Category Archives: Crime

Womanhood on Trial: Examining Domestic Violence in Butte, Montana

Newspaper clipping, including photos of both Hazel and Howard Kauf
Hazel Kauf’s murder received press attention, with a large story published in the Montana Standard on February 10, 1946.

Shortly before eleven on February 8, 1946, as Hazel Kauf stepped off the Aero Club’s dance floor, she was confronted by her ex-husband, Howard Kauf, who had entered the club a few minutes earlier. Grabbing Hazel by the arm, Howard “spun her around . . .  and in the spin just . . . blasted that first one [shot].”As Hazel lay on the floor, Howard, standing over her, fired a second shot into her chest. According to the Montana Standard, the horrific event quickly drew a crowd and “within a few minutes traffic at Park and Main [just outside the club] was virtually at a standstill.”

This was not an isolated incident. Following World War II, rates of violence increased nationally, and rising rates of wife assault and wife homicide, like other forms of violence, peaked in postwar Butte. Hazel’s case, however, represents more than a historically persistent crime, often addressed only in whispers. It demonstrates that even as social constraints on women lifted, cultural beliefs that dictated women’s and wives’ behaviors remained firmly intact. These beliefs perpetuated the narrative that assault on wives can, in some situations, be justified.

The lives of Hazel and Howard Kauf, in many ways, resembled the lives of couples across Montana and the United States during World War II. Philipsburg native Hazel Alda Henri married Howard Kauf, a local manganese miner, in 1936. Howard spent the early war years laboring in a strategic industry, mining. In 1945, however, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, joining fifty-seven thousand other Montanans in the armed services. Shortly after Howard’s deployment, Hazel and the couple’s four-year-old son moved to Butte, where Hazel, like over a million other military wives nationwide, entered the workforce. Continue reading Womanhood on Trial: Examining Domestic Violence in Butte, Montana

Red-Light Women of Wide-Open Butte

Window with curtains, sign that reads "Mickey," and a handwritten note reading "I will be here Sunday."
Arthur Rothstein photographed this Venus Alley window in 1939. The note reads, “I will be here Sunday. Mickey.” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-fsa-8a11188.

“The girls range in age from jail bait to battle ax,” wrote Monroe Fry of Butte prostitutes in 1953. “[They] sit and tap on the windows. They are ready for business around the clock.” Fry named Butte one of the three “most wide-open towns” in the United States. The other two—Galveston, Texas, and Phenix City, Alabama—existed solely to serve nearby military bases, but Butte’s district depended upon hometown customers. Butte earned the designation “wide-open”—a place where vice went unchecked—largely because of its flamboyant, very public red-light district and the women who worked there.

For more than a century, these pioneers of a different ilk, highly transient and frustratingly anonymous, molded their business practices to survive changes and reforms. As elsewhere, the fines they paid fattened city coffers, and businesses depended upon their patronage. Reasons for Butte’s far-famed reputation went deeper, however, as these women filled an additional role. Miners who spent money, time, and energy on public women were less likely to organize against the powerful Anaconda Copper Mining Company. As long as the mines operated, public women served the company by deflecting men’s interest.

The architectural layers of Butte’s last remaining parlor house, the Dumas Hotel, visually illustrate a changing economy and shift in clientele from Copper Kings to miners. Today, the second floor retains the original suites where Butte’s elite spent lavish sums in the high-rolling 1890s. But the ground floor’s elegant spaces, where staged soirees preceded upstairs “business,” were later converted to cribs, one-room offices where women served their clients. Continue reading Red-Light Women of Wide-Open Butte

The Right to Procreate: The Montana State Board of Eugenics and Body Politics

Catalog #PAc 95-39.20
The Board of Eugenics approved over two hundred sterilizations at the State Hospital for the Insane at Warms Springs. This photo shows the hospital’s administration building in 1938. Photo courtesy MHS PAc 95-39.20.

