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"Higgins Family Tragedy" Part 1 - Fire / Murder / Suicide

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Missoula Fires and the Higgins Family

Missoula has had several destructive fires beginning shortly after the founding of the city in 1865. Its first experience with a large destructive fire occurred in 1884 and it would not be the last. This and several other city fires were described as being incendiary in nature, although the perpetrators were never caught. Several notable early Missoula fires that were considered criminal acts involved the Higgins family or their businesses, and resulted in losses of life that bore heavily on Missoula’s sense of innocence. One of these big fires caused the Higgins family to suffer their third recent family tragedy. Fires did not discriminate between the best and the worst of Missoula.

Missoula’s early chronicler Frank Woody told the story of Missoula’s 1st big fire in Leeson’s Montana History[1]:

1884 Fires – 22 buildings

“The Missoula fire of September 2, 1884, destroyed 22 buildings. The total loss was $30,000, with insurance of $15,000. Worden and Co. lose eight buildings, valued at $13,000, including the First National Bank Building. The contents of the bank vault was uninjured. The fire started in Leber’s bowling alley, and is supposed to have been of incendiary origin. Another attempt to burn Missoula was made the same night. A pile of oil-soaked kindling ignited in a stable near the burned district, was extinguished without damage. A strong force of extra police patrolled the town for some time. The sweeping away of old landmarks of trade has been more than compensated for by the erection of the pretentious buildings which mark the progress of the city. One of the illustrations in this work is a view of the old Worden block.” [2]

Another description of this fire’s effect can be found in the Missoula Downtown Historic District document from the National Register of Historic Places. Part of the fire’s destruction included the Brick Block which was built in 1871 – 1872 at the NW corner of Main St. and Higgins Ave. Frank Woody referred to this as the Worden block in his article above. The Brick Block defined Missoula’s transition from a wood-front, rag-tag frontier town, to a permanent small city that benefitted from serious investments. The Block included 3 stores that featured brick archways and “elliptical fan-shaped windows” that presented a “graceful arched pattern.” The 3 burned businesses were Frank Worden’s general store, the Higgins owned Missoula 1st National Bank, and J. P. Reinhard’s Liquor, Grocery, and saddlery store.

“The Brick Block was destroyed in the fire of 1884 and was replaced by the Daily Block in the late 1880s. It was the home of the D.J. Hennessy Store and later the Donohue Store. That building was torn down and replaced by the Montgomery Ward Store in the fall of 1935. That building now houses the First National Bank and has recently undergone an exterior restoration.” [3]

A second large fire destroyed another part of downtown Missoula in 1892. At least 20 buildings were burned or damaged in this August, 1892 fire along the first two blocks on West Front Street. Subsequent to this spectacular fire, the tragic killing of a son of the Higgins family occurred. Volunteer Maurice Higgins was shot in cold blood on a downtown street corner after tending to ashes of the fire. He would die some hours later. Speculation about the motives for Maurice’s murder charged Missoula’s atmosphere for weeks and his murder resulted in a well-publicized trial that culminated in the public hanging of the offender. Invitations to the perpetrator’s hanging still exist.

Rather than generally summarizing the news coverage of this incident, presented below are several fascinating news articles from area newspapers regarding this tragedy. The writing of these reports presents an unusual view of the city, local journalists, and the Higgins family.

The Anaconda Standard newspaper which employed a local Missoula correspondent published a remarkable account of this Missoula fire on August 15, 1892.[4] Referring to Missoula’s Red Light District, the local correspondent stated one of the buildings burned was considered a “standing disgrace to the town . . . Nobody but the owner and inmates were sorry to see it go.”

The entire Anaconda Standard article is quoted below:

Fire Gets In Its Work

Forty Thousand Dollars Worth of Property Goes Up in Smoke.

Missoula The Sufferer

Sixteen Buildings Burned on the Principal Business Street of the City – No Loss of Life.

Special Dispatch to the Standard.

Missoula, Aug. 14. – The most disastrous fire in the history of this city broke out here about 6:45 o’clock tonight. Before the firemen could get the flames under control 16 buildings on Front street had been burned to ashes and $40,000 worth of property had gone up in smoke.

Tonight’s conflagration demonstrates beyond a question that Missoula possesses one of the most efficient and gallant volunteer fire departments in the Rocky mountain region. For more than two hours brave firemen fought valiantly against awful clouds of fire and smoke that filled the streets. Never once did they falter in true, noble work. To their remarkable exertions and bravery alone may be credited the fact that the main part of the business portion of Missoula is not now in ashes. It was an awful fire from the moment the alarm was rung until the minute when the firemen announced that they had the flames completely under control. It is quite certain that nobody was hurt.

At 7:45 the fire alarm called the people to Front street. Already flames were bursting in great volumes from the roof and front of the Blue Front saloon, a two-story frame building standing on the south side of Front street, opposite Stevens street. The wind was blowing strongly from the west and carrying the flames toward the middle of the city. From the Blue Front the fire went into a shack used as a Chinese laundry, then into the Woodbine saloon and building adjoining, thence to Jim Lee’s laundry, and in less than two minutes after the alarm sounded they were all in flames. It was evident that Johnson & Daily’s livery stable was doomed, and as soon as the fire broke out the men commenced bringing out the horses, carriages and harness. Soon the old frame building that formerly constituted the stable was in flames; then the fire got into the brick stable adjoining, and shortly dense volumes of smoke were pouring out of it. The next building was the Louvre saloon, a two-story brick with furnished rooms up-stairs. The next building was a little one-story brick, occupied by the Palace restaurant and Lovering’s saloon. There the fire was checked on its way east. Already everybody had moved out of the rooms in the Schilling block and Exchange building, and many had left the Florence hotel and Hammond block. It looked for a time as if the main business portion of town was doomed, but good work done on the east wall of the Louvre and the west wall of the Schilling block stopped further progress that way. But from the Blue Front and the Woodbine saloons the heat had been so intense that the Rogers house had caught fire. Time after time the firemen turned their hose on that old landmark, but they were trying to save more valuable property and could not give it enough attention, and soon it was a roaring mass of flames. The little annex occupied by Morris Schlossberg’s pawn shop also went, as did Bingas’ restaurant and Peters tailor shop. J. S. Leiser’s new block was also damaged. The brick part of the Rogers house soon commenced to smoke and guests in the Missoula hotel felt nervous, but fire was not permitted to reach that fine structure, being stopped in the alley. In spite of the wind, the fire had gone west from the Blue Front saloon also. Hayes’ blacksmith shop was the first sufferer. It was soon a mass of hot coals. Then came several one-story shacks used partly by Chinese laundries.

The next was the “Star and Crescent,” one of the oldest houses of ill fame in the row, and a standing disgrace to the town. Nobody but the owner and inmates were sorry to see it go. Then a brick building occupied partly by “No., Eleven,” a house of ill fame, and partly by Chinese. It helped check the flames and the Solomon building occupied by the Office saloon and Shamrock house of ill fame was not damaged except by water. Andy Schilling across the street lost about $500 in broken plate glass windows. It is impossible to get the exact losses and insurance at this time. It is generally understood that the buildings of the poorer classes were well insured.

