Excerpt from Death in the Valley: Odd Tragedies in the Flathead Valley, Montana 1887-1917
48˚ NORTH NONFICTION BY JAIX CHAX
MONDAY, JULY 27, 1891
John “Jack” Butler – the notorious gambler – has been shot dead. Butler had arrived in Demersville last winter with his gambling partner Charlie Whiting. However, the two have since parted ways.
Butler and Whiting were gambling at a saloon and winning admirably at faro (a face-paced card game, popular in saloons and gambling “hells” throughout Montana in the late 19th century). Despite owning the table, their partnership unraveled as they disputed their sizable winnings.
Butler stood above six feet. He was tall and thin, but had a wide reputation throughout Montana as a dangerous, ill-mannered gambler. His face never revealed his hand, but certainly revealed a life of hard drinking and fiendish smoking well beyond his 25 years.
The gambling partners had yet to reach any mutual conclusion about their winnings as Butler walked out of the saloon. It appeared Butler had enough arguing – but not enough drinking. Demersville had innumerable dens of ill repute and nearly 100 drinking establishments to her claim. So whether Butler went along Gregg Street, Foy Street, Sanders or Stannard Street, he stumbled all but a few paces before he found his fill at some other saloon.
After drinking heavily and well into the afternoon, Butler somehow made his way home in what must have been a remarkable state of belligerence and bewildering intoxication. Despite the comforts of home, Butler was still angry with Whiting and rage had overcome him.
Butler shouted at his wife about the makings of his earlier dispute with Whiting. And after a fit of ramblings, Butler declared he was fixed on settling the matter – not with kings and queens in his hand – but with a 45-Smith and Wesson instead.
Butler shoved a revolver in his pocket, pushed his wife aside, and bolted from the house. He was determined to find Whiting, and shoot him dead in the street if he must.
Mrs. Butler, with a wisdom likely drawn from much experience, dared not to interfere with the vengeance of her gun-toting husband. Instead, she left at once for the home of Mrs. Whiting. As the gamblers were friends, so too were their wives. Mrs. Butler arrived and told Mrs. Whiting of the trouble between their husbands.
Mrs. Butler implored Mrs. Whiting to keep her husband home, so that sobriety could take hold and the whole matter could soon be forgotten.
The wives thought the plan was wise, but they made one flawed oversight. That is, they presumed their conversation had been a private one.
Mr. Whiting had overheard their talk. He was now aware that his former friend and gambling partner no longer intended to cheat him – but kill him instead.
Whether Whiting had been the better gambler all the while hardly mattered now, for he certainly held the upper hand. Having learned of his partner’s deadly intent, Whiting was not going to wait for death to find him first. He readied himself with a 45-Winchester, as the wives tried to console each other in their excitement.
Unlike Butler, Whiting left his house gun-in-hand. He made no attempt to conceal his intentions or his gun, as he made his way down the street. Whiting had walked a block along the street through Demersville when Butler suddenly turned the corner about 20 yards away.
Despite their admirable winnings and years of betting toward their mutual benefit, the two gamblers now opposed each other. Fate would draw the last hand between them, as any amelioration or amicable adjustment among them appeared absent that afternoon.
Whiting and Butler recognized each other at the same moment. In a flash, Whiting raised his gun, while Butler fumbled as he tried to pull the revolver from his hip pocket – a gun shot rang out!
Excitement took to the streets, as dozens of citizens and visitors of Demersville were startled by the gun shot – and the smell of gun smoke.
Butler fell over dead in the street. His cocked revolver fell beside him. His eyes closed shut all but a moment later. Whiting shot Butler straight through the heart.
As gamblers would later remark of his dying, Butler went “two blind with an empty hand, and nothing to draw except his last breath.”
Jaix Chaix is a writer, researcher, and photographer who appreciates the history of the Flathead Valley and Montana. He first visited Montana by freight train in the 1990s and now lives in Lakeside with his wife and daughter. His book, “Death in the Valley: Odd Tragedies in the Flathead Valley, Montana 1887-1917,” is available at DeathInTheValley.com and locally (at select retailers).