By Dakota Livesay
This week in the old west
Western movies show lynch mobs as a group of crazed cowboys who, after using liquor to muster up their courage, confront the sheriff with lynch rope in hand…but it wasn’t always that way.
This wasn’t the first occurrence of its kind in Helena, Montana; just one of the better documented ones.
Two men accosted George Lenhart while on his way home one evening. A kind man loved by everyone, George was shot in the thigh, beaten and robbed. He survived and was able to identify Joseph Wilson and A. L. Comption. Wilson and Comption were arrested and lodged in jail.
Two days later 1,000 of the locals met to discuss the situation. A merchant made the motion that a jury of 20 citizens should be appointed to listen to the evidence and declare the innocence or guilt of the men. It was seconded and the motion passed. A marshal and committee were selected to retrieve the prisoners.
When the sheriff refused to release the prisoners, the marshal and his committee prevailed on him.
The prisoners were brought before the jury, and made a full confession. The jury went before the assembly and reported the guilt of the two men…But at this point the district judge appeared and asked to be heard. The crowd listened patiently and respectfully as the judge made his case that the two men should be brought before a legal court.
When the judge was done, the chairman put a question before the crowd: “What shall be done with the prisoners?” “Hang them!” was the response.
The hanging tree was in a gulch outside of Helena. And three thousand people lined the surrounding hills to watch the event.
On November 25, 1877 a wagon carrying the men halted under the branches of the fatal tree. The ropes were thrown over a limb; prayers were said; and the horses were whipped. It was all over quickly, and the town went back to its business.