This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

Music Behind Bars

14 August 2015

As a rule, small children should not sit on bass drums. They tend to stretch the drum head and often leave scuff marks. However exceptions can be made when taking photographs of a band if the child is deemed cute enough.

This child is pretty cute, but there was another reason it was the center of attention for this band.

On the right are bandsmen with the usual cornets and tubas.

While on the left are more bandsmen holding clarinets, saxophones, and mellophones.
The man seated on the far left has a high E-flat clarinet,
and behind him is a rare curved version of a soprano saxophone.

Underneath the photo is a caption:

M.S.P. Band    Deer Lodge, Mont.

In the first decade of the last century, there were military bands, town bands, company bands, fraternal society bands, ladies bands, boys bands, orphanage bands. But this group belongs to a different musical category as the initials M.S.P. stand for the Montana State Penitentiary in Deer Lodge, MT. These jolly bandsmen smiling for the camera are all inmates serving time behind prison bars. They had very little occasion to see small children. 

There is no postmark, date or other notation on the back. It has the same quality of real photo postcards from 1905 to 1925.  Over the past few years I have posted several stories on prison bands, and with 39 musicians (not counting the conductor and baby) this prison band was by far the largest wind ensemble of incarcerated musicians. Like the other penitentiary bands from this era when American society was rigidly segregated, it includes at least three African-American musicians and possibly a few Native-Americans as well. But it is not the integration or the small child that makes this photo really interesting.

Anaconda MT Standard
May 28, 1903
The Montana State Penitentiary was built in 1871 when Montana was still a territory. After statehood raised the obligation for more justice in the West, the prison in Deer Lodge was expanded using convict labor in the 1890s. Sometime around 1900 the warden, Frank Conley, engaged a civilian bandmaster to form a band that would provide entertainment and musical training for the inmates, most of whom had never played a musical instrument before. In 1903 the Montana State Penitentiary Band became so accomplished that it performed summertime concerts on Friday and Sunday afternoons that were open to the public. Programs were varied and regularly reported in the society pages of Montana newspapers.

Deer Lodge had a population of only 1,200 in 1900 but it doubled to 2,570 by 1910, in part to its position in western Montana as district headquarters for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad also known as the "Milwaukee Road", as well as its proximity to many wealthy cattle ranches and mining operations. The Montana State Hospital, established in 1877, is not far away in Warm Springs, and there was a former state tuberculosis sanitarium in nearby Galen. Deer Lodge was also the site of the College of Montana, the first institution of higher learning in the state, which operated from 1878 to 1916. The old Wild West had towns with more sophistication than dime novels ever gave credit.

The man in the center of the photo is what I find most intriguing about this band. The bandleader's uniform is unlike the musicians' American band apparel. His hat and coat are made of a dark fabric, and his front has decorative ribbon buttons that are the style of a British military bandmaster. He also has army chevrons on the sleeves, and a regimental cap badge.

Undoubtedly the child in front of him is his pride and joy.

Why was this British bandmaster leading a band of American prison inmates? In Montana?

It was a tradition.

* * *

Research revealed that the first band director of the Montana prison band was named Frank Cline. He was Canadian, but of course in this era that was almost the same as British. He left before 1903 and was succeeded by John H. Viol, an Englishman who led the band for many years. He was followed in the 1920s by Sam Treloar another English bandsman who was a celebrated cornet player and bandleader from nearby Butte, MT. He was the conductor at the Penitentiary in Deer Lodge until the 1940s. Clearly the Montana warden trusted the musicianship of men from the British brass band tradition. 

Any of these men could fit the description of the M.S.P. bandmaster in the photo, but put them in a police lineup and there were problems connecting them to a postcard from around 1910. Frank Cline left Montana around 1902 and died in 1916. A photo of him posted by a descendant on shows him with a cornet and a long handlebar mustache. Not a good match. 

John H. Viol was formerly a bandsman in Her Majesty's British Army, and he had a son-in-law who was a British regimental drummer. But he was born in 1850, while the bandmaster in this photo is certainly no more than 35.  A questionable match.

Sam H. Treloar was the leader of the Boston & Montana Mine Company Band, and he also received his musical training in the British army. But Treloar was born in 1867 and didn't take over the Montana State Penitentiary Band until 1921 or so. Another unlikely match.

We need another clue.


The, which stands for Internet Bandsman's Everything Within, has an enormous online archive of vintage band photos and postcards from around the world. Under the list for Montana is a postcard of the Montana State Prison Band that is identical except for one detail. The caption in the lower right corner reads Musical Director ?.?. Watson.

