being a Reliable Account of the Capture, Trial and
Execution of Henry Plummer's Notorious Road Agent Band:
By Prof. Thos. J. Dimsdale, Virginia City, M. T.” Mr.
Dimsdale's chapter is well worth reading, as a specimen of
how the people of the frontier deal with criminals when the
courts of law prove inefficient. Mr. Dimsdale makes two remarks
about Slade, both of which are accurately descriptive,
and one of which is exceedingly picturesque: “Those who
saw him in his natural state only, would pronounce him to be
a kind husband, a most hospitable host and a courteous gentleman;
on the contrary, those who met him when maddened
with liquor and surrounded by a gang of armed roughs, would
pronounce him a fiend incarnate.” And this: “From Fort
Kearney, west, he was feared a great deal more than the Almighty.
For compactness, simplicity and vigor of expression,
I will “back” that sentence against anything in literature.
Mr. Dimsdale's narrative is as follows. In all places where
italics occur, they are mine:

After the execution of the five men on the 14th of January, the Vigilantes
considered that their work was nearly ended. They had freed the


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country of highwaymen and murderers to a great extent, and they determined
that in the absence of the regular civil authority they would establish
a People's Court where all offenders should be tried by judge and jury.
This was the nearest approach to social order that the circumstances permitted,
and, though strict legal authority was wanting, yet the people were
firmly determined to maintain its efficiency, and to enforce its decrees. It
may here be mentioned that the overt act which was the last round on the
fatal ladder leading to the scaffold on which Slade perished, was the tearing
in pieces and stamping upon a writ of this court, followed by his arrest of
the Judge, Alex. Davis, by authority of a presented Derringer, and with his
own hands.

J. A. Slade was himself, we have been informed, a Vigilante; he openly
boasted of it, and said he knew all that they knew. He was never accused,
or even suspected, of either murder or robbery, committed in this Territory
(the latter crime was never laid to his charge, in any place); but that he
had killed several men in other localities was notorious, and his bad reputation
in this respect was a most powerful argument in determining his
fate, when he was finally arrested for the offence above mentioned. On
returning from Milk River he became more and more addicted to drinking,
until at last it was a common feat for him and his friends to “take the
town.” He and a couple of his dependents might often be seen on one
horse, galloping through the streets, shouting and yelling, firing revolvers,
etc. On many occasions he would ride his horse into stores, break up
bars, toss the scales out of doors and use most insulting language to parties
present. Just previous to the day of his arrest, he had given a fearful
beating to one of his followers; but such was his influence over them that
the man wept bitterly at the gallows, and begged for his life with all his
power. It had become quite common, when Slade was on a spree, for the
shop-keepers and citizens to close the stores and put out all the lights;
fearful of some outrage at his hands. For his wanton destruction of goods
and furniture, he was always ready to pay, when sober, if he had money;
but there were not a few who regarded payment as small satisfaction for
the outrage, and these men were his personal enemies.

From time to time Slade received warnings from men that he well
knew would not deceive him, of the certain end of his conduct. There
was not a moment, for weeks previous to his arrest, in which the public
did not expect to hear of some bloody outrage. The dread of his very
name, and the presence of the armed band of hangers-on who followed him
alone prevented a resistance which must certainly have ended in the instant
murder or mutilation of the opposing party.

Slade was frequently arrested by order of the court whose organization
we have described, and had treated it with respect by paying one or two
fines and promising to pay the rest when he had money; but in the transaction
that occurred at this crisis, he forgot even this caution, and goaded by
passion and the hatred of restraint, he sprang into the embrace of death.

Slade had been drunk and “cutting up” all night. He and his companions


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[Description: 504EAF. Page 092. In-line image of a group of fighting men. One man has thrown off his hat and is raving, while another aims a gun at the angered man.]
had made the town a perfect hell. In the morning, J. M. Fox, the sheriff,
met him, arrested him, took him into court and commenced reading a warrant
that he had for his arrest, by way of arraignment. He became uncontrollably
furious, and seizing the writ, he tore it up, threw it on the ground
and stamped upon it.
The clicking of the locks of his companions' revolvers
was instantly heard, and a crisis was expected. The sheriff did not
attempt his retention; but being at least as prudent as he was valiant, he
succumbed, leaving Slade the master of the situation and the conqueror
and ruler of the courts, law and law-makers.
This was a declaration of
war, and was so accepted. The Vigilance Committee now felt that the
question of social order and the preponderance of the law-abiding citizens
had then and there to be decided. They knew the character of Slade, and
they were well aware that they must submit to his rule without murmur,
or else that he must be dealt with in such fashion as would prevent his
being able to wreak his vengeance on the committee, who could never have
hoped to live in the Territory secure from outrage or death, and who could


