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There's a lot of history beneath the shadowing trees of the Missoula Cemetery.

Recently, the cemetery has been hosting historical tours through the graves and the past, and on Friday the talk turned to Missoula County sheriffs buried there.

The noon-hour walk was hosted by the husband-wife team of Missoula County sheriff's captains Willis and Susan Hintz, who entertained about 20 people with colorful stories of sheriffs who presided over colorful times.

Fourteen former Missoula County sheriffs are buried just off Rodgers Street, dating back to Charles William Berry, who conducted the first legal execution back in the late 1800s. Berry, the 14th county sheriff, served at a time when Missoula County was essentially all of western Montana. He was known as "Uncle Billy."

The Hintzes split the crowd on Friday, with Willis taking his talking tour past the graves of Robert MacLean, George Cole, Daniel Heyfron, William Houston and Jim T. Green.

Some of those men served at a time when suspects were pursued on horseback, while others were charged with the duty of executing convicted criminals on the courthouse lawn.

MacLean conducted the last such execution in 1943 when he hanged Philip "Slim" Coleman, who killed two people in Lothrop during a robbery. Before his death, Coleman told law officers of at least 23 other murders he'd committed. The gallows he died on are now located at Fort Missoula.

George Cole, who also served with Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, served as sheriff during the Prohibition years, and was renowned for breaking up a ring of bootleggers bringing moonshine in from Butte.

"Can you believe this was happening in Butte, of all places?" mused Willis Hintz, who then offered up an ancient moonshine recipe that he claimed not to have tested.

That recipe produced a liquor that officers said "carried an awful wallop."

Sheriff Jim T. Green ran a livery stable downtown, but it eventually went out of business as cars took the place of horses. Green had the misfortune of presiding over a jail that was so insecure that prisoners were able to dig out of it with boards and their hands.

Noting current-day crowding at the Missoula County Detention Facility, Hintz said Cole's jail was built for 32 prisoners but sometimes housed as many as 100.

"Even then, overcrowding was a problem," Hintz said.

Daniel Heyfron, an Irishman who made his money mining and dealing horses and cattle, served as the county's 16th sheriff. Heyfron, who fought in the Civil War, had the distinction of being so efficient at preventing crime that the county commissioners lowered his salary because he wasn't busy enough.

The annual pay back in 1887 was a whopping $1,200 per year.

Hintz wrapped up his tour with the story of William Houston, who succeeded Heyfron in 1889. Houston conducted the only known mass hanging in county history, executing for murder four men from the Kootenai tribe.

Houston also presided over the execution of John Burns, who in April 1892 killed Maurice Higgins, the son of Missoula co-founder C.P. Higgins. Burns had been looting the night before as one of the city's worst-ever fires raged, and he wound up shooting Higgins while trying to shoot another man.

Burns escaped for a time, but eventually was caught by Houston and later convicted and executed. But that wasn't the end of the Burns story, Hintz said.

The Missoulian later ran a story claiming that Burns' body had been unearthed, its skin removed and tanned and turned into a pair of moccasins.

That produced some eeewwws from Friday's crowd, but as Hintz noted, history sometimes takes the unsuspecting turn.

The cemetery will host a walk about Missoula mayors on July 18.

Reporter Michael Moore can be reached at 523-5252 or at mmoore@missoulian.com

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