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Butte gallows

Jeff Hockaday dusts off a piece of the gallows stored in the Butte-Silver Bow courthouse to reveal stenciled lettering that says Sheriff Boulder Montana.

The heavy pieces of lumber lay dormant inside a dim and dust-covered storage room.

But, there was a time — many decades ago — that when assembled, this mechanism would have made rubbery knees and turned the stomachs of the most hardened cutthroats and criminals.

Known as the “galloping gallows,” this execution device today remains locked way in the bowels of the Butte-Silver Bow County Courthouse — a literal “skeleton in the closet” from Montana’s gruesome past of frontier justice.

The historic gallows may see the light of the sun once more in time for the courthouse’s centennial celebration in July. Local history buffs plan to assemble the gallows to be sure they have all the parts.

Jim McCarthy, who volunteers at the Butte Archives, has researched the execution device and believes it was used in the Mining City’s last official hanging in 1926.

“This has got to be one of the original galloping gallows. I don’t think they would have constructed a new one just for this hanging. They would have used the one they already had,” McCarthy said.

Seven or so gallows existed in the state, he said. Called “galloping gallows,” they were literally galloped in pieces by horse and wagon to any county, and then reassembled where the hanging was to take place.

McCarthy said he and Butte High history teacher Chris Fisk have wanted to reassemble the old gallows for the past few years. The idea surfaced when Fisk was teaching an adult education history class and the topic of the gallows arose.

“We have several volunteers from the adult education class who plan to help assemble the gallows,” McCarthy said.

If successfully reconstructed, the gallows will be displayed at the courthouse during the centennial celebration. People may be allowed to take pictures next to a slogan like “just hanging around Butte …,’’ McCarthy said.

Though a bit tongue-and-check, the grim reality is at one time in Montana hanging was the primary form of executing the condemned.

From 1863 to 1943, 71 people were executed by “legal” hanging, according to historian Robert O. Rafferty. This doesn’t count the numerous vigilante-style hangings and lynchings. Of the legal hangings — those that were authorized by a recognized court of law — 10 were done in Butte.

McCarthy believes the gallows stored in the courthouse were used in Butte’s last execution on Oct. 1, 1926.

Historian Tom Donovan confirms that the Butte gallows played a role in the Mining City’s last, and most dramatic, hanging, according to his book “Hanging Around the Big Sky.” Donovan identifies it as galloping gallows No. 5, which first came into use in January 1918.

It was this execution device that removed convicted murderer Tony Vettere from this world.

Vettere, an Italian immigrant, arrived in Butte around the turn of the century. A railroad worker and miner, he had a history of heavy drinking and erratic behavior, according to Donovan’s book.

On the evening of Nov. 22, 1925, Vettere committed one of Butte’s most notorious multiple homicides. With a 12-gauge shotgun, he launched into a shooting spree that left three people dead and one person who was nearly shot.

Two men from Meaderville and another from McQueen perished, leaving 18 children without fathers. One of the kids was quoted as saying after learning of his father’s death, “I’m going to have to quit school and get a job.”

At trial, Vettere — who spoke broken English — testified that he didn’t remember the shootings. He was convicted and sentenced to death.

As he lingered in jail waiting for his execution, his behavior became increasingly odd and erratic. He grew a long beard, spoke gibberish and had violent mood swings. Though many questioned his sanity, experts at the time confirmed he was sane enough for execution.

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The gallows were set up in the foyer of the old jail, at 225 N. Alaska St., the current location of the Butte police department. Hundreds of people came to witness.

“A hanging was a pretty big social event,” McCarthy said. “The sheriff would send out invitations in those days.”

On the day of the execution, Vettere didn’t go quietly.

When the sheriff and his deputies went into his cell to escort him to the noose, Vettere pulled out a 3-foot long pipe and a homemade knife he had hidden under his mattress. In a blind rage, he attacked the officers. They narrowly escaped injury, but he continued to fight them while cornered in the jail.

The sheriff finally subdued him with tear gas. Only then could they disarm him and then shackle his hands and feet. They dragged him to the gallows as he screamed obscenities. The crowd watched in stunned silence.

Two officers held the slumping man over the trap door as the noose was placed around his neck. They let him go a fraction of a second before the trap door was sprung.

Vettere dropped. Medical examiners declared him dead six minutes later. His neck didn’t break; he died from strangulation.

The sheriff cut the rope and Vettere’s lifeless body fell to the concrete floor.

Hanging as a form of execution has since been replaced by what is arguably considered the more humane lethal injection.

The few old gallows that still exist in Montana are mostly forgotten like those condemned men who once swung from them.

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