3-7-77: The Montana Vigilance Code
Montana Highway Patrol patch
Public domain image
Woe be unto he that attracts the ire of the Montana Highway Patrol, or to the enemy that finds himself in the crosshairs of a fighter plane of the Montana Air National Guard. For all these uniforms bear a symbol steeped in antiquity and mystery alike: the code 3-7-77. What does it mean? Those who wear it claim only that they don't know; but legend says the riddle is known to those in years past who were shown the symbol just before dying at the hands of the Montana Vigilance Committee.
The State of Montana is not best known for its warm embrace of Federal interference. People in Montana tend to like to have things their own way. Threatening a Montanan on his own property is not likely to go well for you; many still consider their sidearm to be the most efficient form of justice. In the 19th century, when no meaningful law had penetrated that far west, your sidearm was likely to be your only justice. And when the enemy was many, or more than one person or town could handle, Montanans and other Westerners developed their own form of law that protected the public interest with maximum efficiency. They were called vigilance committees. Frontier justice was not slowed by bureaucracy or derailed by official trivialities. It was swift, comprehensive, not subject to appeal, and almost always found at the end of a rope.
The origin of 3-7-77 has been debated by Montanans ever since it became publicly known in the late 19th century, but its meaning is clear: no disorderly conduct will be tolerated by the citizens. If you visit Montana, especially the small towns, you might be surprised at where and how often you'll see 3-7-77 inscribed. I've been there, and I've seen it; but don't take my word for it, keep on eye out for it yourself if life ever drives you through Montana's back country.
Not to be confused with Virginia City, Nevada, so famous for its mines on the Comstock Lode and for Mark Twain's writings in his book Roughing It, Virginia City, Montana is a beautifully preserved and happy little hamlet on Highway 287, set amid a bucolic backdrop of small farms and the remains of dredge mining operations. But in 1864, it became famous for its administration of frontier justice. The nation's attention was on the Civil War, raging between the North and the South; but here, west of the great plains, there was little interest in those doings. The focus was on mining, and all the branches of commerce that supported it. Men, money, and whiskey were plenty, and crime was equally in vogue. Then in just the first five weeks of 1864, vigilante riders hanged twenty one villains, including the rogue sheriff Henry Plummer who was believed to be the head of a gang responsible for some 100 murders. Justice was come to the territory.
How the code 3-7-77 came to be associated with the Montana vigilantes is something of a historical puzzle. As is so often the case, our best path to solve this mystery is to go back to the primary literature. We look at the books and newspaper reports pertaining to Montana vigilance, and see when and where 3-7-77 first appears. Thomas Josiah Dimsdale's book The Vigilantes of Montana is the best known and most comprehensive source of information on these wild days. Professor Dimsdale was the territorial superintendent of public education, and the editor-in-chief of the Montana Post. But in his book, the code 3-7-77 never appears once. This is not proof, but it's a strong clue, that the code was not yet in use at the time of the book's original publication, which was between 1864 and Professor Dimsdale's death in 1866.
It's not until 1879 — fifteen years after the committee's 1864 glory days — that any surviving print record shows that these numbers were in use, and it appeared in the November 3, 1879 issue of the Helena Herald newspaper. Editor Robert Fisk had been a frequent and colorful reporter of the activities of the vigilance committees, and a strong supporter of their activity. Fisk wrote:
And then on the night of November 1, 1879, the slogan "3-7-77" was painted on walls and fences all over the town. And with that, it became a permanent slogan of Montana vigilantism, but it also triggered the mystery.
Did it represent 3 hours, 7 minutes, and 77 seconds?
This has been the most common explanation; that if 3-7-77 was painted on your door or handed to you on a card, you had 3 hours, 7 minutes, and 77 seconds to leave town. But it makes no sense. 7 minutes and 77 seconds is incorrect notation; it should be 8 minutes and 17 seconds. Either way, it's a completely arbitrary amount of time, and no intelligent vigilante could reasonably expect such a message to be understood. There's no point in troubling to paint someone a message if there's no hope of it being understood.
The day before, a storekeeper was robbed at gunpoint, and Fisk's final publication before the public painting of 3-7-77 spoke of the town's ruffians as follows:
An hour's notice, a common enough term. Nothing in the printed record ever referenced 3 hours, 7 minutes, and 77 seconds.
