Idaho History March 18, 2018

Henry Plummer

(Vigilantes part 1)

Henry Plummer (1832–1864) was a prospector, lawman, and outlaw in the American West in the 1850s and 1860s, who was known to have killed several men, some in what was considered self-defense.

He was born William Henry Handy Plummer in 1832 in Addison, Maine, the last of six children in a family whose ancestors had first settled in Maine in 1634, when it was still a part of the Massachusetts Bay colony. He changed the spelling of his surname after moving West.

In 1852, at age 19, Plummer headed west to the gold fields of California. His mining venture went well: within two years he owned a mine, a ranch, and a bakery in Nevada City. In 1856, he was elected sheriff and city manager.

On September 26, 1857, Plummer shot and killed John Vedder. As city marshal of Nevada City, California, Plummer had been providing protection of Lucy Vedder, John’s wife, who was seeking to escape from her abusive husband. Plummer claimed he was acting in self-defense in the incident, but was convicted of second-degree murder. He won an appeal for a retrial and was convicted again and sentenced to ten years in San Quentin.[2] But in August 1859, supporters of his wrote to the governor seeking a pardon based on his alleged good character and civic performance. The governor granted the pardon due to Plummer’s good prison record, his attempts to convince a corrupt warden to improve conditions and his work assisting the prison doctor.

Plummer headed to Washington Territory* where gold had been discovered. There he became involved in a dispute that ended in a gunfight won by Plummer.

[*Note: Idaho was still part of Washington Territory until 1863.]

excerpted from: Wikipedia
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Henry Plummer in Idaho Territory*

from “Early History of Idaho” By WJ McConnell, Copyright 1913

William J McConnell

Chapter 4 Gold Discoveries pg 66

… Next on the list of these notables comes the name of Henry Plummer. In the spring of 1861 Henry Plummer and wife were registered in the leading hotel of Lewiston. They were strangers to everyone in town except, perhaps, a few gamblers who had known Plummer in Nevada or California, and these men, following the usual close-mouthed methods of their calling, said nothing about his antecedents. He was a man of gentlemanly bearing, and being accompanied by a quiet, gentle appearing woman whom he claimed as his wife, no one suspected their illicit relations.

However, it was only a couple of days before he had established his reputation as a gambler which left no doubt as to his true character.

The woman he claimed to be his wife was abandoned in a short time, penniless and alone among strangers; she told how Plummer with professions of undying love had persuaded her to leave her husband and three children to live with him. Not having the courage to return to her family and confess her fault, she abandoned herself to the downward path which always leads onward to untold sorrows – an early and miserable death. Thus was Plummer’s entrance into Lewiston marked by her disgrace and degradation.

Being a gambler, his profession brought him in contact with the rough and dissolute characters when they arrived at Lewiston. It is customary in mining and frontier towns for new arrivals to “take in” the town, meaning that they shall visit all the various resorts – such as saloons, dance halls, etc. These tours are generally undertaken as soon as possible after their arrival at a new camp. Since gambling was usually conducted in these places, Plummer, as a member of the “profesh,” soon became a “hail fellow well met” with the patrons of the amusements provided in these resorts.

The criminal classes soon began to recognize in him a leader, and flocked to his standard. Being a keen judge of character, he was able to choose from the common herd or “would-be” desperadoes, the most reckless and daring, the ones who combined with these traits the greatest skill in the use of firearms. These he organized into a band of choice cut-throats, who were governed by iron-clad rules, the enforcement of which was left to a committee, Plummer being its chairman, or head; in fact, he was chief of outlaws.

Chapter 5 Outlaws and Their Methods (Pg 69)

The Outlaw Chief remained in Lewiston during the summer of 1862, following his profession – gambling. Owing to his demeanor, which was quiet and gentlemanly, and to the fact that his clothes were, as a rule, tailor-made and neat, a stranger meeting him would not have suspected him to be the depraved character he was.

By making occasional trips, usually in the night, to interior points, he supervised and directed the operations of the band. What purported to be a road house was established by them on the traveled route between Lewiston and Walla Walla, at Pataha Creek; another was started by them between Lewiston and Orofino. Although these resorts which they termed “shebangs,” were ostensibly managed by two men, the traveler might observe several other hangers-on, who were supposed to be guests, but who were actually silent partners holding themselves ready for action.

These resorts were surrounded by high hills in all directions. These hills were cut with ravines, while numerous flats and little valleys were inserted between. Bunch grass and water being plentiful, these places were veritable paradises for horse thieves.

It should be remembered that in those days and for many years later there were no railroads in any direction of the country tributary to the Columbia river, even wagon roads outside of the Willamette and Walla Walla valleys were seldom to be expected, hence the early arrivals at the Orofino and Florence mines generally found their way there in small parties, riding saddle horses or mules, bringing with them on pack animals their camp equipage, including mining tools and a quantity of provisions. During the season of high water boats ascended the Columbia and Snake rivers, bringing passengers and merchandise to Lewiston, but after arriving there those whose destination was one of the interior mining camps were compelled to procure saddle and pack animals to continue their journey, therefore those who realized that fact usually brought their own equipment, and were thus prepared to travel in any direction rumor announced a discovery of new diggings. Lewiston was the point of divergence to all the interior mining camps in the Clearwater and Salmon river region during 1861 and 1862, hence all those destined for Orofino, Elk City, Florence or Warrens went first to Lewiston, where it was the almost universal custom for travelers to remain for a day or even longer, to rest themselves and animals, but more especially to gather information concerning any new discoveries which might have been made. Thus as will be readily understood with the arrival and departure each day of so many prospectors and adventurers, the town of Lewiston was all that is implied in the term “typical frontier mining town.”

