In 1917, Redlight District landed county attorney in court

Amorette Allison
Star History Columnist


Then there was the subhead: Decision in case which created great interest in Custer County holds that County attorney was not guilty of unfaithfulness in office, that the accusation was unwarranted by sufficient evidence, and that law does not provide for action by county attorney except when complaint is filed.

The first paragraph of the story laid the case out: “Judge G. G. Hurley, of Dawson County, who presided at the ouster proceedings brought by Attorney General S. C. Ford yesterday, returned a verdict retaining Mr. Hunter in office and placing the costs of the suit on the state.”

Yes, the state of Montana, represented by the Attorney General, brought suit in Custer County to fire James Hunter, the duly-elected county attorney. And what heinous crime had led to such an extreme action? Well, it was Miles City in the good old days.

I’ll let the original reporter explain: “The spectacular climax, which many believed was the collapse of the state case, occurred on the last night of the hearing when one of the principal witnesses for the state refused to testify, claiming protection of the law in not being forced to stain his character by admitting he had been in a house of ill fame.”

The witness — who was not named in the article —did not care to incriminate himself so he did what we today might call “Pleading the Fifth.” The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States prevents self-incrimination. And the state’s witness did not care to admit, in public, that he had been in a brothel and used the services thereof, for that was crime, with which he could be charged.

The poor state attorney general was having a very difficult time shutting down those “houses of ill fame,” in spite of repeated orders from Helena. The problem came down to no one in Miles City was willing to admit what the houses were and what went on in them.

“It appears,” said the article, “from the evidence offered by the attorney general that one section of Miles City seemed to have been designated and generally known as a red light district, and it can be reasonably inferred from the evidence offered, that houses of prostitution existed and were conducted within this district.”

The problem was, even though “on two occasions the county attorney was requested by the citizens of Miles City to take action to close these houses,” nothing happened.

The county attorney couldn’t find anyone “to make complaint or furnish him the names of some persons who could serve as witness.” Someone had to come forward and publicly state that they had been in a house of ill fame and had either witnessed or participated in the sort of activity that these houses were famous for. 

Nobody in Miles City was willing to do so.

So what’s a county attorney to do? According to the news report, “There was no evidence showing or tending to show that the county attorney had any personal knowledge of the existence of these houses. He testified that he had never been in that portion of Miles City designated as the red light district.”

James Hunter was a respectable and much-admired man, the father of nine children, and the owner of one of the biggest houses on Main Street to accommodate his large family. 

So, no one in Miles City was willing to come forward and admit to visiting a house of ill fame. And the county attorney certainly had no personal knowledge of what when in those places. So how could charges be brought?

Why not ask the police? Well, there’s that.

“Four policemen who had been on the police force in Miles City for periods ranging from three to eleven years were placed on the stand and were unable to give any substantial evidence, except of the most meagre kind, concerning the houses in question.”

There were recent cases reported in the Miles City Daily Star in which the police had been called to that district but the arrests were not for prostitution. They were for illegal sale of beer and disturbing the peace, but not prostitution. In fact, in one recent arrest for disturbing the peace, the owner of the establishment said that a vigorous discussion had been going on among the occupants of her house relating to the large war bond that had recently passed the federal government. 

While the argument may have been impassioned, it was apparently conducted in such a way that the police were unable to see any other activity taking place. Therefore, no charges of prostitution were offered.

I imagine the poor state attorney general was tearing out his hair by this point. Most of the community, aside from some innocent women and children, probably knew darn well what was going on in those houses, the same thing that had been going on since Miles City was founded in 1877.

But knowing what was probably going on and proving beyond a shadow of doubt were two different things.

The attorney general probably even had a vague idea that the city police were unwilling to move against the houses because they were getting regular bribes from the madams but that was done quietly, under the table, the “non-process fees” paid by the ladies were not processed in court — hence the name — and the records were quietly written down in the inner pages of a book that officially, according to the title page, listed fines for loose animals.

The trial was being held in Glendive, in Dawson County, since a county attorney couldn’t be charged in his own county. The state attorney general may have thought the change of venue would have been helpful, but no one in Dawson County would testify against the houses, either. 

The decision written by the judge specified all the county attorney’s duties and pointed out he was carrying them out. Therefore, he couldn’t be ousted from office for dereliction of duties.

The judge even went further: “That the defendant is entitled to a judgement against the complaint for the costs of the suit herein incurred.”

The state had to pay all the Custer County attorney’s legal fees. 

It wasn’t over, of course. The Attorney General appealed to the State Supreme Court. 

And the red light district continued operating as usual for another 46 years.

(Contact Amorette Allison at 406-234-0450 or