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Mystery on the Missouri: The Death of Thomas Meagher

Mystery on the Missouri: The Death of Thomas Meagher
Posted at 10:32 AM, Jul 01, 2022

HELENA — Montana is a big state with even bigger secrets. One mystery that will likely never be solved is the disappearance of former territorial governor Thomas Francis Meagher.

An Irish-born revolutionary, Meagher escaped British imprisonment in Tasmania to become an American Civil War General, popular public speaker and the interim governor and secretary for the then Montana Territory. But on July 1, 1867, in what would be his last act as a Montana official, Meagher mysteriously disappeared in Fort Benton while on a trip to retrieve firearms from the US army.

That is where the agreed-upon history ends and the mystery begins.

One prevailing theory of what happened is that Meagher got drunk, fell overboard from a steamboat he was on and drowned in the Missouri River. Author Paul R. Wylie supports this theory in his book "The Irish General: Thomas Francis Meagher" noting how unforgiving the Missouri can be.

But the accident theory, according to Mike O’Connor of the Thomas Meagher Association, doesn’t quite add up.

“The story is he fell off the boat, he was drunk. Well, that’s dispelled because he had dysentery, he wasn’t drinking that day, “ O'Connor told MTN.

Another theory is Meagher, who had no lack of rivals, was murdered.

“Wilbur Fisk Sanders just happened to be in Fort Benton that day," said O'Connor. "And Wilbur Fisk Sanders is Meagher’s arch enemy. They did not like each other at all. So the story is maybe he was up there to murder Thomas Francis Meagher. Or the Vigilantes were there to help him because he was a part of the Vigilantes.”

WEB EXTRA: Meagher Death

This murder story has some evidence to it, according to O’Connor, because of what Meager thought the soon-to-be Treasure State could become.

"Meagher brought to Montana his vision of a representative form of government," said O'Connor. "He wanted a representative form of government for the immigrants and the miners. You know, there was a faction of his political opposites that did not want a representative form of government. He knew that he had to form a legislature in order to create a constitution. They did not like that. So that may be one of the reasons they wanted to get rid of him.”

Meagher’s body was never found, adding fuel to the mystery, and increasing the probability that we’ll never actually know what happened.

A somewhat fitting end to a larger-than-life historical figure.