Harmon’s Histories: Missoula’s 11th sheriff was murdered in the jail by his wife

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

Moses Drouillard, Missoula’s 11th sheriff (1877-78), has been painted as a power-obsessed, conceited ass – not only that, but an abusive husband. Others considered him a courageous man, going up against the worst of society in a Wild West town.

But a grand jury indicted him for criminal negligence on the job. Oh, did we mention he was also the third husband to Mary Angelina Therault?

So far in our series, we’ve learned that husband No. 1, Cyrus McWhirk, a successful local businessman, turned out to be a wife-beater and drunkard who died penniless.

Husband/Victim No. 2, Dr. John B. Buker, on the other hand, was a well-respected community leader who likely married the young girl to protect her, only to have her lock him out of his own home and sell his possessions.

Drouillard’s fate, as husband No. 3, was rather worse than that of husbands No. 1 and No. 2 – he was murdered!

New North-West newspaper, Deer Lodge, Dec. 20, 1878

Mary and two others were arrested in connection with his death, but only Mary was tried, convicted and sentenced to prison.

So today we explore the question: Who was the real Moses Manis “French Mose” Drouillard?

Drouillard was born February 28, 1850 to French-Canadian parents Dominique and Marguerite (LaPointe) Drouillard, who had immigrated from Canada to Michigan, and then to Oregon.

The 1860 census listed Moses, at age 10, employed as a hostler, taking care of stabled horses, in Portland, Oregon. The 1870 census had Moses, then age 20, working as a store clerk in Frenchtown, Montana. His wealth, in terms of personal property, was noted as $300.

A few years later, in 1874, Drouillard moved from Frenchtown to Missoula to take a job as the county’s undersheriff. When Sheriff John Miller resigned in 1876, saying the job didn’t pay enough to make a living, Drouillard was appointed Missoula’s 11th sheriff.

Helena Weekly Herald, March 23, 1876

He then won the job on his own in a tight election that fall, defeating Dwight Harding by just 14 votes. But his time in office was troubled and controversial.

In 1877, he tussled with Territorial Governor Benjamin Potts over how to distribute rifles to local volunteers when the band of Nez Perce entered the Bitterroot Valley, beginning the “Trail of Tears.”

Montana Territorial Governor Benjamin F. Potts

Chauncey Barbour, editor of the Weekly Missoulian, wrote to Governor Potts on July 31, 1877 saying, “He (the sheriff) is a conceited ass, and if he considers his mightiness ignored, is a mule.”

Also not to his credit were the seemingly endless jail breaks. In one case, escapee John Tousley, described by local reporters as a “madman,” threw a broad-axe at the pursuing Drouillard, striking him “on the side of the leg below the knee,” severing a main artery. The sheriff was hospitalized for some time, but recovered.

Then there were the horse thieves, operating virtually unchallenged in 1877-78, particularly in the Bitterroot Valley south of Missoula. That winter as many as 50 horses were stolen in the Stevensville area alone.

Drouillard was tipped off that Pete Matte, a high-profile horse thief and member of the murderous “Gash Gang,” was hanging out at Plummer’s saloon in Stevensville. But Matte slipped out the back, the bar patron witnesses were uncooperative, and Drouillard didn’t bother searching.

Later, when a posse finally apprehend Pete Matte in the southern Bitter Root and headed toward Missoula with their prisoner, they met Drouillard along the way. They turned the prisoner over to the sheriff, who took Matte as far as Stevensville, where he decided to rest for the night.

Bozeman Avant Courier, March 21, 1878

Bad choice. Word got out. A band of 75 armed men relieved the sheriff of his prisoner and promptly hanged Matte.

Just weeks later, according to early Missoula historian Will Cave, another “Gash Gang” member, Bill Brown, was arrested and jailed – only to break out, like so many others. He apparently had been allowed to wander about freely in the jail and tunneled out from a cell adjoining his. He was never seen again.

