A Massacre In Montana


A New Chapter of Horrors Added to His Historic Career!

Arrested for the Murder of Five Emigrants in Judith Co., M. T.

Harry Wilber, alias Patterson, who was tried in this county during last summer for the murder of “Tin Hat” and was finally acquitted, the trial costing many thousands of dollars, has committed a most horrible crime in Montana. Murdering two families.

The following telegram was received by the SUN Saturday:

Helena, Mont., Jun 22.—Hamilton Wilber was arrested yesterday by the sheriff of Cascade county as the man who murdered five immigrants in Judith county. Wilber is now in jail at Great Falls. Wilber was arrested in Montana in 1887 for the murder of a cowboy in Wyoming, but broke jail and was finally captured by Montana authorities, but was subsequently acquitted. If Wilber is identified he will probably be lynched. The murdered families are almost positively identified as Joseph Kurtz and wife, and Ed Briggs and wife, well-to-do people of Helena, on a trip to northern Montana, and a little girl, supposed to be a child the party was taking to her parents.

The above dispatch will be read with thrilling interest as well as indignation by the people of Laramie county in whose minds the incidents of this man’s career in Wyoming are still fresh. It will be remembered that he was arrested for the murder of “Tin Hat” (so called) near Rawhide Buttes, his escape from the sheriff, his subsequent arrest and breaking jail, his recapture and the two trials which followed, in which every effort was made by the county authorities to secure his conviction, are known to all. The string circumstantial evidence presented, the fact that the bones of the murdered man were brought into court, the brilliant oratorical efforts of District Attorney Stoll, who fought the ablest criminal lawyer of Colorado, Hon. Tom Patterson, were the sensational features of that celebrated trial which, for many days, attracted crowds that more than filled the court house.

If the facts are to be stated it is hoped that this man’s career will now be ended in the summary manner suggested by the dispatch. It is a case of self preservation in which the courts are too slow and the first law of nature should prevail. The cases in which “Judge Lynch” should intervene we believe are very rare, but that this seems to be one of those cases, will, we think, be generally admitted.

LATER—Wilber committed suicide this morning by hanging himself with a towel in his cell.

The Cheyenne Weekly Sun (Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory) Sunday, June 27th, 1889


The Closing Chapter—Mr. E. A. Huson Identifies Wilber as the Man He Met With the Wagon Load of Murdered People

The closing chapter of the terrible Judith murders was given in our Saturday’s issue. The facts as published in the RIVER PRESS from time to time, after the discovery of the bodies up to the capture and suicide of the red-handed murderer were substantially correct, and there is nothing to add except a few details which may be of interest regarding the method adopted by the murderer to hang himself and his identification after death by those who saw him alive, and also the identification of his unfortunate victims, who were all utter strangers to the people of Fergus county.

As stated before Harry Patterson, alias Jas. Wilber, had been trailed from the scene of the murder, which occurred June 7th at an unoccupied ranch near Lewistown, to a wild spot on the Judith river near Mr. E. A. Huson’s ranch where he hid the bodies away under the impression that they might never be found. In his efforts to reach this place unobserved he was unsuccessful. He was met by Mr. Huson, who with a hired man happened to be at his lower field, below his home when the murderer approached the river on June 8th with his frightful load of five human bodies, whose souls he had sent into eternity the night before. Wilber kept Mr. Huson from approaching the wagon by going 150 yards to meet him. Had Mr. Huson by any accident discovered what the wagon contained, Wilber would without doubt have killed both him and his hired man, and dumped their bodies into the river as he did those of the others. Mr. Huson talked for a while with Wilber and had a good look at him, but never dreamed of what an awful deed the man had been guilty, or for a moment suspected what business had brought him down into this quiet and out of the way place. He supposed that the man had lost the road, and gave him such information as would enable him to get back on the road he pretended to be seeking.

After Wilber’s capture and suicide at Great Falls Friday night, the only additional testimony needed to establish the fact that there was probably only one man engaged in this terrible murder of five persons, and that Wilber was the man, was for Mr. Huson to identify the body of Wilber as the man he met with the wagon on the Judith. Fortunately business brought Mr. Huson to Fort Benton Saturday afternoon, and this fact was telegraphed to Great Falls. Sheriff Downing answered immediately that the body would be held until Mr. Huson could arrive on Sunday’s westbound train.

Mr. Huson went to Great Falls Sunday for that purpose, and returned by the same evening’s train. He was immediately interviewed by a RIVER PRESS reporter, and stated that to the best of his knowledge and belief Wilber was the man he met with the wagon and the team on the 8th of June on the Judith. This, without doubt, settles the question. There was but one man engaged in this terrible deed and that man was Harry Patterson, alias James Wilber.


It is to be deeply regretted that this fiend incarnate was allowed to take his own life. It appears to us that, under the circumstances a guard should have been placed over his cell to see that nothing could have happened to him, either by his own or others’ hands. The miserable, cowardly murderer did not have the courage to live and face his fate. He was confined in a cell with a double iron berth, like those on steamboats. He tore strips from a blanket and pillow case and fastened the noosed improvised hangman’s rope to the highest bars of his cage near the head of his upper berth. He then tied noosed strips to his ankles, so adjusted that when his hands were slipped through the nooses his feet and hands would be brought close together and his feet would thus be kept from touching the floor. He slipped the noose tied to the bars around his neck as he lay on the upper berth; and then, after slipping his hands through the noosed strips tied to his ankles, he rolled off the upper berth and was choked to death by his own weight. He thus evaded the penalty prescribed by human laws for the punishment of such fiends; but, if such a being had a soul, it has gone into an eternal punishment not to be evaded. From the last INDEPENDENT we gather the following concerning:


When the news of the horrible murder reached Helena with the intimation that the murdered persons belonged in Helena an investigation followed which soon succeeded in establishing the identity of J. Kurtz, wife and child, though no one seem to know anything about Briggs and his wife. Mr. and Mrs. Kurtz were well known in Helena and managed the boarding house at the Grass Valley mine about six miles from the city. A little over three months ago Mr. Kurtz purchased a wagon from A. J. Davidson and Co., and when operations ceased at the mine he hauled in the pumps and other machinery and stored them in Mr. Davidson’s warehouse. He bought some springs for his wagon and stated that he and his family were going to make a trip across the country. They left Helena May 26. The little girl who was killed was not a daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Kurtz but an adopted child. She was the daughter of Julius Schauee, now in Omaha, and also well known in Helena. He worked for the firm of DeWitt and Arnold. The little girl was a beautiful child and attracted attention wherever she went. She was the pride of her father, who, being a widower, allowed Mr. and Mrs. Kurtz to adopt her, as they were childless and thought a great deal of her. A man who knew Mr. Kurtz intimately said he must have had about $1,000 with him when he left Helena.

Who Mr. and Mrs. Briggs were no one knows and it is supposed they joined Mr. and Mrs. Kurtz at some place on the road.

The River Press (Fort Benton, Montana) Saturday, June 26th, 1889


Something about the Biggs Family who were Murdered in the Judith Basin

Mr. A. Crowell, of Takahma, Burt county, Neb., arrived in the city today and was a caller at the Herald office. He is a brother of Mrs. Biggs (not Briggs, as the name has been printed) and has made the journey to obtain correct information of the terrible tragedy and probably look to the final disposal of the remains. Mr. Jolaff of Lyons, Neb., will arrive tomorrow, having been delayed at Pocatello. He is a brother of the late Mrs. Kurtz and comes on a similar mission.

Mr. Crowell stated that all the unfortunate people came from Burt county, Nebraska. Mr. and Mrs. Biggs left there on the 17th of March last and came direct to Montana where they were to join Mr. and Mrs. Kurtz for a journey overland, their mission being the seeking of a new home. He heard but little of them until he read the news of their tragic end in the Omaha papers. This information being vague and his telegrams eliciting unsatisfactory replies he concluded to come on in person.—Helena Herald.

