Harmon’s Histories: Thompson Falls takes up arms to stop nightly burglaries

Nearly every business in Thompson Falls had been hit. The burglaries went on for more than a year. Word on the street was that someone must have keys to every business in town.

“Some of the merchants being cognizant of this fact changed locks on their warehouses once a month and in nearly every instance the old lock was noticed to have been tampered with and out of order before the change was made,” reported the Weekly Montanian.

Only when store owners began camping out in their businesses all night was the culprit caught.

In the early morning hours of February 21, 1896, the suspect, jangling a set of keys, turned the latch and entered John Willis’ store and was immediately confronted by the waiting owner who shouted, “Throw up your hands!”

The burglar, Ah Gue, a Chinese man known locally as “Fatty,” bolted.

“Three leaden missiles were sent after him, two at his legs and one for general results, the latter taking effect in the left arm and elbow,” reported the local paper. He was soon arrested.

In another case, a couple of young thieves were spotted in photographer Frank Cannon’s house. They bolted, shooting Cannon’s barking dog as they fled.

The constable and a few citizens gave chase, finding one of the men’s coats ripped on a barbed wire fence. The two were found a short distance away trying to burn the garment.

But these were exceptions. Most of the time, the culprits weren’t caught. Tramps made off with a keg of beer from the railway platform in broad daylight while others were busy plundering local homes when the residents were away.

A. Hendricks, publisher Thomson Falls’ Weekly Montanian newspaper, fed up with what was happening to the western Montana town, called on the good citizens to rise up and do something.

“Thompson Falls needs a first-class emetic and no homeopathic dose either,” he wrote. “This seems to be a favorite rendezvous for the scum of creation. The offscourings of the earth are poured upon us. When we are not infested with hobos and beggars, thieves, perjurers and villains, the night hawks are carrying away our fowls, the wood vendor is stealing our wood.

“When a robbery is committed in other parts of the state, the robbers are caught here. There is something magnetic about (Thompson Falls).”

The trouble was, the newspaper editor wasn’t sure how many good citizens there were in town, upbraiding many of them in one column as “too good to steal, too good to lie, too good to talk about their neighbors … shining lights of brilliant society – bright, sparkling angels without wings … sweet scented daisies, turtle doves … world without end amen.”

But he did make his point.

Tired of the lawlessness, armed citizens began to round up the ruffians.

In one outing, “Nine of the gang were found comfortably quartered in the bunkhouse of the Lavell mill where they had lived on the fat of the land for several days during which time they snored loudly by day and plundered the peaceful village by night.”

They were marched three miles outside the town limits at gunpoint and told not to return.

Others were rounded up at campsites around Thompson Falls, where stolen guns and knives were found along with numerous watches and even a “suit of clothes which was taken from a burglarized store in Missoula.”

The Weekly Montanian crowed, “lawlessness … might be tolerated in some localities, but it will not be tolerated in Thompson Falls. Not by a log shot.”