After the execution of the five men on the 14th of January, the
Vigilantes considered that their work was nearly ended. They had
freed the country of highwaymen and murderers to a great extent, and
they determined that in the absence of the regular civil authority
they would establish a People's Court where all offenders should be
tried by judge and jury. This was the nearest approach to social
order that the circumstances permitted, and, though strict legal
authority was wanting, yet the people were firmly determined to
maintain its efficiency, and to enforce its decrees. It may here be
mentioned that the overt act which was the last round on the fatal
ladder leading to the scaffold on which Slade perished, was the
tearing in pieces and stamping upon a writ of this court, followed
by his arrest of the Judge Alex. Davis, by authority of a presented
Derringer, and with his own hands.
J. A. Slade was himself, we have been informed, a Vigilante; he
openly boasted of it, and said he knew all that they knew. He was
never accused, or even suspected, of either murder or robbery,
committed in this Territory (the latter crime was never laid to his
charge, in any place); but that he had killed several men in other
localities was notorious, and his bad reputation in this respect was
a most powerful argument in determining his fate, when he was
finally arrested for the offence above mentioned. On returning from
Milk River he became more and more addicted to drinking, until at
last it was a common feat for him and his friends to "take the
town." He and a couple of his dependents might often be seen on one
horse, galloping through the streets, shouting and yelling, firing
revolvers, etc. On many occasions he would ride his horse into
stores, break up bars, toss the scales out of doors and use most
insulting language to parties present. Just previous to the day of
his arrest, he had given a fearful beating to one of his followers;
but such was his influence over them that the man wept bitterly at
the gallows, and begged for his life with all his power. It had
become quite common, when Slade was on a spree, for the shop-keepers
and citizens to close the stores and put out all the lights; being
fearful of some outrage at his hands. For his wanton destruction of
goods and furniture, he was always ready to pay, when sober, if he
had money; but there were not a few who regarded payment as small
satisfaction for the outrage, and these men were his personal
From time to time Slade received warnings from men that he well knew
would not deceive him, of the certain end of his conduct. There was
not a moment, for weeks previous to his arrest, in which the public
did not expect to hear of some bloody outrage. The dread of his
very name, and the presence of the armed band of hangers-on who
followed him alone prevented a resistance which must certainly have
ended in the instant murder or mutilation of the opposing party.
Slade was frequently arrested by order of the court whose
organization we have described, and had treated it with respect by
paying one or two fines and promising to pay the rest when he had
money; but in the transaction that occurred at this crisis, he
forgot even this caution, and goaded by passion and the hatred of
restraint, he sprang into the embrace of death.
Slade had been drunk and "cutting up" all night. He and his
companions had made the town a perfect hell. In the morning, J. M.
Fox, the sheriff, met him, arrested him, took him into court and
commenced reading a warrant that he had for his arrest, by way of
arraignment. He became uncontrollably furious, and seizing the
writ, he tore it up, threw it on the ground and stamped upon it.
The clicking of the locks of his companions' revolvers was instantly
heard, and a crisis was expected. The sheriff did not attempt his
retention; but being at least as prudent as he was valiant, he
succumbed, leaving Slade the master of the situation and the
conqueror and ruler of the courts, law and law-makers. This was a
declaration of war, and was so accepted. The Vigilance Committee
now felt that the question of social order and the preponderance of
the law-abiding citizens had then and there to be decided. They
knew the character of Slade, and they were well aware that they must
submit to his rule without murmur, or else that he must be dealt
with in such fashion as would prevent his being able to wreak his
vengeance on the committee, who could never have hoped to live in
the Territory secure from outrage or death, and who could never
leave it without encountering his friend, whom his victory would
have emboldened and stimulated to a pitch that would have rendered
them reckless of consequences. The day previous he had ridden into
Dorris's store, and on being requested to leave, he drew his
revolver and threatened to kill the gentleman who spoke to him.
Another saloon he had led his horse into, and buying a bottle of
wine, he tried to make the animal drink it. This was not considered
an uncommon performance, as he had often entered saloons and
commenced firing at the lamps, causing a wild stampede.
A leading member of the committee met Slade, and informed him in the
quiet, earnest manner of one who feels the importance of what he is
saying: "Slade, get your horse at once, and go home, or there will
be ---- to pay." Slade started and took a long look, with his dark
and piercing eyes, at the gentleman. "What do you mean?" said he.
"You have no right to ask me what I mean," was the quiet reply, "get
your horse at once, and remember what I tell you." After a short
pause he promised to do so, and actually got into the saddle; but,
being still intoxicated, he began calling aloud to one after another
of his friends, and at last seemed to have forgotten the warning he
had received and became again uproarious, shouting the name of a
well-known courtezan in company with those of two men whom he
considered heads of the committee, as a sort of challenge; perhaps,
however, as a simple act of bravado. It seems probable that the
intimation of personal danger he had received had not been forgotten
entirely; though fatally for him, he took a foolish way of showing
his remembrance of it. He sought out Alexander Davis, the Judge of
the Court, and drawing a cocked Derringer, he presented it at his
head, and told him that he should hold him as a hostage for his own
safety. As the judge stood perfectly quiet, and offered no
resistance to his captor, no further outrage followed on this score.