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never leave it without encountering his friends, whom his victory would
have emboldened and stimulated to a pitch that would have rendered
them reckless of consequences. The day previous he had ridden into
Dorris's store, and on being requested to leave, he drew his revolver
and threatened to kill the gentleman who spoke to him. Another saloon
he had led his horse into, and buying a bottle of wine, he tried to make
the animal drink it. This was not considered an uncommon performance,
as he had often entered saloons and commenced firing at the lamps, causing
a wild stampede.

A leading member of the committee met Slade, and informed him in the
quiet, earnest manner of one who feels the importance of what he is saying:
“Slade, get your horse at once, and go home, or there will be — to pay.”
Slade started and took a long look, with his dark and piercing eyes, at the
gentleman. “What do you mean?” said he. “You have no right to ask
me what I mean,” was the quiet reply, “get your horse at once, and remember
what I tell you.” After a short pause he promised to do so, and actually
got into the saddle; but, being still intoxicated, he began calling aloud to
one after another of his friends, and at last seemed to have forgotten the
warning he had received and became again uproarious, shouting the name
of a well-known courtezan in company with those of two men whom he
considered heads of the committee, as a sort of challenge; perhaps, however,
as a simple act of bravado. It seems probable that the intimation of
personal danger he had received had not been forgotten entirely; though
fatally for him, he took a foolish way of showing his remembrance of it.
He sought out Alexander Davis, the Judge of the Court, and drawing a
cocked Derringer, he presented it at his head, and told him that he should
hold him as a hostage for his own safety. As the judge stood perfectly
quiet, and offered no resistance to his captor, no further outrage followed on
this score. Previous to this, on account of the critical state of affairs, the
committee had met, and at last resolved to arrest him. His execution had
not been agreed upon, and, at that time, would have been negatived, most
assuredly. A messenger rode down to Nevada to inform the leading men
of what was on hand, as it was desirable to show that there was a feeling
of unanimity on the subject, all along the gulch.

The miners turned out almost en masse, leaving their work and forming
in solid column, about six hundred strong, armed to the teeth, they marched
up to Virginia. The leader of the body well knew the temper of his men
on the subject. He spurred on ahead of them, and hastily calling a meeting
of the executive, he told them plainly that the miners meant “business,”
and that, if they came up, they would not stand in the street to be
shot down by Slade's friends; but that they would take him and hang him.
The meeting was small, as the Virginia men were loath to act at all. This
momentous announcement of the feeling of the Lower Town was made to
a cluster of men, who were deliberating behind a wagon, at the rear of a
store on Main street.

The committee were most unwilling to proceed to extremities. All the


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duty they had ever performed seemed as nothing to the task before them;
but they had to decide, and that quickly. It was finally agreed that if the
whole body of the miners were of the opinion that he should be hanged,
that the committee left it in their hands to deal with him. Off, at hot
speed, rode the leader of the Nevada men to join his command.

Slade had found out what was intended, and the news sobered him instantly.
He went into P. S. Pfouts' store, where Davis was, and apologized
for his conduct, saying that he would take it all back.

The head of the column now wheeled into Wallace street and marched up
at quick time. Halting in front of the store, the executive officer of the committee
stepped forward and arrested Slade, who was at once informed of his
doom, and inquiry was made as to whether he had any business to settle.
Several parties spoke to him on the subject; but to all such inquiries he
turned a deaf ear, being entirely absorbed in the terrifying reflections on
his own awful position. He never ceased his entreaties for life, and to see
his dear wife. The unfortunate lady referred to, between whom and Slade
there existed a warm affection, was at this time living at their ranch on the
Madison. She was possessed of considerable personal attractions; tall,
well-formed, of graceful carriage, pleasing manners, and was, withal, an
accomplished horsewoman.

