Last rites 

Cheating death in Butte

Bob Knievel, ailing at age 68, has made it home again, and what better place than Butte to end it for a genuine daredevil, a legitimate death-defying type with a lifestyle to match. For there is no good reason that Evel Knievel did not die in 1969, at the age of 30, in the parking lot of the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas.

So it is a fitting return for the guy on the motorcycle whose preference was once shots of Wild Turkey. And home is a town where many men have died young. Bob Knievel, like the writer, may consider himself one of the lucky.

When aspiring labor leader “Big” Bill Haywood first visited here in 1899 he noted “the toll of death in Butte was abnormal.” Thirty years after that visit, he would write that just the funeral benefits paid by the Butte Miner’s Union “staggered me.” As far as Butte itself, Haywood saw its cemeteries as “the city of the dead, mostly young miners, and almost as large as the living population, even in this very young city.” Of course this is also the city where Haywood’s pal, labor organizer Frank Little, met a violent end.

Nearly a half century later, in 1946, author John Gunther echoed Haywood, describing Butte as similar to an old European town where the cemetery population was far larger than the living population. At the time of Gunther’s writing, 2,500 miners had died violently on the Butte hill. Other deaths from other reasons such as miners consumption took an even heavier toll.

As one who has looked at many of the coroner’s reports, I was struck by how matter-of-fact the record keeping was. While many of the reports, especially when multiple deaths were involved, are quite detailed, the greatest number were summed up in three words: “fall of ground.” And from time to time I came across another three-word description of the cause of a death underground, one that would reach out at you from the old pages. It simply said “blown to bits” and nothing else.

And there is no shortage of descriptions of a day and a night in June of 1917 when 12 off-shift miners of a rescue squad crammed into a cage and dropped down to the 1,600’ level of the smoking shaft of the Speculator mine. As they stepped out of the cage they were met with blasts of mine gas and all 12 men torched instantly. In another attempt, two miners tried again to enter the Speculator in a double-decked cage. Failing in their effort they retreated to the surface but it was too late. The cage came to a stop 20 feet above ground and in sight of hundreds of horrified miners the ghastly cage slowly spun on the cable holding only the smoking remains of the two men. And all night and until early into that June morning, the sirens wailed on the hill and thousands of Butte residents surrounded the mines. Later the crowds were moved to a public morgue where many men, women and children broke down completely. The tragedy of Butte’s Speculator-Granite Mountain mine today remains America’s greatest hardrock mining disaster.

Then there were scribes and scribblers describing the Butte feeling of death as if “it were in the air like the sulphur,” and two of the titles Dashiell Hammett considered for his Butte novel Red Harvest were The City of Death and The Black City, while Gertrude Atherton’s novel called Butte the Perch of the Devil.

For you see there was once an era when the grim news coming off the Butte hill was received as stoically as other lands greeted the news of combat casualties in wartime, and with little or no notice in the daily papers. As far as working conditions went, Hammett noted in 1929 that when “the last skull had been cracked, the last rib kicked in, organized labor in Butte was a used firecracker.”

Forgotten now, but like Knievel, there was once another famous young man from Butte. He was not so lucky, being shot to death a few days after his 24th birthday in 1911. A daredevil with a lifestyle to match, but of a different sort, his name was Stanley Ketchell. The legendary middleweight champion is still considered one of the greatest boxers that ever climbed in the ring.

And this Ketchell guy crossed into myth despite the fact that he was a heavy drinker, gambler and womanizer. And if that wasn’t enough, he smoked cigars and had a well-known taste for opium, the old Butte vice. Even Hollywood couldn’t have invented Stanley Ketchell.

As the old Anaconda Standard remarked on his passing: “For a long time Ketchell hung around the bad lands making his living in as easy a fashion as he could, but always ready to fight. He lived by taking on other fighters at resorts in the lower part of town where a prize fight was an added attraction to the varieties and the liquor.”

And finally, dear reader, we have reached a point where I must close and you might ask a fair question, and that is just what does this all mean?

Well many years ago—it seems like a thousand now—Knievel and I were both in Butte grade schools. Knievel went to Webster Garfield and I was at St. Patrick’s, where I learned the rosary, and to hate the English even more than I already did. We both grew up with the stories, tales of the mines on the hill and dynamite and cops and gangsters, wandering a town surrounded by big cemeteries and littered with mine yards, railroad tracks and saloons mostly open to all ages, along with a couple of blocks of brothels that we called “cat houses.”

In other words, as far as Evel Knievel and Butte go, there is no disconnect.

Evel Knievel Days, featuring motorcycle jumps by Robbie Knievel and world-record holder Ryan Capes, takes place July 27-29. For details, see www.knievelweek.com.

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