Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick
DEDICATED TO PUBLIC SAFETY
Arthur died on December 21, 1935 at the age of 61. He was a stern-faced police officer whose eyes gleamed with a hint of kindness. At six foot-four, he weighed over 300 pounds and loved meat and potatoes, heavily peppered. More than that, he loved the people on his beat.
During the middle of the morning one Friday, he was working in the basement of the city jail in Billings, Montana. He was working on a fumigating device, and another officer bent down to lend a hand but his .38 caliber revolver slipped from his holster and landed on the cement floor, discharging with a bullet that proved deadly.
Arthur Pettit was one of six children born on a farm near Douds. As a young man he left the farm, settled near Billings and began working in the stockyard. He held several jobs before he married, and was later hired by the Billings Police Department.
A quiet and easy-going man, he was more of a friend to the people than he was a policeman. He looked out for the most vulnerable. Instead of locking up the town drunk, he would hail a cab and pay the fare for the manís ride home. This tendency to help others who were down may have led to his death, as some of his family question whether his death was really accidental.
It has been alleged that a scheme was active by some officers who were bilking prostitutes out of cash. Pettit refused to join the clique and found himself on the outs with the department. He was suspended or fired from the police force over some small technical infractions, such as appearing in public with his jacket unbuttoned. Pettit went to court to keep his job and won.
However, recent searches of the court archives reveal no such employment case involving Mr. Pettit and the Billings Police Department. Also, in spite of the mayorís assurances at the time that his widow would receive benefits, she never received a police pension. Instead she worked as a janitor and chamber maid to provide for her family.
The cityís current human resources director said that the department has very few records before the 1970s. In the old days police officers rarely wrote reports and employment records have probably been lost. Pension benefits for family members were not available until the 1940s.
On that fateful morning, the bullet passed through Arthur Pettitís stomach and liver. He was rushed to the hospital and doctors operated, but he died the next day. The irony is that this "accident" happened less than a year before Arthurís retirement.
Police Chief Val Lechner praised Pettit for being "an efficient officer." So many people attended his funeral that many were forced to stand outside in the cold.
Many years later, a granite memorial was made to the local officers who had died in duty, after a brave officer was shot to death in 1989. A citizen noticed that Pettitís name was missing from the memorial and inquired about it. "It was an oversight," said Officer Jim Cunningham who was one of the organizers of the project. The present Police Captain Hinkel said that Pettitís name will be added to the memorial along with an officer recently killed while answering a call. Unfortunately, this humble man's death was overlooked and forgotten about by the city he so proudly served.
It is good that Officer Pettit finally got some respect, but it is sad that it took 70 years for a bit of the truth surrounding his death to surface. This large man from Douds epitomized the ideal officer who finds his true calling in life and dedicates his life to public safety.
(from an artricle in the Billings Gazette by Greg Tottle, 12/17/2006)
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick