Jerks in Montana History
This was it. He was ready to take drastic measures. Though the scene was placidóthe wind brushing lightly through the aspens along the lakeshore, the sun shining across the broad span of the valley where a small herd of multi colored horses grazed on the lush grass around a small log cabinóthe homesteader viewing the scene with his hunting rifle in hand was not placid. The trespassing horses did not belong to him. He had given fair warning to the horsesí owner over and over again. But apparently words were not enough. So he aimed carefully and fired a bullet into the head of the nearest mare.
The deed done, he returned to his work. Some time later an angry man, missing several of his front teeth as a result of train accident, marched onto the scene. He was an alert, forceful man, someone to be reckoned with. Often described as shady and deceptive, this man of many secrets was one of the most colorful characters in western Montana history. Though he was a giant with a magnificent physique and rugged power, he was reputed to be a physical coward who always packed a little 32 automatic in his hip pocket. The man was John H. Geiger. Part time cattle rancher and horse breeder, Geiger seemed to have little respect for homestead claims, and quite often found himself in the position of forcing his dominance upon the locals. The "Bull of Swamp Creek," local Don Schank called him. This homesteader; however, had turned out to be more difficult than most. He had expressed his dissatisfaction with the brood herd, but now he had really done himself in by shooting one of Geigerís animals.
"Well, when things like this happen, a person naturally retaliates," says old time Libby resident Harry Waylett, "whether it be by killing him, the homesteader, or beating him, or beating him and accidentally killing him. The old homesteader never was found or any part of him, but blood-covered wire was located near the cabin and the homesteaderís bloody boat was found docked on nearby Betts Lake. The cabin was torn apart in obvious ransacking. Honorable John H. Geiger was never charged with this crime." This is only one of dozens of stories of John H. Geiger, a man who moved through early Libby history getting his way and getting things done. Geiger was a fifty-year resident of the state of Montana. He changed careers like a lion forever seeking fresh kills.
At various times, Geiger was a school teacher, a mining manager, a deputy timber inspector, a restaurant owner, a hotel owner, a freighter & contractor, an arcade owner, a United States Marshal, a Montana State Senator from 1899 to 1903, and a rancher. Though he made many positive contributions to the early establishment of the Libby community, his record was mixed, to put it mildly. For example, while he played a huge role in the formation of Lincoln County, this civic-oriented man refused to pay his taxes.
Geiger came to Montana as a youth of twenty in 1879. He was a pale young man, seeking health and fortune in the mountains. He began his Montana career working as a ranch hand and a clerk in a store in the Deer Lodge valley. He later worked as a sawmill operator in the Gallatin Valley, furnishing ties and bridge timbers for the original Northern Pacific construction. As he built his physique, he climbed the social ladder to become a sawmill operator. By the late 1880ís, he was running a freighting company in the Helena and Fort Benton areas.
During the summer of 1882, Geiger visited Lewistown while transporting a load of supplies for a new post at Fort Maginnis. He camped on the creek bank in the rear of Mackeyís blacksmith shop. During the night, a crowd of toughs, using threatening and abusive language, made him put out his campfire. Later that night, Geiger appeared at their camp with his Winchester. He made it clear that if he were bothered again, the gang leader would be a corpse. This incident added to Geigerís reputation as a man unafraid to threaten force to get his way.
In 1894 John Geiger made his first appearance in the Libby country, and has since been identified with the development of the place. He was even the first under-sheriff of Lincoln County when the Sheriff Mike Shanahan reorganized the office. His name is best known in the area because of Geiger Lake.
Geiger had large holdings of land on the Fisher River south of Libby, and he turned this land into one of the best ranches in the area. His reasons for buying the land were not primarily agricultural, however. He was responding to rumors of plans to build a railroad along the Fisher River, where today Highway 2 is located. The proposed railroad would bisect the land Geiger purchased thus allowing him to sell out at a sizeable profit. These plans later fell through, although a railroad grade built during the time is still visible today.
Geigerís mining career brought him perhaps the most positive fame. He served as the manager of the Illinois and Montana Mining Company. The company owned four of the finest claims in the entire West Fisher district, extending from Fourth of July Gulch around the mountain into Lake Creek Gulch. It also held water rights on Lake Creek as well as on a natural reservoir at the head of the creek in what is now known as Geiger Lake. This body supplied water for all of the mining and milling purposes, and provided all of the power necessary to operate a big plant.
Geigerís home life was not so positive. Though Geiger was married to Emily Alice Geiger, it was a troubled marriage. Alice lived with Geiger for only a short time before she left, realizing she had made a mistake. She moved into town while he stayed at the ranch. It was common knowledge that Geiger had a mistressóMrs.Gompf, the wife of the owner of Gompfís Funeral Parlor.