The River Press (Fort Benton, Montana) Wednesday, July 10th, 1889


A Vivid Description of the Suicide of Harry Patterson.

A Montana gentleman who saw the body of Patterson while it was still hanging in the cell has this say of the suicide of the man who murdered Tin Hat in this county:

“It was a blood-curdling termination of the career of the wretch who had perpetrated the most bloody deed in the history of Montana. The spectacle was one that none would wish to see again. Hanging as though transfixed to the iron bar of his cell was the body of the murderer. He had torn a wide strip off his blanket and tied it as a loop near the ceiling of his cell. For a hangman’s rope he tore a strip off his pillow slip which was made of new and heavy cotton. With his silk handkerchief he tied his right wrist and ankle together. He then put his head into the prepared noose, his body still reeling on the bed. He put his left ankle into a slip knot and tied his left wrist to it. Both feet were drawn up so they would not touch the floor when he fell. He then rolled himself off his bed and was soon dead.

“Rumors were rife that Wilber had been lynched until the particulars of his suicide were known, for all knew he that he was a dangerous character and had led a life of crime.”

The Cheyenne Daily Leader (Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory) Wednesday, July 17th, 1889

The Murder of Jas. McElhone, aka “Tin Hat” 1884


Patterson, the Murderer of McLehone, Again in Custody

Deputy Sheriff Smalley Secured Him at Great Falls, Montana

Ben Smalley, Deputy Sheriff of Laramie county, returned from Great Falls, Mont., yesterday morning having in custody Harry Patterson, who was indicted June 10, 1885, for the murder of a man supposed to be Jas. McLehone, alias “Tin Hat,” whose decomposed body was accidentally found in Whalen canyon Dec. 1, 1884. The killing is believed to have been done in July of the same year.

Patterson was detected by Chas. V. Trumble, now under sentence of death for the murder of Chas. Miley at Lusk last winter, and arrested while visiting a round up near Hat Creek by Thos. Carroll, of Fort Laramie who acted in the capacity of deputy in that section during the administration of Sheriff Craig.

Carroll started for Cheyenne with Patterson, who through gross carelessness was allowed to escape while the officer was eating supper at R. Thorp’s ranch at Rawhide Buttes. The pair sat at the same table and when Patterson finished his meal he walked outside, mounted a horse, and left. Carroll appeared soon after and inquired for the criminal. Mr. Thorp said: “He just went down the road on horseback, who was he?” “I am sorry he’s gone,” said Carroll, “he’s a murderer and I was taking him to Cheyenne.” It is said that Patterson hastened to the O W ranch, was given a fresh horse and directed the best road out of the country. Be that as it may, Mr. Patterson was not seen again in this county until yesterday.


The indictment against Patterson consists of six counts, each separately alleging that he “did willfully, maliciously and premeditatedly shoot and kill a man to the jury unknown.” That this man was McLehone, alias “Tin Hat,” there can be no doubt. A friendship had struck up between the two at Lusk, then called Runningwater. McLehone was a gambler and was known to have about $150 in money. Patterson was a cowboy and his earthly possessions consisted of a horse and some bedclothing. Business becoming quiet at Runningwater, Tin Hat proposed that they emigrate to Buffalo, Johnson county; that the strike across the country and ride the pony alternately. This was readily agreed to by Patterson, who was unable secure employment in Laramie county on account of his severe treatment of the horses allotted to him. On the second day after leaving Runningwater they entered the secluded precincts of Muskrat canyon, and it was here that Patterson murdered his unfortunate companion and gained possession of the $150, after which he concealed Tin Hat’s clothing and buried his victim in the bed of a dry creek, loading the remains down with stones. Chas. Trumble, who was then employed as a watchman by the Great Wyoming Mining company at Runningwater, had observed Patterson and McLehone leave the place, the former riding while Tin Hat walked by his side. When he saw Patterson return alone and with considerable money, he suspected that the cowboy had robbed and perhaps murdered his companion, and it was upon information furnished by Trumble that Patterson was arrested by Thos. Carroll.


