If you travel to southwestern Montana’s “Gold Country,” you will hear a name from the 1860s still discussed passionately—Henry Plummer. The sheriff of Bannack was hanged upon his own gallows on January 10, 1864. What do we really know for sure about Henry Plummer? Not as much as we should.
Plummer spelled his own name Plumer (with one “m”), not Plummer, as has come down to us in all the histories. However, we defer to the accepted spelling, rather than the correct one. He was originally from Maine and came to the gold fields of what would become Montana via Nevada and California. He had once served as sheriff in Nevada City, Calif., but while in California, he had been involved in at least two killings, a horse theft and escapades with prostitutes and another man’s wife. He went to jail but broke out and traveled to the Northwest—eventually arriving in Bannack. He married Electra Bryan, a woman of good upbringing, who suspected nothing of his rough and rowdy past. He was acknowledged to be a man of handsome appearance (no known photo exists; the 2005 drawing at left was based on descriptions of Plummer), gentlemanly deportment and a crack shot to boot. In Bannack he was elected sheriff, but because he was believed to be the leader of a gang of murderous road agents, he was hanged by the local vigilantes. Whether that was a good deed or bad one has been much debated.
Between 1861 and 1864, the roads into and out of the mining camps of Idaho and Montana were said to be plagued by robberies and vicious murders—including the ax-murder of Lloyd Magruder, a candidate for territorial representative. The highway leading down to Lewiston (in present-day Idaho) reportedly ran red with blood. Any man arrested as a road agent, however, boldly declared, “I am innocent.” Thus was born the belief that an outlaw syndicate called the Innocents was being masterminded by an intelligent leader who knew whenever a rich shipment of gold was leaving Bannock. Sheriff Plummer came under strong suspicions.
Was Plummer really the bandit sheriff? Nearly every prominent founder of the state of Montana thought so. Even today the vast majority of people living in southwestern Montana believe that Plummer was guilty as charged. His past history of crime, his cleverness, his disregard for the mores of civilized society, his many acquaintances of dubious character and the eventual testimony of his so-called partners in crime all helped put the rope around the sheriff’s neck. After Plummer’s death, murders in the area reportedly tapered off dramatically. Most of Plummer’s contemporaries (Thomas Dimsdale’s series of articles written in 1865 for the Montana Post made the vigilantes out to be heroes) and most historians that followed agreed that the sheriff got what was coming to him. There were always some, however, who believed that Montana’s vigilantes hanged an innocent man. If he was the “bandit king,” why did none of his close friends or his wife have any clue of his illicit activities, and where was the gold he had accumulated? And whatever happened to that notorious list of the Innocents and their leaders that the Vigilance Committee used as evidence to hang Plummer?
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the pro-Plummer story was strongly bolstered by R.E. Mather and F.E. Boswell in books— Hanging the Sheriff: A Biography of Henry Plummer; Gold Camp Desperadoes:Violence, Crime, and Punishment on the Mining Frontier; and Vigilante Victims: Montana’s 1864 Hanging Spree—and magazine articles (see the August 1993 Wild West). “Though there is no evidence that the Bannack sheriff headed an outlaw gang, posterity believed the charge simply because the vigilantes hanged him,” they write in Vigilante Victims. While Mather and Boswell make a powerful case that Plummer was not a criminal mastermind, not all modern historians buy it. Frederick Allen writes in his 2004 book A Decent Orderly Lynching: The Montana Vigilantes that Mather and Boswell paint “a picture as one-sided as Dimsdale’s, but with Plummer as the white hat and his prosecutors as venal bullies.” Others have argued that the never dull Sheriff Plummer was arrested and hanged not for his crimes, but for his openly pro-South politics.
The truth about Henry Plummer remains a mystery, and he and the Montana Vigilantes continue to live on in controversy. The weight of history is against him. However, as he did in life, Henry Plummer continues to find friends and allies in surprising places.
Originally published in the April 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.