Not Just a Collection of Curios

Kelly Hartman

There are many wonderful stories to be told with items at the Gallatin History Museum. For years now, two items in particular have been on display in the old Jailer’s Office/Gallows Room: a wooden potato masher identified as a murder weapon by a paper label affixed to it and a homemade bulletproof cap and vest worn by Jesse Anderson. I have been intrigued by these items for a long time, so decided to dig deeper. In the interests of Halloween, here is what I “dug up.”

On the night of April 30, 1931, Andrew Clostad was beaten to death by two men in his Peach Street home. One man used a stick, the other a potato masher. Clostad’s death emerged from an argument regarding issues over money: rent owed to a William Slining and a note held by James Shipman. The two men immediately confessed to their crime, Slining bringing officers to Clostad’s house and Shipman coming forward with the potato masher at the scene. Clostad did not die until the day following the beating but did not regain consciousness.

Both men were found guilty of manslaughter and taken to the State Prison. William Slining, age 48, was sentenced to 8 years and James Shipman, age 66, was sentenced to 10 years. Both had been held in the Gallatin County Jail for a month and a half. Clearly the murder was not pre-meditated, because who would pack a potato masher with malicious intent?
Twenty years earlier, the Sheriff’s department was dealing with a very different type of situation. Deputy Sheriff Dan Kilbride had stumbled upon a heavily armed man near Spring Hill Creek. When approached, the man threatened Kilbride (who was unarmed at the time). By the time Kilbride could make a return trip more equipped, the “bird had flown.” The next day, however, a report came in from a ranch near Belgrade that an armed man had demanded food at gunpoint. With this new information the man was soon found, asleep with his finger on the trigger of his cocked gun. He came along easily, thinking that the officers knew what was up; little did he then know that they had no clue who he was. At the jail, his description, 5 foot 3 inches tall, 139 pounds, bowlegged, 38 years old with a dark complexion, was matched to that of Jesse Anderson, an escapee of the mental institution at Warm Springs. He had escaped a year earlier and hadn’t been caught, until now.

But, the story gets even stranger. When he was booked, it was discovered that the man had on a “half corset of steel ribs of his own make.” In fact, he also had steel plates at his forearms and the crown of his cap, all presumably bulletproof. A photograph was taken of Anderson standing in front of the original Gallatin County Courthouse by Schlechten Studio, and a wonderful newspaper article followed which noted that “His steel armor will make a valuable addition to the collection of curios in the sheriff’s office.”

The Museum received the potato masher and the cap and vest as part of a donation made in 1990 by the Law and Justice Center. The collection also contained a few bullets, one that has a tag that reads as follows: “This ball killed Billie Davis. Passing through his center. Rec’d here Dec. 31st, 1928.” Also included were two invitations to executions, one to the 1904 hanging of Miles Fuller and one to a 1921 hanging in Dillon, MT. Both are printed on paper that is attached to a card with a macabre circle of rope as a decorative edge.

But, these aren’t the only items in the Museum’s collection that bear witness to the brutality of the “Wild West.” There is a photograph of Jack Allen, who had just turned thirty-seven when he went to work for newly elected Sheriff William J. Fransham in January 1897. Allen had been the constable at the Marysville gold camp near Helena. For a number of months, two young toughs had terrorized the Belgrade and Manhattan areas with vicious beatings, saloon robberies, and roadside holdups. Sheriff Fransham learned that the two men might be hiding at Carpenter’s Ranch, twenty-five miles west of Bozeman. When they arrived at the horse ranch, gun-fire ensued; Deputy Allen’s gun misfired and, unprotected, he was shot in the head. After further exchanges of gunfire with the sheriff, the gunmen rode off. While Fransham came back to Salesville to organize a larger posse, Dr. Chambliss rode out from Bozeman to attend Allen, bringing him back…by horse-drawn ambulance. After many days of agonizing pain and convulsions, Jack Allen died on February 2, 1897. The gunmen were never apprehended.

The museum also has copies of two portraits that were taken in 1923 of Seth Orin Danner, the only man to be executed in the Gallatin County Jail. Like Anderson, Danner’s photo was taken by Schlechten Studio. It was noted that while Albert Schlechten was having difficulty getting the light just right on Danner’s face, Danner noted: “It’s hell to have so much trouble taking a fellow’s picture, especially when it’s going to be his last one”(Bozeman Courier, October 31, 1923).

As with any artifact, it’s the story behind the object that makes all the difference. That is what makes the Museum a place to learn history and not just a “collection of curios.” The Gallatin History Museum welcomes your stories! Happy Halloween!   

Author’s note: While Seth did meet his fate on the gallows, there is some doubt as to his guilt. Look for more on that score in my upcoming book “The Execution of Seth Danner” to be published summer of 2020 by Arcadia/The History Press.

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