The resilient little building commonly known as the "Hangman's Building," has had a long and colorful existence. It's story intertwines with some of the most famous and infamous characters of Virginia City's history.
The building was constructed by Joseph Griffith and William Thompson during the winter of 1863-64. Mr. Griffith was a native of Germany who emigrated to the United States in 1846, at the age of 13. He worked as a bridge builder and carpenter for both the Union and Confederate armies before moving west to escape the appalling death and destruction of the conflict.
William Thompson was born and raised in Canada. He was employed as a carpenter in the construction of the capitol building for the Dakota Territory, in Yankton, when his lumber was confiscated by federal government officers for the Civil War effort. Mr. Thompson made the decision to move west, and arrived in Virginia City during September of 1863. He soon formed a partnership with Joseph Griffith and they quickly became a very successful construction firm.
One of the new partnership's earliest projects was a 20' x 40' frame building at the northeast corner of Wallace and Van Buren Streets. While under construction, on January 14, 1864, the building was used for the execution of five men. As depicted in the diorama exhibit in the building, the Alder Gulch Vigilantes used the massive mid-section roof truss (typical of bridge construction) to hang the alleged road agents.
The firm of Griffith & Thompson expanded its Virginia City interests to include a sawmill, a quarry, a lumberyard and brick kiln. The firm advertised that they would provide "all kinds of mill work, and stone, brick or frame building done to order, or on contract, on the shortest of notice." Speed, rather than quality, may have been the driving force in many of the early construction projects in the Alder Gulch. During a visit to the City some fifty years later, Griffith would refuse to enter "a certain structure on Wallace Street," explaining that "I believe in the justice of God, and I know how we mixed the concrete in those walls."
While Griffith chose to return east in 1868, Thompson remained in Montana and later served as a State Representative for Silver Bow County, and a Senator for Deer Lodge County. Thompson's son ,William Boyce Thompson, born in Virginia City in 1869, became one of the wealthiest men in America and the benefactor of the Thompson-Hickman Library.
Since 1864, the Hangman's Building transitioned through various owners and hosted a variety of commercial enterprises. Perhaps the most notable occupant was an African-American woman, Sarah Bickford. Sarah, who had been born into slavery in 1855, arrived in Virginia City during 1871. Following the death of her second husband in 1900, Sarah inherited a majority interest in the Virginia City Water Company. Sarah later purchased the remaining interest, thus becoming the first African-American to own a public utility company in the United States. She managed the company until the time of her death; July 19, 1931.
Although further research is underway, there is a claim that Sarah Bickford also served as the mid-wife, and the Hangman's Building the birthplace, of Fremont Ellis in 1897. From these very humble beginnings, Mr. Ellis would go on to become one of America's most prominent impressionism artists.
It was during the time Ms. Bickford owned the building that the only significant structural change was made to the edifice. In what was almost certainly an effort to optimize its financial potential, the building was divided into two separate offices. The windows in the front of the building were converted to doors, and the center doorway converted to windows . Interior walls were then added to create the space as it exists today. A small, two-story addition made to the rear of the building was removed in the early 1940's.
The Hangman's building was purchased by Charles Bovey in 1947. Since its purchase of the property in 1997, the VCPA has taken steps to stabilize the building. With generous gifts from many donors, and grants from the National Park Service and the Montana Tourism Board, the VCPA was able to reinforce the structure with a new foundation and to install a new roof. In 1999, Robert Wilson created the diorama now on display which depicts the namesake event of the building's unique history.
Sources: Bayley, Robert. "The Hangman's Building," Virginia City Nugget, Vol. 9, no. 1.
Griffith, Jr., Joseph, "Griffith, The Alder Gulch Vigilante."
Hagedorn, Hermann, The Magnate.
Montana Post, November 4, 1865, P. 7.