By Jim Harmon
Mary Gleim is among Missoula’s most colorful historical characters. So much has been written about her, I hesitate to go down this road, except for the fact that the details of her downfall are usually glossed over in a few sentences. They deserve so much more.
First, a little background.
Gleim was Irish, educated in England and spoke a number of languages. She was a businesswoman when women weren’t allowed to own a business. She and her husband John moved to Missoula in 1888. Using John as a “front,” Gleim amassed considerable wealth from real estate and importing or smuggling everything from lace goods to opium.
But her place in history will always be as Missoula’s “madam of Front Street,” operating eight brothels…er…boarding houses. Her chief rival in the “boarding house business” was Bobby Burns.
Neither Burns nor Gleim were to be messed with; both had explosive personalities. Gleim, the size of a grizzly with the temperament of a pit bull (my apologies to both), was arrested one time “for drawing a revolver on Billy Hawkes and threatening to convert him into a dashing young angel.” Burns, about the same time, was arrested for “drawing a deadly weapon and threatening to perforate the precious hide” of Mrs. Gleim.
The story of Mary’s downfall began, innocently enough, on January 30, 1894. One of the local papers carried a short item which read, “The charming Madame Gleim departed today on a visit to California’s Midwinter Midway and will not return for several weeks, much to the satisfaction of the many denizens of her neighborhood, who always breathe easier when they know she is away.”
Little did anyone know that Gleim had hired some thugs to (literally) blow up the competition while she was conveniently out of town. The Missoulian’s story on the incident is a journalistic gem.
The article ran on Feb. 12, 1894.
“A portion of Bobby Burns residence, on the bank of the river in the rear of one of the W. Front St. palaces of sin, took a trip skyward about 3:15 this morning being greatly augmented in its desire for aerial fame by a stick of dynamite which had been placed under the little shack, by some person or persons who evidently have but little love for the aforementioned ‘Bobby.
“Dynamite has its peculiarities and to this fact Burns probably owes his life. The force of the discharge was evidently not what was expected but was sufficient to tear out the lower portions of the building and completely wreck the contents of the room in which Burns was sleeping at the time and a tin wash basin, which was standing outside a door of the room was blown a distance of 60 feet and lodged in the branches of a tree at the edge of the river.
“There is no clue to the perpetrator of the outrage, though Burns himself claims that he has been expecting something of the sort for some time and believes the guilty party to be a neighbor of his. The affair is the talk of the town…”
Missoula’s other paper, the Western Democrat, clarified a major point. The reason Burns wasn’t killed was that the culprits, in the dark of night, blew up the wrong building, “The investigation showed that the rear end of the building next to the one he occupied had been destroyed. The two houses were nearly alike and there appears to be no doubt that the fiend perpetrating the outrage intended the destruction of Mr. Burns and his property by dynamite.”
Burns promptly offered a $500 reward for any information, and while it seemed apparent to all what had happened, months went by with no arrests.
The city did, however, put on a good show cracking down on the “worthless elements” of Missoula’s “Midway Plaisance” (a phrase appropriated from the recent Chicago World Exposition). The Missoulian reported, “The officers have again commenced a raid on that idle, worthless and despicable class of humanity, known to the community as pimps or secretaries.”
Finally, in August, a grand jury indicted Gleim and two accomplices, Pat Mason, a “worthless sort of fellow around town,” and Pvt. William Reed, a “colored soldier” of the 25th infantry at Ft. Missoula, for attempted murder.
The three were immediately jailed, but Gleim was allowed a quantity of booze to drink while in the slammer. That led to more trouble. The Missoulian reported, “It was a bad night; the quantity of booze allowed her had run out only to soon and she took the occasion to vent her spleen on a fellow prisoner. When brought into court this morning “Mother” Gleim … declined to permit the court to appoint counsel for her and took occasion to express herself regarding some members of the local legal fraternity in – to say the least – a decidedly unprofessional way.”
In early September, 1894, Patrick James Mason was convicted of assault with intent to murder “Bobby” Burns. Judge Frank Woody described the crime a “cowardly” act, and noting that dynamiting had become all to common and must be stopped, sentenced Mason to the maximum 14 years in the state pen.
Meantime, on a motion by the county attorney (in an apparent plea deal), the case against the soldier, William Reed, was dismissed. He would soon testify against Mary Gleim.
In our next installment, Mary Gleim goes to trial.
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.