Coroner John. T. Chaffin and a jury, of which Henry Chase was the foreman, investigated the causes which led to the death of the murdered man, but with immaterial results, their verdict being to the effect that “an unknown man had been murdered by a person to the jury unknown.” At that time nearly everyone supposed the remains to be the corpse of the missing son of A. D. Gambell, who disappeared in Cheyenne and greeted his father after a mysterious absence of over a year. At the inquest John Murphy testified to finding the hat, clothes, and afterward the body of a murdered man in Whalen canyon; that the remains were badly decomposed, and that the to the best of his knowledge and belief the man had first been shot through the back from an elevation, and while prostrate had received two shots through the head. A. D. Gambell corroborated the evidence of Murphy as to the decomposed condition of the remains and the manner in which the man had been killed, and stated that portions of the corpse had been eaten away by coyotes. He believed, but was not reasonably certain, that the body was that of his missing son.


As the result of an extensive correspondence between Sheriff Black, of Choteau county, Mont., and Sheriff Sharpless, Deputy Sheriff Ben Smalley left Cheyenne about ten days ago with the avowed intention of landing Patterson in the Laramie county jail or dying in the attempt. Arriving in Great Falls after riding through a cold rain in a stage coach for 150 miles, Patterson was ushered into his presence by Sheriff Black and identified and arrested by the Cheyenne man, who has earned well merited praise by his action in the matter. Choteau county is a resort for criminals, and great credit is due Mr. Smalley for effecting the arrest of so desperate a man as Patterson in that locality. The fugitive had no opportunity to resist, but protests and still insists that he is not the man wanted. At Helena efforts were made to secure the release of the murderer by a writ of habeas corpus, but Mr. Smalley succeeded in eluding the officers and boarding a train after riding sixty miles in an open buggy with his prisoner. The Laramie county deputy states that he is under great obligations to Sheriffs Black and Hathaway, of Montana. The former is a nephew of Messrs, Alex H. and Thos. Swan, of this city, and both are pronounced brave and efficient officers and thorough western men. At the time of his apprehension Patterson was employed as a laborer on a building in Great Falls. He had married since leaving Wyoming, but was poorer than ever.


Patterson was well known in Cheyenne. He frequently visited the city, and was at one time employed as a hack driver by a leading livery man. The man was well known to many saloon keepers and others and there was no trouble about identifying him. West Moyer visited him yesterday afternoon, and selecting him from the thirty-eight other prisoners confined in the county jail, advanced toward him and, reaching out his hand, said, “How are you, Harry?” Patterson maintained his undisturbed appearance, gazed at Mr. Moyer a moment, and replied: “You are mistaken in the man. I don’t know you.” Moyer employed the man about his place for a time, and is positive that the prisoner is Patterson. Geo. D. Jenks, the stockman, has known Patterson for years and identified him on sight. The murderer of McLehone is 28 years old, light complexion, thin blonde moustache, blonde hair, light grey eyes, high cheek bones, prominent ears, straight, sharp nose, even teeth, thin lips, five feet, ten inches in height, weighs about 155 pounds, square shouldered and erect. The prisoner says his name is Jas. Wilbur; that he was born in Atchison, Kas., emigrated to Colorado and left that state for Oregon in 1884, landing in Great Falls last year.


Governor Warren offered a $500 reward for the apprehension of the murderer of McLehone Feb. 17, 1885. Patterson was arrested by Thos. Carroll upon instructions from Sheriff Craig but escaped June 18, 1885, as above stated, when the governor once more posted a reward of $500 for his arrest. This was done at the instance of E. W. Mann, who was prosecuting attorney at that time. The money will probably be paid Sheriff Sharpless in a few days and he will recompense Mr. Smalley for his valuable services.

The Cheyenne Daily Leader (Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory) Tuesday, August 2nd, 1887

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