By Jim Harmon
A centuries-old practice of anonymous, hurtful letter-writing has resurfaced in Montana. Missoula Current reports the latest incarnation of venomous writings involve attacks on Missoula’s efforts to resettle refugees.
Back in late 1893 and continuing into 1894, anonymous letters were also circulated in Missoula, casting aspersions and causing considerable angst. The targets then were members of Missoula’s “swell set,” the well-to-do of society.
In one case, anonymous letters played a role in a near-deadly shootout.
Understandably, the newspapers of the day did not specify the contents of the letters since doing so would further injure the reputations of the targeted persons, but they did call out the malevolent writers in an effort to end the practice.
The Anaconda Standard, in December of 1893, noted, “There is a general complaint against the rowdyism and lawlessness of a number of young men about town who are in the habit of creating disturbances in public meetings and otherwise bringing disgrace upon the reputation of Missoula as a law-abiding community.”
The paper continued, “The practice of sending anonymous letters, previously referred to in the Standard, was bad enough, without having further outrages perpetrated upon public decency, but there seems to be no end to the schemes of annoyance which are devised and carried out here in Missoula.”
In early 1894, the Missoulian called for an immediate stop to the practice, writing, “…the community will be surprised to know that the perpetrators lay claim to be called gentleman, (God save the mark!) and are supposed to occupy responsible business positions and have also been accorded social standing. Do they imagine that reputable banking or mercantile concerns would employ, or do business with men who are so handy with the pen? Hardly! The verdict of the community is more apt to be, that a man who would commit a social forgery like this latest effort of these ‘gentleman’ would need small temptation to wield the same facile pen – using somebody else’s name – on the back of a note, check or other negotiable paper.”
The public joined the call to end the practice, including this letter to the editor, “…it is (hoped) the infamous practice of anonymous letter writing has also ceased and the blackmailer, who seeks to retaliate for some fancied injury, has been laid away on the shelf. The city of Missoula has been sufficiently disgraced and dishonored, and even to the extent of frightening people from this community has the practice been carried on.”
Just a few months later, though, in late April 1894, anonymous letter-writing combined with an overdue dental bill for $19 brought two highly-respected Missoulians face to face in a near-deadly shootout on the Higgins Avenue bridge.
The Missoulian reported, “Shortly after 6:30 o’clock last evening the reports of rapid pistol firing in the direction of the south end of the Higgins avenue bridge… between the miniature clouds of smoke could be seen the upright forms of two men, emptying their revolvers at each other as quickly as triggers could be pulled.”
The paper continued, “As a consequence of the fusillade Jack Doudell, conductor of the Bitter Root branch trains, and one of the oldest and best known employees of the Northern Pacific, on the Rocky Mountain division, is lying at his pretty little home in South Fourth street, hovering between life and death, a bullet lodged in his right lung and his chances of recovery decidedly in the minority, and Dr. Fred. F. Ellis, the well-known dentist of the Higgins block, is under the care of three physicians at his residence, at the extreme southern terminus of Higgins avenue, with three bullet holes in his body, the extent of his injuries not having yet been fully determined.”
As it turns out, Doudell had apparently been the target of anonymous, disparaging rumors about town; rumors he thought were the doing of Dr. Ellis.
Ellis, in a statement to the Missoulian the day following the shootout, said, “This trouble with Doudell has been brewing for some time… just one month ago today, Doudell came to my office and without making any explanation, placed his hand in his hip pocket and said, ‘Ellis if I were to do the proper thing I would shoot you down in your tracks like a dog’. I started to expostulate with him when he warned me if I said another word he would kill me then and there.”
Ellis continued, “Naturally enough, I at once subsided and he took his departure, but not until he had remarked that he would investigate the matter, which he had failed to explain to me, and if he found out to his satisfaction that I was guilty, he would send a bullet through my heart. I left town the next morning on business and did not return for two or three days.”
The “matter” to which Doudell referred was explained this way by the Missoulian, “It is presumed, by those who should best be in a position to know, that Doudell was the recipient of one of the numerous infamous anonymous letters which a short time ago were so generally circulated throughout the city, the contents of which were of a nature calculated to bring about an intense hatred for his former friend, Dr. Ellis.”
Doudell apparently snapped that April evening when he stopped for his mail on the way home to find a past-due notice from a collection agent, regarding a $19 dental bill owed Ellis for work on Mrs. Doudell. When he saw Dr. Ellis on the bridge, he grabbed his gun and set out to confront the man.
Doudell (according to Ellis) told the doctor’s companions, “Here you men, step aside, I want to pay this (expletive) bill I owe him,” and went for his gun.
The Missoulian tried to get a statement from Doudell, but, “…the wounded man’s condition is such that any attempt at conversation is considered inadvisable by his physicians.”
As the two men recovered from their wounds, County Attorney Iullus Greenleaf Denny (you’ll remember him from last week’s story on Daniel Bandmann) filed charges against each of the participants for assault with a deadly weapon with intent to commit murder.
Wouldn’t you know it, though, in mid-August, I. G. Denny reduced the charges to simple assault, claiming “each would swear to a state of facts totally at variance with the other and a conviction under the circumstances would be practically out of the question.”
Judge Frank Woody, according to the Missoulian, “was inclined to agree with the county attorney in his views and believed that both parties to the South Side battle had learned a wholesome lesson. He believed that henceforth the gentlemen would be content to remain as peaceable, law-abiding citizens and that they had experienced a great sufficiency of their peculiar ‘target practice.'”
The two were fined $50 and costs.
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.