During the stay made by travelers in Lewiston for rest or other purpose during those early mining days, they were carefully “sized up,” by Plummer’s emissaries, especially those who were on the return journey from the mines, with the object of ascertaining if possible, whether they carried any considerable amount of gold dust; accurate descriptions were also taken of their saddle and pack animals, including color and brands; bills of sale were then made out in conformity with the descriptions conveying title to the animals at some prior date to the keeper of one of the road houses either above or below, dependent upon which direction the travelers were going, the bill of sale was then dispatched by courier to the man in whose name it was drawn so as to reach him before the arrival of the men with the stock.

All being cunningly arranged in advance, as soon as the victims came opposite the house, they were halted and the demand made “Where did you get those animals? Get off, or I’ll blow you off.” These requests were made emphatic by the display of double-barreled shot guns or revolvers. The astonished travelers could only comply. They were then shown the bills of sale as a cause for the demand, and if the real owners of the stock were sensible men they left their property with the robbers and resumed their journey on foot. But if, as was sometimes the case, they offered resistance, their journey ended in an improvised cemetery, provided for just such occasions.

In the mining camps and frontier towns, a style of building much in vogue during their first establishment, was built by erecting a frame of poles upon which rafters of the same kind of material were set up, then sides, ends and roof were covered with sheeting or common brown muslin. Such buildings require no windows and even the doors were mere frames of small poles covered with the same material.

This class of structures was the kind that largely lined the streets of Lewiston during the early mining excitement, which followed the Orofino and the Florence discoveries. There were no street lamps, none were needed, for the sunshine lighted the interior of the buildings by day, without the aid of windows, while the lamps and candles used at night illumined the streets. Such buildings, obviously, presented slight opposition to burglars, and as a protection against stray bullets they were a failure.
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Lewiston, Idaho August 1862

We are looking from Normal Hill at the intersection of Third and C Streets. The Luna House is now the site of the county museum. The small building on the far left center was the public school. In the bottom left corner was the home of “The Golden Age,” Idaho’s first newspaper. The two-story structure in the center was Clark Hall, the site of Idaho’s first theater performances. The image has a handwritten note saying “Lewiston W.T.”
source: photo is courtesy of Historic Lewiston, Idaho, from the University of Idaho Library, Special Collections.
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To provide against the last it was customary to pile sacks of flour or sand around the beds of those who slept.

Illustrative of the foregoing, a German named Hildebrandt kept a saloon during the winter of 1861, and part of January, 1862, in one of these structures. He was a jovial character, and his place was a favorite resort for both Germans and Americans. His saloon was not a gambling house but was conducted in a quiet, orderly manner. He was known to be the possessor of considerable gold dust, which the Plummer gang determined to appropriate. Between twelve and one o’clock one cold January night the door was burst from its hinges and a volley of revolver shots were fired in the direction of the large bed near the door where Hildebrandt and two friends were asleep. Hildebrandt was killed by the first volley; his friends returned the fire, sprang from bed and escaped with the treasure.

His murderers then proceeded to search the place, and being disappointed in their search, uttering oaths and threats, marched out through the crowd of citizens who had assembled. They were known, but no one attempted to arrest them. The following day, however, a meeting of the citizens was held for the purpose of devising means to arrest the further progress of crime, and for punishing the murderers of Hildebrandt.

This was the first effort made in Lewiston looking to the protection of the people, and as the lawless element composed a large percent of the population in Lewiston, the movement was pregnant with serious possibilities. Henry Plummer took a conspicuous part in the proceedings and made an eloquent plea for conservative action. He explained the horrors of anarchy and urged the assembly not to take any action for which they might afterward be sorry. Since Plummer was known only as a gambler, and but few suspected that he had any connection with the robberies and murders which were of such frequent occurrence, his speech had the effect of dispersing the gathering and prevented an organization from being formed.

Among those who kept saloons at that time was a man named Ford. He was a courageous character, and while in the saloon business to make money, yet he never associated with the rough element; nor did he encourage them to frequent his place, but on the contrary he was their avowed enemy.

When the foregoing meeting was disorganized without taking action to punish the murders of Hildebrandt, he denounced those present as cowards, and accused them of “weakening.”

The murdered man had a brother in Orofino, who, when he learned of the tragedy, at once announced his determination to visit Lewiston for the purpose of wreaking vengeance upon the assassins. They learned of his intention, had a message conveyed to him, stating that If he started to Lewiston he would not reach there alive. The threat, as was intended, had the effect of intimidating him, causing him to abandon his purpose. Thus the assassins escaped justice that time. But they met their Nemesis later.

Nothing except the possible organization of a vigilance committee was feared by the Plummer gang, and for any man to advocate the organization of such an instrument of justice was to mark him for destruction. Hence, Patrick Ford, who was present at the meeting, and who insisted on action being taken, was listed for death. Ford had opened an additional business in Orofino, and it was known soon after Hildebrandt’s murder that he was going up to Orofino with a party of dancing girls to open a dance hall. This was thought to afford a favorable opportunity to dispose of him, so word was sent out to the “shebang” on the road, to intercept him, and to put a stop to his proposed vigilante activities. But Ford, suspecting their intentions, circled around the place and thus avoided the encounter, which doubtless would have been fatal to him.

Having heard of his escape, Plummer, Charlie Ridgley and Reeves mounted horses and followed on the trail, their route being marked with several robberies. When within a few miles of Orofino, two footmen were espied approaching, one being some distance in advance of the other. As the foremost one came up he was ordered to hold up his hands, a command that was readily complied with. He was searched, but nothing of value was found on his person. They then informed him that he would better move along and get out of the country as soon as possible, for the rough mountains were a poor place for a man who was broke.

