Author exposes Butte underbelly — for second time

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The 1960s were another era. Fifty years ago, everything was different. Politics, religion, morality, journalism — if you didn’t live through it, you would never even recognize it as the same America we live in today.

There are certain bellwether events, people, and places that define the era for most of us. Vietnam and the anti-war movement; the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr., then their assassinations; the Beatles and Lawrence Welk; the Summer of Love and Charles Manson. Historians will be busy for centuries trying to sort through the paradoxes, contradictions and outright lies that we told ourselves as we lived one life on the outside and another on the inside.

Montana, too, had its paradoxes, none of which was more self-evident than the city of Butte — nicknamed the Richest Hill on Earth — where the finery of unimaginable wealth mingled with the blackened faces of hard-rock miners, where the Catholic Church held sway on Sunday morning but where gambling, boozing and prostitution stayed up late seven nights a week.

That wild era has been brought to life by author John Kuglin in his new book “Montana’s Dimple Knees Sex Scandal,” and no one was in a better position to tell the story.

It was Kuglin who in 1968 wrote the expose in the Great Falls Tribune that started the long, slow, hesitant reform of Butte from a “wide-open city” to a reluctantly civil society. His first story was bannered across the top of the front page with a headline that read, “Butte Madam Tells of Payoffs, Spurs Crusade Against Corruption.”

On the third day, that Butte “madam” — Beverly Snodgrass — told her story of running a house of prostitution with the full knowledge of police and politicians. In fact, one of the politicians was her lover and eventually forced Snodgrass to turn the business over to him. The headline? “Romantic Fling Brings Financial Regret … Butte Madam Describes Love Affair With Politician, Dimple Knees.”

The Great Falls Tribune never identified “Dimple Knees” when the story ran, except to say he was a “prominent politician” in Butte, and Kuglin retains that anonymity for most of his book, but other than that one little spoken name, the book is full of crackling good details that paint a picture of corruption right out of Dashiell Hammett (no surprise since Hammett’s 1929 mystery novel “Red Harvest” was inspired by Butte’s labor wars and corrupt police).

Kuglin comes from what may well be the Golden Age of Montana journalism as well. After starting his career in Colorado, he moved to Montana in 1965 where he was copy editor and reporter for the Missoulian, the Helena Independent Record, and the Great Falls Tribune before signing on with the Associated Press.

There are plenty of great stories about some of the Montana journalists and politicians that Kuglin got to know back in the old days, as well as countless amusing facts about Butte history and Helena personalities that make this book an effortless read. Kuglin circles around the central theme of corruption from many different angles, and you’ll wonder why history isn’t always this much fun.

Kuglin was the AP bureau chief for Montana for many years, which is how I got to know him. He retired from that post in 2005, perhaps recognizing that the Golden Age of journalism was over. As for Kuglin himself, he is a humble, soft-spoken, completely professional gentleman who seems like a fish out of water when he’s writing about madams, fire bombs and houses of ill repute. But when Kuglin writes about loading his shotgun “with five high-powered magnum loads” after being told by the governor that “They’re coming over from Butte to kill you,” you’ll get a picture of what a journalist at his best can be.

“Montana’s Dimple Knees Sex Scandal” is published by The History Press of Charleston, S.C. (www.historypress.com) and costs $21.99. Kuglin is dedicating all his royalties to the Butte Citizens for Preservation and Revitalization.

Frank Miele is managing editor of the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell, Montana. He can be reached at fmiele@dailyinterlake.com.

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