Idaho History

Early Idaho saw its share of killings, and leniency was uncommon – unless victim was a minority

Judge Milton Kelly, later the publisher of the Idaho Statesman, had no problem handing down harsh sentences in the 19th century.
Judge Milton Kelly, later the publisher of the Idaho Statesman, had no problem handing down harsh sentences in the 19th century. Idaho Statesman file

The mining camps of early Idaho were dangerous places, as the Idaho World and the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman reminded people regularly in the 1860s.

This item in the Statesman of Aug. 29, 1865, tells us: “On the trial of a case of murder in this city, on Saturday last, it was stated by the District Attorney that there had been, since the organization of Boise County, some sixty deaths by violence within her limits, and yet not a single conviction for murder in the first degree had ever taken place. We doubt if the legal annals of any country on the continent can present a parallel to this state of things.”

Later that summer, Judge Milton Kelly sentenced a man who had killed his brother to the Territorial Penitentiary for the rest of his natural life at hard labor, and the first six days of each year in solitary confinement. Judge Kelly would later become the owner and publisher of the Idaho Statesman.

Revenge was the obvious motive for the murder of Thomas Mackay in March 1866. Mackay had shot at Michael Dunn the summer before, but the bullet had only glanced off his forehead. Dunn no doubt felt that “I better get him before he gets me,” but it was still murder in the first degree, and Judge Kelly sentenced him to hang on July 6, 1866. On appeal, his sentence was reduced to life imprisonment.

When Idaho City bartender Louis Risley murdered Territorial Treasurer H. B. Lane in May 1867, and then killed himself, the general opinion was that Risley was insane. Case closed.

The Idaho World reported on April 21, 1870: “Killed --- Murphy, the owner of the celebrated toll road in Oneida County, which is the main traveled road to Montana, was shot by the Sheriff of that county, at Malad City, April 11th and instantly killed. The difficulty originated in regard to matters affecting Murphy’s toll road, which was brought before the county commissioners.”

That racism was rampant on the Idaho frontier was no surprise; we have this from the Statesman of Nov. 1, 1870: “A Chinaman was found today five or six miles below Idaho City murdered and robbed. He had started for Boise City to buy flour and had a gold bar for that purpose. This makes two mysterious murders that have occurred within a few weeks, with money the object. As the first victim was an old Mexican and the next a Chinaman, no effort will be made for the apprehension of the murderers.”

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email