Fallen Billings officer, shot five times, remembered on 115th anniversary

  • 9 min to read
Montana police memorial exercise, 1915

The first Montana police memorial exercise, Billings City Hall at North Broadway and 1st Avenue North, August 29, 1915. The proceedings honored law enforcement officers who died before 1915, including Muggins Taylor (1882), Robert Hannah (1904) and James Webb (1908).

Today, 115 years ago, Billings Police Sgt. Robert T. Hannah was sitting in the chief of police's office in the old Billings City Hall. 

Why he was sitting at his boss' desk was never fully explained, but during what had been an otherwise quiet night, an agitated man rushed in, identified himself as a patron of the nearby Owl saloon, and said it was being held up by two gunmen.

Hannah and a railroad detective who happened to be in the office grabbed their guns. The detective went one way, Hannah the other.

Hannah shooting

July 2 is the 115th anniversary of the death of BPD officer Robert Hannah whose name appears on the Law Enforcement Memorial in front of City Hall.

The two bandits had chosen the popular watering hole because it had a laid-back atmosphere, with gambling in the back. 

One of the men, Ed Grady, had a Colt revolver. The other man, Orton C. Moser, had a shotgun. 

But they didn't see a couple of patrons flee, so they were surprised when seemingly out of nowhere Hannah appeared.

In the alley, Grady fired four times. Moser once.

All five rounds hit Hannah who must have died almost instantly.

The robbers — now police killers — fled into the night.

Today marks the anniversary of Hannah's death, something that is commemorated in stone in front of the downtown police department. But Hannah remains a name largely forgotten.

Several police officers hope to rekindle interest in Hannah and the others who have fallen in the line of duty, including former Yellowstone County Sheriff James T. Webb, who would catch one of Hannah's shooters only to have his life taken a few years later when he was shot dead by a horse thief. 

Hannah's murder and the ensuing manhunt reads like an old western movie. Escapes, running for the border, a double cross, and special train with a posse were all in place before the two outlaws were apprehended. 

'Throw up'

Beneath the huge headline of "Robbery and Murder," The July 5, 1904 edition of The Billings Gazette devoted the entire front page to the crime.

Hannah shooting

The front page of the July 5, 1904 Billings Gazette.

Grady and Moser entered the Owl sometime around 12:45 a.m., through the rear door, off the alleyway near the train tracks of Montana Avenue. Moser ordered the gamblers to put their hands up and face the wall.

However, there was something instantly familiar about the voices behind the masks.

Grady ordered the bartender to "throw up" his arms.

The Gazette recounts the bartender, Fred Morris, made little effort to comply with the order, despite the business end of the revolver being pointed at him. Morris finished rolling a cigarette. But when he appeared to reach for something beneath the bar, the masked man used the foot railing to launch himself atop of the bar, with the gun pointed inches away from Morris's face. 

The newspaper recounted an unspecified cuss word as the bartender was ordered from behind the counter. 

In the commotion, neither of the armed gunmen noticed the piano player had escaped and was now running to the nearby Grand Hotel to call the police.

In a small, private gambling room, patron Walter Clifton ran to the nearby police station where he met Hannah and Northern Pacific Detective Hineman. Clifton asked for a gun to go back to the Owl, but Hineman said he'd take care of it himself. 

Both men ran toward the bar, going in slightly different directions. Hannah ran in the alley between the Owl and the Rademacher saloons, presumably to enter through the back. Instead, he caught the robbers by surprise.  

Taken by surprise

Hannah had run into the alley without realizing the robbers had marched the gambling patrons out in the alleyway to complete the looting. 

"Halt," Hannah cried out.

Startled, one of the robbers yelled, "Keep back, you son-of-a-bitch." 

Morris, the bartender, said Hannah had rattled off one round, aiming for the robber farthest away. What the police sergeant hadn't seen was the robber's partner standing just a few feet away. The robber with the revolver was so close that he fired four times. The other man blasted at him with a shotgun. 

Hannah crumpled and the robbers ran down the alley, past the waiting Hineman who was so startled that he could hardly react. 

Hineman fired three shots wildly — all three struck telegraph poles, letting the robbers get away. 

'Stop fooling'

Back at the bar, Morris could hardly believe what had happened. The bartender was so certain about the two men's identities that he thought it was a joke. At one point, Morris told the man to "stop fooling."

Eventually, Morris realized it was no laughing matter and complied, but not before one of the men gave him a light squeeze on the shoulder seeming to acknowledge him "in a friendly manner."