Was it a command to take the next stage out of town?
In his 2013 book A Decent, Orderly Lynching, author Frederick Allen wrote:
But Allen failed to make a convincing case. Again, no one in his right mind could expect the simple message to be interpreted in such a specific and intricate way. Just think of the number of things in life that a 3, a 7, and a 77 might conceivably pertain to.
Allen did offer as a justification the fact that the warning did appear to have been obeyed, citing a November 12 article in the Butte Miner which said the town's streets were "getting filled with tough characters", though how he made this connection, or how Butte was implied in the warning, was not made clear.
Was it the dimensions of a grave?
A number of authors have speculated that the code refers to a grave 3 feet wide, 7 feet long, and 77 inches deep; but outside of references to this speculation, I found not a single case of a grave ever having been described by those dimensions. The common vernacular at the time describing a grave by its dimensions was simply "six feet deep" or "six feet under"; so if the vigilantes hoped to be understood, they would have more likely written this than the unfamiliar and irrelevant numbers 3-7-77.
Did it represent the sum 24, for 24 hours?
Some wags have suggested that if you add up all the digits, 3 + 7 + 7 + 7, you get 24, as in, "You have 24 hours to leave town." Again, if this was the intended meaning, then why not just write "24"? "3-7-77" would merely guarantee that your message would not be comprehensible, and thus wouldn't serve anyone's purpose.
Was it a reference to a date?
Obviously 3-7-77 refers to March 7, 1877, in the American style; or possibly July 3, 1877 in the European style. Both dates are prior to Fisk's 1879 publication, however no historians have found anything of special significance to crime or vigilance on either day. If there ever was, it was not noteworthy enough to be published in a newspaper.
Was it a Masonic reference?
In 1974, historian Rex Myers wrote a compelling article for Montana: The Magazine of Western History proposing that the code has Masonic roots. Myers suggests that the 3 referred to the three immigrants from Minnesota who founded Montana's first lodge in 1862; the 7 referenced seven prominent Virginia City Masons who formed a vigilance committee and signed an oath in 1863; and the 77 represented a Mason named Bell who died of fever in 1862 plus the 76 others said to have attended his funeral.
Myers' narrative is worthy of serious consideration. For one thing, the timing works very well. The seven signed their oath on December 23, 1863, only a few days before those first weeks of 1864 in which the Montana Vigilance Committee rode forth and hanged so many. Three founding Masons, seven strongarm Masons, and seventy seven worshiping brethren.
Other parts of the timeline don't work so well, though. From all historical records, no researcher has been able to find any reference to the code until Fisk's 1879 article. That's more than fourteen years after the seven committee members signed the oath in Virginia City; would any have even remembered them by then? Some had doubtless passed away in the ensuing decade and a half, others had taken their places; and the count of seventy seven men at Bell's funeral seems no more solid than any other anecdote. The account of Bell's funeral is only known from the book Vigilante Days and Ways, published in 1890 by Nathaniel Langford, who presided at Bell's funeral. Langford made no mention of the number of mourners; it appears to be a modern invention. Or if not an invention, then a post-hoc rationalization to explain the number 77.
Myers' proposal has two things that no other hypothesis has, however: plausibility, and at least some amount of provenance. Despite its imperfection as an explanation for 3-7-77, the Masonic connection has historical precedent, a reasonable explanation, and a reasonable likelihood of surviving those fourteen years in enough secrecy to keep it out of the few records that survive today.
And the symbol certainly survives today. The Freemasons' Historic Bannack Lodge No. 3-7-77 costs $37.77 for a lifetime membership. In A Decent, Orderly Lynching, Frederick Allen found that superintendent of Montana Highway Patrol Alex Stephenson personally designed the existing logo that incorporates the 3-7-77 code. Allen wrote:
It is no dinosaur. As recently as 2013, the Montana Highway Patrol changed its toll-free phone number to 855-MHP-3777. You can find the code in the gift shops, on the post cards, on the Masonic lodges and on official state materials. And it is most assuredly found alongside the siren that rolls up behind you should you cross the Montana law. Be good, keep your manners, and mind your Ps and Qs if you're going to Montana; it's advice that's no less wise today than it was in 1864.
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