By the time this search and colloquy were finished, the second pedestrian had arrived; he also was a Frenchman and proved more profitable than the first, for notwithstanding that he stoutly asserted he had no money, their search revealed a well-filled buckskin purse containing approximately one thousand dollars in gold dust. Jubilant over their success, they dashed wildly into Orofino with the impetuosity of a band of stampeded buffaloes. Reining up in front of Ford’s saloon they dismounted; entering the saloon they demanded the barkeeper to serve them with liquor – Ford being out. After they had sated their thirst they proceeded to demolish the furniture, including the bar fixtures. During the confusion Ford arrived, and with a gun in each hand he ordered them to leave the saloon and town. They backed out of the place, gained their horses and rode to a feed-yard, where Ford soon followed, demanding why they had not left town. This demand was answered with a shot, which precipitated a fight in which Ford was killed and Charley Ridgley was severely wounded. The latter was carried to a friendly ranch near by and given such careful treatment that he eventually recovered.

Plummer now changed his headquarters to Florence, from whence his associates made frequent incursions along the different lines of travel leading to and from that camp.

New discoveries having been made in other sections, many began leaving the older camps. Among these were Plummer, Reeves and Ridgley, the latter having recovered sufficiently from his wounds to accompany them to Elk City, their new field. Here he met a coterie of his former California pals, but he suddenly disappeared and was next heard of in Deer Lodge. The former field of his activities was immediately occupied by others of his ilk equally unscrupulous, some of whose deeds will be recorded later.

continued: (Google Drive)
excerpted from: “Early History of Idaho” (pgs 66-110) by William John McConnell, 1839-1925; Idaho. Legislature
[* Note: Montana was part of Idaho Territory until 1864.]
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Henry Plummer’s Gang of Outlaws Born to Be Bad

September 20, 2015 By Syd Albright Special to the CdA Press

Henry Plummer (1832-1864), leader of “The Innocents” outlaw gang.

Jan. 14, 1864 was a grim day in Virginia City, Mont., but 6,000 spectators loved it. “Three-Fingered Jack,” “Club-Foot George,” “The Kentucky Cannibal” and two others were facing vigilante hangmen. As the box was kicked from under Three-Fingered Jack Gallager’s feet and the rope pulled tight around his neck, Kentucky Cannibal Boone Helm awaited his turn, snarling, “I’ll be in hell with you in a minute!”

It was the end of five of the most vicious desperados of the Old West, where law and order were scarce and vigilantes enforced their own brand of justice.

The five that met their maker that day belonged to the infamous Henry Plummer Gang called “The Innocents” that robbed and killed across Oregon, Idaho and Montana before ending up in Virginia City’s Boot Hill cemetery.

Just four days earlier, Plummer – sheriff of all gold camps southeast of the Bitterroots – and two cohorts met similar fates. Ironically, they were hanged on gallows ordered by Plummer. The three bodies were left hanging overnight. In the morning, only Plummer’s body was placed in a coffin and all three were dumped into shallow graves in Hangman’s Gulch nearby. The gallows are still there.

With the discovery of gold in Idaho and Montana, and the rest of the nation distracted by the Civil War, lawmen were few and the frontier West was fertile ground for Civil War deserters, river pirates, outlaws, gamblers and other unsavory types.

In the Virginia City-Bannock area, the population was as high as 10,000 and needed protection. Finally, conditions became so dangerous that town folks called for an election of a sheriff. Plummer and a butcher named Hank Crawford ran for the job. Crawford won and was soon in a shootout with his rival. Plummer was wounded in the right arm but learned to shoot with his left.

Fearing Plummer’s reputation, Crawford left town, never to return, and Plummer was elected instead. He had the opportunity of becoming “Marshall Dillon” but instead put together his band of thugs. Gold-carrying travelers and prospectors were easy prey.

Henry Plummer was born in Addison, Maine, in 1832 and as a young man followed the gold trail to California. Then he started getting into trouble – even when wearing a badge. While serving as marshal in Nevada City, Calif., and defending a woman from her abusive husband he shot and killed him. He was convicted of second-degree murder and sent to San Quentin. But he won an appeal and was pardoned by the governor due to “poor health.”

Then, while attempting a citizen’s arrest, he killed another man who escaped from San Quentin. Plummer surrendered to police who thought the killing was justified and allowed him to leave California.

More killings followed. He won a shootout in Washington Territory, and then in Bannack, Mont., he killed a friend named Jack Cleveland over Electa Bryan, a woman they both wanted to marry. It happened in a crowded saloon, with witnesses calling it self-defense.

One of Plummer’s gang was Club-Foot George Lane who came from Massachusetts, lured west by gold like so many others before him. A shoemaker by trade, he was accused of horse rustling in Lewiston. He turned himself in to the commander at Fort Lapwai, who sentenced him to work building roads. In the fall of 1863, he was again accused of stealing horses and skipped to Virginia City, where he worked mending harnesses and repairing boots.

After he heard about the new vigilante group, he warned Sheriff Plummer. When the vigilantes learned about that, they considered him a spy for the Innocents and put him on their outlaw list.

Also on the list was Three-Fingered Jack Gallager, a New Yorker who drifted west, made crime his calling and in a Montana saloon, unwittingly predicted his own demise. His dark trail started in Denver in 1863 where he killed a man. Next stop was Virginia City, where Henry Plummer pinned a deputy sheriff badge on him and made him part of the Innocents gang.

“Three-Fingered” Jack Gallager’s gravesite, Virginia City, MT.