It is estimated that the losses are as follows: Mrs. Kate H. McCormick, two-story brick, $2,000; Annie Meyer’s “Star and Crescent” building, $1,500; shacks, including Woodbine and Blue Front saloons and Chinese laundries, about $5,000; C. F. Hawks livery stable, $1,300, insurance from $1,000 to $2,000; Johnson & Daily, sleighs, hacks, hay, etc., $4,000, insurance $3,000; Joseph Pelikan, Louvre building, $9,000, fixtures and furniture $14,000, insurance $7,000. H. Kohn’s building occupied Palace restaurant and Dovering’s saloon sustained a small loss. Dovering’s loss in fixtures and stock is unknown as yet, Rodger’s hotel $3,000, insurance $2,500; furniture $2,000, insurance $1,000; Lawrence Peter’s building, $250; W. J. Stephen’s building, occupied by Binga’s restaurant, $250; Morris Schlossberg’s pawn shop stock, loss unknown.

It has been expected for years that a disastrous fire would take place in that part of town. Nearly all buildings were the oldest in town, perfect fire traps, and the only wonder is they did not go sooner. While most of them were of small value, they rented well, being so well located and were a source of considerable revenue to their owners. List of losses will probably have to be raised somewhat as most of those given are estimated by real estate men and others.

A pathetic incident occurred during the fire in the basement of Johnson and Daily’s livery barn. A bull dog bitch was housed with 11 puppies. After howling, because enveloped in flames, the bitch came out of the barn carrying in her mouth one of her puppies. She returned to her nest for another of her offspring, but only to find that flames had cut off her retreat. She then deliberately lay down with her 10 puppies and allowed the flames to burn her up. Efforts were made to coax her from her nest, but she paid no attention, she calmly caressed her pups until she suffocated.

The following day, August 16, 1892 another article in the Anaconda Standard newspaper told of the shooting of two young Missoula men in conjunction with this tragic Missoula fire:[5]

A Dastard’s Deed

Two Men Shot Down in Cold Blood

Killed Without Cause

Maurice Higgins and Paul Goldenbargen[6] the Victims.

Arrest of the Murderer

The Perpetrator of An Awful Crime in the Care of the Sheriff – Talk of a Lynching Bee

Special Dispatch to the Standard

Missoula, Aug. 15. – Two men shot down in cold blood by a murderous wretch, whose miserable life remains in him only because an outraged public has preferred to abide by the law rather than to avenge it wrongs by force; another black chapter is added to Missoula county’s criminal history – a chapter so black that others pale by comparison. There are no extenuating circumstances.

The murderer was not drunk; he did not commit the deed in self-defense; he was not even insulted - because one man had had his partner arrested for stealing, he deliberately shot him down, and because another dared to protest against his fiendish act, as it is believed, he sent a bullet through his brain.

Maurice Higgins is now cold in death, and Paul Goldenbargen lies in the Sister’s hospital suffering, from a wound which may prove fatal, but which the physicians trust will not. It is an awful thing and the community asks “What next?” “What may we expect when a stranger may come among us and kill our neighbors like this?”

John Burns, as he calls himself, the cowardly wretch, on whose head rises this crime, is now behind bars. He does not appear to care very much. He does not care that he has bereft a mother of another son and that he has caused to be flashed over the wire to an eastern home a message that will carry sadness to the hearts of all its inmates. He is too hard to care.

The terrible tragedy occurred at almost exactly 4 o’clock this morning.
A Standard reporter, who was on the opposite side of the street in the Florence hotel, heard the shots, and a moment later saw the murderer run around the corner of the Hammond block, on Higgins avenue, and in the direction of the bridge which crosses the Missoula river. But two shots were fired; they came in remarkably quick succession; not more than two seconds could have elapsed between the first and second shot. There was no time for deadly aim, but the effect of the bullets proved that the murderer was an expert marksman. Running across the street, the reporter found the apparently lifeless bodies of two men lying in front of the Exchange saloon and gambling house. Maurice Higgins, a handsome and powerful young man, about 22 years of age, was lying upon his side, his head almost upon the outer edge of the sidewalk, his feet in the direction of the saloon door. From a bullet hole in his forehead the blood was oozing. He did not appear to be breathing and the five or six men who stood around pronounced him stone dead.

Eight feet from Higgins’ feet and alongside of the wall of the saloon under the window lay the body of the other man, Paul Goldenbargen, a German, about 23 years of age. He had been shot in the left arm, and the bullet passing through his arm into his side and through his lungs. He was breathing but was unconscious. Physicians were hastily summoned, and Mayor Frank Higgins, brother of one of the wounded men, arrived in a few minutes after and had Maurice taken to his home. Goldenbargen’s friends took him in charge.

The real cause of the shooting is not easily learned. The most plausible and probably the truthful history of the terrible crime is this: Two Strangers were in the Exchange last night and met Paul Goldenbargen who runs a small shoe shop on Main street. The men had a dispute of some sort and about 4 o’clock this morning Goldenbargen approached Officer Bindour[7] and asked him to arrest one of the two strange men saying he had stolen a ring from him, Goldenbargen. The officer went to the Exchange saloon and placed the fellow under arrest and took him to the city jail. Arrived at the jail the officer thinking nothing could be proved against the prisoner, and finding no stolen property on him, turned Rucken loose, and told him to get out of town as quickly as possible. While returning from the jail and when only about a block from the Exchange, the officer heard the shooting.

Rucken’s partner, James Burns, saw Goldenbargen point Rucken out to the officer and when Bindour and his prisoner had gone Burns approached Goldenbargen and spoke a few words. A few moments later Burns stepped out of the door of the exchange and without a word drew a pistol and fired the two fatal shots. There was no waste of ammunition or of time. The shots came as quick as one hand could fire them, and the two men, Higgins and Goldenbargen, fell to the sidewalk.

There are conflicting stories about the shooting of Higgins. Some say that Higgins never spoke to Burns and that the shooting was deliberate and cold-blooded. Others say that the shot which killed Higgins was aimed at Goldenbargen.

The murderer, after shooting the men, coolly turned on his heel, put his gun in his pocket and walked down the street in the direction of Higgins avenue. Before he had gone 10 feet Tom Black, a gambler who had been talking to Maurice Higgins when he was shot, started after Burns. The murderer drew his gun again and pointing it in Black’s face said, “Stand back you - - -, or I’ll give you some of it,” and he walked off. Twenty feet further down the street two men stepped out of the Headquarters saloon, determined to seize Burns. The latter threw up his gun and ordered them back. They got out of his way, of course, and he soon turned the corner and ran for the river.

Sheriff Houston, who had been fighting fire all night, was not a block away when the tragedy occurred. He instantly gave chase and saw the man cross the bridge. The sheriff lost sight of the fellow for a while but about daybreak he again saw him come out of hiding and start down the river. The officer followed him until he crossed the bridge again and arrived within a few hundred yards of where the deed was committed. Tom Black, John Delaney, and others, who witnessed the shooting, told the sheriff that the man he was following was the man who was wanted. Houston then arrested the fellow, and took him to the county jail where others positively identified the prisoner as the murderer.