For some reason the full caption was not included on my copy of the postcard. Names, even those with unclear letters are always useful search terms. Filed away in the virtual stacks of was a digitized book published in 1938 entitled Mount Morris IL, Past and Present , an illustrated history of the village of Mount Morris, Ogle County, Illinois. The chapter on musical organizations of Mount Morris listed several of the town band's directors. It recorded that James (G.) Watson led the band from November 1916 to the end of the 1917 season, and that previously he had been director of the Montana State Prison Band for five years. He was born in Scotland where he learned to play the cornet and gave his first concert at the age of 8. Later he immigrated to Canada and conducted bands there.

The historians of Mount Morris, IL thought so highly of James Watson's brief tenure in their town, that they included a photo of him. 

In a uniform.

I don't often find a better identification than this.

James Watson
Mount Morris IL Past and Present, 1938

Mount Morris, IL is located about halfway between Rockford, IL and Davenport, IA. In 1910 it had a population of around 1,132 citizens, and of course supported a town band.  Polo City, IL is a few miles further towards the Mississippi and in 1920 it had 1,967 residents, including James Watson, age 38, birthplace Scotland, occupation – Music Director, Band; and his wife Eleanor Watson, age 33, also Scotch; and daughters, Darah, age 9, born in Scotland, and Evelyn, age 2 8/12, born in Illinois.

1920 US Census for Polo City, IL

The child on the bass drum must surely be Darah Watson at about age 2-3, making the date of the photograph of the Montana State Penitentiary Band somewhere around 1913-14.

Anaconda MT Standard
February 25, 1914

In February 1914, about 450  townspeople of Deer Lodge, MT were entertained by a minstrel show put on by the inmates of the Montana State Prison. The stage was decorated with American flags as the show was an annual event in honor of George Washington's February birthday, now known as President's Day. The band, under the direction of Professor Watson, opened with selections from Verdi's Il Trovatore. There were jokes, songs, dances, and music, including a saxophone quartet which Professor Watson played in.

* * 

After Mt. Morris, James Watson and his family moved on to another small town, Marshall, Minnesota where he found work as a band director. In 1929 West Plains, Missouri hired him to lead their town band. It must have seemed a metropolis with a population of 3,335 in 1930.

 * * *

Meanwhile in Montana, the prison band announced at a concert in June 1926 that they were the recipient of a $25,000 endowment from William A. Clark, Jr. (1877-1934), the son of a Montana "Cooper King". In his time W. A. Clark the elder (1839-1925) became one of the richest men in the world and was a notorious character of the Gilded Age. In 1899 he bribed state legislators to secure their votes to make him U.S. Senator for Montana. This scandal contributed to passage in 1912 of the 17th amendment to the Constitution requiring popular election of Senators. Mark Twain portrayed Clark in a 1907 essay as epitomizing all the corruption and excess of the era.

    He is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag; he is a shame to the American nation, and no one has helped to send him to the Senate who did not know that his proper place was the penitentiary, with a ball and chain on his legs. To my mind he is the most disgusting creature that the republic has produced since Tweed's time.

After his father's death in 1925, Clark the younger presented the Montana State Penitentiary with a gift of $25,000 that was dedicated to purchasing instruments and sheet music for the prison band. It seems an unlikely organization to receive a small fortune like that, but there may have been a personal connection to the band's concerts. Though born in Deer Lodge, William A. Clark, Jr. was educated in France, New York, and Virginia. After a brief period working in a Butte law firm, he moved to California after his second marriage in 1907 and became a prominent philanthropist and collector of antiquities, especially rare books. But he was also an amateur violinist and used his fortune to found the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1919, and help fund the Hollywood Bowl amphitheater.

Unfortunately the money for the M.S.P. Band was placed into a bank that went bust in 1933 during the Great Depression. The band fund trustees won a case against the bank in state supreme court, but it is unclear if the funds were ever recovered. It didn't help that Warden Conley, who was one of the trustees, had been dismissed for corruption and graft.

Over the years, membership in the band and attendance at their big-house concerts was reserved for inmates who demonstrated good behavior. Withholding entertainment was considered an important tool for maintaining order in the prison. Though Warden Conley was reported to run a tight ship, he at least endeavored to provide meaningful work and vocational training to all his charges in the prison. 

In the 1950s even though the band continued to give concerts, conditions were deteriorating in the Montana Penitentiary. On July 30, 1957 a violent prison riot started when the band musicians refused an order to shell peas for the prison kitchen. The band had a concert scheduled for the following week, and protested at what they considered menial work. Other inmates joined in the quarrel with the guards, and the disturbance suddenly exploded into a vicious turmoil involving the entire prison population. The inmates destroyed property; took hostages; locked up prison officers; and made a list of 19 grievance demands. State authorities called in the National Guard an it took 24 hours before order was restored.

