Montana’s Righteous Hangmen: The Vigilantes in Action, by Lew. L. Callaway (ed. by Lew. L. Callaway, Jr.), Univ. of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1997, $21.95 paper.
After gold was discovered at Bannack in 1862 and Alder Gulch (Virginia City) in 1863, thieves and murderers infested those communities in what was soon to become Montana Territory (created on May 26, 1864). When the crime became too much for the law-abiding citizens, a bunch of those citizens formed what became known as the Montana Vigilantes. A lot of badmen, including Sheriff Henry Plummer (the secret head of a well-organized gang of road agents), were hanged, and law and order was established. In any case, that’s the traditional story of what happened. In recent years, some historians have challenged the facts, saying that Plummer wasn’t really so bad, that there really wasn’t so much crime, and that the vigilantes weren’t really so good. Author Lew L. Callaway, who was 2 years old when he came to Montana Territory in 1871 and who served as chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court from 1922 to 1935, defends Executive Officer James Williams and the other Montana Vigilantes. Judge Callaway’s son, a former publisher of Newsweek, edited the book, which came out in hardback in 1982. Whether or not you agree that the Montana Vigilantes were “righteous hangmen,” you can’t help but agree that the 19th-century gold-seeking days in Montana were full of drama. Judge Callaway, who came to know Williams well, captures much of that drama.