Another of Plummer’s deputies was a decent man named Donald H. Dillingham. When he learned that the Innocents were plotting robbery, he forewarned the victims. When that was discovered, other deputies killed him on Main Street in front of witnesses.

None of the killers were convicted. That riled the community and gave birth to a vigilante committee. Before 1863 ended, the vigilantes had executed about 20 of Plummer’s outlaws and driven many more from the town.

Sitting in a saloon drinking and playing faro, Three-Fingered Jack said, “While we are here betting, those vigilante sons of bitches are passing sentence on us.”

That same night, the vigilantes met secretly to try the men on their list, agreeing unanimously that there would be only one sentence: Death.

The next morning, the vigilantes fulfilled Three-Fingered Jack’s prediction by rounding up the nicknamed trio along with two others – Frank Parish and Hayes (Haze) Lyons. All five were marched down the street to the unfinished Virginia City Hotel on Wallace Street and lined up underneath a supporting beam. Ropes with a hangman noose were thrown over the beam and boxes placed on the floor.

Club-Foot was the first to be hanged. Before they could kick the box out from under him however, he spotted a friend in the audience, and yelled “Goodbye old fellow, I’m gone,” and jumped off the box to his death.

Forty-three years later, his bones were dug up and his club foot is now on display under glass in the Thompson Hickman Museum in Virginia City.

“Club-Foot” George Lane’s preserved foot now in a museum.

The worst of the Innocents Gang was probably Boone Helm, who had no qualms about eating his companions when it meant his survival. One account described him “by birth and breeding, low, coarse, cruel, animal-like and utterly depraved, and for him no name but ruffian can fitly apply.”

“Kentucky Cannibal” Boone Helm (1828-1864)

Born in Kentucky, he too headed west for the gold, and left a trail of killings in California and Oregon before ending up with Plummer’s killers. He was known for his physical strength, being quarrelsome and having a violent temper.

He traveled with a group of men from The Dalles to Fort Hall, Idaho. In the winter of 1853, they ran into exceptionally cold weather in the mountains of eastern Oregon and were attacked by Indians but survived. By the time they reached Soda Springs on the Bear River, they ran out of food and were forced to eat their horses.

Helm and a man named Burton were stronger than the rest and headed together for Fort Hall. Along the way, Burton gave out and was left at an abandoned cabin. Helm continued but found the old fort abandoned for the winter and no food. He returned to Burton in time to be there when his companion shot himself.

Writer Emerson Hough in 1905 wrote, “He stayed on at this spot, and, like a hyena, preyed upon the dead body of his companion. He ate one leg of the body, and then, wrapping up the other in a piece of old shirt, threw it across his shoulder and started on further east.

“He had, before this on the march, declared to the party that he had practiced cannibalism at an earlier time, and proposed to do so again if it became necessary.”

In the years that followed, Helm robbed and killed his way across Utah, California, Oregon and British Columbia. In the fall of 1862, he was on the Fraser River in B.C. – again facing starvation in the wilderness.

“Once more, he was guilty of eating the body of his companion, whom he is supposed to have slain,” Hough wrote. Canadian authorities shipped Helm to Portland where he was locked up and brought to trial for killing a man called Dutch Fred some time back. All the witnesses however had disappeared and again he escaped justice.

But after he joined Plummer in Montana, his days were numbered. In the vigilante court, he kissed the Bible and swore he never killed anyone in his life.

The next day as 6,000 watched, he hollered, “Every man for his principles! Hurrah for Jeff Davis! Let ‘er rip!” Then, like Club-Foot George before him, he jumped off the hangman’s box…

Cannibal Boone Helm’s final moments

“Boone Helm looked around at his friends placed for death, and told (Three-Fingered) Jack to ‘stop making such a fuss,'” according to one account. “‘There’s no use being afraid to die,’ said he; and indeed there probably never lived a man more actually devoid of all sense of fear. He valued neither the life of others nor his own. He saw that the end had come, and was careless about the rest…”

Facing the noose, he seemed more concerned about a sore finger than the hangman.

Syd Albright is a writer and journalist living in Post Falls.

source: (pay wall) CdA Press
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The Plummer gang

Between October and December 1863, the rate of robberies and murders in and around Alder Gulch increased significantly, and the citizens of Virginia City grew increasingly suspicious of Sheriff Henry Plummer and his associates.

Notable criminal acts by alleged members of the Plummer gang included:

* On October 13, 1863, Lloyd Magruder was killed by road agent Chris Lowrie. Magruder was an Idaho merchant leaving Virginia City with $12,000 in gold dust from goods he had sold there. Several of the men he hired to accompany him back to Lewiston, Idaho were criminals. Four other men in his party were also murdered in camp – Charlie Allen, Robert Chalmers, Horace Chalmers and William Phillips – by Lowrie, Doc Howard, Jem Romaine and William Page.

* On October 26, 1863, the Peabody and Caldwell’s stage was robbed between the Rattlesnake Ranch and Bannack by two road agents believed to be Frank Parish and George Ives. Bill Bunton, the owner of the Rattlesnake Ranch who joined the stage at the ranch, was also complicit in the robbery. The road agents netted $2,800 in gold from the passengers and threatened them all with death if they talked about the robbery.

* On November 13, 1863, a teenage Henry Tilden was hired by Wilbur Sanders and Sidney Edgerton to locate and corral some horses owned by the two men. Near Horse Prairie, Tilden was confronted by three armed road agents. He was carrying very little money and was allowed to depart unmolested, but was warned that if he talked about whom he’d seen, he would be killed. He told Hattie Sanders, Wilbur’s wife, and Sidney Edgerton that he had recognized one of the road agents as Sheriff Henry Plummer. Although Tilden’s account was dismissed because of general respect for Plummer, suspicion in the region increased that Plummer was the leader of a gang of road agents.

