Harmon’s Histories: Early day Missoula was one mean, wicked burg
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
Missoula is one of the wickedest, most raucous, meanest towns in America!
As I noted in my book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was/Headline Stories of Montana’s Early Days, Vol. 1,” one local resident shared that view of the Garden City with a newspaper reporter in 1883.
The fellow said “he had, in his life, viewed many of the lowest dens of infamy in New York and Philadelphia; but that the streets of Missoula after nightfall were hell compared to anything he had ever seen.”
“Strangers who have come within our gates,” he continued, “have also dropped some very uncomplimentary remarks regarding the unblushing wickedness of our town.”
Let’s take a look at some other early press reports on the subject.
September 15, 1870 (Missoula Pioneer): “Complaint was made on the 12th before the Probate Judge of this County by D. Garafel against Philip Carr that the latter had assaulted him and bit one of his ears off. Carr has been arrested by the Sheriff, and underwent a preliminary examination.”
May 11, 1871 (Missoula Pioneer): Between horse racing, drunkenness, and fighting, last Sunday in Missoula was spent in a manner that would disgrace the savages of Patagonia. We shall hail with joy the arrival of the time in which the moral sense of the community will be strong enough to secure at least an external show of respect for the sanctity of the Sabbath.
Things did quiet down somewhat in the next decade or so, as evidenced in this tongue-in-cheek newspaper article:
July 16, 1880 (Weekly Missoulian): August Shearer, our German jailer, informs us that the jail is empty, and such being the case, no longer receives his pay from the county. Somebody has got to be shot, or the county will be in imminent danger of going to destruction. Mister S. must have a job. He is a very reliable keeper.”
But that appeared to be the exception, not the rule.
April 2,1880 (Weekly Missoulian): “Quite a shooting matinee took place last Friday night in front of Billy Bay's Saloon. The place had closed up for the night, the proprietors had retired, when some unknown parties noisily demanded admittance.”
“No attention was paid to them and (strange to say) no one knows who broke in a window and fired several shots into the saloon.”
“Meantime one or more shots were fired in return from the inside. Fortunately the affair resulted in no damage to anyone, although one ball crossed the street and entered the saddle shop, in a direct line for the bed of Mr. Kohn. It was stopped by a stove.”
A few months later, there was another report of dangerous gunfire.
August 27, 1880 (Weekly Missoulian): “A few days ago while a gentleman was standing in the rear of his place of business on Main Street, he was startled by the reports of a half dozen pistol shots fired in quick succession, the bullets whistling uncomfortably close to his head.
“While we are well assured that this is all done in mere recklessness and not with malicious design, it would be well for the shootists to remember that bullets are dangerous things, and that the legislature of Montana, realizing this fact, enacted a statute making it a criminal offense, punishable by a fine of from $5 to $25 for any person firing off any kind of firearms in any town, village or enclosure containing a residence.
“This law is rigidly enforced in nearly every place covered by the law in the Territory and it is time that the rural village of Missoula - where a man has as little use for a deadly weapon as a country school-marm has for a Gatling gun - should cease to be one of the exceptions.”
Even into the mid-1890s, there was still far too much derelict gunfire.
The editor of a local newspaper opined, “Missoula, while justly styled the most beautiful of all Montana cities, is yet one of the wickedest, as the many recent outrages will attest, and it devolves upon such a body as the grand jury to avoid the necessity of organizing a vigilance committee to protect the community and its property against further similar depredations.”
But the local press also reminded readers, “People who once get acquainted here find as substantial and refined a class of ladies in Missoula society as in any other town in the West.
“A gentleman well up in Montana musical matters recently made the statement that there was more musical talent and musical people to the square inch in Missoula than any other town in the territory. We have good schools here, fine residences, churches, newspapers and thinking people.”
Modern Missoula, of course, has taken on a new mantle - proud of its past (including the blemishes) but much more proud of its evolution into an educated, progressive community.
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 best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.