3-7-77 A New Explanation for a very Old Mystery
by Michael Umphrey

The numbers 3-7-77 struck terror into the hearts of all who feared vigilante justice. If a sign with those numbers on it appeared on a man's tent, he knew he had been warned and he had better vanish from Montana if he didn't want to face the wrath of the vigilantes.

The mystery of what the numbers meant has continued. If you notice the emblem worn on the uniforms of Montana Highway Patrol officers today, you'll see each patch has the numbers "3-7-77" embroidered on it. "To this day" the Highway Patrol says, "the Vigilante code remains a baffling secret." For the Highway Patrol, the numbers symbolized that "faith and peace of mind" had come to replace "fear of robbers and violent death."

But the fact that the vigilantes themselves didn't reveal the secret led to many theories about what the numbers meant:

1. 3-7-77 stands for three hours, seven minutes, and seventy-seven seconds, which was how long the outlaw had to get out of town before facing the vengeance of the Vigilantes.

2. 3-7-77 means three feet wide, seven feet long, and seventy-seven inches deep, which was the size of the grave the outlaw would be buried in if he didn't leave quickly.

3. 3-7-77 refers to officers number 3, 7 and 77, who were the ones in the California and Colorado Vigilante organizations who had the authority to order executions and burials. According to this theory, the Montana Vigilantes just borrowed the numbers from the other states, and used them as a warning without really meaning anything.

But now a more plausible story has come to light. The inner circle of vigilantes was composed of Masons, a fraternal organization with an ancient history, and the Masons chose the numbers.

According to John Ellingsen, Curator for Bovey Restorations in Virginia City as well as secretary of the Lodge of Masons there, a man died in Bannack in 1863 and requested a Masonic funeral. Though the Masons in Montana at that time were not authorized to hold meetings, they were allowed to conduct funerals. A few men put out the word and were surprised when 76 Masons showed up at the funeral. This was the first time this group of Masons met together and, counting the man whose funeral it was, there were 77 Masons present.

Surrounded by criminal violence, these men, who trusted each other because of their brotherhood in the Masonic Order, decided to fight back. Though their actions were not formally sanctioned by the Masonic Order, these men organized the Vigilance Committee in Virginia City. They decided that for a meeting to take place, the 3 principal officers and a quorum of at least 7 members would be needed. To these numbers, the vigilantes added the number of members present at their first meeting: 77. They took 3-7-77 as a sign, both for themselves and their opponents.

For well over a century, the vigilante secret was kept by those Masons who knew the real story.