A Bozeman Murder Story

Angie Ripple  |   Friday Oct. 1st, 2021

Instead of a personal narrative or welcome to Bozeman letter I would like to retell a Bozeman murder story I researched in 2016 with you in this October 2021 issue.

In 1965 employees at AMC Sullivan Photo Company at 115 E Main St in Downtown Bozeman removed a protruding stone from the floor in the basement. When they turned the stone over they realized it was an upside down granite head stone. It is still unknown why the headstone of Celestia Alice Earp was in the basement of AMC Sullivan; her body was not found there with it, and the headstone is now also missing. The Dillon tribune reported on April 09, 1881, that the corpse of the late Mrs. Earp was brought to Bozeman and taken charge of by the Presbyterian Society. Her funeral took place the following Tuesday and was attended by a large concourse of people.

Celestia Alice Earp made Bozeman her home after her husband Richard J. Earp (no known relation to Wyatt) was killed in the Civil War. Her sister and two brothers were also living in Bozeman and made their livings as Gallatin County farmers. Celestia made her living working as a chambermaid at the Laclede Hotel and in the homes of wealthy business people such as Charles Rich, a progressive business man with a store and successful freight business. Mr. Earp left Celestia a significant pension which she saved and added to her own. Celestia also benefited from the Homestead Act and acquired 100 plus acres near Flathead Pass.

Regional newspapers pointed out that Celestia would have not been able to manage the upkeep of such a large property on her own and was referred by friends to a 37-year old bachelor by the name of John Douglass to help her. His recommendation came as an honest, industrious and capable man, but Celestia quickly became uncomfortable with his demeanor and romantic advances. One chronicled advance took place at the Pacific Hotel in Bozeman where after finding that another man had interest in Mrs. Earp, Douglass confronted her and aimed his pistol at her threatening to kill her. This attempt was foiled by either Mrs. Earp or a friend at the hotel and the gun was taken from Douglass, thrown in an open trunk and locked inside. The friend then hid Mrs. Earp in an attempt to keep her safe until she could buy a ticket to Virginia City via stagecoach. Leaving the territory was Celestia’s last hope of being left alone by Douglass, but he had other ideas.

A Bozeman Avant Courier article detailing what came next said “The devil must have been loose in Montana, sure enough.” Douglass, unbeknownst to Mrs. Earp and her driver Jim Delaney, followed the stagecoach. Mrs. Earp foolishly rode alongside the driver in the open and was shot twice, once in the back and once through both lungs. Another bullet hit her in the shoulder and after a brief spell of unconsciousness Celestia quickly came to. When Douglass saw this he exclaimed “What, are you not dead yet!” and fired three more times, with one bullet striking her in the head. As Douglass stopped to reload, Delaney whipped his horses and sped the short distance to Sterling with Douglass following all the way. Mrs. Earp was taken from Sterling to the nearest house; laying fully conscious she chose an administrator of her estate, left messages for her relatives and made out her will. Thirty-six hours later, Celestia died. In the meantime, Douglass was arrested without incident in Sterling by the Sheriff of Pony and taken to the Madison County Jail in Virginia City.

At half past ten o’clock on May 28, 1881, John Douglass “the demond” was brought from his cell in Virginia City. Standing perfectly calm, he said he was “ready to die”. The June 7, 1881 Madisonian account of Douglass’ hanging was quite graphic and eloquently written: Signal was given, the trap fell and the body of the murderer was whirled into the air, where it swung, a terrible memorial of the majesty of the law, and the results of unbridled passion and bloodthirstiness. Four and a half minutes after falling there was no pulse, life had fled, the spirit of the murderer, Douglass, had winged its flight into the measurable ocean of eternity, and the last earthly chapter of a bloody and revolting tragedy was ended.

Poor Celestia Earp’s final resting place remains a mystery and her story can only be told as a grim tale of unrequited love and murder in the Wild West.

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