In writing by book Helena I ran across several references to The Hanging Tree and came to find out that Helena, the capital of Montana, used to have a single, half-dead pine tree that was used by vigilantes to hang convicted outlaws. In fact, each year (baring something like a covid outbreak) the town has a Vigilante Days Parade to acknowledge the towns colorful past.
Curious about the location of the tree, I went to the historical society in Helena and asked a few questions. I was told the tree, after being used to dispatch ten or twelve victims, was cut down about 1870 and that it once stood about one hundred yards up from Davis Street on Hillsdale Street, now a suburban neighborhood. I was also shown a famous old photograph of the tree with two men dangling from a limb amidst a crowd of onlookers.
I drove to the supposed site of the tree and could easily see the location did not in any way match the photograph. As time went by, I made several trips back to Helena and to the historical society. Eventually I discovered two more 1870’s photos of Helena that showed the tree in the distant background, photos no one realized had captured the tree.
After hours of research, I came to conclusion that the tree stood on the corner of Davis and Hillsdale and not farther up the street. I even came across an old photo album that had a smaller duplicate of the famous double hanging photo, with “Davis Street” written at the bottom (along with the name of one of the men standing in the photo).
Few care where the exact location of tree was but for me it was a mystery that needed to be solved. I started to tell the people that lived in the house on the corner that a dozen men met their death in their back yard but decided against it. Someday the city might want to put a marker on that spot. Who knows?
The old photographs, like those at the Montana Historical Society are incredibly sharp and when magnified revealed an amazing amount of detail. So, if you like discovering bits of lost history try looking at old photographs and then enlarging them. What you see will surprise you and just might lead us all to a more accurate understanding of our past.