Meantime a number of other officers and citizens were hunting for the murderer and his pal, whom Officer Bindour had turned loose a few moments before the shooting. J. M. Kennedy, who came here with the Anaconda lacrosse team, at the request of Mayor Higgins had taken a horse and gone to the Bitter Root railway bridge, about half a mile below the town to guard against the murderer escaping by that route. Kennedy saw a man about daylight come down the bank of the river, keeping covered by the bushes. He arrested the fellow, who proved to be the murderer’s partner, Rucken, who had robbed Goldenbargen. Kennedy took him to the county jail, where the sheriff gave orders to keep him in solitary confinement, and not permit him to see Burns.

When the news of the tragedy spread about the city there was intense excitement. Crowds of excited men stood about the street corners discussing the awful event, and threats were freely made that if the guilty one was caught, he would not live to give the courts much trouble or cause this county much expense for trial. Sheriff Houston exercised much shrewdness in arresting Burns. He knew about what the fellow would do and so he laid in wait for him. The officer’s plan worked admirably, and as a result within an hour after the shooting the wretch who did the deed was behind the bars in the county jail, positively identified as the guilty one by several who witnessed the tragedy. Burns was taken to the hospital to be identified by Goldenbarger, who had recovered consciousness. The moment Goldenbarger saw Burns he said: “That’s the - - - - who shot me. His partner knows all about it.”

The death of Maurice Higgins was announced about 4 o’clock this afternoon, and created a profound sensation. All the evening secret mutterings of lynching have been heard on the streets. Higgins’ bank is draped in mourning. Rucken denies positively that he knows Burns. The latter will not say anything, but that he is not the man that did the shooting and a mistake has been made in his arrest. There seems no possible grounds for doubt, however, that he is the guilty one.

Maurice Higgins was the worst sufferer. He had been working all night at the fire and was standing near Goldenbargen when he was shot. His brothers were summoned and he was removed to his home. Drs. Crain and Billmeyer were called. They found that the bullet, apparently a 38, had entered the middle of his forehead, passed through his brain, struck the skull back of the left ear and having been flattened had settled toward the base of the brain. They did all that surgeons could do to save him, but their efforts were in vain and about 3 o’clock this afternoon he passed into his long sleep. Like the other Higgins boys, he was a native of Missoula. He was the fourth son of the late Capt. C. P. Higgins and Mrs. Julia P. Higgins. His brothers are Mayor Frank G. Higgins, George C. Higgins, Arthur Higgins and two little boys [Gerald and Ronald]. He would have been 22 years old on Sept. 16 had he lived.

George C. Higgins left for Tacoma soon after the shooting to meet his mother and younger children, who have been spending some weeks in Victoria, B. C. It will be a sad journey for him, but more especially for his mother, whose heart will be almost broken with this last blow. Within 18 months she has lost a son, John R. Higgins, who died from an overdose of cocaine, and a daughter, Hilda Higgins, who died from poison taken by mistake. These two violent deaths are now followed by this awful affair more shocking than either. Surely her cup of sorrow is full. Friends by hundreds will extend sympathy to her and other members of the family, but no sympathy can heal the wounds caused by this tragedy.

The man who this morning called himself Ruckens is booked at the jail as Frank Lyons. Goldenbargen’s sworn statement was taken at the hospital this afternoon by County Attorney Webster, General Sloane and R. J. Hartman. He says that the way the trouble originated was that he pointed out to Officer Blindour the man Frank Lyons as one whom he had seen trying to sell the ring. Blindour went into the Jumbo salon, adjoining the Exchange saloon, and arrested Lyons. Burns, who was a partner of Lyons, saw the arrest and immediately accused Goldenbargen of having had Bindour arrest him, and said, “I will kill you right here,” Goldenbargen thinking he meant he would beat him, said, “You can’t do it.” The man pulled a revolver from his hip pocket, Higgins fell and Goldenbargen ran into the street. Burns fired again and then turned away, Goldenbargen turned toward where Higgins was lying, and stooping over him, the blood rushing from his mouth, said: “I am shot, too,” and staggered and fell. Both Lyons and
Burns admit they were trying to sell a ring.

This all occurred after the officer had arrested Lyons, who was released when they got to the jail, and Lyons was subsequently arrested by Kennedy.

The local Morning Missoulian published an article about the perpetrator, Burns, after interviewing him in the Missoula County jail. The man who accompanied Burns, going by the name Lyons, was also in the Missoula jail and was interviewed for this article also.

Morning Missoulian article Aug. 17 – Interview with Burns:[8]

Monday’s Tragedy

Burns is Interviewed but Says Very Little

He Denies the Shooting Despite the Identification of Goldenbogen[9] – His Condition

Burns, the assassin of Maurice Higgins, was seen in the jail by a Missoulian reporter yesterday but had little to say of the tragedy except to deny that he was the man. Burns says he came from Seattle Saturday night and had formerly worked on the grade of the Great Northern railroad in the Flathead at the camp of the Corey brothers. With this exception he had never been in Montana before. He professed entire ignorance of the shooting and said that he had never seen either Paul Goldenbogen or Maurice Higgins. When asked where he had been just previous to his arrest he said in a saloon on Main street, and in reply to a question said that previous to that he had not been on the bridge. This is one lie direct to his credit as Sheriff Houston tracked him from the bridge to the saloon and from there to the place of arrest. A box of cartridges of 32 calibre was also found on the bridge, but Burns had thrown the pistol into the river. When asked how he accounted for the fact that he had been so positively identified by eye witnesses of the affair, including one of the victims Burns said he could not account for it. He knew he was in a bad fix, but knew nothing of the shooting. He also said that he was sober when arrested.

Burns is a small, thin featured man, with a pointed nose, rather red at the tip. His hair is a sort of dead brown, and he has a small thin mustache. He says he is 27 years old. He wore at the time of the shooting a pair of cheap trousers, dark gray in color, with a lighter stripe, and a black silk or sateen shirt.

Wm. Lyons, the supposed partner of Burns, who was arrested soon after the shooting by J. M. Kennedy at a point some distance below the Bitter Root railroad bridge, was also seen by a Missoulian reporter yesterday. He says he knows nothing more of Burns than that he came in on the same train with him on Saturday. The two men fell in with each other at Arlee, and Lyons says he met Burns several times on Sunday night, and from time to time took a drink with him. He was arrested by Police Officer Blindorf just before the shooting, charged with the theft of a ring. The ring was not found on him and he was released with an admonition to get out of town at once. Then, according to Lyons’ own story, he returned to Front street, just in time to see Maurice Higgins and Paul Goldenbogen lying in front of the Exchange saloon. He saw nothing of Burns at this time. Shortly afterwards, being quite drunk, he wandered down to the Bitter Root railroad bridge, for the purpose of taking a sleep. Lyons says he did not see Burns for some time previous to his own arrest till the next day at the hospital.

Goldenbogen’s condition continued favorable all day yesterday, but it is impossible to prophecy in advance the termination of his injuries. The case is a hard one to do anything with. The ball entered the left side after going through the muscles and the arm and penetrated to the lung as is shown by a frequent coughing of blood. Whether the ball went all the way through the lung it is impossible to determine, but Dr. McCullough feels satisfied that it did not reach the right lung. The extraction of the ball is impossible first because it would necessitate a cutting open of some of the vital parts and second because its location cannot be determined. Fortunately the recovery of the patient does not depend on getting the bullet out. It may remain in the body permanently and perhaps never give any trouble. Today and tomorrow will be the critical time for Goldenborgen and if he gets through these without an unfavorable turn his chances for recovery will be good. He got along well all day yesterday despite a report which gained currency in the afternoon that he was failing rapidly.

