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.
This article was written by R.E. Mather and R.E. Boswell and originally appeared in the August 1993 issue of Wild West magazine.
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