Editor’s note: Jim Harmon is taking an additional week off for R&R. The old codger puts forth a convincing case that just one more week off will provide him with that long-sought-after Fountain of Youth feeling – and I’m such a push-over. So today, Jim offers up one more golden oldie from his book “The ‘Sneakin’est’ Man That Ever Was,” featuring 46 short headline stories of Montana’s early days.
The scene: Missoula in the late 1800s. Justice Court. Judge Ross, presiding.
The defendant: Frank Jurden, accused of cat-burgling a tidy (a small receptacle for one’s odds & ends), valued at $5.
The victim and complainant: M’lle Leontine David, who discovered the theft upon returning home from her … ah … shall we say … nighttime endeavors.
OK, fine. She was a working girl, a lady of the night, but a victim nonetheless.
The local paper described her as “a poor orphan girl, who through unfortunate circumstances, had been thrown upon this cold and clammy world and compelled to eke out her own existence and who could, therefore, ill afford to lose the article in question or any other article possessing a monetary value.”
The county attorney had multiple witnesses and felt he had a “lead-pipe cinch” of a case.
The defendant, a foul-mouthed miscreant known widely in the community, seemed to have no case at all. Who would even defend him in court?
Well, it turns out, the answer to that question was: most all of the legal luminaries of Missoula!
When the seemingly minor $5 theft case was called, Jurden was surrounded by “a formidable array of legal talent, consisting of Messrs. Marshall & Corbett, Messrs. Bickford, Stiff & Hershey,” along with a half-dozen other top lawyers of the city.
The legal lights sat quietly as the victim’s neighbor and good friend, Miss Georgie Allen, told the jury she saw the defendant with the stolen tidy and confronted him. She said Jurden responded to her accusation with a barrage of epithets that “caused her great pain and subsequent loss of sleep.”
Testifying next, reported the Missoulian, was “Wing Chung Lung, a prosperous Chinese merchant and manager of the slickest opium joint in all Hell Gate township, (who) swore that he saw this ‘belly man’ hop out of Miss Leontine’s boudoir window with something bulky concealed under his coat.”
The most reputable of the prosecution’s witnesses was local weather prognosticator William “W. B.” Fawcett (a well-respected Missoulian described in the previous chapter), who claimed he was in the vicinity of Miss David’s place (solely “in his official capacity” as a weather observer) when he saw the defendant’s “peculiar conduct.”
When he confronted Jurden, Fawcett claimed the defendant “threatened to perforate his hide with an assortment of leaden pellets” and accused Fawcett of “things that were absolutely unbecoming his station in life.”
The cadre of defense lawyers, the finest in the Garden City, surprisingly “made no attempt to refute the testimony of the prosecution.”
In its closing argument, the prosecution told the jury the evidence was self-evident; after all, the defense didn’t dispute any of the accounts or allegations.
The hour was drawing late when the defense had its turn at closing arguments. First they asked the judge if they could “argue the case in shifts, so that all could have an opportunity to repair to their respective homes for dinner,” but the request was denied.
So they commenced their “general, all-around denial” that the defendant had anything to do with the theft. Then the elite legal defense team played its ace.
The prosecution, they proclaimed, had failed to prove the pilfered container was a “crocheted” tidy (as charged) and “demanded an acquittal as the result of this very important omission.”
The jury “grasped the idea at once” and, on that technicality, found Jurden not guilty.
Late 19th century justice, Missoula style.
But the question remains – why would a dozen of Missoula’s most respected attorneys come to this man’s defense?
The Missoulian newspaper explained it this way.
Jurden, a “sort of assistant horse trainer” at the Missoula racetrack, had “summoned the entire legal fraternity of the city … by various promises of ‘straight tips’ and other inside information” concerning the July horse races.
The paper concluded: Upon hearing the jury’s verdict, “the gladdened prisoner fell upon the necks of his overjoyed counsel and promised to reimburse them all handsomely (with tips on the horse races) on the 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th days of July.”
There was no follow-up report, I’m sorry to say, on how those tips paid off. But it can be reported that one week after the trial, Jurden was hauled before Judge Ross on a charge of disturbing the peace, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 60 days in jail.
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at email@example.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.