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Ghost Hunting in Montana: A Search for Roots in the Old West

Ghost Hunting in Montana, originally published by HarperCollinsWest in 1994; then reprinted by Lyons Press in 2003, initially appears too big for its britches.

The author, a self-described observer of life with “the vacant eye of a career vagabond,” came from old money and the Ivy League. The author’s erudition, familiarity with arcane Montana history along his enviable skill with words actually produced a tome almost too well crafted for its genre: travelog time-capsule wherein the author rediscovers himself and his roots.

Ghost Hunting in Montana easily beats the competition all hollow, earning this book five stars for its blend of Montana history and picaresque adventuring in late 1980s Montana.

Barnaby Conrad III, indicated from here on as BCIII, writes with a smooth adroitness, leavened by humor, empathy, verve, insight, and veracity.

Having ample money and important connections helps any writer, and BCIII also had this, and likely still has it, in spades. In the late 1980s, this asset enabled the 37-year-old BCIII to embark on a journey along Montana’s backroads and byways, rivers and cattle trails, without worrying about jobs or money. For five months, he traveled nine thousand miles throughout the state in search of adventure, Montana history, and his own Conrad family roots.

Each of the 25 chapters in this book reads like an action-adventure article in Outside Magazine. Written with present-tense urgency and immediacy, each section carries you along in its millrace and each chapter is more riveting than the last.

BCIII writes of so many Montana places—Red Lodge, Shelby, Butte, Conrad—and too many whistle stops to mention. He writes in such a way to make the reader feel each small town is actually the “Keystone of Montana,” and the chief source of our state’s legends and history.

Each locality has an important story to tell, and BCIII tells them all with skill and style. BCIII springs from a line of long-ago Montana historical royalty, the Conrad family.

Two well-to-do Conrad brothers were suddenly thrust into the Civil War when they signed on as illegally under-age Confederate soldiers in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia near Front Royal. Charles (age 11) and William (age 13) fought with Mosby’s Rangers.

When they returned from the war, surprised to still be alive, they found their family’s plantation in shambles. The brothers decided the only way to rise from the ashes of war was to head west.

The Conrad brothers arrived in Montana in the late 1800s with a silver dollar between them and flipped the coin to see who would stay in Fort Benton and who would travel to Helena.

The efforts of the Conrad brothers were a roaring success. Charles and William Conrad became “Big Men” in Montana Territory, a country so vast they decided to split the territory between them, so to speak. William took the east side, founding the farming community of Conrad while brother Charles took the west side and founded the city of Kalispell.

Yet another Conrad brother, John, decided to try his luck in Montana. By the 1880s, he was already a millionaire. Twenty-nine-year-old John met the well-born 19-year-old Mabel Barnaby during the 1884 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. John and Mabel soon married, bought a handsome, brown Victorian house at 702 Madison Avenue in Helena, and John set his sights on becoming Montana’s next governor.

Then, the unthinkable happened. In spring of 1891, Mabel’s mother was murdered in Denver by means of poisoned whiskey shipped to her from Rhode Island.

The poisoner was identified as one Dr. Thatcher Graves, a friend who had “ingratiated himself” with Mabel’s mother, possibly to take advantage of the wealth she inherited from her deceased husband. Before Graves could go to trial for murder, the doctor poisoned himself and all hell broke loose in the marriage of John and Mabel.

Some accounts suggest that John might have played a part in the poisoning of his mother-in-law. Other accounts saw the $60,000 John spent to prosecute Dr. Graves for the supposed poisoning crime as a show of loyalty to his wife. The murder and trial took a toll on the couple, the pair accused one another of repeated adulteries and things got violent.

A bystander at the time wrote, “At one point there was an in-house riot, featuring the coachman wielding a stick and the Chinese cook swinging a frying pan. John was the loser.”

A decree of divorce was finally granted to Mrs. Mabel Barnaby Conrad, daughter of the late Mrs. Barnaby who had been poisoned.

The judge awarded Mabel custody of their three children, Florence, Maud, and Barnaby Conrad I (or BCI) allowing her to stay in Europe “for the purpose of educating her children.” Since she had her own fortune, it was easy for her to marry an American named George Choate Kendall and move into his chateau in France, never to return to Montana.

Although little seems to be written about BCI, his son Barnaby Conrad II (BCII) lived a long, larger-than-life existence, although few in Montana know his story because he never lived here.

BCII’s best friend and mentor was writer Sinclair Lewis; he caroused with Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Graham Greene, and Gore Vidal. He took up bull fighting and was nearly gored to death; he wrote a National Book Award-winning book about it, entitled Matador, the same year that BCIII was born that John Steinbeck said was one of his “favorite books” ever.

BCII produced four heirs: two boys (BCIII and Winston) and two girls (Kendall and Cayaetana), all of whom flourished in the fields of painting, writing, publishing, editing, traveling, and exploring.

As for the author of Ghost Hunting in Montana, Barnaby Conrad III (BCIII), his long, full life appears to be, and most likely is still is, one happy success after another.