The band concert was postponed.

The old Montana State Penitentiary in Deer Lodge was finally shut down in 1979. The prison walls and buildings were preserved and turned into a museum. The grounds have also been used as a set for a few feature films involving prison life.

Courtesy of Google Maps StreetView, without ever being convicted of a crime in Montana, we can take a tour of the street outside the prison walls built by Warden Conley's convict labor.

* * *

* *  *

Google offers a new panorama view for many places in the world. This point is taken from the prison yard and the 360° technology allows us to spin around and zoom in as if we were there. (Don't click on the grey arrow as it will magically transport you to another point in the prison.) The imposing red brick building was built in 1912, about the same time that James Watson and his daughter posed with the members of the Montana State Prison Band. I have been unable to spot any windows that match those in the photo.

* * *

* * *

At the far end of the prison yard you may have seen this ornate building. It is the W. A. Clark Theater, named after the Montana "Cooper King", William A. Clark the elder. In 1919 Clark donated $10,000 to construct a plush 1,000 seat theater. It was a popular venue for both prison inmates and citizens of Deer Lodge to watch concerts, movies, and boxing matches until it was ravaged by a fire, likely arson, in 1975.

Some people may find the next panorama disturbing. 

* * *

* * *

Today, inside the blackened remains of the W. A. Clark Theater, the Old Montana Prison Museum in Deer Lodge exhibits a portable gallows apparatus that carried out the ultimate sentence of justice. As far as I know, the theater was never used for this purpose. This dizzying modern photo technology grants us a particularly ghastly point of view that has no equal on the internet. The odd effect when you look down is especially unsettling. I don't think W. A. Clark, Sr would be thrilled either.

We can not ignore that a penitentiary is more than just a facility for incarceration. It is also, at least in many parts of the United States, a place of execution.  Between 1900 and 1943 there were 39 men executed by hanging in Montana. {Source: Montana Executions 1863-1996 .pp.187-189} No one ever went to prison on a holiday. Doing your time was the consequence of being prosecuted and judged in a court of law. So was hanging for your crime.

The latest date that I could find in newspaper reports of a performance by the Montana State Penitentiary Band was 1975. That's a remarkably long service for any musical organization. Many of those small town bands did not last half as long. Professor Watson and his fellow British bandmasters were respected and admired for their musicianship. But they knew the real reward was in granting these prison inmates a degree of humanity and freedom that is the essence of live music.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
click the link for more treasured stories.


Jo Featherston said...

Those bandsmen are not really all THAT jolly, but prison bands would be a good outlet for those with musical ability. You would think the players would have to have been trusted and non-violent for the conductor to let his little daughter near them. Great to have identified him. I hadn't heard of the Copper Kings before, so the infirmation about Messrs Clark Senior and Junior was interesting too, and the money link of course.

La Nightingail said...

I really enjoyed this post - very interesting, but then I'm a big band & choral fan from way back. Too bad those band inmates who caused the riot had begun to think a little too highly of themselves. It was probably only a few who started things, but when you're part of a close-knit group, you tend to follow along. I was afraid you were going to say the band program was abandoned after that. Luckily, it was just the upcoming concert.

Postcardy said...

I loved the way you used all the clues to solve a puzzle.

Anne Young said...

Fascinating research. How terrific that the inmates were given something productive and meaningful to do. A riot as a consequence of being requested to shell peas? What a shame the theatre was burned down. I wonder if the musicians who learned in prison were able to find employment with their new found skills outside prison later.

Karen S. said...

You have a talent in your sleuthing! Bravo. I just adore the baby's expression while sitting there!

Little Nell said...

It’s great that the baby perched on the drum assisted you in dating the photograph. Good work as usual in identifying the leader and in furnishing the post with so many interesting details.

anyjazz said...

That is a TON of fine research! An excellent photograph including details of the instruments. I enjoyed this one!

Helen Bauch McHargue said...

The story of the Clarks is fascinating - I've never heard of them. A great piece of research and a fine bit of writing as well. Your posts are such a highlight of Sepia Saturday. I look forward to them every week.

Anonymous said...

That was great. I hadn't heard of a curved soprano sax before. It would seem that descendants of James Watson's daughter Evelyn are interested in the family history and include a photo of her in Ancestry.

Wendy said...

Excellent sleuthing, my dear Watson, er uh Mr. Mike. I find it amusing and amazing that this is both a band story and a bank story.


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