As soon as the suspects were identified, three men — the chief of police, the Yellowstone County Sheriff and the mayor of Billings — left to apprehend the two outlaws. They were thought to be staying with friends at a house on the corner of South Thirty-Third Street and Fourth Avenue South. 

Other men wanted to join in a posse, but the three leaders decided to go alone, thinking that they'd be more likely to apprehend them, and less likely to have more violence. 

'What are you boys doing here?'

When the trio arrived more than an hour after the shooting, they knocked on the door to find Jim Grady, the younger brother of Ed. Later, Jim was suspected to have been the look-out for the robbery. 

"There's only me and the girls at home," Jim Grady said, answering the door.

Unsatisfied, Sheriff Hubbard said, "Light a lamp, Jim, and show me around the house."

Foster and Morse stood watch outside for any escape. When Hubbard reached the top of the stairs, the other two men saw a light.

"What are you boys doing here?" Hubbard said loudly. 

Three more gun shots cracked and the light went out. The two men heard fighting from inside the house. Hubbard cried out. 

Foster ran to the side of the house just in time to see two men jump from the second-story window. Foster yelled for them to stop. Momentarily, The Gazette said, one of the men turned to look back. 

Foster had not been armed, but clumsily made gun-like motions with his hand. There was just enough light for the robbers to see the bluff.

The two fugitives continued to run. 

Foster ran back toward the house to be met by the sheriff coming down the stairs, clutching his hand. 

Hubbard, the county's top lawman, had been shot through the "fleshy" part of his right hand. 

Hubbard asked Foster to go back upstairs and retrieve his hat.

Horse chase

The undersheriff thought that Moser would head to his parents' house on Blue Creek Road. 

That was a good hunch and near a place only identified as a bridge along Blue Creek, Yellowstone County Undersheriff Sayles met up with Moser.

Sayles saw the fugitive and got out his rifle.

He shot once. It missed.

He shot twice. That also missed.

Moser would be a free, but wanted, man. 

When Sayles finally arrived at the Moser property, the adults seemed to recall a young man had been there, but only remained a few moments and had ridden off on his horse.

Meanwhile, Hubbard had secured a special locomotive engine for Walter Clifton, the man who originally rushed into the police station to report the stick-up, and who had requested a gun.

Now, instead of a gun, he was given a fast ride to Silesia on the Red Lodge branch line of the Northern Pacific. Word was that Moser was headed for the hills, possibly Wyoming via Red Lodge. 

The robbery, even in 1904 terms did not yield a lot, $210, a chunk of which had belonged to a gambler who had lost $63.50 on the stick-up.

The plot

The two men had been working on the robbery plan for some time. Both had been in and out of trouble, and both needed the money.

Moser was reported to have served time in West Virginia for shooting a man. Grady was known for once breaking into a southside cabin holding a gun and demanding money.

They had made sure horses were waiting at the house on the South Side, and a "secondhand" dealer said he'd sold Jim Grady shotgun shells the day before because apparently, "he knew where there was a flock of wild geese and was going after them." 


Moser was the first to be nabbed as he had made it past the Wyoming state line and ending up on a ranch on Sage Creek, identified as "Stinking Water Country."

The searchers were on the trail when the description of Moser matched the man who some of the ranchers had seen. 

"(He) was just walking out of the house when officers appeared and an instant afterward, he was in their custody. The prisoner had stopped at the ranch for breakfast and like his pursuers appeared to have ridden all night," The Gazette reported.

Moser refused to talk to the sheriff. 

"You needn't think you can sweat me," Moser said. 

Sheriff Potter of Carbon County replied, "Well, you're the man who killed Bob Hannah anyway."

Moser sat silently on the way back. He scowled, and when they arrived in Red Lodge, Potter called Yellowstone County. 

Meanwhile, Moser had a dead giveaway: An ugly gash over one eye bore witness to the fight with the sheriff. Though Hubbard had been shot, it wasn't before pistol whipping Moser. 

The search for Grady

Moser had escaped to Red Lodge via Blue Creek, but Grady was likely still hiding out near town, spending the night in fields and empty houses, according to one couple being held in jail, accused of helping a fugitive. 

City leaders, outraged by the shooting of a police officer, put up a $500 reward. Preston Moss, Paul McCormick and H.W. Rowley all chipped in — $750 for each man, dead or alive.

It would be the cash reward that enticed one young lady to give up her friend.

