Wednesday 2 May 2018

The Frozen Corpse in the Jail

The jail as it is today.
I was in north-central Montana a week or so ago and, with a little extra time on my hands,  I decided to make a short detour on my way back to home to Alberta.  I traveled east from Fort Benton to a little town called Square Butte where I found an historic jail built in 1915.  It was constructed of ashlar granite from a local quarry and was complete with iron bars just like you see in cowboy movies.

One story is that the jail was built after the residents showed concern about an "abundance of tramps, beggars and vagabonds" in the area.  The other story is that, since the jail was located on private land, it was meant to deter the ranch hands from Saturday night mischief.  I'm sure more than a few spent a night in "Saturday Night Lockup!"

After the jail was abandoned it served as road crew housing, a bachelor's residence and a granary; it also provided the local children with a clubhouse (that must have been great fun!)  In 1997 it was donated to the local historical society and it was returned to original condition.

And then there's the story of the frozen corpse found in the jail cell.  No information about that was included on the historical sign but, as I was taking my few last shots, a local rancher pulled up in a mud-covered truck complete with bale loader.  We struck up a conversation, and he being eighty-eight years and ten months old, was around when the corpse was found.

The landmass of square butte rises 1900 feet above the surrounding prairie.

The slope of square butte was good grazing land so a half dozen well established ranches were on the hillside at the time.  The way the story was told to me was that one winter a sheep herder was fed up  with his boss, quit his job and left for town to find employment more to his liking.  Soon after his departure a winter storm blew into the area.

Late that night the storm subsided and in the morning another local rancher living on the butte headed to town for supplies on horseback.  On his way he found the sheep herder frozen to death on the trail.  The rancher rigged up a sled and pulled the body into Square Butte where, with no other place to store the body, it was placed in the jail until the next train travelling eastward, where the dead man's relatives lived, came into town.  Apparently a few people caught a glimpse of the frozen body and soon the whole town was a buzz about "the man who froze to death in the jail."  Rumours!

All the comforts of home.

A jail with a bale.

A great playhouse for kids.

The jail in the landscape.

The wild west!
A hearty thank you to Cherlene at the Grand Union Hotel in Fort Benton for the marvelous breakfast and her suggestion to pay a visit to Square Butte.  It easily surpassed my expectations.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks, Debra. This is the first jail I've ever found on my travels.

  2. You can run into some interesting stories out there.

    1. You said it, Gorges! I was really lucky to be able to talk with a local rancher and even better that he knew the history of the area.

  3. This is a very cool site, with an interesting back story!

    1. Thanks, Steve. And by the way, that's an "international" bale in that photo!

  4. Excellent photos and info! I have read about the Fort Benton in some old books about the Lost Lemon Mine...seems there was always something interesting going on in that area.

    1. Thanks, Jenn. There is lots to see in northern Montana. A highly recommended trip!