Frontiersman Granville Stuart once repaired it.

The notorious Montana Vigilantes hanged Sheriff Henry Plummer in the mining town of Bannack on January 10, 1864, either because he secretly led a gang of road agents or for largely political reasons, depending on whose history one reads. The debate over whether the sheriff was good and hanged unjustly or bad and got his just desserts is far from over. What is certain is that after his election as sheriff in May 1863, Plummer patrolled Bannack’s dusty streets with a double-barreled shotgun cradled over his left forearm. There is good reason he relied on that scattergun; his hands were in bad shape from several earlier incidents and accidents. Plummer’s stint as sheriff was cut short on the gallows, but his name lives on in Montana— as does his shotgun.

Back in September 1857, when he served as town marshal in Nevada City, Calif., Plummer (originally spelled Plumer) was wounded in a lethal gunfight with John Vedder, an abusive husband whose wife had turned to Plummer for help and perhaps more. Convicted of second-degree murder, Plummer was sentenced to 10 years at San Quentin State Prison. According to his registration entry, his left forefinger was scarred and the other three fingers on that hand were permanently closed from a cut; most likely the ligaments had been severed, and he could not open that hand fully. Plummer did not remain in prison long. Governor John Weller soon pardoned him, as the prisoner was diagnosed with consumption and various officials had vouched for his good character. Back in Nevada City, Plummer recovered from his illness, but he broke the little finger of his left hand in an accident at the Melodeon Theater.

Prevented by his injuries from shooting a pistol left-handed, Plummer began using a double-barreled shotgun, laying it over his left arm and firing it with his right hand. Not that he couldn’t handle a six-shooter with that right hand. He demonstrated that on January 14, 1863, at Bannack’s Goodrich Hotel saloon when he beat a well-lubricated pest named Jack Cleveland to the draw and put a bullet in him. “You won’t shoot me while I’m down will you?” the wounded Cleveland asked from where he lay on the floor. “No, get up,” Plummer said. As Cleveland groped for his gun, Plummer finished him off. The dead man had drawn first that day, and a miners’ jury “honorably acquitted” Plummer.

Plummer also quarreled several times with Hank Crawford, a butcher shop owner who became sheriff. The quarrels were over guns, horses and alleged insults, and Bannack didn’t seem big enough for both men. Crawford shied away from a direct confrontation with guns or fists. But one day he saw Plummer on the street, shotgun resting on a knee, and fired his rifle at him from hiding. The bullet shattered Plummer’s right elbow, forearm and wrist. Crawford apparently decided not to wait around for his enemy’s shooting hand to get well. The sheriff turned in his badge and left Bannack in mid-March 1863.

Slightly more than two months later, area miners elected Plummer sheriff. His right hand must have recovered sufficiently for him to accept the position; at the very least Plummer must have felt confident enough to handle any necessary shooting with his trusty double-barrel.

While Plummer was popular among folks in the mining districts, crime picked up in the later months of 1863, and leading citizens in Bannack suspected Plummer of being the area’s bandit chief. On a cold Sunday evening, January 10, 1864, the Montana Vigilantes strung up Plummer and two deputies also deemed “outlaws.” Bill Goodrich, the hotel owner, went to Plummer’s room in back of Chrisman’s store and claimed the dead sheriff’s shotgun for payment of Plummer’s $275 hotel bill. “The gun is mine!” he supposedly yelled. “I mean to keep it.”

News of Plummer’s shotgun surfaced in 1896, when the Jefferson County Sentinel of Boulder, Mont., reported the weapon was in the collection of a Mrs. T.E. (Francis) Kleinschmidt in Helena. Kleinschmidt said that during a hunting excursion she had encountered a prospector, who shared the history of the gun and then gave it to her when she took an interest in it. The shotgun, the story went, once belonged to an English count, fell into the hands of a freighter, was stolen during a holdup by hard case Charley Forbes and then somehow transferred from Forbes to Plummer. The shotgun had a walnut stock and fine engraving on the locks. Someone, perhaps Forbes, had cut down the barrels from the original length.

In September 1862, framed frontiersmen brothers Granville and James Stuart met Plummer on the trail. In a September 20 diary entry, James wrote: “Granville and Reece Anderson mended Plummer’s double-barreled shotgun, which he had broken off at the grip coming through the timber from Elk City. Reece forged four strips of iron about 5/8 inches wide and 3 1/2 inches long, and Granville set them into the gunstock on top and bottom of the grip and screwed them down solid so that the gun stock was stronger than before it was broken.”

At some point, the shotgun had come into the possession of General Charles S. Warren, who once lived in Butte, Mont., but was living in Spokane, Wash., in 1896. Frances Kleinschmidt wrote Warren for any information he might have. He replied in a letter:

Dear Madame: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your valued favor and in reply wish to say that the gun you speak of came down as an heirloom from my predecessor in office, Wesley W. Jones. This gun originally belonged to Henry Plummer, and my recollection is that it was taken or stolen by him or someone else from Cannon A. Rubaus, who, from my information, was a freighter.

After the death of Plummer, or rather after the hanging of Plummer, one of the Vigilantes took this gun and presented it to W.W. Jones at the time of his election as sheriff of Deer Lodge County in 1869.

I remember of giving the gun to Butler and Hughes, who were prospectors. I shot it off twice, and it kicked so badly that I had no further use for it. [Earlier] Mr. Jones, as sheriff of Deer Lodge County, carried it during his term of office and gave it to me; such, so far as I know, is the history of this weapon. It had passed entirely beyond my recollection, and your letter, in a measure, refreshed my memory to the extent above indicated.

I might add that I know who presented this gun to W.W. Jones. He is now a prominent citizen of Montana, but I do not feel at liberty to give his name.

Exactly what happened to the piece after Kleinschmidt acquired it is murky at best, but about 1940 it resurfaced in Butte. A man, possibly a patient paying for treatment, gave the gun to a Dr. Harvey L. Casebeer. After the doctor died in a car accident in 1957, the shotgun passed down to his son, Charles, who became a well-known refractive surgeon. Casebeer still owns the shotgun, though he has expressed interest in selling it. It is a percussion shotgun, most likely manufactured about 1855 by W & C Scott & Son of London (no records exist on that company’s guns prior to 1912). The barrels are 31 inches, and the locks are indeed engraved. Recent close-up photos provided by Casebeer bear testimony to the repairs described by James Stuart. The metal straps and leather binding around the broken grip are clearly visible.

 

Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here