* On November 22, 1863, the A.J. Oliver stage was robbed on its way from Virginia City to Bannack by road agents George Ives, “Whiskey Bill” Graves, and Bob Zachary. The robbery netted less than $1,000 in gold and treasury notes. One of the victims, Leroy Southmayd, reported the robbery and identified the road agents to Bannack sheriff Henry Plummer. Members of Plummer’s gang confronted Southmayd on his return trip to Virginia City, but Southmayd was cunning enough to avoid injury or death.

* In November 1863, Conrad Kohrs traveled to Bannack from Deer Lodge, Montana with $5,000 in gold dust to buy cattle. After talking with Sheriff Plummer in Bannack, Kohrs worried about the risk of robbery on his return to Deer Lodge. While his group was camped overnight, his associates found road agents George Ives and “Dutch John” Wagner surveying the camp, and armed with shotguns. A day or two later, Kohrs was riding on horseback to Deer Lodge when Ives and Wagner gave chase. As Kohrs’s horse proved the faster, Kohrs evaded confrontation and reached the safety of Deer Lodge.

* In early December 1863, a three-wagon freight outfit organized by Milton S. Moody was going from Virginia City to Salt Lake City. Among the seven passengers was John Bozeman. It was carrying $80,000 in gold dust and $1,500 in treasury notes. While the outfit was camped on Blacktail Deer Creek, road agents “Dutch John” Wagner and Steve Marshland entered the camp, armed and ready to rob the pack train. Members of the camp had armed themselves well, and Wagner and Marshland were able to escape by claiming they were just looking for lost horses. Two days later, Wagner and Marshland were both wounded in an unsuccessful attempt to rob the train as it crossed the Continental Divide at Rock Creek.

* On December 8, 1863, Anton Holter, who was taking oxen to sell in Virginia City, survived an attempted robbery and murder. When road agents George Ives and Aleck Carter, whom Holter recognized, discovered Holter was not carrying any significant wealth, they tried to shoot him. He avoided being shot and escaped into the brush.

At the time Bannack and Virginia City, Montana were part of a remote region of the Idaho Territory; there was no formal law enforcement or justice system for the area. Some residents suspected that Plummer’s road agent gang was responsible for numerous robberies, attempted robberies, murders and attempted murders in and around Alder Gulch in October–December 1863.

From December 19 to 21, 1863, a public trial was held in Virginia City by a miners’ court for George Ives, the suspected murderer of Nicholas Tiebolt, a young Dutch immigrant. Hundreds of miners from around the area attended the three-day outdoor trial. George Ives was prosecuted by Wilbur F. Sanders, convicted, and hanged on December 21, 1863.

On December 23, 1863, two days after the Ives trial, leading citizens of Virginia City and Bannack formed the Vigilance Committee of Alder Gulch in Virginia City. They included five Virginia City residents, led by Wilbur F. Sanders, and including Major Alvin W. Brockie, John Nye, Captain Nick D. Wall, and Paris Pfouts. Between January 4 and February 3, 1864, the vigilantes arrested and summarily executed at least 20 alleged members of Plummer’s gang.

Shortly after its formation, the Vigilance Committee dispatched a posse of men to search for Aleck Carter, “Whiskey Bill” Graves, and Bill Bunton, known associates of George Ives. The posse was led by vigilante Captain James Williams, the man who had investigated the Nicolas Tiebolt murder. Near the Rattlesnake Ranch on the Ruby River, the posse located “Erastus Red” Yeager and George Brown, both suspected road agents. While traveling under guard back to Virginia City, Yeager made a complete confession, naming the majority of the road agents in Plummer’s gang, and Henry Plummer. The posse found Yeager and Brown to be guilty and hanged them from a cottonwood tree on the Lorrain’s Ranch on the Ruby River.

On January 6, 1864, vigilante Captain Nick Wall and Ben Peabody captured “Dutch John” Wagner, a road agent wounded in the Moody robbery, on the Salt Lake City trail. The vigilantes transported Wagner to Bannack, where he was hanged on January 11, 1864. By this time, Yeager’s confession had mobilized vigilantes against Plummer and his key associates, deputies Buck Stinson and Ned Ray. Plummer, Stinson, and Ray were arrested on the morning of January 10, 1864, and summarily hanged.

The two youngest members of the gang were said to be spared. One was sent back to Bannack to tell the rest to get out of the area, and the other was sent ahead to Lewiston, Idaho to warn gang members to leave that town. (Lewiston was the connection from the Territory to the world, as it had river steamboats that traveled to the coast at Astoria, Oregon via the Snake and Columbia rivers.) Plummer was known to have traveled to Lewiston during the time when he was an elected official in Bannack. The hotel registry records with his signature during this period have been preserved. The large-scale robberies of gold shipments by gangs ended with Plummer’s and the alleged gang members’ deaths. Gang member Clubfoot George was hanged at about the same time with Plummer.

source: Wikipedia
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Henry Plummer and the Montana Vigilantes

Those prospectors were striking it rich, and that $10 million in gold that came out of the ground in and around Virginia City in 1863 was enough to set most men up for life.

It’s no surprise then that highway men rose up in the area to take that gold off their hands. Robberies to and from the finds around Bannack, Virginia City, and the other upstart mining communities increased markedly in 1863, many of them resulting in murders.

What point was there in breaking your back in the mines if all you worked for could be taken at gunpoint? Something would have to be done to stop this, and if the local law couldn’t do it, then Montana’s citizens would take matters into their own hands, giving rise to the vigilantes.

