If you were a cattle rustler in the late 1800s, William "Floppin' Bill" Cantrell was one man you didn't want to run into, according to historian B. Derek Strahn in his new book, The Montana Medicine Show's Genuine Montana History. Floppin' Bill, who earned his nickname from his ability to chop cottonwoods in one swing and send them "flopping" over, was driven into a rage when rustlers stole his livestock and kidnapped his Assiniboine wife. Floppin' Bill took justice into his own hands, put together a gang and lynched or shot more than 60 horse thieves "from the mouth of the Yellowstone to the Canadian line." The vengeful spree was reported by The New York Times, which wrote, "Flopping Bill and his party... are making the lives of the horse-stealing fraternity of the upper country a wild and terrible uncertainty." Floppin' Bill eventually met his own unpleasant end when he was hit by a train in Kansas City.
Larger-than-life characters like Floppin' Bill can be found throughout Treasure State history, and their stories are captured colorfully in Montana Medicine Show, which compiles vignettes from Strahn's weekly two-minute radio program of the same name on Montana State University's Bozeman campus station, KGLT. (You can listen to a few episodes at montanamedicineshow.com.) Strahn knows his stuff, too; he's a high school teacher and historic preservationist once named Montana's Preserve America History Teacher of the Year by the Gilder Lerhman Institute. His radio program is named after the "medicine shows" of the late 18th and early 19th century, where traveling salesmen and roving entertainers would get together to peddle tonics, potions and live performance all at once. The format is based on Chrysti the Wordsmith, which—fun fact for NPR nerds!—also started on KGLT before getting nationally syndicated.
- The Montana Medicine Show’s Genuine Montana HistoryB. Derek Strahnpaperback, Riverbend Publishing264 pages, $15.95
Don't look to Montana Medicine Show for in-depth discussion, since every single-page chapter was adapted from such short radio episodes. But it is full of intriguing backstory and tidbits, making it ideal for reading out loud by a campfire or keeping by your bedside. Some of the quotes deserve to be printed and framed, like a railroad executive's declaration, "Give me enough Swedes and whiskey and I'll build a railroad through hell!" Or a merchant's description of Virginia City as "the greatest aggregation of toughs and criminals that ever got together in the west."
Strahn begins with an autobiography of William Clark's slave York, and works chronologically from the fur-trapping era to Butte glory days to the present. Along the way, Strahn makes sure to include stories of the immigrants, Native Americans and women who helped shape Montana, and without any sugarcoating of the tough times these people faced. We meet outlaws like Jack Slade and woman warriors like Brown Weasel Woman. We learn about "hurdy-gurdy houses" in Helena and an account of a legendary three-hour bare-knuckled boxing match in Virginia City between a young, sober welterweight saloonkeeper and a whiskey-drinking heavyweight Irishman. (After three hours of slugging, it was declared a stalemate.)
For a book that's not intended to be comprehensive, Montana Medicine gives a more fascinating and broad scope view of Montana history than I recall getting in school. For instance, I had never heard of the 1837 smallpox epidemic that spread through contaminated furs brought by a American Fur Company steamboat up the Missouri. The disease killed an significant amount of Native Americans, Strahn writes: "an estimated two thirds of the Blackfeet, one half of the Assiniboines and Arikaras, a third of the Crows and a quarter of the Pawnees," which is on par with the Black Plague. Nor was I familiar with "Sacrifice Cliff," a spot on the Rims southeast of Billings where, legend has it, two Crow warriors devastated by the smallpox epidemic decided to blindfold their horses and ride to their death. Chief Plenty Coups is quoted as saying the warriors' suicide was "big medicine" that finally stopped the epidemic.
Montana's history in the 20th and 21st centuries earns merit, too. The last few pages of Montana Medicine Show work up to the present day, with the Freemen standoff, an explanation of the Cat-Griz rivalry and a portrait of Elouise Cobell, the Blackfeet lawyer who won the class lawsuit against the U.S. government for money owed to Indian nations.
We may not have as many vigilantes, but it's a reminder that Montana, the "State of Extremes," is still a place where intrepid pioneers and fierce personalities make history.