Joseph Shelton
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Virgina City's Macabre Past

    by Joe Shelton

Joseph Shelton is a freelance writer who graduated from Montana State University with a degree in English Literature.  He lives in Bozeman, where he enjoys hiking, reading, and being a misunderstood artist-type. 


If you have ever been to Virginia City than you know that it has a peculiar feeling to it, something that mixes the sacred and profane while adding liberal dashes each of the touristy and the sinister.  You can buy a t-shirt with a lovable cartoon prospector on it, or you can see the severed, petrified foot of poor "Clubfoot" George Lane, or you can do both.

I had the opportunity to go to Virginia City recently, and one of the most important things to see for me was the spot where the Montana Vigilantes hung Boone Helm, Clubfoot Lane, Frank Parrish and two other supposed road agents.   

Helm has long held some power over my imagination, not to mention to his rough riding contemporaries.  A survivalist, murderer, thief, cutthroat and self-professed cannibal, Helm was born in Kentucky but made his way all over the West.  The noted braggart often claimed to have eaten people, but his first confirmed experience of cannibalism was when he was stranded during a Idaho winter with a man named Burton.  They had already killed and eaten their horses, and Helm was off foraging when he heard what may have been a welcome sound for a man as amoral as himself: a gunshot.  His last surviving companion had shot himself, so Helm availed himself of the culinary chance provided.

By the time that Helm was apprehended by the Vigilantes in Montana he claimed to have killed or eaten quite a few more men, including people who had defended him, hid him from the authorities, and provided him with second chances.  Helm was a born outlaw, the kind of man who might be labeled a psychopath today, but in his day was a dime novel legend known as the Kentucky Cannibal.

He was also an inveterate and unrepentant showman.  The story goes that on his last day, after lying under oath about his activities (and kissing the bible), he made a last request for some whiskey.  Though some of the assembled were offended that a man would meet the Lord with whiskey on his breath, that last kindness was given to him all the same.  Then one by one the hangman dispatched the five road agents, although some reports have it that Helm wouldn't give him the satisfaction, jumping off the gallows before they could pull the lever.  Others have him egging the hangman on.

Walking into the building, which is still standing, and seeing the beam which must have groaned under the weight of those five men of low character is what is colloquially referred to as a "trip".

Maybe its the sometimes dreadful history of Virginia City and Nevada City that give them their particular, eery charm.  You get the sense that the joy, triumph, and desperation of people a century and a half past is just a little closer, or that the membrane between ourselves and history is a little thinner here than most other places.  

A sense that just around the corner from the t-shirt stores and artisanal ice cream is a lawless town in the excited midst of a gold boom where badmen, homesteaders, and merchants are seeking unsure fortunes in difficult times, and where men like Boone Helm may just be lying in wait with his eye on their gold and his evil stomach rumbling.