Morning Missoulian article on Maurice Higgins funeral Aug. 20, 1892.[10]

LAID TO REST

The Funeral Services of Maurice Higgins Yesterday Afternoon

The funeral of Maurice Higgins took place from the family residence yesterday afternoon at 2:30. It was probably the largest funeral which has ever been witnessed in the city and was attended not only by residents of this city but by a large number of friends of the deceased from outside points. So general was the attendance, indeed, that considerable business was suspended and all the banks were closed at 2 o’clock.

The body was laid in state at the family residence on Main street, the casket being surrounded by quantities of flowers, and the corpse looked very natural. The burial services were conducted by Rev. Father Diomedi of St. Xavier’s Church. Immediately after the conclusion of the services the funeral procession started for the family burial ground in South Missoula. The hearse came first with its ten pall bearers, members of the fire department, of which the deceased was an active and honored member. The pall bearers were Bert Higgins, John Kennedy, Will Kennedy, Geo Lancaster, Will Cave, D. Whaley, Frank Keim, Jos. K. Wood, R. S. Mentrum and Chas. Suiter. Immediately following the hearse came the members of the fire department marching on foot, in full uniform, and wearing crepe on the left arm. These were followed by carriages bearing the members of the family and the friends of the deceased. The cortege was over a mile in length and was composed of 110 carriages. Slowly and mournfully it moved from the family residence up Higgins avenue, across the bridge and out to the burial ground, where, with fitting obsequies and lamentations on the part of the family and loving friends the body was laid in its last resting place. The only service at the grave was the brief but impressive one of the Catholic church.

Burns was brought to trial in the Missoula District Court on September 14, 1892. Only three witnesses appeared for the state, Goldenborgen, Sheriff Houston, and Thomas Black. Goldenborgen was still bedridden but was transported to the courtroom on a stretcher. He identified Burns as the man who shot him stating that Burns had said, “I’ll kill you,” after accusing him, Goldenborgen, of ratting his partner out to the officer.

The following day the trial resumed until 5 P.M. when the jury met to decide Burns’ fate. The jury had been taken to the scene of the murder and to the bridge where Burns was finally spotted by the Sheriff. Burns’ defense was mistaken identity and for an alibi he stated that he had been in a house of prostitution on West Front Street immediately prior to the shooting. He denied ever being on the bridge. Presiding Judge Marshall, after receiving the jury’s verdict at 9:45 P.M., instructed the foreman of the jury to re-sign the verdict in ink instead of pencil. Found guilty of first degree murder, Burns displayed no emotion and shook hands with his lawyers.

Burns attempted suicide on the Sunday following his Friday conviction. A fellow prisoner noticed that something was wrong with him and notified the jailer. A doctor was summoned and rescued the prisoner after “two hours of hard work.” The doctor stated that Burns told him he had taken a tea spoonful of morphine, yet no evidence was found that this substance was available to him.

Sentence was pronounced Tuesday and Burns was given a hanging date of November 11. Defense attorneys at this hearing made known that they planned to file an appeal and requested a new trial. Additional time was granted to the defense to prepare an appeal.

Burns was asked if he had anything to say and responded that he did not do the shooting, and that he didn’t mind hanging, but did not want to hang for another man’s crime. He alleged another man named Brown had committed the crime.

On October 5 attorneys for Burns moved for a new trial on the grounds that at the first trial the jury had been escorted to the Higgins bridge with the County Sheriff where the Sheriff gave testimony that could not be heard by Burns since he, Burns, was not on the same side of the bridge when the Sheriff spoke. The motion was granted and a new trial began on October 17. A jury was not seated until October 22.

Not all went well for the defense at the second Burns trial. A new witness for the prosecution, John Delaney, provided eye witness testimony that Burns was the shooter of Higgins. Commentary in the daily paper on the second Burns trial was scant, however the following blurb appeared in the Morning Missoulian on October 28 indicating patience was running thin:

“The Burns case was concluded yesterday by the introduction of some testimony in rebuttal by the prosecution and the making of closing arguments by both sides. This latter proceeding was enlivened by sharp tilts between counsel, Judge Woody for the prosecution and Mr. Gassaway for the defense, and at one time a fist fight seemed imminent and the court was obliged to instruct the sheriff to maintain order. The jury went out at 4:30 and has not yet returned a verdict.”

A guilty verdict was given by the jury on October 28, and again the defense gave notice it would again seek a new trial.

The Morning Missoulian reported on the sentence of Burns the day after it was announced by Judge Marshall. Burns was again sentenced to hang. This time he was sentenced to hang on December 16. When offered the opportunity to speak Burns stated that he did not commit the murder, but that he “supposed the trial had been fair enough” and that he hoped those who had accused him falsely would be forgiven by God. “Burns showed no more emotion than he has at any time during the progress of the proceedings against him.”

“MAKE A GOOD JOB OF IT BILL,” said Burns to Sheriff William Houston before he hanged him.

The Weekly Missoulian presented a one-and-a-half-page article about the Burns crime on December 21, 1892. They spared no details about the circumstances of the incident. Historically, this Weekly Missoulian article is unique in its depth of detail and frankness.[11]

This article is quoted below:

JOHN BURN DEAD

And The Law’s Terrible Decree Carried Out.

Death Almost Instantaneous

And But Few Moments Elapse Between His Fall and Expiration of Life

Sheriff Houston Does Duty

Manfully, and Ably Demonstrates His Official Qualifications

Friday John Burns, the murderer of Maurice Higgins, expiated his crime upon the scaffold, and went to meet his God. The doomed man slept only about four hours last night, being kept awake by a crowd of visitors. He awoke a short time after 6 o’clock, and ate a couple of oranges and afterwards partook of a hearty breakfast. A Missoulian reporter visited him shortly after 9 o’clock, and when he went in was warmly clasped by the hand by Burns. He had nothing to say except that he felt all right. Soon after Father Guidi called and remained with him until the time when he was launched into eternity. Burns went upstairs to the upper corridor and bade the other prisoners good-bye, saying he hoped they would have better luck than he had. He looked much brighter and more cheerful than the day before. About 9:30 Al Weinrich gave him a drink of whisky, and he handed the bottle back with the remark that it was “pretty good stuff.”

Promptly at the hour set Burns was marched to the scaffold, being slightly assisted as he ascended the steps. On the platform he looked about, and then facing the crowd said, “Well, boys, I bid you all good-bye.” The sheriff slipped the rope over his head and adjusted it, and then quickly fixed the straps, pinning the arms and legs. While he was doing this Father Guidi spoke to him, and Burns turned to him with a smile. While the father was talking the doomed man glanced up and saw the boys perched on trees near by and smiled again. Then he turned his attention to the father. When the sheriff had finished securing the straps he said: “Jack, is there anything more you wish to say?” “No,” he replied. “let her go,” and then in an undertone to the sheriff, added, “Make a good job of it, Bill.” The black cap was quickly drawn over his head, the attendants left the platform and the sheriff took one step down, brought one foot down with a short kick; a rattle, and the murderer shot quickly down to death. There were just two slight heavings of the chest and he hung motionless. Death was evidently instantaneous as far as feeling went.