As robberies continued and increased many in the communities began to suspect the attacks were planned and coordinated. And soon the finger was pointed at Bannack’s very own sheriff, Henry Plummer.

continued: excerpt from the book Priests and Prospectors: A History of Montana, Volume II, by Greg Strandberg
[Note: This is a well written story, some details differ a little.]
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Henry Plummer

The lynching of sheriff Henry Plummer poses one of the most haunting mysteries of the Old West. The story is well-known: in 1863, miners at the booming gold camp of Bannack (then in Idaho Territory, now in Montana) elected a sheriff. The soft-spoken young Easterner proved to be an efficient lawman, yet in 1864 he was lynched by vigilantes. Their apologist Thomas Dimsdale explained to the populace that the sheriff had been a ‘very demon’ who directed a band guilty of murdering more than 100 citizens.

The aunt of vigilante prosecutor Wilbur Sanders described the outlaw band’s countless atrocities: ‘The sheriff…was the captain,’ Mary Edgerton wrote, and ‘the victims were…murdered and robbed and then their bodies…cut into pieces and put under the ice, others burned and others buried.’ But, she continued, ‘these murders had not been discovered by the people here.’ Mrs. Edgerton was describing the mutilation of corpses that had never been discovered! Despite the absence of actual bodies and the vigilantes’ failure to so much as question the man hanged for directing the alleged mayhem, Dimsdale branded Plummer a murderous outlaw chief. (The June 1992 issue of Wild West Magazine includes a more traditional account of Plummer.)

Posterity has expressed little concern that the accused sheriff received no trial. Instead, historians have blithely accepted the story given out by the very men who plotted and carried out Plummer’s murder. Research of the past three decades, however, suggests that the Montana vigilantes may well have hanged an innocent man.

In Dimsdale’s 1866 book, The Vigilantes of Montana, he outlined Plummer’s supposed record of crime. It is understandable that posterity would trust Dimsdale; he was a pious teacher and editor. In addition, historians thought that Dimsdale’s name was not on the vigilante roll and therefore naively believed his claim that his book was impartial. And finally, criticism aimed at the vigilantes had been uniformly squelched. There is the glaring example of preacher’s son Bill Hunter, who expressed his outrage by shouting on a mining camp street that pro-vigilantes were ’stranglers.’ Weeks later, Hunter’s frozen corpse was found dangling from the limb of a cottonwood tree.

Despite such warnings to vigilante critics, a few rumblings of dissent did emerge, rumblings that should have raised doubt about the vigilantes’ version of events at Bannack. For example, in 1864 a Sacramento Union correspondent hinted that the gang’s high degree of organization and its atrocities may have been exaggerations. The number of murders, the correspondent suggested, could be fewer than 100, perhaps no more than 10. Decades later, Judge Lew L. Callaway (a friend and admirer of vigilante captain James Williams) admitted that at the time of the lynchings, ‘Some good people considered the vigilantes themselves outlaws.’ As for the true character of the maligned Plummer, Judge Frank Woody described him as ‘the last man that one would take to be a highwayman.’

William Henry Plummer (originally spelled Plumer) was born in 1832 in Washington County, Maine, the youngest child of a prominent pioneer family. His father, older brother and sister’s husband were all sea captains, but the youngest son – intelligent, good-looking, and of slight build – had consumption and could not carry on the seagoing tradition. Thus his parents provided him with what was described as ‘a good early education’ in a village near the family farm. But apparently William Henry shared the adventuresome spirit that had lured his sailing ancestors to such exotic spots as the Canary Islands. In 1851 the 19-year-old caught the California gold fever and on April 27 sailed from New York aboard the U.S. mail ship Illinois. Passengers debarked at Aspinwall, Panama, and by mule train crossed to Panama City to board a ‘floating palace’ named Golden Gate. At precisely midnight on May 21, they steamed into San Francisco. Plummer’s coast-to-coast trip to the gold fields took only 24 days.

His funds depleted, the eager youth had to take a job in a book store, but after a year he had saved enough to buy ranch and mine in Nevada County (about 150 miles northeast of San Francisco). A year later, he traded mine shares for a business in the county seat, and fellow merchants who were impressed by his business integrity persuaded him to run for the position of town marshal and city manager. Since Nevada City was at the time the third largest settlement in California, the job would offer state prominence.

In an election held in May 1856, Plummer won by the narrowest of margins, but it did not take the genteel young merchant long to earn the reputation of a dutiful marshal. ‘He was not only prompt and energetic,’ citizens noted, but ‘when opposed in the performance of his official duties, he became as bold and determined as a lion.’ Among the daring manhunts that kept him constantly in the public eye was his pursuit of Jim Webster, a murder suspect who was terrorizing two counties. ‘Our efficient city Marshal,’ the local newspaper crowed, found Webster and companion ‘asleep in bed, with their pistols under their heads. The pistols were quietly removed and the two…taken into custody.’

In 1857 Plummer handily won re-election. Recognizing the colorful 24-year-old as a rising star, Democrats chose him to run for the state assembly. Considered a shoo-in, he seemed destined to become the youngest man sent to the California Legislature. But in a twist of fate, the Democrats argued and split, one faction launching a devastating smear campaign against the other. Plummer went down to humiliating defeat.

Despite his blackened name, Plummer’s efficiency and charisma might have revived his faltering career had he not become involved in the marital problems of John and Lucy Vedder. John was an inept gambler who not only abused his wife but also at times abandoned her and their sickly daughter. Desperate because he could not find housing in the overcrowded town, John heard that residents in trouble could ‘go to Mr. Plummer…for advice.’ After listening to John’s plea, Plummer vacated his own home and allowed the Vedders to rent it. Soon after, a passing pedestrian heard cries coming from the house, rushed to the door, and saw John beating Lucy. Noting that he was observed, John shouted for the intruder to leave or he would kill him. On another occasion, a neighbor reported watching John knock Lucy to the floor and then ‘pinch her nose until she could scarcely get her breath.’

