Savor that title for a minute. In light of recent developments in Montana politics, many would argue that, at a slim 218 pages, the covers of Speaking Ill of the Dead: Jerks in Montana History are much too close together. So before we even get started here, please allow yourself a certain grim satisfaction in the fact that any book purporting to catalogue the most egregious jackasses in Montana’s long history of same can only really be considered a work in progress.
All the same, Montana’s relatively short recorded history thus far has produced some really outstanding, and outstandingly documented, specimens of jerk—some local, some imported; some who fully maximized their jerk potential in life, others to whom jerk honors were awarded posthumously. In some cases, recidivist jerk tendencies went hand in hand with civic-mindedness and other fine qualities. And the spectacularly cloddish behavior of a select few can almost be overlooked for reasons of style—some of Montana’s jerks pulled it off with such panache, it’s hard to stay mad at them.
Consider the case of John Colter, a veteran of the Corps of Discovery who got himself in a tight spot with upwards of 600 riled-up Blackfeet after they caught him and his partner John Potts poaching pelts on the tribe’s traditional range around the Three Forks area in 1808. To make a long story short, Potts was killed and Colter stripped down to his bare feet, given a sporting head start, and made to dash for his life across some six miles of prairie stippled with prickly pear. He jumped into either Jefferson’s Fork or Madison’s Fork of the Missouri River and hid under a log jam until the Blackfeet eventually gave up looking for him. Then, still naked as a jaybird, he walked the 250 miles back to Fort Manuel Lisa. You might say he’d taken his medicine.
And then there’s the strange-but-true story of Liver-Eating Johnson, a trapper whose questionable taste in hobbies—the collecting of scalps from various Indian folk who wronged him, looked at him real funny-like or just got in his way—immediately qualifies him as at least a minor jerk in the Montana pantheon. Following an extended trapping foray, Johnson returned home to find his cabin ransacked, the sun-bleached skeleton of his young Flathead bride decorating the front yard, and, nestled in her skeletal womb, the tiny bones of their unborn child. Think he called his local dispute resolution center? Not hardly. He collected the bones in a kettle, conducted some modest cliffside exequies, and spent the next few decades squaring accounts with the Crow perpetrators by killing and eating the liver out of every one he could find. He also served as sheriff in the proto-Billings town of Coulson and later became marshal of Red Lodge.
Neither Colter nor Johnson have a seat around the table at this particular convocation of bastards (although both are amply profiled elsewhere), but Speaking Ill of the Dead brings to light a whole posse of lesser-known knavish types from the more recondite chapters in the state’s annals. Editor Dave Walter and his half-dozen contributing authors introduce us to the likes of Sir St. George Gore, a most unsportsmanlike hunter who, on a three-year hunting safari from 1854-1857, divested the virgin lands in and around the Yellowstone Valley of more than 4,000 bison, 1,500 elk, 2,000 deer, 500 bears and untold hundreds or thousands of smaller animals and birds. And “Missoula’s murderous madam,” Mary Gleim, a one-woman riot who held the brothels of Front Street in a reign of terror for 25 years in the late 1800s. And Jacob Thorkelson, Montana’s loopy Nazi-sympathizer nudist Congressional super-patriot (every state should have one) who operated a nudist camp in Butte, of all places, for two years before it burned down under mysterious circumstances in 1935. And let’s not forget Ike Gravelle, “Montana’s first Unabomber,” who carved out a modestly successful extortion career and entranced readers across the nation by bombing or threatening to bomb tracks, bridges and other Northern Pacific holdings in the summer and fall of 1903. Dozens of nefarious, reprehensible or just plain idiotic characters pack the pages of this delightful read. It shoots past much, much too fast.
Fans of the late Dorothy Johnson (The Bedside Book of Bastards) should take immediate note; Speaking Ill of the Dead is written in a wonderfully cohesive and similarly irreverent style.
If only we could have gotten a dozen more jerks. Future history, alas, is certain to provide.