Every arrangement was most perfect in detail, and the execution was carried out most successfully, without any extra suffering for the unfortunate man.

It is reported, and on apparently good authority, that Burns admitted to his attorneys that he had done the shooting for which he was convicted. The Missoulian knows that there is a lingering doubt in the minds of many people as to whether he was the right man, but they might as well disabuse their minds of this idea. This paper hopes and expects to lay the proof before the readers within a few days.

“Burns’” Last Statement.

The Missoulian is favored with the last statement of the dead man, made by him in confidence, with permission to use the same if desired after his death. In substance he stated his name to be Hugh J. Hamilton, age 33 years, and a native of New York. His father is now a stationary engineer in a small village near the great city, and his family consists of four brothers and three sisters. He was raised a Catholic and followed that faith religiously until he was about 17 years old, when he left home and became a wanderer in the west, where he abandoned his religious teachings, straying away from the influences of home and mother. His first location in this section of the country was at Spokane, where he drove teams for Great Northern railway contractors near Libby. He denied ever having been at Columbia Falls, and is not the “Sunny” Burns, as some supposed. With bulldog tenacity he maintained that he was not the slayer of Higgins, and to demonstrate his friendship towards the surviving brothers cited an incident, in the main as follows; four days before his death Burns stated that some one, “who he would not say” had either written or gone in person to Mayor Higgins, brother of the deceased and threatened that if Burns should hang, Higgins’ life would pay the penalty. This threat had been imparted to Burns by some visitors during the early days of the incarceration and was repeated to no one until the time stated when Burns, fearful lest the threat of vengeance be carried out sent for Mr. Higgins and assured him of his disapproval of such methods and sincerely hoped that the threats would not be consummated.

Thus relieved of his mind he was prepared to die and would pass away contented. Having complied with his religious duties he was happy and ready to meet his maker. For all the jail attendants he had naught but kind words and he spoke feelingly of the treatment he had received at the hands of Sheriff Houston and his estimable wife. He was not unnerved and would march to the scaffold a brave man.

For the Rev. Father Guidi he bore most grateful sentiments. This gentlemanly divine had attended him for weeks, and at the last moments assisted him materially in bearing up under the ordeal. He it was who administered to him the last communion, conferring likewise the acts of contrition and faith, hope and charity. While he left no public confession, that fact, of course, is not to be wondered at. If, from the secret recesses of his heart, he imparted information to his spiritual advisor, that never will nor should it be known. It is one of those stern rules of the confessional handed down from centuries, that what the priest hears in secret, must be kept in secret; any other rule would destroy the confessional, and, as Burns was summoned in so dread a manner to that awful bar of final justice, it is safe to say that no public confession has been left behind.

The remains of Burns, or Hamilton, was buried from Flynn’s undertaking establishment at 2 o’clock Saturday afternoon. They were interred in the Catholic cemetery.

THE CRIME

T-o-o-t! T-o-o-t! T-o-o-t! T-o-o-o-o-!” on the early evening of August 14, 1892, told the brave fireman of Missoula that the element which is so useful a slave and terrible a master had once more burst its chains and started on its devouring, devastating march. A fire broke out in the rear of the Blue Front saloon on Front street and soon the gallant firemen were on hand and fighting the flames. This was one of the largest fires Missoula has ever experienced, the Rodgers hotel, the Hawkes stable and about twelve other buildings going up. The firemen fought bravely and among the bravest of the brave that night was Maurice Higgins, brother of Missoula’s mayor, and son of the founder of this city. Maurice worked hard and faithfully during that trying time, but through the dastardly act of a desperate tramp lay virtually cold in death at 1 o’clock on the morning of the 15th.

Two men had arrived from the west on a freight train on Saturday night previous. They had spent nearly all that night at the gaming table, and on that Saturday evening one of them had attempted, unsuccessfully, to pawn a watch at one of the prominent saloons. On the morning of the 15th, while the fire was still raging, one of these men, named Lyons, was arrested by policeman Blendour, on the information of Paul Goldenbogen, for trying to sell a ring which it was believed was stolen property. About 4 o’clock on that morning Goldenbogen was standing in front of the Exchange saloon and was approached by John Burns, the partner of Lyons, who asked why he had informed on his partner. On Goldenbogen’s answer Burns drew a pistol and fired, the bullet striking Goldenbogen in the right side. The wounded man reeled towards the front of the sidewalk where Maurice Higgins, Frank Smith and Tom Black were standing. The men turned at the noise of the shot, and as they did so Burns fired again, the bullet striking Higgins just a little to one side of the center of the forehead. The boy – and he was little more than a boy – fell forward on his face on the walk, and immediately after Goldenbogen with the exclamation, “I am shot, too!” fell partially across the prostrate body of young Higgins. The murderer retreated eastward, and at the same time Black started towards him with the intent to secure him, but Burns held up the gun and stood him off. Black stopped and the murderer turned and ran up the street to the corner of the Hammond block and turned toward the river and the bridge. Sheriff Houston was soon on the scene, and being informed of direction in which the murderer had fled, started at once after him. When Houston struck the bridge he saw his man near the other end, and saw him leave the bridge beyond Fisher’s place and turn eastward. When the sheriff got to the steps leading from the bridge to the flat, he ran down them and made all possible speed to nearly opposite the base ball (their spelling) grounds, hoping to intercept his man. Running up on to the rising ground, on which South Missoula stands, he saw nothing of the fugitive. He searched the base ball park without result, and then started back to the bridge. Just before reaching the bridge he saw a man answering the description of the murderer going back onto the structure and starting toward town. He followed him as fast as he could, and when the sheriff got to the center of the north span saw him just passing the Hammond block. Following, he saw his man enter the Concordia saloon, and just then Tom Black, one of the witnesses of the crime, joined Houston, and both men saw the man come out of the saloon and start towards Main street, about two doors west of the Missoulian office. The sheriff called on him to halt, and when Burns turned thrust a gun into his face and ordered him to throw up his hands. The prisoner was taken to the county jail and searched, but no weapon was found on his person.

Higgins was taken to the family residence shortly after being shot, and Drs. Billmyer and Crain were hastily summoned. The boy was still breathing, and the physicians, realizing that only by heroic measures was there any chance for saving his life, cut into the skull at the back to extract the bullet, but could not find it. The stricken man lived until just after noon, when he died, never regaining consciousness from the time the fatal bullet struck him. With many another man the shot would have been instantly fatal, but the splendid physique and strong vitality of the boy kept life in him for several hours.

Goldenbogen was taken to the Sisters’ hospital. About 11:30 o’clock in the afternoon Burns was taken to the hospital by a deputy sheriff, and Goldenbogen at once identified him as the man who did the shooting. Burns fainted when brought into his presence.

The trial of the murderer was set for the 12th of September, and a jury was secured on the 14th. The sheriff testified to his chase after the man, and the arrest. Black positively identified the prisoner as the man who had shot his companion, Higgins, and Smith also testified that he believed him to be the man.