In 1924, headlines across the state decried the “butchery of the helpless” at the Montana State Hospital for the Insane at Warm Springs, where eleven inmates were forcibly sterilized. Hospital staff responded that all sterilizations had received the required approval and that eugenics was “necessary to the future welfare of Montana.” Eugenics—the idea that “human perfection could be developed through selective breeding”—grew in popularity in the early twentieth century, including support for forced sterilization. The movement reached its zenith in Montana in the early 1930s, and, despite growing concerns, the practice of forced sterilizations continued into the 1970s.

Montanans’ support for forced sterilization was part of a national trend. Eugenics proponent Albert E. Wiggam, a national lecturer and trained psychologist, helped spread the eugenics gospel in Montana through a column in the Missoulian. “Already we are taxing ourselves for asylums and hospitals and jails to take care of millions who ought never to have been born,” Wiggam wrote. Many Montanans agreed, including the Helena mother who wrote the state hospital in 1924 in support of sterilization polices. “I am a tax payer. That means I wish there was no insane, no feeble minded, and no criminals to support and to fear. . . . The very fact that these people are inmates of state institutions proves that they are morally or mentally unfit to propagate their kind.” Continue reading The Right to Procreate: The Montana State Board of Eugenics and Body Politics

“We Are No Longer Criminals”: The Fight to Repeal Deviate Sexual Misconduct Laws

157WHM Button
Supporters of repealing Statute 45-5-505 produced and distributed this pin which featured the gay rights symbol of a pink triangle. Courtesy of Linda Gryczan.

In 1993, Linda Gryczan told her neighbors she was suing the state of Montana to overturn a law that criminalized gay sex. Though she “was afraid that someone might burn down her house,” her neighbors—and activists across the state—rallied to her cause. But those who believed homosexuality should remain a crime also mobilized. Women took leading roles on both sides of the decades-long fight over Montana’s deviate sexual misconduct law.

Passed in 1973, Statute 45-5-505 of the Montana Code Annotated defined “deviate sexual relations” as “sexual contact or sexual intercourse between two persons of the same sex or any form of sexual intercourse with an animal.” Though rarely enforced, the law carried a fine of up to fifty thousand dollars, as well as ten years in prison, and made same-sex consensual intimacy a felony.

At the urging of gay and lesbian rights advocates, Montana state representative Vivian Brooke (D-Missoula) introduced bills in both 1991 and 1993 to strike the law from the books. The bill failed in both sessions. Many legislators agreed with Rep. Tom Lee, who argued that “[God] has declared homosexual activity to be wrong, and I don’t think we serve the other people of this state by contradicting him.” Others, noting that the law was not enforced, wished to avoid political fallout over what they saw as a symbolic vote.

Continue reading “We Are No Longer Criminals”: The Fight to Repeal Deviate Sexual Misconduct Laws

“Saving Girls”: Montana State Vocational School for Girls


Catalog # PAc 96-9 3 [Montana State Vocational School for Girls.] 1920
Matrons put students at the Montana State Vocational School for Girls to work, believing that “Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do.” The girls’ farm labor helped support the school. Photo c. 1920. Catalog # PAc 96-9 3 [Montana State Vocational School for Girls.] 1920
Imagine an eight-year-old child thrown into a prison cell with a hardened criminal. Until the late nineteenth century, any child over the age of seven who broke the law was normally sentenced to an adult penal institution. However, after psychologists realized that, for children especially, rehabilitation was more effective than punishment, states began to establish juvenile reformatories. Then, as women took up the cause of child labor laws, juvenile court systems, and separate women’s correctional institutions, they also began a campaign to separate delinquent girls and boys in reformatories.