When the observers notified Plummer of this battery, he provided Lucy with a police guard and also sent a lawyer to counsel her. Although John had once held a knife to Lucy’s throat and demanded that she leave him, he now became livid when she asked the lawyer to arrange a divorce. Ranting that he would kill the marshal, John scurried from store to store asking to borrow a gun. Again, citizens notified Plummer, who confronted the raving husband, assuring him that he was a friend who ‘would not resent it’ even if John ’should spit in his face.’ This unexpected pacifism brought a temporary truce.

On the night Lucy was to catch the departing 2 a.m. stage, Plummer sent her usual guard and at midnight arrived to assume the duty himself. As Plummer sat by the stove watching Lucy pack, John tiptoed up the back stairs, swung open the door, and pointed a pistol at him. ‘Your time is come,’ the gambler said and quickly fired twice. Both shots missed, but when Plummer fired back, he was right on target. Mortally wounded, John fled down the stairs, collapsed, and drew his final breath, and Lucy dashed into the street crying hysterically that the marshal had killed her husband.

After two trials, a jury – which concluded that a marshal who would send a lawyer to break up a marriage must be a seducer – found the defendant guilty of murder in the second degree; the judge pronounced a sentence of 10 years in San Quentin. During the trials, Plummer had been ill with consumption, and under inadequate prison care, his condition rapidly deteriorated. But while he lay in the prison sick ward on the verge of death, a former policeman was hurrying to Sacramento with a petition for the governor. ‘Henry Plummer,’ the document read, ‘is a young man having an excellent character.’ This protest of Plummer’s innocence bore signatures of more than 100 officials of two counties. Governor John Weller immediately granted a pardon, but instead of exonerating Plummer, he chose to cite the less controversial grounds of ‘imminent dangers of death from Consumption.’

The disgraced and ailing ex-lawman returned to Nevada City, gradually recuperated, and then resumed mining. Though he did his best to behave like a miner – jingling ore samples in his pockets and supervising work at his claims – he could not shake his lawman ways. First, he made a successful citizen’s arrest of San Quentin escapee ‘Ten Year’ Smith, and later attempted an arrest of escapee ‘Buckskin Bill’ Riley. When Riley whipped out his bowie knife and slashed the ex-marshal across the forehead, Plummer shot his assailant, killing him instantly. Immediately, Plummer surrendered himself to police, who locked him in a cell and called a surgeon to suture the gaping wound. Police agreed that Plummer had acted in self-defense, but fearing that his prison record would prevent a fair trial, counseled him to leave the area and then allowed him to walk away from the jail.

Eventually Plummer followed the gold stampede trail to Washington Territory. Although he associated with other fugitives from justice, he continued to behave like a peace officer. In the streets of Lewiston, he dissolved a lynch mob with an eloquent address. ‘These men may be guilty of the crime of murder,’ he pled, ‘but we shall not be less guilty if we…put them to death other than by due process of law.’ This heroic effort on behalf of law and order put Plummer in bad stead with the pro-vigilante factions always present in the mining camps.

Soon after, saloonkeeper Patrick Ford ejected Plummer and companions from Ford’s Oro Fino dance hall, followed the men to the stable, and fired at them with two guns. In return fire, Plummer killed Ford, and the dead man’s Irish compatriots raised a mob bent on lynching Plummer. He fled to the eastern side of the Bitterroot Range, but a Sacramento Union correspondent residing in the area reported that ‘all unite in bearing testimony that Plumer acted on the defensive.’

After this third instance in which he had been forced to kill a man in order to stay alive, Plummer felt too disheartened to try to rebuild a career in the West, and decided to return to Maine. While he was at Fort Benton (head of navigation on the Missouri River) waiting for a steamer, the agent of the government farm on the Sun River rushed into the fort, begging for volunteers to defend his family against an anticipated Indian attack on the small stockade. Plummer agreed to ride back to Sun River with agent James Vail, as did Jack Cleveland, a rowdy horse trader who had trailed Plummer all the way from California. During his pursuit, Cleveland had loaded up on whiskey and then boasted at the saloons that he was the great hunter on the trail of his ‘meat,’ Henry Plummer. Cleveland kept from his audiences the information that he had gotten into trouble in California and that his pursuing law officer had been none other than Nevada City’s former marshal, Henry Plummer.

Within the stake walls of the small stockade set on the banks of the Sun River, both Cleveland and Plummer fell desperately in love with Electa Bryan, the delicate and pretty sister-in-law of Vail. Inspired by Electa’s returned love for him, Plummer rekindled his dream for a lofty career on the frontier. In an autumn courtship conducted alongside the peaceful river mirroring massive, yellow-leaved cottonwoods, Plummer promised that in the spring he would return to marry Electa. When he bid his betrothed farewell to head to Bannack, the latest gold discovery site, it was with the resentful Cleveland riding alongside.

Bolstered by whiskey courage, Cleveland finally put his long-awaited plan into effect on January 14, 1863. As Plummer sat warming himself at the fire in Bannack’s Goodrich Hotel saloon, the boisterous horse trader attempted to provoke a shootout. Even after Plummer fired a warning shot into the saloon ceiling, Cleveland would not back down. Twice he went for his revolver, and twice–before he could get off a shot – he took a ball from Plummer’s pistol. Cleveland died of his wounds, but following the code of justice at the mines (that self-defense was judged according to who first went for a weapon) a miners’ jury ‘honorably acquitted’ Plummer.