Chas. Moore, night bar tender at the Headquarters, also identified him as the man who had held Black at bay, and both Moore and Black identified the clothing, especially the pants, which the prisoner wore.

The defense set up the claim that Burns was not the man who did the shooting, nor the man whom Houston followed across the bridge. They claimed that the man whom the sheriff followed must have turned the corner of Front street when Houston’s vision was interfered with by the span of the bridge, and that Burns accidently came into view at the time the sheriff reached the end of the bridge. Lyons, who was held as a witness, testified that he had a partner named Brown, about the size and complexion of Burns, and that Brown was the man who was with him in front of the Exchange when he (Lyons) was arrested. Burns, testifying in his own behalf, said that he had a partner named Haywick; that they had been together during the fire, and that after the fire was under control they had gone to a house of ill fame and opened several bottles of beer there. That they had started up town just before the shooting occurred and had reached a point just about the foot of Stevens street, some 100 yards west of the Exchange, when they heard two shots fired, and commented on them. They walked to where the crowd was gathered and there got separated, but he did not see the bodies lying there. (The bodies were in plain sight from the engine house.). He tried to find his partner but could not, and after sitting for about twenty minutes in a saloon reading a paper started up street and reaching the corner of the Hammond block turned toward the bridge and went behind the Hammond block for a moment. Returning from there he walked up Higgins avenue to the Concordia, went into that place for a moment and then came out and walked to Main street, where he was arrested. He said the sheriff was nearly one hundred yards from him when he called on him to halt, and that when he stopped the sheriff walked up to him and ordered him to throw up his hands at the same time striking him with a gun. Sheriff Houston, testifying in rebuttal, said that he never spoke to Burns or ordered him to halt until close to him.

Goldenbogen was brought into court on a stretcher and identified Burns as the man who shot him. The mythical partner of Burns, Haywick, never showed up to testify or substantiate the prisoner’s story about hearing the shots, nor did the defense produce the women, whom the prisoner claimed they had just left, to corroborate his story.

The case was given to the jury on the afternoon of the 16th, and at 10 p. m. of that day they returned a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree. On the 20th the court sentenced Burns to be hung on the 11th of November.

On the 5th of October the prisoner’s attorneys argued a motion for a new trial, the principal ground being that at the former trial the jury had been taken to the bridge by the sheriff, who had pointed out to them the place where he was when he saw Burns pass the Hammond block, and that the prisoner was not present when the sheriff was describing the points to the jury, being kept on this side of the bridge, and the point was raised that testimony was thus given to the jury when the prisoner was not present. On the 12th the court sustained the motion for a new trial, and the second trial was commenced on the 17th. It lasted until the 27th, the testimony being practically the same as at the first. The jury retired at 4:07 p. m., and returned their verdict of murder in the first degree at 5:05 p. m. on the 28th. Judge Marshall sentenced the prisoner on November 5 to be hanged on December 16.

It is a marked coincidence that as weeks go the execution today is exactly two years to the Friday of the same week and month since the four Indian murderers were hung. That was on the 19th of December, 1890. The rope that will be used to hang Burns today is the same one which ended the life of Pierre Paul, one of these Indians.

The gallows was erected some time ago. It is on about the same plan as that used for the Indians, it being a drop. Yesterday afternoon the rope was put on the beam, and in trying its length Deputy Sheriff Johnson came very near being seriously hurt. The drop was to be let down so that the rope would hang straight, and Johnson had let loose of the rope which held the catch on one side. The drop did not fall because a gentleman among the small number of lookers-on had hold of the rope which held what might be called the trigger on the other side. Johnson went in under the trap and had just reached the back of the scaffold when the gentleman loosened the pull on the rope and the drop fell. Johnny saw it coming and put up his hands. The trap, which is very heavy, struck his hand, bruising it very badly, and also hit him on the head, but with diminished force. Had it struck him fairly on the head it might have been very serious.

A Missoulian reporter visited Burns yesterday afternoon and was well received by the doomed man, who expressed himself as pleased with the fairness with which the paper had treated him. He spoke freely of his attempt at suicide just after his first conviction. He said that he found a package of morphine done up in tinfoil under the bed in the cell just previously vacated by Dacey, who had been taken to the penitentiary. He had been looking for some writing paper to write home. He opened the tinfoil and stuck his tongue into the contents. He knew it was morphine, as Dacey had been a morphine fiend. The idea then struck him to commit suicide. He had just been convicted and his lawyers gave him little hope for anything but the gallows, and on the instant of the conception of the idea of suicide and the thought of almost certain execution, he swallowed the morphine with suicidal intent. He said that now, since he had, as he believed, made peace with his Maker, he would not commit suicide if he had the means.

Barns spoke of his recent attempt to break jail and freely confessed that he took the chance for his life. He said that he had the stuff with which he “doped” the guard for some time before, but that as he was not familiar with the drug he hesitated to use it, as he was afraid he might kill Nobles. He would not disclose the nature of the drug. The prisoner said he had no confession to make. He had already confessed his sins and believed he would die a Christian; that if he confessed to the crime for which he was about to suffer he would confess to a lie. When asked if he would have anything to say on the scaffold, he replied:

“If a certain party is in the crowd I will say something to him. I don’t care to say it now, behind his back. I want to say it to his face. If he is not there I do not now know whether I will say anything. I have not made up my mind about that. It will depend on my feelings and powers at the moment. Up to the time I was fifteen years of age I stammered very badly, and it may come back to me tomorrow so that I may not be able to speak.”

Burns talked in a quite collected tone of voice, but close observation showed that he was keeping down any emotion by his wonderful will power, as he swallowed convulsively several times during the short interview. When asked about his treatment he said he had no fault to find with either the sheriff or deputies since his conviction. They had treated him very kindly. He spoke particularly in commendation of Al Weinrich, his day guard, and said he thought as much of him as an own brother. He slept well Wednesday night and expected to sleep well last night. He said it was a hard thing to contemplate being hung, but he would walk bravely in his fate.

He told the reporter that both of his parents were dead, his mother dying last spring. He had several brothers and sisters in New York state, and he had written of his approaching fate to one of his brothers with a caution to him not to tell the others. He had also written him not to come here before the end, and not to come for his body, as he did not want to be taken back in that way among the people he had grown up with. He asked the reporter to call again and hoped to see him the next morning.

Just before the reporter saw Burns, Mr. Simpson, the barber, arrived to shave him. He spoke jocularly to Simpson and remarked that he guessed it would be the last time he would shave him. Something was said about being upstairs before and Burns replied, “I am going upstairs tomorrow morning.”

About 7:30 o’clock last night the reporter paid a last visit to Burns, and found him still keeping up his courage. He did not say anything new, but in answer to the question as to whether Burns was his right name he studied awhile and then replied: “I don’t believe I want to answer that question tonight. I may answer it tomorrow morning. I don’t know as it makes any difference to these people here.” From the way in which he acted the almost certain impression was conveyed that Burns is an alias.