In 1893 the Montana legislature established the Pine Hills Boys and Girls Industrial School at Miles City. The court could commit any boy or girl between the ages of eight and twenty-one to Pine Hills for any crime other than murder or manslaughter. Judges could also remand a child to the reform school who “is growing up in mendicancy, or vagrancy, or is incorrigible.” Girls were generally sentenced to reform school “to punish petty larceny; to supply a home; to effect moral salvation; to prevent further ‘lewd’ acts; and to provide protection from physical abuse.” Boys, on the other hand, were sentenced for more criminal behaviors. Continue reading “Saving Girls”: Montana State Vocational School for Girls

Montana’s Whiskey Women: Female Bootleggers during Prohibition

Made of copper, rope, and wood, this ca. 1920 bootlegger’s still is in the Montana Historical Society’s collection. MHS Museum 1987.43.01 a-c, Gift of Anna and George Zellick
Made of copper, rope, and wood, this ca. 1920 bootlegger’s still is in the Montana Historical Society’s collection. MHS Museum 1987.43.01 a-c, Gift of Anna and George Zellick

­In November 1916, Montana voters approved a referendum for the statewide prohibition of alcohol. Montana’s influential and well-organized branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union had led the effort to ban the manufacture and sale of liquor. The passage of the new law, which went into effect at the end of 1918, reflected the growing influence of female reform in Montana. Not all Montana women supported temperance, however, and, ironically, for some women, the ban on liquor created new and lucrative—albeit illegal—economic opportunities.

Although Montanans were pioneers in the Prohibition movement, the law itself did little to curb drinking. Historian Michael Malone pointed out that the “enforcement of the law in wide open and fun-loving Montana proved nearly impossible.” Moreover, the state’s remoteness and abundant supply of wheat created ideal conditions for a thriving bootlegging economy. Although we now imagine bootlegging as a masculine activity dominated by gun-toting gangsters, in fact many women were quick to cash in on the illegal liquor trade. Women around the state manufactured moonshine and operated “home speaks” and roadhouses to supplement the family income. Because it could be done at home in the kitchen, making “hooch” was an especially attractive industry for working-class women hoping to supplement their family incomes and for widows who could not easily work outside the home.

Given the strength of drinking culture in Butte, it is perhaps unsurprising that female bootleggers thrived in that “wide open” mining town. When Butte voters opposed the Prohibition referendum in 1916, one dry advocate had explicitly criticized the city’s women who, she scolded, wouldn’t vote for prohibition “because you want to have beer on your own tables in your own homes.” Continue reading Montana’s Whiskey Women: Female Bootleggers during Prohibition

Biased Justice: Women in Prison

Poor, uneducated, and unmarried, Lucy Conforth, shown here in her mug shot, was convicted of murdering her daughter in 1929. She spent the remainder of her life in either prison or in Warms Springs State Hospital. MHS Photo Archives PAc 85-91 9373
Poor, uneducated, and unmarried, Lucy Conforth, shown here in her mug shot, was convicted of murdering her daughter in 1929. She spent the remainder of her life in either prison or in Warms Springs State Hospital. MHS Photo Archives PAc 85-91 9373

Across the frontier West, abandonment, poverty, domestic abuse, and poor education led some women to crime. When women stood accused of serious crimes in all-male courtrooms, gender, race, and social status worked against them. And, once incarcerated, women served their time neglected and forgotten in prisons built for men. The Montana Territorial Penitentiary at Deer Lodge, built in 1871, was no exception.

In 1878, Hispanic prostitute Felicita Sanchez became the first female inmate at Montana’s prison. True to form, her ethnicity, profession, and gender were factors in her three-year sentence for manslaughter. As the warden led her to an empty cell within the men’s cell house, three guards refused to attend a female prisoner and resigned.

A year later, Mary Angeline Drouillard was the second woman sentenced to Deer Lodge. Drouillard sat in the Missoula County jail for a year, awaiting trial for the shooting death of her abusive husband. At twenty-four, she was three times married and twice divorced, a battered woman whose multiple partners implied loose morals. These factors and her French Canadian heritage guaranteed conviction. Although Mary’s young daughter had witnessed the crime and could have corroborated her mother’s story, no one questioned her, and the judge sentenced Drouillard to fifteen years in the penitentiary.   Continue reading Biased Justice: Women in Prison