Park City Museum’s upcoming virtual lecture tells of the mystery surrounding historical murder and lynching
The 1883 Park City lynching of “Black Jack” Murphy, accused of the shooting death of prominent Park City prosecutor Matt Brennan, has all the makings of a high-action Western thriller.
Murphy shoots Brennan and is arrested and placed in the Coalville jail. The next night a group of vigilantes hijacks a Coalville-bound train, breaks Murphy out of jail, loads him onto a Park City-bound train and hangs him from a telegraph pole after they get back to town. The only thing found at the scene other than Murphy’s body is a piece of paper with the number 77 that someone had written in pencil.
This scenario is the centerpiece of Sandy Brumley and Josh Grotstein’s upcoming Zoom lecture, “Park City’s Most Murderous Score,” that will start at 5 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 12. The lecture is free, but registration is required by contacting Diane Knispel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The lecture will also touch on other murders and incidents that lead up to Murphy’s lynching and its aftermath, which, according to Grotstein, are still mired in mystery.
“What is fascinating about this lynching is there wasn’t another incident like this afterwards that we’re aware of,” Grotstein said. “Equally fascinating was there were so many townspeople allegedly involved with this, but no one said a word. A silence permeated over the town, and one tends to wonder how that happens.”
The lecture is based on research by Brumley, who is captivated by historic stories he finds in old newspapers.
“I’m the guy who tends to do the drilling, and, of course, The Park Record is a great resource for a lot of this stuff,” Brumley said. “What fascinated me about this case to begin with was nobody was ever held responsible for the lynching.”
During his research, Brumley found the Murphy lynching was one of more than 30 murders that occurred in Park City within a 20-year period, and out of the other 29 murders, six were tied to the lynching.
“Brennan’s murder happened on a Wednesday, and on Thursday, there was a murder and lynching in Salt Lake City, after a man murdered the town marshal,” he said. “Within the space of hours, a group of 2,000 people grabbed the man from the jail cell and strung him up.”
Brumley argues the Salt Lake lynching was one of the inspirations for the Park City lynching the following weekend.
“‘Black Jack’ Murphy was held at Coalville, and, according to a story in The Park Record, some 30 vigilantes hijacked the train to get over to Coalville,” he said. “Some of the group’s members took control of the situation around the Coalville train station, so they could break Murphy out of the jail and transport him back to Park City.”
Grotstein, who organizes Brumley’s research into lectures, believes in order for the group to pull the lynching off, there had to be some meticulous planning.
“The train that was hijacked was operated by three men — the engineer, the train man and conductor,” he said. “When they were hijacked, all of the hijackers wore disguises, and many of them were disguised as women.”
Dressing up as women wasn’t the only peculiar aspect of the plan’s execution, said Grotstein, who has a degree in comparative literature from Brown University and another from The Harvard Business School.
“Once they get to Coalville the group can’t locate a key to get Murphy out of his cell because the sheriff is out,” he said. “Then once they do get in, they find Murphy is handcuffed to another prisoner. And that prisoner is fearing for his life that he would get killed as well. But luckily, the vigilantes were able to separate the two prisoners.”
Ironically, the night before the lynching, the Coalville sheriff, fearing for Murphy’s life, decided he wanted to protect him by putting him out in an open field.
“When nothing happened, the sheriff put Murphy in a cell the day after, and that’s when the vigilantes showed up,” Grotstein said.
After Murphy’s body was discovered, authorities found a piece of paper with the number 77 shoved in his boot.
“It was determined that many people had used pencils to write and retrace the 77 on the paper,” Brumley said. “It was initially reported that the numbers were actually L’s, that signified ‘lynch law,’ but after other reports found that was not the case, speculation had it the numbers were how the vigilantes signed a contract. And that’s how the secret was kept.”
Through his research, Brumley came across more newspaper articles that talked about people getting a letter signed by the 77 if they were overheard talking about the lynching.
“The letters pretty much told them they had better keep quiet,” he said.
In addition to the 77 vigilante group, Brumley also discovered that there was another group, the Invincibles, that had emerged from the secret societies that were based in Park City at the time.
“The Invicibles sent out a message through The Park Record that essentially said, ‘we’re on to you vigilante 77 group, and we’re going to avenge this,’ but nothing really happened,” he said. “Except for one small incident.”
That event happened nearly four years after the lynching, Grotstein said.
“One of the folks who worked on the train at the time of the hijacking was Joe Hughes,” Grotstein said. “Joe was in a bar in Main Street, when another guy, Neal Mulloy, began accusing him of being involved in the lynching.”
Hughes denied the accusations, saying he was only a train worker and didn’t know who was part of the hijacking, according to Grotstein.
“What gives credence to Mulloy’s claim is that the Invincibles had posted a list of people they believe was part of the 77, and one of them was Joe Hughes,” Grotstein said. “The conversation escalates and Neal shoots Joe dead. One wonders if there were other sorts of encounters, but they didn’t end up in murder.”
In addition to the Murphy lynching, Brumley and Grotstein will also discuss other cases that may have set the stage for the incident.
Those stories include the murder convictions and death sentences of Fred Hopt, who was also known as Fred Welcome, that were repeatedly overturned by the Utah Supreme Court.
“Fred was once arrested by John Turner Sr., who was the sheriff in Provo in 1880, three years before ‘Black Jack’ Murphy killed Matt Brennan, and Hopt threatened Turner for having arrested him,” Brumley said.
Three years later, Hopt was in Park City working under the alias Fred Welcome, and John Turner Jr. turned up in town with a couple of wagons and teams to make his fortune to start a teamster business.
“When Hopt, now known as Fred Welcome, found out John Turner Sr.’s son is in Park City, he kills him with an ax in Deer Valley and escapes to Wyoming,” Grotstein said.
Hopt is arrested only after he, by chance, walks by a train John Turner Sr. is in, according to Brumley.
“John Turner Sr. had chased Hopt and an accomplice on a long, wild-west pursuit to Cheyenne,” he said.
“After the trials, retrials and overturnings, the mood in Park City must have been very tense and angry because justice wasn’t served by the system,” Grotstein said. “So, People in Park City began thinking of other ways of taking the law into their own hands, and that’s why we think the 77 formed and lynched ‘Black Jack’ Murphy.”
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