This week’s episode was to have been the conclusion of our series on Marie (Mary) Angelia Thibeau McWhirk Buker Drouillard.
But wouldn’t you know it – we’ve uncovered a few more unexpected details relating to this woman whose marriages to three prominent Missoula men in the 1870s all ended badly. So we’ll have to make this our second to last installment.
You’ll recall Mary divorced husband No. 1, Cyrus McWhirk. She locked husband No. 2, Dr. John Buker, out of his own home, forcing him to divorce her. And she allegedly shot and killed husband No. 3, Sheriff Moses Droiullard.
Today we recount the shooting, the three suspects, their trials, their verdicts and the beginning of Mary’s prison term.
At the outset we’ll admit there seems to be only one ironclad fact: Sheriff Moses Drouillard died of a gunshot wound to the head on December 16, 1878, the result of a shooting incident at the county jail the previous morning.
From that point on, versions vary and accounts change.
At a coroner’s inquest on December 17, 1878, Missoula County Clerk Frank Woody testified that when he arrived at the jail after being summoned by Mary, he asked Sheriff Drouillard if Mary had shot him. Drouillard said no one had shot him.
Mary testified that Moses, hung over from a night of drinking, hit her and her daughter, swore at her and threatened to kill himself rather than to be with her any longer. She said Moses then shot himself.
Jail employee John Fisher told the panel Moses had been drinking the night before and continued to drink at local saloons on Sunday morning just prior to the shooting.
He said he’d witnessed Drouillard beating Mary in the past and that, “He also (to me) threatened to shoot himself, not only once but several times, and on Sunday I considered him to be partly out of his mind.”
So was it suicide by a crazed, drunken man? The coroner’s jurors didn’t think so: “Moses M. Drouillard came to his death from a pistol wound inflicted by the hands of Mary A. Drouillard.” Mary was arrested and jailed.
A few days later, her story changed. She confessed that she shot Moses Drouillard, but claimed a man named William McKay, as well as jailer John Fisher, encouraged her to shoot him. She said Fisher not only “incited her to do the deed, (but) cocked the pistol by which it was done.”
Fisher was quickly arrested and brought before Judge Pomeroy on Saturday, December 21, 1878. But the judge threw out the case, saying the evidence was too flimsy. Later, Mary would change her story again, claiming it was McKay who handed the pistol to her.
At this point – inexplicably – the case drew to a halt. While most legal matters in the 1870s proceeded to trial in a matter of days or weeks, the grand jury did not convene to hear this case for nearly a year.
On November 12, 1879, the panel finally indicted all three suspects: Mary Drouillard, William McKay and John A. Fisher, for the murder of Moses Drouillard – and the judicial system resumed at its usual Old-West, break-neck speed.
On Monday, November 17, 1879, Mary’s trial began. She pleaded not guilty. Fisher’s and McKay’s cases were scheduled to follow.
Over one hundred jurors were examined, with most excused because they knew the parties involved. But a jury was finally impaneled.
Mary’s 70-year-old mother, Adele Tebeau, traveled from Walla Walla to be in the courtroom, where she was heard to say: “Tell the truth, my daughter, if it takes you to the scaffold.” Mary replied, “Mother, it’s too late.” The judge called for order in the court!
The Weekly Missoulian reporter noted that the exchange between mother and daughter touched many in the courtroom: “Many an eye, unused to salt water, was moistened.”
It did not apparently moisten any of the jurors’ eyes. Within days, they convicted Mary of “murder in the second degree.” She was sentenced to 15 years in the state penitentiary.
The trial of William McKay promptly commenced the week of November 24th, with Mary as the star witness. She testified that McKay was at the jail when Moses beat her.
She claimed McKay intervened, “handed me a pistol and told me to kill the —–, and if I did not he would do it, and he would kill me if I would tell on him. Before realizing what I was doing I fired away.” She said the two of them then moved the dying man from the doorway into the jail residence.
While the jury did take considerable time deliberating, ultimately they found McKay not guilty.
Next was John Fisher’s case, but it was over before it began. District Attorney A. E. Mayhew requested a “nolle prosequi” order – which means either the charges can’t be proven or there’s some flaw in the evidence. The case was dismissed and Fisher was discharged from custody.
A week or so later, a deputy transporting Mary and other prisoners to the penitentiary claimed Mary had admitted, in conversation, that she made up the story about McKay to “save her own neck.”
A few people flat out didn’t buy that. And, they didn’t agree with the verdicts. One, calling himself “Fair Play,” wrote a letter to the editor of the New North-West newspaper in Deer Lodge on December 12, 1879.
Referring to Mary as “an unfortunate, half-witted woman,” he claimed, “A large majority of the people who heard her testify (implicating William McKay) believe she told the truth.”
He even pointed out that “Mrs. Drouillard’s little girl Georgie, aged five years,” who was living with the William McWhirk family in Corvallis after Mary’s arrest, had – unprompted – given “full corroboration” to her mother’s testimony.
“Among other things, this little girl stated that the man took hold of her father and dragged him into the jail, and laid him on a robe. Nobody asked her to tell it, or suspected that she could relate the circumstance.”
The letter writer, calling himself “Fair Play” asked, “Who that heard that related by this little girl could doubt the testimony of Mrs. Drouillard given at the trial?”
Of course, the only people who mattered were the 12 men on the jury, who clearly did doubt Mary’s testimony.
Now, it strikes me at this point, that we have presented you with no physical description of Mary. That’s because we have found none thus far.
Based on testimony in her murder trial, one might conclude she was a rather slight woman. A physician testified it would have been difficult for her to have moved the body of the sheriff by herself. Then again, she may just have been fatigued from birthing her son Albert (a point raised last week in the conflicting reports of when the child was born).
Though we have no photo or drawing, the state penitentiary did finally provide our first physical description of Mary upon her arrival on December 3, 1879: “aged 24, height 5 feet 6 inches, weight 149 pounds, dark brown hair, hazel eyes, fair complexion, education poor.”
But they either left out or failed to observe one important descriptor: she was pregnant!
Just months into her term, in early 1880, she was transferred to a nearby hospital because “the convict was enceinte” (a term meaning an unwed mother who brings shame to her family).
She “assigned control of her (just-born) infant child to a respectable family in Deer Lodge,” and then attempted suicide according to the New North-West newspaper.
She is said to have taken “chloral hydrate and opium powder, which she surreptitiously obtained while an inmate of the hospital confinement.” The paper continued, “She was kept walking at a rapid pace for four hours, and her life was saved thereby.”
The baby girl died a few months later.
Obviously, Mary had become pregnant while in custody in the Missoula jail – in that nearly year-long period between her arrest and the grand jury indictments and trials in 1879.
So now we are now left with yet another unsolved mystery: Who the heck was the father of this baby? We apparently will never know.
Mary Angelina Drouillard was pardoned after serving three years.
A ledger entry simply noted a payment to E. L. Bonner & Company in the amount of $15 for “clothing for discharged convict Mary Drouillard” on August 22, 1882.
At this point, Mary virtually disappears from sight, and from the headlines. There are reports she may have moved to Walla Walla, where her mother lived. Probably so.
But there would be much more tragedy in the years ahead for this young French-Canadian woman who had affected so many lives: Our concluding article is next week.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.