Harmon’s Histories: A slew of Montana scandals from the early 1900s

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

It was a scandalous Montana murder case. With a cast of high-profile characters caught in a web of infidelity and jealousy, it was worthy of a titillating novel.

Ed Hart and his wife Eva arrived in Red Lodge about 1900. Hart, described as a “dashing barber,” quickly found employment at a local tonsorial parlor operated by Jack Wilkes. Mrs. Hart, meantime, opened a dressmaking parlor.

But that’s not particularly why Red Lodge residents remembered the pair.

What they remembered, vividly, was Mrs. Hart attracting “considerable attention by wearing bloomers and riding through the streets astride her horse … making frequent public displays of her plump legs and dressing in a manner to attract public attention,” wrote the Red Lodge Picket newspaper.

That “got herself considerably talked about and on several occasions extracted the jealous wrath of her husband, who frequently upbraided her for her conduct and on one occasion gave her a beautiful black eye.”

They also remembered the day, six months after the pair’s arrival, that Mrs. Hart left Red Lodge, alone, in disgrace, boarding a train for Billings. At the time, Mr. Hart was said to be in Helena.

On arrival in Billings, “she alighted from the train in company with a male companion,” only to be confronted by her husband (who promptly accused her of) infidelity.

“The next morning, she departed for Butte and got her name in print by occupying a room at a hotel with Mr. Wilkes (Mr. Hart’s Red Lodge employer), who had preceded her to that city.”

After that short-lived affair, she proceeded to reinvent herself as Ruth LaBonta or “Madame Ruth LaBante,” operating dressmaking parlors “as a blind.” Her rooms were next door – and apparently conveniently connected – to the residence of one James W. Kelley, the editor of Butte’s Inter-Mountain newspaper.

The Red Lodge Picket reported, “It is averred that the two were married … and that the fact was kept secret for reasons best known to the parties to the compact.” The assertion, though, was never proved.

Now, we arrive at the fateful night of October 11, 1902.

As reported by the Anaconda Standard, “It appears that Kelley attended a banquet given at the Finley (and) had (been) expected to be out late and the LaBante woman knew that.”

Kelley “complained of not feeling well and asked to be excused. He was known to be jealous of the object of his affection, and it is now supposed that he had reason to believe the woman was not faithful.

“At all events, Kelley went to his room shortly afterwards and opened the door (to La Banta’s room) by means of his key.”

There he confronted Dr. Henry A. Cayley (a prominent Butte physician) and fired two shots at him as LaBante stood nearby in her nightdress.

The story became a national sensation.

“(D)octors express no hope for Cayley’s recovery,” reported the St. Paul Globe, the next day. “Kelly, who is still at large, is believed to be hiding in the city. His capture is thought to be a matter of but a few hours. Dr. Cayley is one of the best known physicians in the city and is married. Kelly is single.”

Kelley turned himself in the next day, while LaBante quietly skipped town – reinventing herself, this time, as “Mrs. O’Moore” in San Francisco, changing residences at least three times and eluding capture for six weeks.

When arrested, she told police it was she who had done the deed!

Dr. Cayley, she claimed, had been infatuated with her. When she refused to go away with him, a struggle ensued, she grabbed a pistol which “accidentally discharged twice and one of the bullets struck Dr. Cayley.”

LaBante insisted “J. W. Kelley was at no time present and had nothing to do with the affair.”

At her arraignment, she appeared in a heavy black veil, but looked like “a young woman who had not a thought of trouble,” according to the Butte Inter Mountain. Men, women and children packed the courtroom to hear her “not guilty” plea.

Meantime, Kelley claimed it was he who shot Cayley – but, in self defense — believing the man to be a burglar.

Finally, on April 27, 1903, after a two-week trial, the well-known Butte newspaper editor was found not guilty. He promptly left town to stay with his brother, Robert, in Anaconda.

Kelley’s admission in court that he’d shot Dr. Cayley, coupled with having been found not guilty of the crime, eliminated any case prosecutors might have had against Madame LaBonte. Her case was dismissed the next day.  

Both of our main characters then literally disappeared from any public mention in the press, with one (and possibly two) exceptions.

In a single sentence in the Daily Missoulian six years later, in1909, James Kelley and his brother Robert of Butte were said to be “in the city on business.”

And, there was this, in the Billings Gazette in 1908, with a dateline of Omaha: “Sewell Sleuman, reputed to be worth half a million dollars … tonight shot and killed Eva Hart, whose company he had been keeping for some time and then took his own life.”

There was no mention of, and therefore probably no connection to, the Cayley murder in that two-line story.

But still, one wonders. Could it have been the same Eva Hart?

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.