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.