1931 Death of John C. Oster, Guard Captain
Posted by Aoster (+14) 3 years ago
Hi there,

My Great Uncle, John C. Oster lived in Miles City starting around 1910 through 1920. In 1920 he joined Fred Barton, Jess Perkins, Colie Ward, Tut Camblin and Bert "Pinkie" Putnam in China to breed horses for the Chinese warlords at the time. Described in Larry Weirather's book: "Fred Barton and the Warlords' Horses of China: How an American Cowboy Brought the Old West to the Far East".

Later he settled in Deer Lodge and became Captain of the Guards at the state prison. In May 1931, he was found dead in his car on the outskirts of Butte with several gunshot wounds to the head. It was ruled as a suicide. I have newspaper articles, his death certificate, Coroner's Inquest and various other items from the Butte Archives. It is all very general information. I was wondering if anyone out there has any family stories, rumors, photos or otherwise in regards to John. I know he competed in the Miles City Round-Up in 1919 and was friends with a man by the name of Pat "PJ" O'Kane. Any info would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

-Andy
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Posted by Cindy Stalcup (+590) 3 years ago
Several gunshots to the head was a suicide?
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Posted by Cindy Stalcup (+590) 3 years ago
His entire passport application to go to China complete with his photo is available. Do you have a copy? He was born in Hudson, Colorado &his father Jacob was born in Odessa, Russia.
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Posted by Aoster (+14) 3 years ago
Yep I sure do. Thanks! I was able to get a copy of his death certificate and Coroner's inquest. Unfortunately the Old Prison Museum has no record of him working there, although the 1930 census, testimony from the Inquest and various newspaper articles state he was a captain of the guards there.

On his passport, Miles City Sheriff, A.B. Middleton signed that he had known John for 10 years. I'm assuming that's how he got the job at the prison when he came back from China since Middleton had then become the Warden.

His body was shipped back to his hometown in Colorado days after the incident and the county coroner conducted an autopsy. He and the local Sheriff pressed Butte for further investigation since they believed it to be a homicide, but Butte officials stuck to suicide. Photos were taken at the autopsy but Colorado doesn't have them. I don't know if they were sent to Butte or not.

Testimony from the Inquest states the gun was a .22 caliber luger semi automatic handgun found on his lap. Several deep graze wounds on the head and one kill shot from the top of his head, behind the hairline, lodging in his neck. The coroner in Colorado determined the graze wounds were more than likely fatal.

Further testimony from a friend states the gun belonged to John but the Butte coroner states the gun was property of the prison and would be returned to the Warden. An article in the Butte Standard in the following month shows a revolver and $1.35 was given to his brother (My Great-grandfather). He and his other brother headed up to Butte with a private investigator after John was buried. They got the feeling they weren't welcome and promptly returned home. My grandfather never spoke of it again.

There's many more inconsistencies in the coroner's inquest. I hope I can find out more about his life and start putting the pieces together. He left Colorado at a very young age so my family doesn't have much information. Thank you for responding.

-Andy
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Posted by Cindy Stalcup (+590) 3 years ago
The article in the Big Timber Pioneer said he had quarreled with a woman friend in Anaconda. Do you have that newspaper story?
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Posted by Aoster (+14) 3 years ago
Yeah I have that too
The Inquest mentioned it as well, but her name was never given. They said it was a situation where he wanted to be with her but she only saw him as a friend or something.

I appreciate you taking the time to look around. If this further peaks your interest, I'd be happy to send you a copy of the Inquest (PDF format). The curator at the old prison museum said they never issued .22 caliber pistols. Why it was given to the Warden is a complete mystery to me. Also, second-hand testimony states he had been drinking quite heavily, but a "curious" Butte reporter examined the body and stated there was no smell of alcohol. I've talked to retired coroners and homicide detectives and the general consensus is, although possible to shoot yourself in the head and survive, it's incredibly rare. And those that do survive will usually change their minds and seek emergency treatment. Additionally, if a person was drinking prior to death, the smell of alcohol would be quite apparent in the person's blood.

I know at the time, the term "copper collar" was used to describe the control Anaconda Copper had over the legislature and media. I believe most of the newspapers in Butte at that time were owned by them. An article published in the Montana Butte Standard Jan 7th, 1932 describes the artifacts the coroner had collected during his investigations in 1931 which was compiled in a report and handed over to the county commissioners. A line from the article reads: "Here are 1,500 stock certificates in a mining venture that didn't pan out, found in the trunk of an unfortunate who sought the easiest way out." Although at this point, I have no way of connecting those to John, the author Larry Weirather told me during his research he found something that described a "botched" business venture related to John but wasn't sure the source. If I remember correctly, there were 8 suicides in Butte in 1931, so that article was definitely eyebrow raising. The staff at the Butte Archives has been unable to locate that report.

Thanks!
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