Harmon’s Histories: Madam of Front Street, Dynamite and Prison; part 2
By Jim Harmon
Missoula’s most notorious bad girl, Mary Gleim, could get away with anything. In an era when Missoula judges had little tolerance for lawbreakers (vagrants were sentenced to 30 days on the county’s woodpile, and hog thieves got seven years in the state pen), Gleim skated.
In one incident, the 300-pound “Madam of Front Street” assaulted two priests at their residence after they failed to appreciate her advice on how to run the Catholic church. “She attempted to tear their clothes and demolish the furniture,” reported the Missoulian. Then, upon leaving, she attacked her hack (cab) driver.
On those occasions when she was dragged into court, she routinely spewed vile epithets at the judge, attorneys and witnesses. When one lawyer objected to her tantrum, she “squared herself off at him and dared him to do anything.”
In virtually every case, the shady lady was either acquitted or ordered to pay a small fine. Even when fined, she would promptly appeal, and she’d usually win.
Her trial for attempted murder began in early September, 1894. The courthouse was packed; Gleim stood accused of hiring two hit men to dynamite her rival’s residence, and him with it.
But this time, the atmosphere was different.
From the minute the “Madam” was arrested, Judge Frank Woody made it clear he wasn’t about to let his courtroom turn into the usual Gleim circus. He even threatened local attorneys with contempt if they signed the defendant’s bail bond papers.
At trial, the defense, largely brought in from Helena, objected to everything. They challenged person after person in jury selection. When they ran out of peremptory challenges and the jury was seated, they challenged the jury itself. They objected to witnesses. They objected to testimony. They even objected to the prosecution’s closing argument.
Judge Woody would have none of it.
Witnesses, including “ladies of the night,” recounted the February explosion and Bobby Burns’ brush with death. The defense tried to establish that one such witness, Nellie Harding, was an habitual “morphine eater,” but Judge Woody said he didn’t believe that affected her credibility.
Chester Newgate, a former Gleim employee and the main prosecution witness, told of overhearing Gleim and convicted dynamiter Pat Mason of conspiring to “rid the community” of Burns. Newgate claimed Gleim tried to get Mason to either poison Burns or kill him with a crowbar. He also said Gleim left a gun with him. “If Mason called for it, give it to him,” she allegedly instructed.
The defense objected to allowing Newgate to testify at all, claiming he was a convicted felon who had blown up a house in Colorado in an attempt to kill a woman and her daughter. They asked for time to investigate the matter, but Judge Woody overruled their objection and refused to delay the trial.
John Woods testified that Gleim told him, “Burns ought to be blown up; they ought to hang him; she said he had killed a Chinaman…”
Mason’s partner in crime, Pvt. William Reed of the 25th infantry at Ft. Missoula, now a prosecution witness as the result of a plea deal, claimed Mason told him that Madam Gleim was the “head pusher” in the scheme.
Gleim took the stand in her own defense and denied everything. After all, she was in San Francisco when it happened and, besides, it was just a big conspiracy.
But nothing seemed to go her way.
Despite the Gleim team’s strenuous objections, Prosecutor Thomas C. Marshall, in his closing argument, painted Mary Gleim as a woman who “never had any money in her life that was not tainted with crime.” After nine hours of deliberation, the jury found her guilty.
The next day Gleim was allowed to go about town (in the company of a deputy) to wrap up her business affairs, as the courthouse filled with locals who jockeyed for position to watch the sentencing. Given the defendant’s outbursts in the past, quite a show was expected. But it didn’t happen.
When Judge Frank Woody asked Gleim if she had anything to say, she calmly replied, “Not a word, proceed.” So the judge did. “Then it is the sentence of this court,” declared Judge Woody, “that you, Mary E. Gleim, be imprisoned, at hard labor, in the Western Montana Penitentiary at Deer Lodge, for a term of 14 years…”
At that, someone in the audience could be heard to say, “Don’t get excited, it’s all right.” The “Heavyweight champion of Gleimville” turned to one of her attorneys and remarked, “Excited, who’s excited? There is nothing to get excited about in a little matter like this. The people in this court room are more excited than I.”
And, with that, she was off to Deer Lodge.
The 300-pound madam is said to have arrived at prison fashionably dressed. Once settled in, she continued to conduct some business, deeding to her husband, John, “for a consideration of love and affection,” some lots in Missoula’s McCormick addition, along with other parcels.
But in prison, she was no longer in charge; no longer the “Queen of the Badlands;” no longer feared by all. Another woman, sent to the pen from Missoula, severely beat and stabbed Gleim in the yard one day.
Meantime, her team of attorneys compiled a 30-page “list of exceptions” (appeal).* In little over a year, they won a new trial for Gleim. This time she escaped conviction.
By early 1896, Gleim was back in Missoula, living at one of her properties, the Star Lodging House, where she promptly assaulted one of her boarders, “French Emma,” with a beer bottle, and proclaimed there weren’t enough officers in town to arrest her.
Mary Gleim died on February 22, 1914, leaving a substantial estate.
Arthur L. Stone wrote her obituary for the Missoulian, “…she was a relentless hater and during the days when she figured so prominently in the battles of a wide open town, she fought some hard battles. These were real battles too. She fought physically and was able to handle any man who ever went against her, even when he was clothed in official authority.
“Hers was a strange life. Its chapters would make a wonderful book. But it is not likely that they will ever be written. Some of her adventures she had related herself, but as a whole, the story of her career was a sealed volume.”
*Unfortunately, very little verbatim testimony from Gleim’s attempted murder trial was recorded, either in the Missoulian or the official court records. I could find no transcript of the proceedings. If one was made, it was apparently not maintained. Most of the witness quotes, used in this story came from the “list of exceptions” filed with the court, and (thankfully) preserved at the Missoula County Records Center.
Jim Harmon is a retired journalist whose 50-year career included nearly three decades at KECI-TV, Missoula in roles ranging from news anchor to weather forecaster. In retirement, Jim is a landscape gardener and history buff who’s spent years reading historical micro-film newspapers. You can read his weekly history column at the Missoula Current.