Emily, known to everyone as Alice, was a quiet woman who always wore long skirts. According to Libby resident Inez Herrig, she was a nice person, a regular attendee at the Presbyterian Church, and a long time member of the Pioneer Society.
According to local historian Mark White, Geigerís marriage wasnít the only oddity of his domestic life. He adopted two Spokane children, a boy and a girl. He clothed them and attempted to educate them. Despite this, the boy could not stand "Uncle John" and was sent out of the arrangement at an early date. The girl stuck it out until his death. "He practically made a slave out of her," Don Schank wrote in his memoirs. There is still speculation by community members surrounding Geigerís care of the young girl. Upon his death this young woman was not mentioned in newspaper reports as a survivor.
Geiger played a key role in the formation of Lincoln County. Working with fellow Libby resident Leo H. Faust, Geiger used his influence to get the county division bill introduced in the 1909 legislature. It would create a new county from the western portion of Flathead County. The fight over the bill was intense, and the strain was so severe that the men involved had reportedly taken ill. They felt that their illnesses were so debilitating that they retreated to Hunters Hot Springs to see if the "medicinal properties" of those famous waters wouldnít help them. Being unable to travel on account of a severe attack of "rheumatism," Geiger remained at the spa.
On Tuesday, March 9, 1909, a dispatch was received in Libby from Helena concerning the creation of the county. The bill had passed, but just barely. Many members of the House fought it tooth and nail, but in the face of the opposition the bill was placed in the hands of a committee. There the fight was exhausted, and the bill passed.
Immediately upon receipt of the telegram announcing that the governor had signed the bill creating Lincoln county and naming Libby as the temporary seat, merchants, laborers, and professional men, celebrated the glad event by firing salutes and making other loud noises.
John Geiger then spent a large sum of tax dollars to import a band, and to provide for a banquette and dance, all in his honor. The party there was, "Flathead and its offspring." No expenses or pains were spared to entertain J. H. Geiger and the citizens of Flathead and Lincoln counties.
Libby was later named the county seat of Lincoln County after much controversy and a heated election. The new county began business on the first day of July in 1909.
Still, Geigerís role during his term as a state senator tends to overshadow his later dealings as a lobbyist. In fact, Geigerís actions received national attention not long after he was appointed senator from Flathead County in 1899. Indeed, his alleged behavior contributed to a new Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Those were contentious times in politicsóthe fight was underway between "copper kings" Marcus Daly and William A. Clark with all its millions of dollars spent on Clarkís seat in the United States Senate. At that time, U.S. Senators were not elected by a direct vote of the people. Instead, they were elected by the state legislatures. The 1899 legislature could not produce a majority vote for Clark until approximately $400,000 had changed hands and eleven Republicans had switched their votes to Clark. John Geiger was one of these eleven Republicans who was bribed.
The 1899 fight between Clark and Daly continued beyond the election when the U.S. Senate refused to seat the winner, Clark, because of fraud. The fight captured nationwide attention and led to the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913 providing for the direct election of U.S. Senators. Clarkís victory was followed quickly by a Congressional investigation into the election. Since the appearance was quite strong that Geiger had sold his vote, he was called to Washington, D.C. for questioning by the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections.
Minutes of the hearing appeared in the Interlake of Flathead County, published in Kalispell on February 2, 1900: [Quote]
John H. Geiger was the first witness before the Committee on Privileges and Elections in its investigation of charges against Senator Clark. Geiger acknowledged that he had been the Republican candidate for the Senate from Flathead County. When asked whether he had not said in his speech accepting the nomination that his vote could not be purchased by a Democrat, he replied it was his intention to convey the idea that he could not be "handled." He had said that if he sold out, he hoped his constituents would take him out and hang him. "I still feel that way," he told the Committee. But he claimed he had voted for a Democrat only to prevent a deadlock. He also said there were other matters more important to come before the legislature than the election of some rich man for United States senator.
Upon being questioned concerning his financial condition when he was nominated, he said it was "just moderate." He had just sold his hotel business but could not remember just how much he received. After much questioning, said he thought the amount about $25. He also received $250 from his mother's estate, and he had borrowed $300 for the campaign.
Geiger hesitated over a question about how much money he had deposited in the First National Bank in Kalispell during or since the seating of the legislature. He finally admitted that in May last he bought a draft for $2500, paying currency for it. In August, he had opened an account at the bank, depositing $800 in currency. Since that time he had made other deposits.
"Some of it I got at poker and the faro bank," he said. "I don't remember whether I won any at pokerómy experience was about even, but at faro I did."
"Did you win $2000 at faro?"