Previous to this, on account of the critical state of affairs, the
committee had met, and at last resolved to arrest him. His
execution had not been agreed upon, and, at that time, would have
been negatived, most assuredly. A messenger rode down to Nevada to
inform the leading men of what was on hand, as it was desirable to
show that there was a feeling of unanimity on the subject, all along
The miners turned out almost en masse, leaving their work and
forming in solid column about six hundred strong, armed to the
teeth, they marched up to Virginia. The leader of the body well
knew the temper of his men on the subject. He spurred on ahead of
them, and hastily calling a meeting of the executive, he told them
plainly that the miners meant "business," and that, if they came up,
they would not stand in the street to be shot down by Slade's
friends; but that they would take him and hang him. The meeting was
small, as the Virginia men were loath to act at all. This momentous
announcement of the feeling of the Lower Town was made to a cluster
of men, who were deliberation behind a wagon, at the rear of a store
on Main street.
The committee were most unwilling to proceed to extremities. All
the duty they had ever performed seemed as nothing to the task
before them; but they had to decide, and that quickly. It was
finally agreed that if the whole body of the miners were of the
opinion that he should be hanged, that the committee left it in
their hands to deal with him. Off, at hot speed, rode the leader of
the Nevada men to join his command.
Slade had found out what was intended, and the news sobered him
instantly. He went into P. S. Pfouts' store, where Davis was, and
apologized for his conduct, saying that he would take it all back.
The head of the column now wheeled into Wallace street and marched
up at quick time. Halting in front of the store, the executive
officer of the committee stepped forward and arrested Slade, who was
at once informed of his doom, and inquiry was made as to whether he
had any business to settle. Several parties spoke to him on the
subject; but to all such inquiries he turned a deaf ear, being
entirely absorbed in the terrifying reflections on his own awful
position. He never ceased his entreaties for life, and to see his
dear wife. The unfortunate lady referred to, between whom and Slade
there existed a warm affection, was at this time living at their
ranch on the Madison. She was possessed of considerable personal
attractions; tall, well-formed, of graceful carriage, pleasing
manners, and was, withal, an accomplished horsewoman.
A messenger from Slade rode at full speed to inform her of her
husband's arrest. In an instant she was in the saddle, and with all
the energy that love and despair could lend to an ardent temperament
and a strong physique, she urged her fleet charger over the twelve
miles of rough and rocky ground that intervened between her and the
object of her passionate devotion.
Meanwhile a party of volunteers had made the necessary preparations
for the execution, in the valley traversed by the branch. Beneath
the site of Pfouts and Russell's stone building there was a corral,
the gate-posts of which were strong and high. Across the top was
laid a beam, to which the rope was fastened, and a dry-goods box
served for the platform. To this place Slade was marched,
surrounded by a guard, composing the best armed and most numerous
force that has ever appeared in Montana Territory.
The doomed man had so exhausted himself by tears, prayers and
lamentations, that he had scarcely strength left to stand under the
fatal beam. He repeatedly exclaimed, "My God! my God! must I die?
Oh, my dear wife!"
On the return of the fatigue party, they encountered some friends of
Slade, staunch and reliable citizens and members of the committee,
but who were personally attached to the condemned. On hearing of
his sentence, one of them, a stout-hearted man, pulled out his
handkerchief and walked away, weeping like a child. Slade still
begged to see his wife, most piteously, and it seemed hard to deny
his request; but the bloody consequences that were sure to follow
the inevitable attempt at a rescue, that her presence and entreaties
would have certainly incited, forbade the granting of his request.
Several gentlemen were sent for to see him, in his last moments, one
of whom (Judge Davis) made a short address to the people; but in
such low tones as to be inaudible, save to a few in his immediate
vicinity. One of his friends, after exhausting his powers of
entreaty, threw off his coat and declared that the prisoner could
not be hanged until he himself was killed. A hundred guns were
instantly leveled at him; whereupon he turned and fled; but, being
brought back, he was compelled to resume his coat, and to give a
promise of future peaceable demeanor.
Scarcely a leading man in Virginia could be found, though numbers of
the citizens joined the ranks of the guard when the arrest was made.
All lamented the stern necessity which dictated the execution.
Everything being ready, the command was given, "Men, do your duty,"
and the box being instantly slipped from beneath his feet, he died
The body was cut down and carried to the Virginia Hotel, where, in a
darkened room, it was scarcely laid out, when the unfortunate and
bereaved companion of the deceased arrived, at headlong speed, to
find that all was over, and that she was a widow. Her grief and
heart-piercing cries were terrible evidences of the depth of her
attachment for her lost husband, and a considerable period elapsed
before she could regain the command of her excited feelings.