In connection with this case it might be stated that a San Francisco paper of about ten days ago contained the report of the arrest of Lyons, the man who was with Burns the night of the murder. He was arrested for stealing a grip from a traveling man. He told there that he was the partner of Burns, the man who was awaiting execution in Missoula, Mont., for the murder of Maurice Higgins, and made a laughing remark about eating Christmas dinner with the sheriff in San Francisco. Lyons in the trial here confessed that he had been in jail before, and he is evidently an old and hardened offender.

THE GALLOWS

The following is a description of the gallows on which Burns will this morning expiate his crime;

Two upright pieces of timber are mortised into a crosspiece lying upon the ground, and at the top, fifteen feet from the lower crosspiece, is another crosspiece mortised and bolted into the uprights. At the bottom each upright is braced to about three feet from the ground, making a firm steady structure. A chain could be thrown over the top crosspiece and a locomotive hoisted free of the ground. Adjoining the two main uprights are two other solid uprights holding up a platform seven feet in the clear from the lower crosspiece. The outer part of the platform, about three feet, is trap, sustained by four heavy iron hinges and held up by a stout rope passing through pulleys in each of the lessor uprights. Pulled in place, it rests on a level with the other part of the platform, apparently two feet across. When the rope is severed the trap falls down, and swings against the end of the jail in which is a spring and against which the trap falls, but not hard enough to make it rebound to any great extent.

Twelve steps lead up to the platform, each step about a foot apart. The rope holding the platform is concealed by a casing, and in the fourth step is a button known to no one but the sheriff. When that button is touched a knife severs the rope and the drop falls. The sheriff is the last man to descend the steps, and before he reaches the ground the trip has fallen.

From the top cross-piece dangles a rope and in the end of the rope is a hangman’s noose, with enough slack to allow a drop of seven feet, allowing for a stretch of a traction of an inch. Everything is in readiness. In the eastern side of the enclosure is a door. From this door is a closed passage (sic) was to the east door of the jail, out of which the condemned man can be taken without having to run the gauntlet of curious eyes. The sheriff has been considerate of his feelings.

THE MIDNIGHT VIGIL.

A dairy kept throughout the night by a Missoulian reporter, whom Sheriff Houston kindly permitted to remain in the jail, reveals the following incidents occurring during the still hours;

10 p.m. All prisoners ordered to their cells, locked in and a special guard promenading the corridors. Frank Higgins, brother of the murdered boy, permitted to interview the prisoner. To him Burns also protested his innocence, contending that some other person had committed the crime. Burns somewhat despondent and apparently resigned to his fate. Sheriff’s office crowded with visiting officials discussing tomorrow’s tragedy.

10:30 p. m. – Father Guidi in prayer with Burns, both kneeling by the culprit’s bedside. Burns mutters some unintelligible deprecations and refuses nourishment. Varies from despondency to braggadocio but declines to make any extended statement.

12 Midnight. – Sheriff Houston reads the death warrant. Prisoner unaffected and asks the privilege of marching to the scaffold with a cigar between his teeth. A Missoulian reporter asks him if (sic) has anything to say. He replies that he has not, save he is innocent and his name is not Burns. Declines to go to sleep and talks with the guard Gipe. Father Guidi retires and promises to return at 7 o’clock in the morning.

1 a. m. – Deputy Wood offers supper, but declined. Prisoner talks of foreign matters and does not refer to his condition. Intimates he would like to write and may express himself from the gallows today, Sheriff Houston retires and informs him he will not again see him until he leads him to the scaffold. All other prisoners asleep and indifferent as to what is transpiring in Burns’ cell.

1:30 a. m. – Prisoner humming, asks who is to bury him and is told that Barney Flynn will do the job. Asks for whisky, but is refused and becomes meditative.

2 p. m. – Burns still talking to the guard and promises a sensational address from the scaffold. Thinks of going to sleep.

From that hour until nearly 3:30 Burns incessantly talking, finally lying down. He rested uneasily, occasionally getting up and pacing the floor. Said nothing except that he wished it was morning and the agony over.

At 4 o’clock and as the Missoulian goes to press, prisoner apparently asleep. All lights out except the one in the cell and guard watching him intently.

NOTES

The rope to be used is the same as hanged the Indian, Pierre Paul.

The Missoulian has lost none of its old time enterprise in setting newsy matter before the reader.

The scaffold is the same as used for the four Indians hanged two years ago and was constructed by Fire Marshall R. S. Mentrum.

Last night it was learned from an apparently reliable source that Lyons is not the real name of Burns’ partner, but that he was traveling under an alias, his name being Gannon.

A representative of the Missoulian learned last night that a brother and sister of Burns were here from Duluth, Minn. during the trial, and were in the court room, but held no personal communication with the prisoner while here.

A number of officials from other parts of the state arrived on the train last night to witness the execution. Among them are Frank Conley and Tom McTague, wardens of the penitentiary; D. A. Bishop of Deer Lodge, J. W. Nelson and Emil Hansen of Anaconda, and Sheriff Joel Gleason of Glendive.

Deputy Wood and Officer Gipe were the trusted guards of Burns during his last night on earth. These gentlemen need no introduction at the hands of the Missoulian. They are well and favorable known as Mr. Houston’s most trusted and faithful deputies, and their past record in the sheriff’s office speak volumes; more than tongue can tell.

In the early part of the evening Burns sent word to Mayor F. G. Higgins, brother of the murdered boy, that he would like to see him, but when Frank got there he had relapsed into his usual reticence. Mr. Higgins said to him that he might as well open up and confess his crime like a man. Burns answered that he did not see what good a confession would do. Higgins told him that his case was virtually ended and he had better tell the truth. The prisoner hung his head for a moment and then said he had nothing to confess.

BURNS TRIES TO ESCAPE

Wednesday morning John Burns, who hangs tomorrow morning for the murder of Maurice Higgins, made a forlorn attempt to escape his fate by trying to gain his liberty. When he was first tried and convicted he was confined in one of the private cells upstairs and a night and day watch put on him, and since his second trial and second sentence it has been kept up. Al Weinrich guards him by day and an old man named Nobles at night. He has been receiving a number of visitors lately, and it is thought that some of them recently passed secretly to him a fine saw and some kind of drug. It has been the habit of Mr. Nobles to eat a lunch about midnight, and it is customary for him to wash it down with a glass of water from a pitcher sitting on a stand in the room. On Tuesday night he ate his lunch and drank the water as usual, and says that shortly after he began to feel drowsy. He tried to shake off the feeling, but could not, and was soon sound asleep.

It was then that Burns tried to make his escape. With the saw he commenced working on the door of the cell, but had just got to work when Sheriff Houston, who sleeps in the next room, and who awakens very quickly – a habit he has gained in his old railroad experience, woke up at the slight noise and immediately jumped out of bed. He heard where the noise came from and ran down stairs to the office to get the key to Burns’ room. The noise he made showed Burns that his attempt was discovered, and while the sheriff was making the short trip he evidently threw the saw blade out of the window of his cell, as when Sheriff Houston opened the door of the room and confronted him only the handle of the saw could be found. Nobles woke up shortly after and was relieved from duty. Burns was taken down stairs to the regular jail and locked up in the front cell of the lower corridor, and Deputy Woods guarded him until the day guard, Weinrich, came in. The prisoner was thoroughly searched, but no drug or instrument of escape was found on him.