In May 1863, the same miners elected Plummer the sheriff of Bannack and all surrounding mines. The young man who now became the law at the new mines had received a majority that far surpassed that of any other official. ‘No man,’ a Sacramento Union reporter stated,’stands higher in the estimation of the community than Henry Plummer.’

The newly elected sheriff organized a deputy network throughout the camps and triumphantly rode to Sun River for a June wedding. After he had settled his bride into their log home at Bannack, he convinced citizens of the need for a detention facility, to end the current practice of immediate hangings. With subscriptions of $2.50, which Plummer personally collected, he constructed the first jail in what is now Montana. To his bitter political enemy Nathaniel Langford, Plummer confided, ‘Now that I am married and have something to live for, and hold an official position, I will show you that I can be a good man among good men.’ Even Langford conceded that Plummer had ‘wonderful executive ability’ and ‘was oftener applied to for counsel… than any other resident.’ Constituents praised the sheriff’s ‘exhaustive efforts’ to protect the camps, commenting that ‘crime in the area seemed to be played out.’ And the Union League (a Bannack political group) voted unanimously to recommend Plummer as a deputy U.S. marshal.

The Plummer depicted in early diaries and journals is a far cry from a bloodthirsty demon addicted to robbery and mayhem. Instead, pioneers recall seeing the ‘genteel-mannered’ peace officer, fastidiously neat in his elegant overcoat, patrolling Bannack’s streets at dawn.

But during the final months of 1863, a rash of crime swept the Bannack and Alder Gulch mines – not the alleged 100 murders and robberies, but four alarming occurrences: a murder, two stage robberies and the attempted robbery of a freight caravan. Although Plummer increased his efforts to offer protection, while he was escorting a freighting party to Fort Benton, pro-vigilante forces organized. In an ensuing hanging spree that lasted a month, vigilantes eradicated 21 men suspected of belonging to an outlaw gang. Among the untried victims was Plummer himself, who had publicly stated that he intended to put a stop to the lynchings.

Thus in 1864 a popularly elected law officer in a U.S. territory was, without due process of law, deprived of his inalienable right to life. The matter should not be taken lightly, for there is not a single shred of evidence linking Plummer to any crime committed at Bannack or Alder Gulch. Some historians now regard the rumored outlaw gang as mere myth. On the mining frontier, rumors of huge bands – complete with passwords, spy networks and codes for marking targeted coaches – were rife. In Vigilante Days and Ways, Langford wrote that Plummer had previously headed an outlaw band in Lewiston for three years. In fact, Plummer was residing in California at the time, and preserved documents suggest Plummer spent just three weeks in the Lewiston area.

As for the Bannack outlaw gang, vigilantes claimed that it was ‘the most perfect organization in the West.’ Yet study of the four aforementioned crimes in Plummer’s jurisdiction reveals that there was no connection between them, nor any earmarks of an outlaw organization. The two stages robbed were not even carrying gold shipments, while the botched robbery of the caravan transporting over $75,000 in gold dust was carried out by only two men, one timid and the other inept.

The method that vigilantes used to confirm that local outlaws had united into a fearsome gang was to loop a noose about the neck of suspect ‘Long John’ Franck and repeatedly hoist him until the nearly strangled man gasped that there was indeed a gang. But when Long John attempted to lead vigilantes to gang headquarters, he came up empty-handed. Erastus Yeager, another suspect put under similar duress, supposedly dictated to a vigilante scribe the names of the gang members. Though vigilantes claimed that this dictated membership roll had guided their executions, the authenticity of Yeager’s list is doubtful for several reasons. For one thing, none of the four copies of the list agree with each other. And oddly enough, the name of Deputy John Gallagher, lynched at Virginia City, does not appear on any of the four lists.

In addition to the suspicion aroused by the list discrepancies, the four bungled crimes, the forced confessions, and the lack of connection between the four crimes is the sobering fact that during their entire spree, the vigilantes never once encountered the resistance of the West’s most ‘perfectly organized’ gang. Instead, their own heavily armed band relentlessly tracked the victims through deep snows, victims who were too crippled and ill to walk to the shadowy cottonwood limb or the ominous pole slanted across a corral.

On January 10, 1864, a mob armed with revolvers, rifles and shotguns surrounded the ailing Plummer’s cabin and lured him from his sickbed by threatening to lynch a robbery suspect in custody. Unarmed, Plummer stepped outside and argued for the suspect’s right to a trial, but vigilantes surrounded him and marched him to the pine gallows up the gulch. They provided no drop, but instead bound his hands, slipped a noose over his head, and gradually hoisted him. In all probability, the peace officer who slowly strangled to death on that moonless winter night led no outlaw band, but instead had intentions of stemming the rise of vigilantism in Montana Territory.

Editor’s note: Sheriff Henry Plummer, after 129 years, finally received due process of law. On May 7, 1993, a posthumous trial (Montana’s Twin Bridges Public Schools initiated the event) was held in the Virginia City, Mont., courthouse. The 12 registered voters on the jury were split 6-6 on the verdict, which led Judge Barbara Brook to declare a mistrial. Had Plummer been alive he would have been freed and not tried again.

source: Wild West History 6/12/2006
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Henry Plummer’s scaffold

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Vigilantes Series

Henry Plummer (Vigilantes part 1)

Orlando “Rube” Robbins (Vigilantes part 2)

Idaho Vigilance Committees (Vigilantes part 3)

Dave Updyke – First Sheriff of Ada County (part 4)

page updated July 11, 2020