Toss a coin. “Heads,” Frank Conley was a hero. “Tails,” Frank Conley was a villain. The trouble is, no matter how many times you toss the coin, it will land on edge.
Warden of the Montana State Prison for three decades, mayor of Deer Lodge for just as long, and chairman of the state highway commission for several years, Frank Conley was a study in contradictions.
His most perplexing characteristic was his ability to be — at least on occasion — better than his beliefs.
No attempt is made here to write a definitive biography of Conley. Biographies exist, and he is, perhaps, the most famous unknown man in Montana history.
Conley was born in Maryland in 1864. His father died the next year, and as soon as he was old enough, Frank worked in a grocery store to help support the family. His schooling ended when he was fourteen.
Following his older brother, he came to Montana in 1880, joining a survey party in Yellowstone before settling briefly in Miles City. There, at 17, he signed a vigilante pledge in which 53 men swore to “select and name such of the bad men of our community…as shall be dealt with by us, and…decide what we shall do with them, whether they shall be doomed to die or otherwise…” What motivated the 17-year-old Conley? A desire for justice? A reckless thirst for adventure? Or was he simply following the lead of his older brother who was also a signatory to the pledge?
Conley soon found more conventional employment as a Miles City deputy sheriff. Four years later, delivering two prisoners to the territorial prison at Deer Lodge, Conley quit his deputy job and hired on as a guard.
Statehood in 1889 turned the Territorial Prison into a state institution. Conley went into partnership with financial backer Tom McTague, contracting to run the prison for the state.
Anyone passing down Main Street in Deer Lodge today will see a stone wall with rounded turrets which might, to a small child, appear to be Cinderella’s castle. When Conley and McTague won the prison contract, they had an overcrowded, crumbling facility to deal with. The wall around the prison was a board fence which tumbled over in a strong wind.
Under Conley, the new prison rose, built by the convicts themselves. Superintendent McCalman, who oversaw their work, observed, “All the prisoners, with but few exceptions…took as much personal interest in their labor as though they were well paid for it, instead of receiving a quarter of a pound of tobacco a week and the extra food necessary to perform heavy manual labor.” They also earned “good time,” shortening their sentences.
It was initially economic necessity, which led to this use of inmate labor, but as the years passed, Conley became convinced of the importance of labor in the health, morale, and rehabilitation of the convicts. They built other state institutions, such as the hospitals at Warm Springs and Galen, and they put in 500 miles of Montana road.
Naturally enough, use of convict labor was frowned on by the unions, and they were implacable in their dislike of Conley. He returned the sentiment. The unions had the Butte labor market so tightly sewn up that a man discharged from Deer Lodge had a hard time finding work.
He believed that all inmates should be taught to read and write, and be taught some working skill. Besides physical labor required in ranch work, brickmaking, and construction, other skills could be acquired such as typing, cooking, and telegraphy.
Conley wrote, “It is beyond comprehension to expect reformation by keeping men for indefinite periods of time in idleness and among evil associates, and then turn them loose upon society, softened in flesh and mind, hardened in nature and carrying the handicap incident to conviction for felony, with the expectation that…they will thereafter be able to cope with their fellow-men and become good and useful citizens.
This, perhaps, is the strongest contradiction in Conley’s character: An unalterable prejudice against the unions and an undiminished faith in rehabilitation of the inmates.
And what about race? Though he did use a racial epithet so redolent of prejudice that it will not even be spelled out here, when a mother wrote to ask Conley to keep her incarcerated daughter away from the “colored inmates,” he replied that this was impossible because “there is no color line in prison.”
In the matter of religion, Conley was as blunt as usual. In 1915, Governor Stewart appointed him as a delegate to the American Prison Congress. He declined the honor. “I attended a Prison Congress some 15 years ago, and they did not impress me as doing much good, as there was a lot of long-haired men, and short-haired women advocating reforming prisoners with prayer, and you know I am not very long on that prayer stuff.”
On the other hand, any religious group which wanted to distribute tracts or offer services in the prison was allowed to do so, and for those prisoners living outside the walls, typically building roads, there were religious services in the camps once a month.
When Elizabeth Nowell of Seattle wrote to him concerning a Deer Lodge inmate, Conley replied, “I note what you say in regard to ‘Jesus spending His energies in behalf of this reform.’ It seems to me times have changed since then, and that Jesus never did have anything to do with these people. However, if you care to spend your energies on this sort of person, you are perfectly welcome to do so.”
This unsympathetic reply did not deter Nowell, and when Conley became convinced that she was actually doing good work — not through prayer but by finding employment for ex-cons, he wrote Henry Ford, extolling her work and recommending his assistance on her behalf. The lengthy letter reads in part, “Mrs. Nowell has provided work for a multitude of discharged prisoners since taking up prison work…”
Teddy “Blue” Abbott (author of the ultimate cowboy autobiography, We Pointed Them North) wrote Conley, on behalf of a couple of men seeking work at the prison. Conley replied, “I care nothing for their politics, or for the politics of anyone in my employ so long as they are good workers and good guards; otherwise I tie the can to them in a hurry.” Certainly this contradicts his implacable attitude towards the unions.
When it came to romance, Conley expressed his opinions without reservation. Writing to a social worker regarding a former girlfriend of an inmate, he recommended, “…if this young lady is rid of him, she had better stay rid of him.” And to a woman whose husband disappeared as soon as he was paroled, he wrote, “I would advise that you get a divorce from him as I don’t think he is much good.”
This somewhat jaundiced view of romance may in large part be due to the defection of his first wife, a high-spirited charmer who ran off with another man.
It didn’t sour him on marriage forever. He shared the rest of his life with his second wife, and the pair died within weeks of each other, in 1939.
Though there was really little choice in the matter, he was opposed to putting first offenders with hardened criminals. “It is always productive of evil results to have habitual…criminals associate with young first term men who owe their violations to the drink habit or having given way to a sudden temptation.” Even stronger than his dislike of putting first time offenders in with the general population, he opposed putting boys in with the general population.
Apparently Conley’s faith in the prisoners was not always justified. Writing to Frank DeLea, to whom he had loaned eight dollars, he noted, “Your letter … received and also order for eight dollars for which please accept thanks.
I wish to state further you are the first man I ever loaned money to who paid it. When I received it I felt like getting it photographed.”
He lobbied for financial assistance for the families of prisoners, and objected to the inmates being released with nothing more than a suit of clothes and just enough money to get to the next town where, jobless and friendless, they would have little alternative but to turn back to crime. He sent dozens of letters to people who owed money to inmates, especially those who had accepted responsibility for selling hitched horsehair items which inmates were allowed to make in their non-working hours.
Conley’s long tenure at the Montana State Prison could be said to have come to an ignominious end when he was fired by the newly elected Governor Dixon. There was no ignominy in the hundreds of well-wishers who descended on Deer Lodge to show their support for the long-time warden. He continued as mayor for many years, and even today, a few old-timers in Deer Lodge recall how he would receive a standing ovation when he entered the stands at the county fair.
Frank Conley: Bigot or benefactor? Perhaps he was simply too human. The jury is still out.