Harmon’s Histories: The mysterious disappearance of Missoula’s John Maley
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
Before starting today’s story, let’s give a shout-out to Lizzo at last week’s Library of Congress event in which she played a note or two on President James Madison’s crystal flute, declaring, “History is f---ing cool, you guys!"
Now, on with today’s snippet: The Mysterious Disappearance of John Maley.
Last week, I wrote about a man named Thomas H. Thibedeau, who despite being illiterate and speaking no English, was quite successful in business in Missoula with his partner, Dennis Lee.
One of those businesses was the California Wine House at 109 E. Front St. And, that – as it turns out - led me to the strange story of John Maley.
Maley, a plasterer by trade, was well-known throughout the community. He was last seen alive on an October morning in 1901. He appeared headed to the area south of the river. His body was found a week later. He had drowned.
Though there were no signs of trauma, a number of people reported having seen the highly intoxicated Maley in the company of two strangers who may have been forcing him to go toward the Higgins Avenue Bridge. But no one intervened.
Maley lived with his wife and three daughters in a small home on West Cedar Street (now Broadway). An older married daughter lived in Hamilton.
The family launched an immediate search, but could not find him. But once the body was discovered, the speculation began.
Some described Maley as “partially stupefied by drink” and believe he simply wandered down to the river and drowned. Others flatly rejected that, saying he was “too familiar” with the river to have ever done that.
Then there was the matter of money. A number of downtown bar patrons reported he had $15 on his person, but when the body was discovered – only a watch and $2.85 was found.
Maley, 47 at the time of his death, had moved to western Montana in 1899. During his time in Missoula, many lauded him as the most “skillful and efficient” brick mason around, with a “genial and pleasant disposition.”
But he was also described as “his own worst enemy.” Despite earning great money and despite the accolades about his work, he was determined to strike it rich mining.
He had spent years prowling the mountains of western Montana, laying claim to a number of excellent prospects in the Copper Cliff region.
Could it be he had actually struck it rich, and in his drunkenness, showed the two strangers some gold nuggets? It would certainly be a better motive for murder than a measly 15 bucks. On top of that, if it was murder, why would the suspect(s) leave the man’s watch and $2.85?
The coroner’s jury heard from more than a dozen witnesses, but little was learned. One person testified he saw Maley in the company of two strangers who appeared to be “half forcing the man along the street against his will.”
Another witness said he had seen the strangers that night in the bars, and thought one of them was named Witte. He also had heard the pair of strangers might have been seen in Hamilton, and that one of them had been arrested. That proved untrue.
Both Dennis Lee and Thomas Thibedeau were called to testify but could add nothing of real help in the case, other than Lee saying that one of his employees had seen Maley in the bar early in the evening, but not later.
Yet another witness testified to hearing a “splash” in the river around midnight “that closely resembled the fall into the water of a heavy body.” He also saw a couple of men standing “at the bridge rail,” but thought nothing of it at the time.
A local candy maker by the name of C.B. Gorski also heard that “splash.” You guessed it: He, too, thought nothing of it.
Was hearing the sounds of bodies splashing in the river really so common at the turn of the century that people just brushed it off as normal? So it would seem!
The coroner’s jury was left with no choice but to leave unresolved the “manner of death.” Was it an accident? A suicide? Or was it murder? The press of the day dropped the story after the inquest. Not a single follow-up can be found.
The case, to this day, appears unsolved.
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.