Cemetery Stories – John and Lucy Black: Bozeman’s Black Widow and her victim

John Black, a prominent Bozeman rancher in the late 1800s was murdered by his wife, Mrs. Lucy Black, in 1901. The trial, held in Bozeman, was the talk of the town for several months until Mrs. Black was sentenced to 10 years in the state penitentiary in Deer Lodge. As the Butte Intermountain headline proclaimed in 1902, the case, “Promises to be one of the most interesting trials in history of Gallatin County”

A resident of Gallatin and Madison counties since 1875, John H. Black was a well off man who owned a large amount of land near Salesville (now Gallatin Gateway) and was reportedly worth $75,000. A large man, he was known as “Old John Black” because of the “peculiarities of [his] dress and demeanor. He seldom appeared … without a large cowboy hat, cowhide boots, into which were tucked his pants, and wearing an old suit of clothes.” Black was married previously to a woman from Virginia City and after separating from her, he married Lucy Kirkpatrick in 1900.

In October of 1901, Lucy Black was arrested for the murder of her husband. Information given to the Butte Intermountain states that Lucy administered poison to her husband from the 5th – 10th of October with the intent of taking his life and that John Black died from this poison on October 10th. On two separate occasions John and Lucy Black along with a friend went up to the homestead of Mrs. Black, where she prepared them dinner. Both times, the men became ill and Mrs. Black seemed unaffected. During the second illness, on the 5th of October, Mr. Black did not recover and was brought to the doctor in Bozeman. For several days, Mr. Black was examined by doctors in both Bozeman and at their home in Salesville. He was judged to be suffering from morphine poisoning, even though he had never been prescribed the drug. On the 10th of October, Black took a turn for the worse and although two doctors attempted to administer antidotes, he died at 9:45 pm. Shortly after Black’s death, an autopsy was performed by Dr. Traphagen, a professor of chemistry at Montana College. He removed Mr. Black’s liver, intestines, stomach, and one kidney for testing. According to the testimony of Dr. Traphagen, all the tested organs showed evidence of morphine poisoning.

Mrs. Black was held without bail during the course of the trial. The Kalispell Bee reported on the accused’s behavior during the trial on February 8th, “Mrs. Black was cool and attentive. While she chews gum and smiles from time to time, she cases keen glances at the jury and witnesses from hawklike eyes, and whispers to her counsel frequently. She seems confident and undismayed at the strong evidence brought against her.” Several expert witnesses were brought forward to refute the poisoning evidence produced by Dr. Traphagen, but to no avail. Judge Holloway sentenced Lucy Black to 10 years in the Deer Lodge State Penitentiary on February 15th, 1902. Lucy was calm and composed and proclaimed her innocence even after the verdict was given. Her intake records at the Penitentiary read, “Age 39, Height 5,2 – Weight 130, Nativity Louisville Ken, Occupation House Wife, convicted of manslaughter in Gallatin County 9th Dist, term 10 years. Widow, Brother W. Ray, Belgrade, Mont. Complexion dark. Features regular, eyes brown, hair brown, cheeks high, ears small. Right smaller, teeth good, 1 upper right filled with gold. reads and writes, wear #4 shoes. religion none.”

John Black headstone

John Black’s headstone in Sunset Hills Cemetery.

Lucy Black served a reduced sentence and was released on May 15, 1908. We were unable to track her whereabouts after her release from prison, so she is lost to history.  John H. Black is buried in the Sunset Hills Cemetery beneath a stately headstone. As the Stevensville newspaper described after the sentencing, “It might have been worse.”

Sources:
The Western News February 19, 1902
The Kallispell Bee, Feb 8th 1902
The Butte Intermountain Feb 8th 1902
The Butte Intermountain Jan 31st 1902

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