Former police officer Bill Steele recalls days gone by in Great Falls. Wochit
The city of Great Falls and surrounding area has connections to several Hollywood motion pictures, including “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” with Clint Eastwood, “Telefon” with Charles Bronson, and “The Untouchables” with Kevin Costner and Sean Connery.
A largely forgotten film called “Badlands,” starring Warren Oates and Sissy Spacek, is loosely based on a Midwest murder spree that tragically took the life of a Great Falls man.
Alas, 60 years later, the murder of Merle Collison has faded from memory. Indeed, only the gravestones of Collison and his mother at Mount Olivet Cemetery remain from a sordid story that lives on in song and the silver screen.
In was Monday, Jan. 27, 1958 when Collison, a 34-year-old World War II veteran and University of Great Falls graduate, left his wife and 4-month-old son in Great Falls for a business trip to Wyoming. He was a shoe salesman.
Two days later Collison was sleeping in his car near Douglas, Wyo., when he had the poor fortune to meet up with 19-year-old Charlie Starkweather. He was selling nothing but murder.
Collison never knew what hit him, as Starkweather shot him nine times. The Great Falls man was among 11 people killed by Starkweather, who was accompanied by 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. The murder spree began in Lincoln, Neb.
The front page of the Great Falls Tribune on Jan. 30, 1958, the day after Charlie Starkweather was arrested. (Photo: Tribune File Image)
It ended hours after Collison was gunned down when Starkweather was arrested. That was too late for the Great Falls man.
According to Tribune files, one of the paper’s reporters called Collison’s cousin Duane, who lived in Great Falls, to ask if he’d heard about Merle’s demise.
He had not. And so the family heard the terrible news first from the newspaper.
Tribune headlines on Jan. 30 – 60 years ago – barked the tragedy to readers throughout the state:
“Suspect in 9 Nebraska Slayings Caught After Falls Man Killed”
And the subhead:
“Merle Collison, 34, Local Salesman, Shot To Death in Wyoming”
Another Associated Press story detailed how Starkweather was regarded by his family “as Swaggering Sorehead.”
“Sure Eye, Steady Gun Hand Only Accomplishment in Killer’s Life”
During his murder trial in May, Starkweather blamed his girlfriend for the death of the Great Falls shoe salesman. He called Fugate “the most trigger happy person I ever seen.”
Starkweather was executed by electric chair in June of 1959.
The Tribune headline:
“Calm, Cocky to End …”
Merle Collison had been buried in Great Falls. His mother, Ferne, was laid to rest near her son when she died in 1976.
Merle’s widow left town, and his son died. Today, 60 years later, there is nothing in Great Falls to recall the memory of Merle Collison.
Unless you count the film “Badlands,” or the Bruce Springsteen song "Nebraska."
Springsteen’s lyrics recall the haunting time, when a misfits from the Midwest went on a killing spree that cost a Great Falls man his life:
“I saw her standin' on her front lawn just twirlin' her baton
Me and her went for a ride sir and ten innocent people died”