The modern debate over the death penalty in Montana boils down to this: Is it unusually cruel? Is it civilized?
But in the earliest accounts of capital punishment in this state, execution was seen as precisely the opposite. It was a harbinger of civilized society.
Back then, said Keith Edgerton, a Montana State University-Billings history professor and author of the book “Montana Justice,” Montana was part of an enormous U.S. territory that also included Idaho.
“Gold was discovered in 1862 and thousands of people rushed here to extract it,” he said.
The U.S. government didn’t have the manpower to control such a vast chunk of ground and Montana’s early mining camps were “outside the bounds of any organized law.
“There was crime happening and there was no social stability whatsoever.”
Trials for these accused were “down and dirty,” Edgerton said, and the preferred method of dispatching the condemned was quick and utilitarian: Hanging.
Between December 1863 and January 1864, some 25 people were hanged in Montana by vigilante gangs.
The prison was the first alternative to execution or letting criminals run free.
But vigilantes weren’t through with Montana, yet. The bloodiest run of vigilante justice in U.S. history happened in eastern Montana when a group that called itself Stewart’s Stranglers rounded up and hanged some 35 suspected cattle rustlers in 1884.
All executions — vigilante and state-sanctioned — were conducted by hanging until 1995, Edgerton said.
So far, Montana has executed 72 men, according to state and historical figures. Until the 1940s, executions were handled by the counties, Edgerton said. The state maintained a traveling gallows and invitations were sometimes issued.
“It was a means of social control,” Edgerton said.
The state’s last hanging in Missoula in 1943 was also the state’s last execution for 52 years. Montana didn’t execute another inmate until 1995, when Duncan McKenzie was executed by lethal injection after spending 20 years on death row.
Today, lethal injection is the only death sentence method allowed in the state.
European settlement, of course, wasn’t the beginning of Montana history. For centuries before, American Indians lived in the state. But there is little to suggest Montana’s nine tribes used execution as a form of punishment.
“We really had no kind of capital punishment,” said Linwood Tall Bull, a cultural consultant for the Northern Cheyenne tribe.
Sam Windy Boy, Jr., a cultural consultant for the Chippewa-Cree tribe, said the spiritual laws of the tribe uphold human life as a core belief.
The most severe punishment meted by the Chippewa-Cree was banishment, he said, reserved for murderers. Under banishment, the guilty party was driven from the tribe, never again to have any help or contact with the tribe and considered dead thereafter.