Butte, Montana

“A little more than a hundred years ago, in an out-of-the-way mining town, in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, a man got murdered in the dead of night.” So begins the first episode of Death in the West, a Montana-based history podcast with Portland connections that debuted last week and releases its second episode today.

Produced by two sets of Missoula-born siblings whose family roots all stretch to Butte, the planned eight episodes tell the story of one of Montana’s most famous unsolved murders, that of labor organizer Frank Little, who was kidnapped, beaten, and hanged in August 1917, with a cryptic note showing a vigilante code pinned to his body. While there was no shortage of witnesses, evidence, and suspects, the crime was never solved.

Surrounded by copper mines that earned the nickname “The Richest Hill on Earth” and once one of the largest cities west of the Mississippi, Butte in 1917 was rocked by the US entry into the Great War and resulting flashes of nationalism and xenophobia. There were draft riots, with Butte’s Irish residents, one of the city’s largest immigrant groups, none too happy about being asked to fight alongside the bloody British. Fatal mine accidents added to the tension and helped drive the labor organizing that brought Frank Little, a national labor figure with the Industrial Workers of the World, to town. Players in the story include a hook-handed gunman and future hardboiled crime author Dashiell Hammett.

The producers include Zach Dundas, a former Portland Monthly editor in chief and, before that, a longtime music editor and news writer at Willamette Week (and my old officemate—it’s strange to hear such a familiar voice nailing that podcast cadence as the chief narrator), and his brother Chad Dundas, a sportswriter and novelist whose first book, the excellent Champion of the World, was largely set in the hills around Butte during Prohibition. They worked with childhood friends Erika Fredrickson, a longtime Missoula journalist, and her brother Leif Fredrickson, a history professor at the University of Montana who geeks out over old Sanborn maps (“an enormous resource for urban historians!”). Only Chad, a cohost of chat-style MMA podcast The Co-Main Event, had real experience going into the project.

“For us, who are all written-word people, it was a huge, huge challenge to tell an audio story,” says Erika, who notes that working with siblings and lifelong friends was not a challenge. “We definitely came into it with various visions and had to compromise on certain things, but for two years we’ve worked very well together, no falling out.”

The Death in the West team worked with Pacific Northwest graphic designer Jonny Ashcroft.

Death in the West mixes archival audio with contemporary interviews and the producers’ trips around Butte—including a trip to Little’s grave, strewn with boots, whiskey bottles, a bullet, and more, the tombstone declaring he was “slain by capitalist interests for organizing and inspiring his fellow man.” The research was conducted prepandemic but largely edited and mixed in the shadow of COVID-19. (The group had originally planned to rent out a Butte speakeasy that’s mentioned in the podcast for their launch party.)

Later episodes will take in the story’s resonance in the present day, when Butte’s population is less than half what it was in 1917 and the city’s entire Uptown section—packed with gorgeous art deco buildings and a thousand shades of red brick—is part of a huge national historic district even as it abuts the toxic Berkeley Pit, a Superfund site laden with acid and heavy metals.

“We haven’t completely recorded the last episodes yet, so there’s still room to add more information,” Erika says. The first episode closes with an invitation to reach out with any tips or evidence listeners might have, which could potentially be woven in. “We always dream of having somebody discover a diary in their attic,” she says, with information on the crime.

For Portlanders, the 1917 version of Butte might feel familiar in 2020: a community on edge, people walking around with guns, police accused of fraternizing with bullies, and a general powder-keg atmosphere. As Zach sets the scene, Butte was “a city that was heavily armed, on the edge of revolt, and crawling with company agents.”

Portland itself might even be fair game for a future season of Death in the West. Erika says they have a long list of possibilities for future seasons. “They all entail a death in some way. It wouldn’t necessarily have to be a person, it could be the death of a town, the death of a newspaper, various things.” (Erika has experienced that last one herself—I’d love to link to her work for the Missoula Independent but, when that paper’s new owners shuttered it in 2018 without notice, they even killed the website.) But most of the ideas, she says, are a human death “that’s a pivot or some sort of way into a larger story about the west.”

 

Note: This story is rife with nepotism, as the writer is discussing a work produced in part by a former colleague who also happened to be the best man at her wedding.

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