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Review: Hell With the Lid Off —"The Discovery of a Lifetime"

Editor's Note: Read what Daily Montanan Editor-in-Chief Darrell Ehrlick writes about Hell With the Lid Off: Butte, Montana, New Bay Books' newly published memoir of an 1890s police reporter in "the wildest town in the West." Ehrlick, former editor of the Billings Gazette — Montana's biggest newspaper — and a historian himself, calls the book "a find that every historian lives for — an undiscovered, unpublished account of what daily life in the city was like."

The Daily Montanan is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news site for Big Sky country supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers, Here is Ehrlick's report:

Newly discovered Butte manuscript details Butte’s glory days ‘Hell with the Lid Off’ sat in a trunk for decades until author William Lambrecht helped publish it.

By: Darrell Ehrlick - December 6, 2021

Though Horace Herbert Smith spent the bulk of his life in New York City, rubbing shoulders with literati like Upton Sinclair and Zane Grey, and even though he barely escaped with his life while covering a volcano in Martinique, the greatest adventures of his life were during the heyday of Butte, working as a cub reporter for Marcus Daly’s Montana Standard. And Smith’s story may just have been lost or buried if not for William Lambrecht and the discovery of a lifetime at the Butte-Silver Bow Archives. Lambrecht was in Butte for a writers-in-residence program before COVID-19, and he was looking for something to write about. While there, he found the historical gold mine of the archives. After striking up a conversation with the archivist, he learned that it had just received a manuscript from a newspaper reporter turned author. The reporter had been in Butte in the 1890s, working at the powerful Standard, the rival of copper king William Andrews Clark’s Butte Daily Miner. Lambrecht was amazed by the stories and the writing. Smith had written the manuscript in his last years, hoping to sell the story of a woolly reporter in a crazy mining town in the Old West to a movie studio. He never fully completed the manuscript and his attempts to sell it to Hollywood were rebuffed. The manuscript sat in a trunk for decades before his Smith’s granddaughter, Melissa Smith Fitzgerald, found the Butte-Silver Bow archives and donated it, hoping it would someday be discovered. Lambrecht found the manuscript, which chronicled the legendary “Richest Hill on Earth” at arguably the mining city’s zenith. Smith’s memoir of those years was a find that every historian lives for – an undiscovered, unpublished account of what daily life in the city was like.

About the book Title: Hell With The Lid Off Author: Horace Herbert Smith Editor: William Lambrecht Publisher: New Bay Books Price: $20

When Lambrecht started paging through the manuscript, he realized the importance of what he was reading and what it may mean to future researchers, even though the number of books already published about Butte could fill a bookshelf. “My gosh, it seemed to lend a reporter’s eye to many of the events we read about in the wonderful histories written about in Butte,” Lambrecht said. “And, the great thing about it is that reporters have access to all the sides of the law — not just the officials but the outlaws, too.” And it was those outlaws who would ultimately star in one of the most dramatic scenes in the memoir when two separate gunslingers whom Smith had written about both sent word to Smith that he’d be shot the next time either man saw him. How Smith managed to wriggle out of that situation can be found in the book, but the situation is also illustrative of Lambrecht’s gentle writing and editing. The two men who wanted to shoot Smith were well-known gunslingers and outlaws, but the unfinished manuscript seemed to indicate that the erstwhile reporter had meant to research their fate, but was unable to do so before he died. However, Lambrecht was able to locate the obituaries and the stories of how each of the outlaws met their fate, and he was able to add those details. Lambrecht admitted editing the book wasn’t easy. Many of the events and names had to be checked – something made easier with the advent of digitization and websites like Still, Smith appeared to be writing much from memory, making dates, places or even name spellings spotty. Lambrecht had to comb through the manuscript fact-checking – not unfamiliar territory for the former newspaper editor. “There were a good deal of errors. But I was able to correct them,” Lambrecht said. “In his failing health, he was unable to verify a lot of things.” Smith died in 1936 of a heart attack, after having the manuscript turned down by no less of name than Samuel Goldwyn of MGM. Still, Lambrecht said that for the number of names imprecisely remembered, he was amazed how much the veracity of the events held up, 40 years after the fact. “I am still surprised what a good writer he was and I still laugh at his humor. I still laugh out loud,” Lambrecht said. “I wondered a bit whether these things could happen and worried about it because he was a bit of a rascal, but it turns out, he was quite accurate.” Smith had come to Butte as a green reporter, and chronicles the heated newspaper rivalry between fellow Copper King Marcus Daly and Clark, and their two respective newspapers, which were slugging it out for readers and access to the biggest stories of the day. Butte was a place where the newsrooms remained open for nearly as long as the bars, and the stories could be just as audacious and bawdy.

“He had this sense of what fun there used to be in a newsroom,” Lambrecht said. “Today, newsrooms are sad places with many cuts and there are feelings of doom all around. All that has happened to print is a result of readers’ habits changing, but back then, newspapers were in this great soaring period where creativity reverberated through every corner of the country. There was a great deal of enthusiasm, hope and humor.” For example, just to tweak the rival Copper King, the staff of the Standard covered several of the social gatherings and dances hosted by Clark, with the headline, “W.A. Clark’s balls.”

Still, for the distant halcyon days of Butte, Lambrecht sees a few similarities between the times Smith writes about and today. “It was a very significant time in history where everyday life was changing because of technology,” Lambrecht said. Butte was home to new-fangled contraptions like elevators, phones and the lightbulb – some of which were shot out at night just for sport. “It was a changing world and culture, and what was remarkable is that he caught the wonderment of it all and agreed with the locals that Butte was the greatest place on earth,” Lambrecht said.

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