Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Unsolved Murder of "Old Man" John Maxwell

Prospector Led a Solitary Life
By Robert A. Waters

For nearly a hundred years, the one-room log cabin sat high up in the Continental Divide, seven miles above Butte, Montana. It weathered blizzards and freezing weather each winter, and summer thunderstorms that rocked the landscape with killer bolts of lightning.  

In 1957, seventy-six-year-old John Maxwell called the cabin home.

The Montana Standard reported that "at the age of 26 [he] was employed by the Corry Consolidated Mining Co., as a stationary engineer and later in charge of mining operations." Many years later, when the gold and silver "played out," the company hired Maxwell to remain there as caretaker. During those decades alone on the mountain, he enjoyed prospecting, occasionally finding a nugget or two missed by the mining company.

But Maxwell was no miser. He made monthly trips down steep, dangerous mountain trails to resupply and meet with friends. The Standard said his modest cabin "was a haven for hikers, skiers, and Boy Scouts out on an adventure. Everyone passing by received a warm welcome and most returned again and again to visit with the friendly prospector."

On August 7, Curley Robbins, a forest ranger, saw smoke rising near Maxwell's cabin. While checking to find the exact location of the fire, he stopped by to see if his prospector friend could direct him to the source. As he entered the cabin, Robbins encountered a gruesome sight. Maxwell lay near his bed, severely beaten and shot twice.

When Jefferson County Sheriff George Paradis and Coroner Kyle Scott arrived at the scene, the place was neat and orderly. They found no sign of ransacking, or any other clue to provide a reason for the violence inflicted on the old man. Maxwell's own gun, an old Colt Peacemaker, "a 38-40 caliber revolver" he had brought home after serving in the Spanish-American War, was the murder weapon.

Maxwell's eyes were swollen shut from heavy blows, and two of his teeth had been knocked out. Paradis found them on the bed. Coroner Scott said "the slug that killed Maxwell entered the back near the left shoulder blade, coursed through the body, and emerged near the groin. The bullet was found embedded in the cabin's wooden floor..." It's possible that Maxwell had been sleeping when attacked.

The neatness of the cabin surprised the sheriff. A bookcase held many well-worn editions, such as the complete works of Dickens, The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte, The Plattsburg Manual, and hundreds more. A transistor radio sat beside Maxwell's bed. Friends said he could sometimes pick up music stations at night.

Maxwell's body was taken down the mountain to the Scott Funeral Home in Whitehall. A few days later, staff transported him to the Masonic Temple in Butte where services were held. His remains were then shipped to his hometown of Portland, Oregon for burial.

Although the sheriff put a lot of effort into solving the case, there seemed to be no viable clues to follow. In addition to the bullet that killed him, a second round hit him in the back and exited his shoulder. But cops never found the old man's gun.

The Standard reported that "lawmen rummaged inch-by-inch through Maxwell's cabin Friday night. They found a bullet embedded in the cabin's wooden floor near a large, iron-posted bed and was found about five feet from Maxwell's body." The sheriff interviewed everyone known to be in the area at the time of the murder, but all were cleared.

Sheriff Paradis told reporters he'd found nothing of any real value inside the cabin.

The years passed, and the old prospector eventually faded from memory. 

And there the case remains. Unsolved and cold as a Montana winter. In 2024, bare remnants of the old log cabin remain, still fighting harsh winters and summer thunderstorms that break down on it like random cannon blasts.

NOTE: The cabin pictured above is from an old postcard. It is not the prospector's original home.

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