To the sheriff he remarked that no one could blame him for attempting to escape. After he had been placed in the lower cell, and from that time until morning he held quite frequent conversation with Deputy Woods. Before he seemed to feel an animosity towards Woods and the sheriff, whose testimony went a long ways towards convicting him, but in the conversation yesterday morning with the deputy they seemed to come to a better understanding and Burns said that he would no longer hold hard feelings toward either the sheriff or deputy, and now felt convinced that they were not biased against him but simply did their duty. To Woods he said: “You can’t blame me for trying to escape. It was a matter of life and death for me, and, of course, I would take all chances to escape.” He did not show any weakening in the wonderful nerve which has upheld him from the first, and declared that he would not weaken tomorrow when he mounted the scaffold. He has not yet, so far as known, made any confession of the crime. He will be even more strictly guarded today and tonight, and there is no doubt the execution will come off tomorrow morning. It is reported that Nobles was very sick for a time yesterday morning and vomited freely from effects of what had been surreptitiously given him.

Last night about 6 o’clock Deputy Woods was searching more thoroughly the room which Burns had occupied and found the saw blade, which it had been supposed had been thrown out the window by the murderer. It was found concealed in a broom. It is a fine instrument. The handle is a skeleton iron with a thumb screw arrangement to hold the blade, which is about nine inches long and reversible, with a screw driver head on the reverse end.

Sheriff Houston.

William A. Houston, sheriff of Missoula county, who will officiate at the execution today, has been one of the most efficient officials the state of Montana has ever had. His term of office has been an unusually trying one. His record in the pursuit, capture and execution of the four Indian murderers two years ago is a matter of national history. During his incumbency of the office there have been no less than twenty-two persons arrested for murder, of which number eight were sent to penitentiary, seven acquitted, and five, including Burns, hanged. Two are yet awaiting trial. Twenty-four others have been sent to the penitentiary for grand larceny, two for manslaughter, three for assault with intent to commit murder, seven for burglary, four for escaping jail, one for rape, one for selling liquor to Indians, one for forgery and one for perjury. Twenty-three have been caught and tried for burglary and grand larceny and acquitted. There are now thirty-five prisoners in jail.

Houston has the record of never having gone after a man without fetching him. One of the most noticeable tracing and captures was that of Lamb, the railroad robber, whom he traced and followed into Mexico and brought back. He is not only a brave and indomitable officer but a man of rare judgement, and as tender-hearted as brave men generally are. Missoula county will never find his superior as an officer.

Several short paragraphs/comments later appeared in other sections of the Morning Missoulian:

“Burns now goes before that Judge of all to whom he may plead his innocence. Human judges have decreed otherwise and today the culprit pays the penalty of his crime.”

Under Local Mention of the same Missoulian on Dec. 21, the following remarks appeared:

“The enclosure and scaffold in and on which Burns was hung were all removed at 6 o’clock last Friday night.”

“In the window of the clothing department of the M.M. Co. can be seen a copy of the Missoula Gazette of December 19, 1890, containing the hanging of the four notorious Indian murderers, the owner of which now asks $5.00 for the same.”

“Hugh J. Hamilton, alias John Burns, who was hanged Friday, was buried in the Catholic cemetery yesterday afternoon. The funeral took place from Flynn’s undertaking establishment and about thirty people attended it. A dozen or so of them were friends.”

Anonymous Letters regarding the Hanging

The existence of at least two anonymous letters mailed to the local Morning Missoulian came to light after the hanging. This controversy surrounding the trial and subsequent hanging was kept to a minimum in local reporting until the publication of these letters. Frank Higgins was himself the center of controversy of a different kind as the leader of the local Democratic organization which was embroiled in the Capital election battle between advocates for Montana’s major cities. Even members of his local organization were unable to agree on a city of choice for some time, although Higgins strongly backed the choice of Butte for a capital. He was the mayor of Missoula as well as a state legislator. Another important topic of interest to him and other Missoula legislators in the 1892 legislature was the location of the University in Missoula. The Higgins family later donated 40 acres of free land for the placement of the University in Missoula. The South Missoula Land Company owned by A. B. Hammond, Richard Eddy and Marcus Daly were also important donors of land.

Crackpot letters in December to the Morning Missoulian:[12]

Governor Toole Warned

Helena, Dec. 13 – [Special to the Missoulian.] – It is learned here that Governor Toole is in receipt of an anonymous communication from Missoula, stating that the writer and not Burns killed Maurice Higgins, for which crime Burns is to hang on Friday next. The letter warns the governor to stop the execution, stating also that if this be done he will make known the identity of the murderer. As the letter is unsigned and Governor Toole out of the state, no importance is attached to it.

DON’T MONKEY WITH HOUSTON

A Gentle Tip to Some Anonyms Who Want to Look a Little Out.

Sheriff Houston is in receipt of and asks the publication of the following letter, which will be found to smack somewhat of the sensational. If the senders intended to intimidate Mr. Houston they have shot wide of their mark, for, instead of displaying any fear at the covert threats, he is out on the warpath looking for his anonymous assailers. Bill says he is not long for office and would like to tackle his correspondent and the “91 others,” singly or jointly, before he leaves the sheriff’s chair. He would like the opportunity of placing them all behind the bars, and would not be adverse to hanging them if occasion required.

In reference to the reward mentioned in the epistle it should be well known to any man of ordinary intelligence, that no reward could be claimed by Houston because he captured Burns in the city shortly after the murder and before any reward for the apprehension of the criminal could be offered. As for the “pay” for hanging a man, the salary law which went into effect January 1, 1892, has done away with compensation for such services, hence the “job” must be done for nothing.

However, here is the communication, given for what it is worth:

Burnt Fork, Mont., Dec. 13, 1892. – W. H. Houston, Exq., Missoula, Mont. – Dear Friend: I overheard three men talking the other day in such a way that I feel it my duty to write you. They claim that it was your evidence and your scheming that caused the conviction of the prisoner who is to be hung next Friday. They claim that you planned the scheme in order to get the hanging reward, and that you are not a safe man to have in the country, saying that if you hang the man that you and Frank Higgins will pay the penalty. They say that no man if in his right mind would have been found leisurely walking around town, with his hands in his pockets. That you should have taken several men in at one time to the wounded man and asked him which one of them did the shooting. That the wounded man was in no condition to recognize the party. That Higgins should not have been allowed to have given the jurors their instruction. That jury were threatened, that the (Unreadable) of the verdict.

These men claim to have ninety-one men in their society and are working hard to get a larger number in their force.

Your Friend



[1] History of Montana, 1885 - Michael Leeson (p 827) https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101079825855;view=1up;seq=7

[2] History of Montana, 1885 - Michael Leeson (p 878)

[3] National Register of Historic Places – Missoula Downtown Historic District

[6] Goldenbargen would be spelled various ways in accounts of this incident – Goldenborgen seemed to be the correct spelling.

[7]Officer Bindour’s name would also be spelled differently in various accounts of this incident. Val Blindom is the Officer’s name in subsequent Missoulian news articles.

[9] The Morning Missoulian Newspaper spelled Goldenborgen differently.

Last Updated on Thursday, 27 April 2017 19:08