The day Helena’s “Hangman’s Tree” bit the dust

July 8, 1875

On this day a Methodist minister in Helena, Montana, cut down the town’s notorious “Hangman’s Tree.”

The Reverend W. E. Shippen was the one responsible for making cord wood out of the solitary Ponderosa Pine reportedly used to dispatch at least 10, and perhaps as many as 13 wrongdoers in the five years between 1865 and 1870.

Helena was a frontier town in 1870, population about 3,000

Some accounts claim the good pastor was offended by the unsavory reputation of the tree so close to his house.   Others say, however, he had a more practical reason, fearing it would topple over on to his barn and kill his horse. Whichever was true, the event was perhaps simply a matter of timing.  

When a man with a saw came walking along the road, Shippen offered him $2.50 to cut down the pine, angering many locals.   They believed the old tree served as a deterrent to future would-be criminals.  In an act of reconciliation, Shippen allowed residents to chop off pieces as souvenirs.  History is silent as to whether or not those souvenir splinters were free.

Illustration of the approximate location of the tree

Located west of Helena’s present day Blake Street, the makeshift gallows was clearly visible from the town’s school.  One woman related her horror as a young girl at seeing a corpse swinging from a branch when she arrived for classes one morning; “a dreadful, pitiful object.”  

 Her reaction wasn’t universal.  The town’s young boys apparently had no qualms about shooting marbles under the tree, fascinated by the spot’s sinister reputation.

Frontier justice was thrust upon the poor Ponderosa Pine by want of timber.  By 1865 it was the only tree left standing large enough for a lynching.  The rest had been cut down by miners for sluice boxes and crude cabins. 

The first to hang there was John Keene, who confessed to killing Harry Slater.   He and Slater had quarreled for reasons known only to them dating back to the pair’s days in Salt Lake City.  Keene turned himself in and was afforded a two-day trial.  Since no official judge was available, “respected citizen Stephen Renolds” presided.  After a unanimous guilty verdict, Keene was immediately hanged.

While three of those sentenced to death were confessed or “probable” killers, two were hanged for attempted murder and three for robbery.  The unfortunate Tommy Cook was executed for “small thievings” and being a pick pocket.  Con Kirby’s offense, the tree’s fourth victim, was recorded as “unknown.”

The  Pondarosa’s dark past didn’t end at Shippen’s man with the saw.  Stories from former and current residents persist, reporting strange events, mysterious voices and unexplained sightings.  A number of historians haven’t helped to silence the rumors, saying its more than likely the area around the tree served as Boot Hill for the community’s condemned.

For a fact, at least two coffins have been unearthed there over the years.   The first in 1900 was presumed to be that of John Keene, identified by his broken nose.

The hanging of Arthur Compton and Joseph Wilson

Arthur Compton was the final miscreant to die on the Hangman’s Tree.   He and his partner in crime, Joseph Wilson, were hanged the same day,  executed for waylaying a German settler, beating him nearly to death.  The victim was quick to identify his attackers and a mob was equally quick to pass judgment on the pair.

“Boys, goodbye,” Compton said from the back of “old Murphy’s wagon.”  “Don’t lead the life I have the past few days.” 

Wilson’s neck was broken but in a grim coda, Compton was not so lucky.  The last victim of the Hangman’s Tree took 15 minutes to succumb, finally dying of strangulation.

The Montana Historical Society Museum, 225 N. Roberts, known popularly as “Montana’s Museum, covers the state’s history from archology to fire arms.  The museum’s collection includes more than 50,000 artifacts from frontier life to the turn of the century.

Admission is $5 for adults $1 for  children and $12 for families.  Open year round from  9-5 Monday through Saturday, and Thursday evenings until 8.  Closed Sundays and holidays.  For more information go to, call  (406) 444-2694 or fax (406) 444-2696   

© Text Only – 2019 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.