"It was some short of $2000, but at Helena and Butte together I think I quit about $1500 or $1800 ahead."
"You were a state senator; did you not know it was a misdemeanor to play faro?"
"Well, I was about as conscientious in that matter as some other Montana officials."
Continuing his explanation, he said he had never made any great winnings at one timeó never more than $180, but that he had been uniformly lucky and had played often.
"How do you explain the fact that you had so much better luck at faro after you entered the legislature than before?" asked Republican Senator William Eaton Chandler of New Hampshire. Geiger replied, "Why, Senator, I did not have. I lived in Montana 22 years and had fallen into the ways of the people soon after going there. I had frequently in the early days won more than after my election to the state senate, but Libby has no faro bank and I had not played for some time."
All told Mr. Geiger said he had in his possession $3600 when he reached Libby after going home from the legislature at Helena.
"When did you get the amount that you have not already accounted for?"
"I can not tell without uncovering my private affairs."
"Do you decline to tell?"
The chairman of the committee, Senator Chandler, told the witness that he must reply, and the question about where the money came from was repeated.
Geiger gazed at the ceiling for fully five minutes before answering:
"Where did I get it? Why, in Helena."
"Where did you get it from?"
The witness again took a long time before replying.
"Well sir," he said at last, "I can not answer."
"Do you mean to say that you do not know?"
"I don't know. To be frank there were other ways of getting money in Helena during the session of the legislature. I was approached at different times to vote for different bills."
"Did you make money in that way?"
"I don't know. I never sold my vote, but I got money."
Senator Chandler: "Now, Mr. Geiger, the committee requires you to state from whom you got money. Go ahead and tell what you know."
To this the response came quickly. The witness said: "I found a package in my room containing $1100 and I have since used the money. It was the time that House Bill 132 that allowed a corporation to consolidate its holdings into a trust was up. I took the money, put it in my pocket and used it. From that time to the present, I have never said a word about it."
In reply to other questions he said that he had an idea who left the envelope in his room, but that he did not know. He had, he said, intended to vote for the bill anyway.
In reply to questions, the witness said he had been told that he could get $1000 or $1200 for his vote in opposition to the bill, but he declined to tell who had made the suggestion on the ground that it would incriminate himself.
Mr. Campbell continued the inquiry, "Who was it," he asked, " that made the proposition to you, that you could receive $1200 for your vote against House Bill 132?"
"It is common talk all over town that money could be had for votes," replied Mr. Geiger, "but I can not explain further without incriminating myself."
Senator Chandler insisted on an explanation as to how he could be incriminated, unless he had agreed to accept the money for his vote, but the witness insisted that a further explanation would certainly be self-incriminating and declined to answer. He would go no further than to say he had told the party approaching him that he would see about it.
Asked concerning the purchases of property in Kalispell, Mr. Geiger at first said he had not bought any: his brother had.
"Whose money paid for it?" asked Campbell.
"I refuse to discuss private affairs," he answered. [End Quote]
To the end of his life, stories about Geigerís accomplishments circulated with stories about how he got things done. Did he kill the homesteader, whose remains were never found, who shot his horse? We will probably never know.
What we do know is that when his wife, with whom he had not lived for years, died, her will said that she did not want her body handled by the Gompf Funeral Parlor. As a result, a new funeral home was created, stayed in business long enough to bury her, and then was bought out by Gompfís.
In his own will, maybe we get a glimpse of how John Geiger assessed his own life. He ordered a copper casket for his burial, asking that this be done so that demons could not access his soul after the ill deeds he had committed in young Libby, Montana. Was this sincere fear, or only another taunting of the publicís sense of propriety?
All we know for sure is that on Wednesday April 28, 1929 at 2:00 a.m. John H. Geiger passed away in Missoula, Montana. Mrs. Gomph brought his body back to the Libby community upon notification of his death. He was buried in the Libby cemetery in one of the heaviest copper units ever created. What a fitting home for a man owned by a "Copper King."
My research into the life John H. Geiger proved to be more interesting than I had expected. My interest came from the fact that my parents own sections of the land that Geiger homesteaded. The old home site and trash deposits can still be seen today. I spent hours searching through microfilms of old newspapers, interviewing local citizens, and looking through files at the Clerk and Recorderís Office. Although there are obvious questions about this manís moral character, itís also obvious that he did do a lot for the Libby community. Time hasnít erased all traces of the trails that Mr. Geiger followed and created. Much has been lost, but I am hoping to preserve what I have found out about this man for future generations.
I would now like to take just a moment more to thank the following individuals for their time and efforts to help me complete this paper:
Mr. Mark White
Mr. Jeff Gruber
Ms. Katherine Mitchell
And Mr. Dave Walter
© 2003 Montana Heritage Project