Harmon’s Histories: Food for thought, the next time you drive down Stephens Avenue

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

William James (W. J.) Stephens and his wife, the former Miss Emma H. Tebeau, were well known and well respected in the early days of Missoula. W.J. was born in Dublin, Ireland. As a teenager he became a sailor, ending up in Baltimore, then San Francisco, Virginia City, Nevada, and eventually Montana territory. Along the way he was tutored in law and passed the bar.

The story of how this young lawyer met his wife was documented in 1986, when Hope Ketcham wrote down her memories of her grandfather meeting her grandmother in the late 1860s.

“James was practicing law at or near Deer Lodge, and had some business with a Mr Thibault. So he rode out to Mr Thibault’s house one beautiful spring day morning.

“In those rather primitive days most people went to the main door of the house which was the kitchen door. Arriving at the door he beheld a girl on her hands and knees scrubbing a wood floor with a strong scrub brush singing!

“She having her back to the door knew nothing of his approach, she kept on singing. So he stood there for quite a few minutes watching her and finally said to himself, “That’s the girl I’m going to marry. ” He had settled it in his heart before she ever knew he existed!”

Emma and William James were married in July 1869 at the home of Emma’s father in Grass Valley, west of Missoula.

Over the years, W. J. Stephens served as a probate judge and a district attorney in addition to operating a private law practice. But, he’s remembered to this day for an infamous squabble with another attorney in platting city streets.

That’s right, he was the one who aligned city streets (including his namesake Stephens Avenue) with the wagon road leading to the Bitterroot, while Judge Hiram Knowles (Knowles street) arranged other roads on a north-south grid, resulting in the “slant street area.”

W.J.’s wife Emma came from a family with fascinating roots. Relatives included a Parisian locksmith and a Spanish merchant. As with many family names, there were spelling variations over the years, including Tebeau and Thibault.

While W.J. was aligning city streets, Emma was winning prizes at the 1877 Western Montana Fair for the best “white bed spread,” “best specimen hand tatting,” and a ribbon for the “prettiest baby!”

However, there was no mention of any award for pistol marksmanship. That issue came up a few years later.

The young housewife was up late the night of Wednesday, April 18, 1883. Her husband was still at his office working on a case.

As she sat reading, she was startled by the sound of someone trying to open the locked front door. She called out, “Who’s there? What do you want?”

Hearing no reply, she shouted, “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll go away from here!”

To that came a man’s voice saying, “Is that so?”

Soon the man could be seen moving from window to window, trying to open them and banging on doors while yelling “a violent torrent of abuse,” according to one account of the affair by a correspondent for the Helena Independent.

At this, Mrs. Stephens (whose children had become frightened) “picked up a gun, pointed it at the ruffian and pulled the trigger.” But the gun misfired. 

She quickly located another weapon, a “Colt 38 calibre revolver and fired two shots, the first missing, but the second (striking) the would-be burglar in the right lung.”

The man lurched back, ran a short distance and “fell, expiring instantly.”

According to the Weekly Missoulian’s version, “Mrs. S. thinking she had frightened the tramp away, retired to bed and knew nothing more of the matter until morning, when she was informed by the hired man that there was a man lying in the yard out by the gate. She asked if he was drunk; he said, ‘no, he’s dead.’”

At a coroner’s jury, it was learned the victim was a man going by the name of Johnnie Baker, with aliases of Breck, Murphy and Smith. He was described as “a hardened sinner” who’d recently been run out of Deer Lodge.

It didn’t take long for the panel to return a verdict of justifiable homicide.

The Independent praised Mrs. Stephens, calling her “a fine specimen of woman’s pluck and presence of mind, and many other Montana women are of the same piece as Mrs. Stephens, who so heroically defended her family, and maybe her honor.

“It will serve as a warning to all evil disposed persons … (t)he people of Missoula uphold Mrs. Stephens and award her all praise for her brave action.”

There you have it – some stories to remember about W. J. and Emma as you drive on Missoula’s Stephens Avenue. 

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.