A messenger from Slade rode at full speed to inform her of her husband's
arrest. In an instant she was in the saddle, and with all the energy
that love and despair could lend to an ardent temperament and a strong
physique, she urged her fleet charger over the twelve miles of rough and
rocky ground that intervened between her and the object of her passionate

Meanwhile a party of volunteers had made the necessary preparations
for the execution, in the valley traversed by the branch. Beneath the site
of Pfouts and Russell's stone building there was a corral, the gate-posts of
which were strong and high. Across the top was laid a beam, to which
the rope was fastened, and a dry-goods box served for the platform. To
this place Slade was marched, surrounded by a guard, composing the best
armed and most numerous force that has ever appeared in Montana Territory.

The doomed man had so exhausted himself by tears, prayers and lamentations,
that he had scarcely strength left to stand under the fatal beam.
He repeatedly exclaimed, “My God! my God! must I die? Oh, my dear

On the return of the fatigue party, they encountered some friends of
Slade, staunch and reliable citizens and members of the committee, but who
were personally attached to the condemned. On hearing of his sentence,
one of them, a stout-hearted man, pulled out his handkerchief and walked
away, weeping like a child. Slade still begged to see his wife, most
piteously, and it seemed hard to deny his request; but the bloody consequences
that were sure to follow the inevitable attempt at a rescue, that her
presence and entreaties would have certainly incited, forbade the granting


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of his request. Several gentlemen were sent for to see him, in his last moments,
one of whom (Judge Davis) made a short address to the people; but
in such low tones as to be inaudible, save to a few in his immediate vicinity.
One of his friends, after exhausting his powers of entreaty, threw off his
coat and declared that the prisoner could not be hanged until he himself
was killed. A hundred guns were instantly leveled at him; whereupon he
turned and fled; but, being brought back, he was compelled to resume his
coat, and to give a promise of future peaceable demeanor.

Scarcely a leading man in Virginia could be found, though numbers of
the citizens joined the ranks of the guard when the arrest was made. All
lamented the stern necessity which dictated the execution.

Everything being ready, the command was given, “Men, do your duty,”
and the box being instantly slipped from beneath his feet, he died almost

The body was cut down and carried to the Virginia Hotel, where, in a
darkened room, it was scarcely laid out, when the unfortunate and bereaved
companion of the deceased arrived, at headlong speed, to find that all was
over, and that she was a widow. Her grief and heart-piercing cries were
terrible evidences of the depth of her attachment for her lost husband, and
a considerable period elapsed before she could regain the command of her
excited feelings.

There is something about the desperado-nature that is
wholly unaccountable—at least it looks unaccountable. It is
this. The true desperado is gifted with splendid courage, and
yet he will take the most infamous advantage of his enemy;
armed and free, he will stand up before a host and fight until


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he is shot all to pieces, and yet when he is under the gallows
and helpless he will cry and plead like a child. Words are
cheap, and it is easy to call Slade a coward (all executed men
who do not “die game” are promptly called cowards by unreflecting
people), and when we read of Slade that he “had so
exhausted himself by tears, prayers and lamentations, that he
had scarcely strength left to stand under the fatal beam,” the
disgraceful word suggests itself in a moment—yet in frequently
defying and inviting the vengeance of banded Rocky
Mountain cut-throats by shooting down their comrades and
leaders, and never offering to hide or fly, Slade showed that he
was a man of peerless bravery. No coward would dare that.
Many a notorious coward, many a chicken-livered poltroon,
coarse, brutal, degraded, has made his dying speech without a
quaver in his voice and been swung into eternity with what
looked liked the calmest fortitude, and so we are justified in
believing, from the low intellect of such a creature, that it was
not moral courage that enabled him to do it. Then, if moral
courage is not the requisite quality, what could it have been
that this stout-hearted Slade lacked?—this bloody, desperate,
kindly-mannered, urbane gentleman, who never hesitated to
warn his most ruffianly enemies that he would kill them whenever
or wherever he came across them next! I think it is a
conundrum worth investigating.


“The Vigilantes of Montana,” by Prof. Thos. J. Dimsdale.