What on earth does 3-7-77 mean?

mhp_patch Brian Dunning aired a piece on his blog Skeptoid discussing the Montana symbol 3-7-77. In it, Dunning covered much the same ground as anyone else who writes on the topic: the fact that the Montana Highway Patrol and other Montana institutions use the numbers in their logos, the five or so main theories, and Fredrick Allen’s 2013 book A Decent, Orderly Lynching. Beyond these, few facts exist to present.

As far as we can tell, the numbers have nothing to do with Montana’s first, and most famous, Vigilantes. Thomas Dimsdale, the Vigilantes most vocal supporter, didn’t mention the code in his 1865 book, and Nathaniel Langford, a prominent Montanan who participated in the first wave of vigilantism, said nothing on the subject in his 1890 book. As Allen pointed out, the uniquely Montana tag first appeared in 1879, and wasn’t directly connected to a lynching until 1885. For about forty years, the code appeared fairly regularly, in situations ranging from shooing vagrants out of downtowns to the lynching of union organizer Frank Little. Today, nearly divorced of sinister meaning, the code shows up on everything from the Montana Highway Patrol to the Big Sky Brewing Company as a short-hand reference to the state’s frontier past. What the numbers might have meant to the graffitios who tagged Helena’s fences in 1879, we will never know.

In A River Runs through It, Norman Maclean offhandedly assumed that the numbers represent the dimensions of a grave (3 feet wide, 7 feet long, and 77 inches deep).

Judge Llewellyn Link Callaway, writing in 1929, claimed the numbers represented the 3 hours, 7 minutes, and 77 seconds Vigilantes gave miscreants to get out of town. He claimed to have based this theory on his acquaintance with former Vigilantes during his childhood. Other theorists have added the numbers (3+7+7+7) and said that it represented the 24 hours criminals had to leave town unmolested.

In a rare move for Skeptoid, Brian Dunning endorsed the Mason theory suggested by Rex Myers in which the 3 represents either the general number of Masons required to form a lodge or the specific number that formed the first lodge in Montana; the 7 represents the ideal minimum number involved in a decision; and 77 represents the number of Masons in Montana at the first gathering. This might be the first time Skeptoid has ever supported a Mason theory. Myers suggested that maybe the code wasn’t so much a warning as a call for a meeting and that undesirable elements learned that the one often proceeded the other.

Allen, however rejected this notion by noting first that several prominent Masons during the 1870s-80s opposed vigilantism, and second that the Masons have never been keen on publicly displaying secret codes. In the same article, Allen tossed around the theory that the code urged miscreants to buy a $3 ticket on the 7:00am stage for the 77 mile trip from Helena to Butte; basically a warning to get out of town. Warnings, though, need to be straight-forward so that everyone gets the message. Allen acknowledged that his theory, like the others, was pretty obscure.3777_2

A warning, a code, a cipher? Since their appearance on Helena fences in 1879, the numbers have befuddled generations of Montanans. That they had some link to vigilantism seems clear, but what was the nature of this link? Who scrawled the numbers on Montana’s history? What was their intent? How did people interpret the signs? These questions we will probably never know, but that shouldn’t keep us from speculating. What do you think?

Allen, Fredrick. “Montana Vigilantes and the Origins of 3-7-77.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 51, 1 (2001): 2-19.
Callaway, L. L., Jr. “The Vigilante Numbers: Another Look at 3-7-77.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 25, 2 (1975): 83-84.
Dunning, Brian. “3-7-77: The Montana Vigilance Code.” http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4413
Maclean, Norman. A River Runs through It and Other Stories. New York: Pocket Books, 1976.
Myers, Rex C. “The Fateful Numbers 3-7-77: A Re-Examination.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 24, 4 (1974): 67-70

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6 thoughts on “What on earth does 3-7-77 mean?”

    • It’s fascinating all of the different interpretations. I’ve also recently heard that it was associated with the Freemasons–some of the vigilante leaders were Freemasons.

  1. Possibly from the first vigilantes in bannack mt against the gang called the “innocents” which the sheriff Plummer was supposedly the head of.

  2. Ahh, there are many theories to the meaning of 7-7-77 first seven (7) =’s ‘<<< sworn MOTTO to track and catch the 'criminals' within seven days; second (7)='s days is all the time it should be for the length of the trial of the "code" according to my great, great 'grandad' should take no longer than seven days; the – 77 when caught and tried; the jail term handed down in that day was 77 years The life expectancy of the individual in that era; most would die in prison or from other causes such as diseases, attempted escapes, prison fights, even snake bites now and then, etc., etc.

  3. Unfortunately, we’ll probably never know the precise intent of the 3-7-77 code as it was originally targeted at specific individuals by specific individuals with assumed understood meaning. What we can logically surmise is that given the culture of the place and time it would derive some level of meaning from Fraternal Organization or Biblical references simply because that is what would have been understood in matters as heavy as life, death, and morality at the time. As well that being said the the importance or “sacredness” of the numbers themselves,(if you choose to believe such things), as a symbolic message lend a high degree of circumstantial evidence to a Masonic Lodge / Scottish Rite tie at least as far as organizations like these were extremely popular at the time and specifically directed references would have been understood. From my personal research I would break it down this way: The number 3 in fraternal practice would signify a variety of statements of ancient knowledge and spirituality, distilled represents mans immortal soul. The number 7 represents a similar line of thought but with an inference of spiritual judgement, cite 7th Degree Scottish Rite: Provost and Judge. (Philosophy that impartial justice protects person, property, happiness and reputation). I would also put forth a theory that “3-7” refers to Biblical scripture. Matt. 3-7 and Luke 3-7, ironically both reference a quotation attributed to John the Baptist, (who, by the way is extremely revered in Masonic tradition), that says, “”You offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” . As for our final number 77, the historic references tend to the esoteric, but again probably would have been more keenly understood to certain groups of people of the time. In many references and texts of the 18th and 19th century, “77” is associated with the Latin phrase “Ordo ab Chao”, which roughly translated means “order out of chaos”. What I have discovered through my research is that a person could chase a thousand and one rabbit trails and half-baked theories on this issue and actually many of the held “historic” beliefs about the Vigilantes and their famous code really don’t hold up to scrutiny. Alas, it’s a entertaining and diverting project that I would encourage all interested armchair historians to add contribution.


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