Friday, April 3, 2020

Montana's 3-7-77 Vigilantes

They are very ominous numbers: 3-7-77

When I was introduced at a speaking engagement in February, the audience was told that I would tell them what the numbers 3-7-77 means as related to vigilantes. Since I was there to talk about Vigilantes in the Old West, I thought about it for a moment and decided to cursory say that there were a number of vigilante groups that gave themselves some interesting names. Yes, including the 3-7-77.

So why didn't I talk about them more in depth? To be completely honest, I was pressed for time and I knew that there was not way of talking about the 3-7-77 in a sentence or two when I really wanted to cover so much in a short time.

My friends, the numbers 3-7-77 was the symbol used by a vigilante group in Montana in the mid to late 1800's. Of course just mention the word vigilante in Montana even today, and you would be surprised how many people there still think of men taking the law into their own hands, men with torches, guns in hand, a hangman's noose, midnight lynchings, Henry Plummer, and the numbers 3-7-77.

While we'll talk about Henry Plummer in another post, it's said that the outlaw who found the numbers 3-7-77 painted on his tent or cabin, or tacked to his cabin door on a note, knew real well that he better get out of town. If not, vigilantes will pay him a visit -- and he will have wished he left as he danced on the end of a rope.

So what was the 3-7-77? What did 3-7-77 mean? Well, historically speaking, fact is no one really knows what those very menacing numbers really stand for. That doesn't mean that there aren't a lot of theories about what they mean, it just means that it is a true Old West mystery. Like it or not, other than everyone knowing that they were part of a vigilante's call sign, there is only speculation when it comes to what the numbers really mean.

This may take a few minutes to explain, and you'll see why I opted not to tackle the 3-7-77 during that speaking engagement. It's simply not clean cut and dry as to where it came from, or what it was used. And yes indeed, there are all sorts of theories about the numbers, how they came about, and why they were used.

One theory says the numbers 3-7-77 represented time. This theory says that an outlaw was given 3 hours, 7 minutes, and 77 seconds to get out of town. That's supposedly the time that an outlaw was given to leave town after being warned to do so. So if a note was posted with the numbers 3-7-77 on a suspected outlaw's cabin door, or painted on his tent, then he know that he had precious little time to get out of the area before meeting the wrath of the local citizens committee.

Frankly, it could have said 24 and the person reading it would have known that the clock was ticking and he better leave. Of course if it did say 24, an outlaw may have took that as he still had a full day left. In the case of 3 hours, 7 minutes, and 77 seconds, there were no mistaking that time was fleeting.

Of course there is the belief that the numbers referred to paying a $3 ticket on the 7 a.m. stage for the 77-mile ride from Helena to Butte. Which if you needed to get out of the town of Helena, that was one way to do it. While it was only 70 miles from Helena to Butte, some say it was the stage from Virginia City to Bozeman. But then there's the problem that Virginia City to Bozeman is only 68 miles apart.

A friend from Montana told me that the $3 fair was a cut rate stage fair given to lawmen trying to get someone out of town. As for the 77 miles though, he was stumped about that since even the stage from Virginia City to Bannack was over 80 miles. So where did the 77 miles comes in? No one knows.

Another theory is that the numbers relate to something taking place there on March 7, 1877. There's ever the notion that the numbers relate to the first Masonic meeting in Bannack, Montana, which supposedly took place March 7, 1877. There are those who say many of the members of the vigilante committee there were Masons and members of that lodge.

The whole Mason connection to the 3-7-77 is also explained this way. That first meeting had 3 members present, they needed 7 for a quorum, and 77 is said to have signified the number of Masons who were later at the first activity in the Montana Territory. There's also the thought that the 77 has something to do a Mason member, William Bell, who supposedly had 77 mourners at his funeral. While that is interesting, I've haven't been able to determine who kept count, why someone would keep count, or if anyone can verify that the were that many mourners there.

Another theory is that the numbers 3-7-77 explains the vocations of men involved in the Virginia City vigilante group. That theory says that there were supposedly 3 lawyers, 7 merchants, and 77 miners in that vigilante committee.

I've had all sorts of reactions over this when I've talked to friends about it over the years. Some of my friends have said this sounds like the least believable of the theories simply because there were more than just lawyers, merchants, and miners in any given vigilance committee throughout the West. And frankly, they're right. Vigilance committees consisted of the adult men population in a town. They were in fact made up of men from all sorts of vocations. This is the not the least believable explanation of the numbers, but close.

The least believable explanation is the theory saying that the mysterious numbers originated in California and were thought to be connected to three members of California vigilante groups -- all three who migrated to Montana and joined the vigilantes there. This theory is perfect for those who believe in conspiracy theories. This is right up their alley. And as with any good scam, some truth is used to make it sound plausible.

The theory is that supposedly, the number 3, 7, and 77 corresponded to men who were in positions of authority in vigilante groups in California. The idea is that those three were somehow high ranking vigilantes and acted as judges. They are said to have passed judgement, authorized executions, and even directed the disposal of their victims' bodies. Que the ominous background music!

Why is it plausible? Well, it's true that the San Francisco Vigilance Committee of 1856 gave out medallions for their members -- and those medallions were numbered. So yes, the members of the San Francisco Vigilance Committee of 1856 had membership numbers. No one knows why they did that, other than that there were thousands of members.

Sure it's possible that other vigilante groups in California used membership numbers for their members, but frankly the San Francisco Vigilance Committee of 1856 is the only group that I know of who did that in California. The very large Anti Horse Thief Association was a vigilance committee out of Kansas founded in the late 1850's. That organization expanded over the years and may have given out membership numbers, but I don't know that for sure.