Flourishing first as journalist and magazine editor, BCIII went on to author more than 15 published books including popular books on absinthe and martinis. BCIII was also free to adventure-travel the world, which he did with great gusto and then wrote about it for an eager, receptive audience. Later, he resumed youthful studies of art when he worked with Maurice Sendak, the illustrator who also wrote Where the Wild Things Are.

In later life, BCIII started painting more and writing less. His superb, hyper-natural paintings reflect his love of fly-fishing and aquatic wildlife. His works are on display at M. Sutherland Fine Arts in New York City.

Does the legacy continue with a BCIV? Barnaby Conrad the Fourth? At age 58, BCIII fathered a son with his art dealer wife Martha Sutherland in 2010. On the internet, there’s a photo of BCIII holding his beautiful baby boy and both of them looking absolutely radiant. The caption below the picture identifies the little boy only as “Jack.”

Dempsey vs. Gibbons in Shelby 1923

Most Montanans could find a connection to one of the stories in Conrad's Ghost Hunting in Montana. The family history of this reviewer’s husband is even embedded in this excellent book. My husband's ancestor played a small but important role in the Great Jack Dempsey vs. Tommy Gibbons fight in Shelby of 1923.

BCIII tells part of the story on page 109: “In the 1910 U.S. census, Shelby didn’t exist. The Great Northern Railroad rolled across the plains and put a storage facility here. A saloon was built, followed by a hotel and post office. In 1923, an oil prospector struck oil near Shelby and overnight it became a boomtown. Town boosters promoted it as the Tulsa of the West.

“Shelby boasts one great moment in its history. In 1923, the town went fifteen rounds with Jack Dempsey and nearly got KO’d. It started when two real-estate speculators named James Johnson and Mel McCutcheon decided to pull Shelby’s real-estate sales out of a slump. Over coffee at a certain breakfast joint in 1923, Johnson tapped the sports section of the Great Falls Tribune and showed McCutcheon where it said someone had offered one hundred thousand dollars ($1,500,000 adjusted for inflation) to Jack Kearns, manager of Jack Dempsey, if he would send his boy to fight in Montreal. 'Mel,' said Johnson, 'Why don’t we make an offer for a championship fight? It would put Shelby on the map.

“A delegate was sent to New York to sign a contract. Dempsey would fight Tommy Gibbons for a steep price: three hundred thousand dollars. ($4,500,000 today.)

“Two hundred Shelby carpenters built a forty-thousand seat stadium near the Great Northern tracks. Dempsey rented a house in Great Falls, trained hard, and was photographed with artist Charlie Russell.

“Dempsey was honest and well liked, but his manager, Kearns, was a crook. When the Shelby promoters had trouble raising the last hundred thousand dollars, someone asked Kearns if he would accept fifty thousand sheep as payment instead of cash.

‘What the hell am I going to do with fifty thousand sheep in New York?’ said Kearns at a Great Falls news conference. ‘I want these people to live up to the terms of their contract. If I don’t see one hundred thousand dollars on July 2, Dempsey will not fight.’

In a final scramble, James Johnson leased out most of his cattle and oil properties, borrowed the rest, and came up with the money.

“On the day of the fight, people came from all over the country. The crowd of ten thousand spectators, said one reporter, was a ‘mix of millionaires, Blackfoot Indians, cowboys, shepherds, hookers and sportswriters.’

At this point, my husband’s family history coincides with that of this book. My husband’s paternal grandmother, Velma Dupuis MacCarter, signed on and served as Chief Ticket Seller for this Extravaganza of the Century. This one brief moment of glory for Velma was the ultimate highlight of her all-too-brief, not-very-happy life.

BCIII goes on to say: “Most people crashed the gates.” (So much for poor Velma and the ticket-selling crew she managed.)

Dempsey waiting to meet Gibbons on July 4, 1923.

“The fight was a tough one for Dempsey, and Tommy Gibbons hung on for fifteen grueling rounds in a dull slugging match. When Dempsey won by a decision, Kearns escaped with the gate receipts in a locomotive hooked only to a caboose.

"That night, Kearns reputedly slept on the floor of a Great Falls barber shop, clutching the moneybag to his chest, and left at dawn for Seattle.”

Reading Ghost Hunting in Montana is to rediscover a forgotten treasure. It deserves placement beside such classics as Montana: High, Wide and Handsome by Joseph Kinsey Howard, The Last Best Place by editors Annick Smith and William Kittredge, and Montana: An Uncommon Land by the charismatic English professor at the University of Montana, K. Ross Toole. To my way of thinking, BCIII has also earned a much-deserved place alongside the likes of Brautigan, McGuane, Guthrie, and MacLean.

BCIII concludes his book with a verity too honest not to be sincere and it’s hard not to agree with him: “On a beautiful day in Montana, it was hard to believe God didn’t exist in a sky so blue and so vast, where the clouds seemed like perfect countries onto themselves. And for a moment, just a moment, I wished the pioneers, the buffalo hunters, and cattlemen like my ancestors had never dreamed of the West.”

—Jane Susann MacCarter

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