Harmon’s Histories: The troublesome story of Mr. Walter and his hungry family

By Jim Harmon

Times were tough in Missoula and the rest of the country at the end of the 19th-century.

The economic panic of 1893 led to the country’s worst depression to date. Banks closed. Businesses failed. Farmers were in trouble. Layoffs and strikes led to thousands of unemployed miners and railroad workers.

The city had a well-established county poor-farm for those unable to care for themselves.anaconda-standard-clipping-2

Now, it created a relief committee to sort out the true “needy” from the vagrants and slackers. The committee solicited cash assistance from the Missoula Mercantile company, Western Montana bank and other businesses and individuals. They also took donations of vegetables, sacks of flour, and clothing.

Remarkably, after the vetting, an informal report revealed only 8 to 10 true cases of destitution in the city. All others were found to be falsely represented.

The most outrageous case uncovered by the relief committee was that of the J. D. Walter family.

Walter was appointed a United States commissioner in Missoula in the late 1800s. That’s equivalent to the job of a U. S. magistrate in the federal court system, these days.

As a lawyer, judge, and notary public, he did alright financially, despite the economic downturn. He also drew a monthly pension as a Civil War veteran.

But rumors began circulating in January of 1894 that things weren’t alright in the Walter household. Word was the judge had basically left his wife and four children in destitute condition, without food, clothing or warmth in the house. Walter spent his nights there but, comfortably, in a separate room.

Local reporters began investigating. The Missoulian discovered, “…within the four walls is contained human suffering and absolute privation to an extent almost beyond the boundaries of human understanding.”

The Anaconda Standard reported, “There was no food in the house except oatmeal… the family are in extreme want and nearly starved.” The paper continued, “The mother had not clothing enough to keep warm in moderate weather, and all the children were in need of proper clothing… the suffering on cold nights must have been intense.”

The Missoulian added, “the inhuman husband and father of the family, notwithstanding his ability to amply provide for them, not only refused to supply them with the necessaries of life but was inclined to berate his neighbors for their interference with his private affairs.”

Mrs. Walter told reporters her husband wanted to be rid of her and the kids, using starvation as the tool to free himself from his burdensome family.

The Standard reported, “The saddest part of all is that the husband and father sleeps in another room (in the house) on a spring bed with good warm covering, and more than that gets his meals down town at a restaurant, and goes about warmly clad.”

A Missoulian reporter confronted Mr. Walter at a local restaurant as he was “tucking a good wholesome meal away under his vest.” Walter denied everything, claiming his family was being provided for sufficiently, and saying the whole thing was blown out of proportion by some meddlesome neighbors.

Unrelenting, the paper labeled him a “hoary headed old man, whose duty it is to protect them and keep them from want, (but) raises his hand only to discourage the efforts of his kindly disposed neighbors to alleviate the sufferings of his brokenhearted and impoverished family.”

The news articles triggered public outrage.missoulian-clipping-starvation

The Standard reported, “…there are threats on the streets tonight against the old man if he does not care for his wife and children.” That prompted Walter to vacate the Garden city, post haste, for less hostile environs.

But, exactly where the “wrinkled and decrepit piece humanity” went couldn’t be determined. It was speculated he may have taken his own life.

Meantime, the city’s relief committee made sure the family was cared for.

A couple of weeks later, a letter arrived for the family. It had been postmarked at Arlee the day after Walter’s disappearance, and contained $1.50.

It read: “Dear little daughter Luella, (enclosed is) a little county order for a birthday present, please do not be selfish, divide with the other children as I may not have anything to send them.”

“I was forced to leave last night by threats of mob violence. The threats were communicated to me by a little girl, less than you, and by other people, also by the Anaconda Standard. I walked in the rain until I was exhausted.”

“It was on account of Ma’s doings, but I will forgive you all praying the Lord. I expect to travel tonight again and I hope when Ma marries another man she will be good to him and hope he will be good to the children. From your dear and despised father, J. D. Walter.”

As soon as the federal district court reconvened for its spring term, Judge Hiram Knowles promptly revoked Walter’s “commission.”

In late April there was a reported sighting of the mysterious, disappearing Mr. Walter in Salt Lake City, but the man was never again seen in Missoula.

Jim Harmon is a retired journalist whose 50-year career included nearly three decades at KECI-TV, Missoula in roles ranging from news anchor to weather forecaster. In retirement, Jim is a landscape gardener and history buff who’s spent years reading historical micro-film newspapers. You can read his weekly history column at the Missoula Current.