A grand jury indicted both Sheriff Drouillard and Undersheriff James Thompson “for criminal negligence in the escape of Brown.” Thompson was never tried. He died of apparent heat prostration while serving papers in the Jocko area, although – even in this case – we find conflicting reports.

New North-West, July 12, 1878

One account speculated there may have been foul play. Lenora Koebel, in her book, Missoula The Way It Was (Page 55) wrote, “After the indictment (Undersheriff) Thompson went to the Flathead Reservation where he was murdered. Drouillard was tried on charges that he killed Thompson but he was acquitted.”

We tried to find documentation supporting this narrative at the Missoula County Records Center. But there are no files containing an indictment or any charges and there is no record of any such trial or verdict.

Drouillard, when finally tried on the charge of negligence in November 1878, was acquitted – just a month before he was murdered.

The questions and conflicting information continue.

Exactly when did Moses Drouillard first became acquainted with Marie (Mary) Angelia Thibault? We’re not certain. But since both lived high-profile lives, both were French-Canadians and both had ties to Frenchtown, we will assume they probably knew one another for a decade or so.

When and why did the two marry? The “when” is well documented. Moses and Mary took their vows September 4, 1878 at Frenchtown. The “why” is undocumented, but we have found some remarkable clues when we check the timeline.

April 1, 1877 – Husband, Dr. John Buker, says wife Mary locked him out of his own home.

May 10, 1877 – Mary deserts Dr. Buker and moves to Frenchtown.

April 1877 – Mary becomes pregnant.

January 15, 1878 – Mary gives birth to son, Albert Joseph.

But wait – an account by Montana Historical Society researcher Ellen Baumler, “Justice (as an afterthought) Women and the Montana Prison System,” says Mary was about six months pregnant when the sheriff married the former Mrs. Buker in September 1878.

She writes, “Early in December 1878, Mary gave birth to a son at the family’s quarters in the Missoula County jail. Although the infant, Albert, was given the last name of Drouillard, Moses was not necessarily his biological father.”

That conflicts with other available documents (1880 census data and Albert’s 1918 draft card) which reveal his birth date to have been on or about January 25, 1878 – not December, 1878.

Albert Joseph Druillard’s 1918 Draft Card

For now, we’ll set aside the conflict in dates, to address the obvious next big question: Who was Albert’s father?

Was it Drouillard? Were Mary and Moses carrying on while she was still married to Dr. Buker? Quite possibly, but we don’t know for certain.

If that was the case, it may explain why the two did not marry until September – waiting for Dr. Buker’s divorce from Mary to be finalized in July 1878. But that’s mere speculation.

We do know that Drouillard, Mary, her daughter Georgia and the young boy (either newborn or approaching one year of age) shared living quarters in the Missoula County jail from approximately September 4, 1878 until December 14, 1878.

That last day, the couple had an argument over Drouillard’s lack of clean clothes to wear. Mary said Moses was hung over from a night of drinking, hit her and Georgia, swore at her and threatened to kill himself rather than to be with her anymore. A gun was produced. Moses was shot in the head.

Mary claimed Moses had shot himself. She went to Missoula County Clerk Frank Woody’s office to report the shooting. When Woody arrived at the jail, he found Drouillard still alive and asked if Mary had shot him. Drouillard said no one had shot him. The sheriff died a short time later.

After that, accounts of the incident began to change. Mary claimed that an acquaintance, William McKay, and a jail employee by the name of John Fisher both had advised her to kill Moses. In fact, she claimed, McKay actually cocked the gun and handed it to her.

All three were indicted in connection with the murder.

Next week, in our final chapter – the trial, the verdict, and the continuing unresolved questions surrounding this young girl who affected so many lives in Missoula’s early days.

This series would not have been possible without the assistance of Keith Belcher at the Missoula county records center who found many of the historical documents on which the stories are based. Also invaluable was the assistance of Bill Lawrence, a friend and retired attorney, whose passion for genealogical research is unmatched. 

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.

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