He died pronouncing sentence in a double-homicide. The defense kept the appeals process going for six months because no one could agree on which hit the bench first, his gavel or his head.
That spring of 1896, Harlan A. Blackthorne had been the law in Montana for thirty years, its first federal judge and the last to claim complete jurisdiction over a territory the size of Spain. His presidential appointment limited his authority to crimes committed against the United States: mail-train robberies, Indian depredations, murders of federal employees crowning the list. Within days of donning the robes, he’d expanded that responsibility to include domestic killings, claim-jumping, goldbricking, road-agentry, and rape. Few complained: certainly not the overworked circuit judges whose swollen dockets he’d plundered, or the peace officers who were paid by the mile to deliver their captives to the territorial capital in Helena, or the victims and survivors of victims who kept track of the long-term and death sentences the carpetbagger from Washington handed out the way a Christian charity distributed King James Bibles.
His rivals in Congress launched periodic campaigns—usually at election time—to unseat him for overstepping his boundaries and downright abuse of power (of both of which he was guilty), but he’d served two terms there himself, collecting markers from some colleagues. A well-placed wire plowed a path through carloads of taxpayer-financed letters to constituents, filled as they were with righteous wrath on their account, like a locomotive through bone china. In this way (and with a dollop of old-fashioned Yankee blackmail), the Judge sat secure in his seat under seven presidents.
The harassment didn’t stop with politics. Broadsides sprang up throughout the frontier offering as much as ten thousand dollars for Blackthorne’s head, pledged by an uneasy coalition of robber barons, big-time rustlers, bushwhackers, redlegs, copperheads, rumrunners, gunrunners, and a well-known Chicago meatpacker driven into receivership by the Judge’s enforcement of the quarantine on Texas cattle. The brains behind the bounty belonged to a ninety-pound pimp nicknamed Little Great Falls, who’d conducted personal business dealings with all the parties involved; they anted up the reward from their own treasuries. Although it was posted anonymously, all their names were known to their quarry within weeks. The men Blackthorne had recruited to enforce his decisions maintained an effective network of river-rats and spies scattered throughout the outlaw world.
He did nothing about it personally. He didn’t have to.
His first act after settling in was to rag Washington for the funds necessary to assemble a platoon of deputies to assist the U.S. marshal appointed by President Andrew Johnson in maintaining the peace. Conceived in idealism but carried out pragmatically, this company consisted largely of men indistinguishable from those they were charged to bring to bear; with some lawmen of legitimate experience leavened in to establish order and placate the press.
They were not men to let the grass grow.
Having read accounts in the daily journals of his fellow financiers shot to death while resisting arrest, and of the unexpected suicide of the personal representative of a Chicago magnate in his hotel room in Deer Lodge, Little Great Falls decamped in haste to old Mexico, where he was cut to pieces by a woman he’d gone into business with in a Sonoran bawdyhouse.
When the character of many of his centurions came to light, and the opposition press cried for an investigation, Blackthorne was sanguine: “It isn’t sufficient merely to comb out the lice; the treatment to eradicate them is necessarily caustic.” In time, when it was noted that the names of marauders that had become fixtures in the newspapers had fallen away through conviction, execution, and an excess of lead in their diet, the cries ceased.
Blackthorne was small but rangy, with a big head made larger still by a rich growth of black hair and a Vandyke beard, never allowed to gray. His suits were tailored and cut for a younger man—and a dandy at that—but he took care of them so that they made fewer demands on his salary than a mail-order rig built to withstand ten years of daily wear. Several attempts to expose him as an embezzler based on his finery dashed themselves to pieces against the solid rock of his meticulous bookkeeping; cavalier as he was about his exercise of power, when it came to money he was as scrupulous as a spinster aunt. He’d supported himself during his unpaid apprenticeship with a Philadelphia law firm working for blacksmiths and wheelwrights, and in the last year of his life, when he’d drunk enough of his good imported Highland Scotch whiskey, could still out-arm-wrestle a fit man half his age when challenged beyond ignoring.
He’d passed the bar on a course of his own study and still owned the thumb-soiled volumes of Blackstone he’d bought one by one with what he’d managed to save living in a coldwater flat and bringing his luncheon to work; no two of them belonged to the same matched set. They’d made the journey with him to Washington and eventually Montana Territory in his army rucksack. His only vanity apart from how he dressed himself was the set of ivory teeth he’d had made to take the place of the ones he’d lost to the fighting and the fare south of the border. (He insisted they’d been carved by hand from the keys of a piano abandoned along the Oregon Trail; but I’d seen the box he kept them in when he wasn’t wearing them, and it bore the name of a pharmaceutical manufactory in Boston stamped in gold.) He was devoted to his wife, a plump beauty when they’d met, but who’d grown absolutely stout by the time I knew her. He himself maintained his own lean figure by walking the heels off any subordinate who was fool enough to join him on his daily constitutional.
The lawless population hated him with the passion of a religious zealot. The Montanans old enough to remember what the place was like before he came, a wild, wooded, virtually unsettled wilderness, full of deep gorges and dense growth made to order for vermin to seek cover in, worshipped him in like measure. Easterners thrilled to read of his marshals’ bloody skirmishes and the swift thistled shock of his hangmen’s ropes snapping the spines of the unredeemed in the wire columns of The New York Sun, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Journal, and in Harper’s Weekly, secure in the thousands of miles that separated them from the events. His rivals schemed around the clock trying to find a way to tear him from his roots, or at least keep him too busy defending himself to pursue his offenses against the organized system of justice, but that same vast distance took the edge off every swing they took; by the time they gathered themselves to react to his most recent outrage, it was weeks old. As well pot at a star hundreds of years after its latest twinkle.
What did I think of him? I, who’d worked with him hand-in-glove longer than all the rest, and who knew him better than anyone—including Mrs. Blackthorne? He was a first-class son of a bitch. But how many men have you known who were first in their class at anything?
Copyright © 2018 by Loren D. Estleman