Grady was no stranger to being pursued. Three weeks earlier, he had run away with a girl from Missoula and the father was in pursuit, claiming that Grady had forced the young girl to lie about her age to get a marriage license.

Grady caught

Melissa Merrill had approached a local attorney with a question: If she knew where Grady was hiding out, would the local leaders and law enforcement really pay $750?

The Sheriff called Moss and the others.

Yes, they replied.

She wanted the guarantee in writing.

The three men complied. 

So it fell to the county's brand inspector, James T. Webb, who would be elected sheriff several years later, to apprehend Grady.

Merrill had agreed to meet Grady at the head of the canal of the big ditch by a bridge at what was the far end of North 29th Street, which today would be on the campus of Montana State University Billings. 

Merrill worried, knowing Grady had a razor and may be armed. Webb, Sayles, two members of the Billings Police Department, and the lawyer formed a posse. 

That rendezvous was spoiled when an unrelated man on a horse passed over the bridge. Spooked, Grady went back in hiding with Merrill following. She had brought a small bottle of whisky, and made an appointment to bring a horse and shotgun the following night. 

The July night was pitch black and the sheriff said, "to search for the man, who was lying somewhere in the alfalfa field into which he ran.... would be useless." 

Fearing Merrill might double-cross them, the posse decided to form before daybreak. Nearly a dozen men rode back to the spot as daylight dawned. 

Hearing the approach, Grady's head popped up from the alfalfa. He'd been spotted, but he believed, not caught.

Instead of giving up, Grady played the part of inspector.

"He attempted to deceive the officers by pretending to be working on the ditch to which he walked and followed it as far as the road, making a close inspection of the canal at every step. When he arrived at the fence he crossed it, then went under the bridge," The Gazette reported. 

When he went under the bridge, Carbon County Sheriff Potter, who had come from Red Lodge to help, ordered Grady out. 

"Drop the razor," the sheriff ordered.

Grady let the shiny object fall from his left hand.

No torture

Unlike his counterpart, Grady feared a lynch mob. Hubbard feared the same and asked Potter to take the prisoner to cool it in Red Lodge.

"As a result of too freely imbibing of the whiskey given to him by Mrs. Merrill, he was quite drunk and when assured that he would not be burned or otherwise tortured seemed suddenly to regain his spirits and was quite lively at the time."

He was dirty and unkempt. The Gazette reported it had looked like had been outdoors for weeks. 

Grady had shaved his mustache.

When he arrived at the jail, he gave a full confession, except telling the authorities his little brother had nothing to do with the crime. 

"When asked why they had shot Hannah, he replied that when men undertook a job of that kind, they were prepared to do anything to escape," the paper reported. 

Meanwhile, Moser had told authorities where the two had hidden the loot. 

The Gazette described the place of the buried treasure between the Davidson house and the "Sisters' hospital," near a brickyard. 

The authorities found $210. Both robbers told police they had just planned to use the paltry amount to hold them over until they could make a bigger score. 

Moser also told authorities where the rest of the robbery evidence was located.

Police found the masks and shotgun in the ditch drain.

"The gun is a magazine affair and is remarkable for its length of barrel. The masks are made of colored gingham and evident were torn from an apron or dress. They correspond exactly with the description of them given by Fred Morris who said they were plaid with what he believed to be blue stripes running through them. A couple of coats were also found with other articles. All were under two-and-half feet of water."

One of the largest funerals

Amelia Hannah

Amelia Hannah is pictured in 1935. Hannah's husband, Billings Police Sergeant Robert T. Hannah, was killed in the line of duty in July 1904 during a robbery at the Owl Saloon.

Hannah's funeral took place at his home at the corner of Montana Avenue and North 32nd Street. 

A few months earlier, the fallen police officer had joined the Eagles. He was also a Mason. 

"Many floral offerings were made and the funeral was one of the largest ever held in the city, showing the esteem in which the brave officer and good citizen was held," the paper said. 

Hannah had lived in Billings for almost 30 years, making him a pioneer. He had been a machinist for the Northern Pacific, then was appointed a police sergeant by Mayor Foster.

He left behind three children and one grandchild, according to The Gazette. 

The singing inmates

Apparently relieved, the two inmates spent their time in the Carbon County jail singing and playing music, including the piano, guitar and banjo.

Potter told the media the two didn't seem the least concerned about the charges, apparently relieved to have escaped a lynch mob.

"One of their favorites songs the sheriff said was 'We'll Live Until We Die.'"

Get local news delivered to your inbox!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News