The idea behind those three California vigilante transplants is that vigilante members number 3, 7, and 77, were three prominent California vigilantes who arrived in to Montana and offered their "expertise." Some say that expertise was that of assassins. And believe it or not, this same theory is thought to apply to three members of a Colorado vigilante group as well. Same story, but different place of origin -- as many myths will do.

Do I believe that theory? No, I don't for a couple of reasons. First, let's remember that citizens committees, also known as vigilante groups, preceded organized law enforcement. Vigilantes were the law when there was no law. They utilized the hue and cry. They formed volunteer watches.

Second, after formal law enforcement was established, citizens committees stayed around to support lawmen -- and make sure they stayed above board. That goes to the reason that such groups rose up and took action even after the law was established. Citizens groups worked parallel with the law, supported the law, and helped to enforce the law. In fact, in most cases they were there to man posses, take after bandits, there to be used to supply extra guards when needed, to act as the local militia, to man the local fire brigade, and be used during a disaster.

Vigilance groups were vigilant, and also there to right things when the law was inept and ineffective, were there when the law overstepped it's authority, when the law was corrupt, and when they saw the courts being corrupt or too weak to act to stop criminals.

The Ku Klux Klan has been called "vigilantes" but they are terrorists who were formed to terrorize and murder Republicans and freed slaves. Mob justice is often mistaken for that what citizens committees do. Vigilantism shouldn't be mistaken for the mob justice, but they are since both outside the law. The difference is huge. Mobs usually gathered to seek revenge or retribution -- even at the point of lynching innocent men.

True vigilantes, organized citizens committees, were the law when there was no law. They did what was needed before formal law ever arrived. Vigilantes were not terrorists, angry mobs, or assassins. And there is all sorts of evidence that vigilante groups, actually held trials when enforcing the law. In some cases like that of the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance of 1856, they held trials and actually let many go after finding them not guilty.

Of course, in other situations, like say when vigilantes hanged Killer Jim Miller in Oklahoma, they didn't need a trial because they knew who they were dealing with. He got off by intimidating witnesses, it's said he killed witnesses, and he evaded prosecution because he used pricey defense lawyers and technicalities to stay one step ahead of a rope and sudden drop.

As for the 3-7-77, there is the thought that the numbers 3-7-77 constituted the dimensions of a grave. Three feet wide, seven feet long, and seventy-seven inches deep. A grave which was supposedly waiting for the outlaw who was dumb enough to stay in Montana after being warned.

While I like to think that this is the answer to what the 3-7-77 really means, I have had a hard time finding any reference to such dimensions of a grave in newspapers or literature of that period. Fact is, as much as I believe that this really is what they ominous warning related to, most references to a grave was something like "six feet under."

There was once a superstition regarding the size of a grave. In fact, there was a "rule of thumb" that said graves should be as deep as the deceased is tall. With the average male of the 1800's only being 5 feet 5 inches in height, it makes one wander why would a grave be 7 feet long? Well, they aren't. No, just as they are not 3 feet wide or 77 inches deep.

Graves have traditionally been only 2 and a half feet wide, 8 feet long, and 72 inches deep. Yes, the traditional depth of a grave is 6 feet because that's what has been seen necessary for sanitary and health reasons. Some folks say it was that depth because most grave diggers only dug a grave to their height and a little more, Then there are those who say 6 feet was agreed to be a good depth to stop grave robbery or "body snatching" which was a real problem throughout the 1800s and into the early 1900's. Believe it or not, medical schools were notorious for hiring grave robbers to provide them with cadavers for study purposes. 

If you want to know why 8 feet long, especially since most people at the time were short. Well, the 8 foot mark includes the space for a headstone. Knowing this, the 3-7-77 figure for a grave may have simply been seen as round figures that sounded good. Frankly, it could have been any one of the theories that I mention above or something that no one knows.

In reality, it didn't matter what it meant back in the day. It really didn't since the 3-7-77 turned into an sinister warning and had its desired effect. It curbed crime and made outlaws skedaddle. In fact, it did that so well, while representing the first real law in Montana, that the numbers are used today on Montana Highway Patrol vehicles including their helicopter, and their uniform patches among other things.

Over the years, the numbers 3-7-77 became a warning sign, a set of frightening numbers that helped keep law and order back in a time when formal law enforcement was in its infancy.

As a tribute to those citizens who watched, those who were vigilant, the the numbers are used on the flight suits of pilots of the Montana Air National Guard, and the Flight Patch of the Montana Army National Guard Medevac unit. Also, the numbers appear today on the shoulder patch, vehicles, and even the helicopters of the Montana Highway Patrol.

As the Association of Montana Troopers web site puts it, "Regardless of its meaning, however, 3-7-77 is emblematic of the first organized law enforcement in Montana. The Montana Highway Patrol, in adopting this early symbol, honors the first men in the Montana Territory who organized for the safety and welfare of the people. For that same reason, the Association of Montana Troopers has carried on that tradition by placing the legendary 3-7-77 on their patch as well."

In Helena, the state capital of Montana, their annual Vigilantes Day Celebration takes place with events, music, great food, wonderful vendors, and a parade. It's a time for celebrating Montana history, but also a day that recognizes and keeps alive the symbol of that state's first law enforcement organization. It's a wonderful tribute to citizens who risked their lives to hold outlaws to account.

Tom Correa


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