Jack Slade joins the army

Jack Slade, who later became a victim of the Montana vigilantes, begins his involvement with the West by joining the military.

Born in 1829 in Illinois, Joseph Alfred Slade was the son of a prominent businessman and congressman. He joined the 1st Illinois Infantry when he was 18 and was introduced to a hard but adventurous life when his unit traveled to New Mexico. Slade left the army after only one year and returned to Illinois, but he headed westward again in 1850, reportedly fleeing charges that he had killed a man with a rock.

For several years, Slade wandered about the West–even visiting California during the height of the gold rush. By the late 1850s, he was finding steady work as a wagon boss supervising the shipment of freight across the Overland Trail. Slade earned a reputation both as a skilled frontiersman and as a hard-nosed boss given to vicious drunken rages. According to one source, Slade killed one of his own teamsters west of the Green River in Wyoming while he was drunk, though the murder was unverified and he was never prosecuted for any such crime.

Many employers considered a certain amount of violent ruthlessness to be a useful trait in a wagon boss, and Slade’s tough reputation and experience eventually won him a new job. He became an agent in charge of operations on the Overland Mail Company’s stage line from Julesberg, Colorado, to South Pass, Wyoming. It was one of the roughest sections of the line, plagued by attacks from hostile Indians and outlaws. Fearless, cool, and merciless, Slade worked with law enforcement officers to tame his segment of the trail by hanging any stage robbers or horse thieves he could catch and keeping his drivers armed.

Though he certainly presided over a number of vigilante-style executions, evidence that Slade personally killed people is sparse. Legend has it that Slade viciously killed a man by the name of Jules Reni (or possibly Beni) by having him lashed to a corral post and then slowly shooting him to death, but discrepancies and contradictions abound in accounts of the incident. Slade did carry a pair of human ears with him, which he claimed were Reni’s.

In 1862, the Overland Mail Company fired Slade for a drunken spree. The following year he joined the gold rush to Virginia City, Montana. He established a freight business in the booming frontier-mining town and began ranching along the nearby Madison River with his wife Maria. When sober, Slade was by all accounts a peaceful and upstanding member of the Virginia City community. When drunk, he became boisterous and threatening. Several times, he shot up saloons and businesses, though he always paid for the damages after sobering up. More worrisome, he sometimes made wild threats to kill prominent Virginia City citizens.

In 1863, many of the people of Virginia City banded together and formed a committee to halt the depredations of the violent Plummer Gang, which had committed a string of robberies and murders. Within a year, the Montana vigilantes had tracked down and executed much of the gang, and they turned their attentions elsewhere. Swayed by unverified rumors that Slade was a ruthless murderer, many of the vigilantes believed it was just a matter of time before he made good on his threats to kill someone. On March 10, 1864, the vigilantes arrested Slade, gave him a few minutes to pen a last letter to his wife, and summarily hanged him. The questionable justice of hanging a man who had committed no crime in Virginia City more serious than shooting up saloons helped convince many Montanans that the vigilantes were no longer useful. After Slade’s death, the organization became less active, and the vigilantes had faded into history by 1867.

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us!


Margaret Thatcher sworn in

Margaret Thatcher, leader of the Conservative Party, is sworn in as Britain’s first female prime minister. The Oxford-educated chemist and lawyer was sworn in the day after the Conservatives won a 44-seat majority in general parliamentary elections. Margaret Hilda Roberts was more

The Haymarket Square Riot

At Haymarket Square in Chicago, Illinois, a bomb is thrown at a squad of policemen attempting to break up a labor rally. The police responded with wild gunfire, killing several people in the crowd and injuring dozens more. The demonstration, which drew some 1,500 Chicago workers, more

Rusk reports on Viet Cong strength

At a press conference, Secretary of State Dean Rusk reports that Viet Cong forces have grown to 12,000 men and that they had killed or kidnapped more than 3,000 persons in 1960. While declaring that the United States would supply South Vietnam with any possible help, he refused more

Four students killed at Kent State

At Kent State University, 100 National Guardsmen fire their rifles into a group of students, killing four and wounding 11. This incident occurred in the aftermath of President Richard Nixon’s April 30 announcement that U.S. and South Vietnamese forces had been ordered to execute more

David Frost interviews Richard Nixon

On this day in 1977, British journalist David Frost interviews former President Richard Nixon. In the televised interview, Nixon answered questions regarding the Watergate scandal and his resignation, admitting that he had let the American people down through his role in the more

Audrey Hepburn born

On this day in 1929, Edda van Heemstra Hepburn-Ruston–who will one day be better known to legions of film fans as Audrey Hepburn–is born near Brussels, Belgium. The daughter of an English banker and a Dutch baroness, Hepburn was attending school in London when World War II more

Nigerian aircraft crashes in crowded city

On this day in 2002, an EAS Airline plane crashes into the town of Kano, Nigeria, killing 148 people. The Nigerian BAC 1-11-500 aircraft exploded in a densely populated section of the northern Nigerian city. The Executive Airline Services twin-engine plane took off from Kano at more

A riot breaks out in Haymarket Square

What begins as a peaceful labor protest in Haymarket Square in Chicago, Illinois, turns into a riot, leaving more than 100 wounded and 8 police officers dead. After Chicago authorities arrested and detained nearly every anarchist and socialist in town, eight men, who were either more

An inhumane execution

Jesse Tafero is executed in Florida after his electric chair malfunctions three times, causing flames to leap from his head. Tafero’s death sparked a new debate on humane methods of execution. Several states ceased use of the electric chair and adopted lethal injection as their more

Army of the Potomac crosses the Rapidan

On this day, the Army of the Potomac embarks on the biggest campaign of the Civil War and crosses the Rapidan River in Virginia, precipitating an epic showdown that eventually decides the war. In March 1864, Ulysses S. Grant became commander of all the Union forces and devised a more

Tito dies

Josip Broz Tito, communist leader of Yugoslavia since 1945, passes away at the age of 88 in Belgrade. During his 35-year rule, Tito guided Yugoslavia along a pathway that combined dogmatic allegiance to Marxism with an independent, and often combative, relationship with the more