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Henry Plummer (1832 – 1864) served as sheriff of what became Bannack, Montana, from May 24, 1863 until January 10, 1864, when he was hanged without legal system trial by the controversial Montana Vigilantes. [Notes of historical clarification: the original Idaho Territory, declared July 4, 1863 at Lewiston, Idaho included all of what is now Montana. The Montana territory was created in 1864. Thus at the time of his death, Plummer was sheriff in Bannock, Idaho Territory. By a 2:1 decision of the Idaho Territorial Supreme Court, Boise became the capital in 1866.] Some believe him to have been the head of a gang that was responsible for nearly a hundred deaths; he was hanged along with twenty-three others for their presumed crimes.
There is general agreement about his early years only. There is also general agreement that he was handsome, well spoken and intelligent, but some see these attributes as a veneer, hiding a dishonest, cruel, crafty, violent nature. Others see him as a victim of jealous, malicious gossip—character assassination for personal and political gain.
He was born William Henry Handy Plumer, the last of six children in Addison, Maine to a family that had settled in Maine in 1764 when it was still a part of the Massachusetts Bay colony. (He changed the spelling of his surname after moving West. His father died while Henry was in his teens. In 1852, age 19, he 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 and it was proposed that he should run for state representative as a Democrat. However, the party was divided, and without its full support, he lost.
Becoming an outlaw
On September 26, 1857, Plummer shot and killed John Vedder who had been having an affair with Vedder's wife (?). In the resulting trial, Plummer was sentenced to ten years in San Quentin. However, in August, 1859, his many supporters wrote to the governor to seeking a pardon based on his good character and civic performance; the governor subsequently granted the pardon, but it was based on his health—Plummer was suffering from tuberculosis. Then, in 1861, Plummer tried to carry out a citizen's arrest of William Riley, who had escaped from San Quentin; in the attempt, Riley was killed. Plummer turned himself in to the police, who accepted that the killing was justified, but, fearing that his prison record would prevent a fair trial, recommended that he leave the state.
Life of a criminal
Plummer headed to Washington Territory where gold had been discovered. However, he once again became involved in a dispute that ended in a gunfight won by Plummer. This event left him feeling that his only recourse was to return to Maine. While his skill with guns was keeping him alive in the violent towns of the gold rush, it was also making it hard for him to accomplish anything.
Halfway home, waiting for a steamer to reach Fort Benton on the Missouri River, Plummer was approached by James Vail who was seeking volunteers to help protect his family from anticipated Indian attacks at the mission station he was attempting to found in Sun River, Montana. No passage home being available, Plummer accepted, along with Jack Cleveland, a horse dealer who had known Plummer in California. While at the mission, both Plummer and Cleveland fell in love with Vail's attractive sister-in-law, Electa Bryan; Plummer asked her to marry him and she agreed. As gold had recently been discovered in nearby Bannack, Montana, Plummer decided to go there to try to earn enough money to support them both. Cleveland followed him.
In January 1863, Cleveland, nursing his jealousy, forced Plummer into a fight and was killed. Fortunately for Plummer, this happened in a crowded saloon, and there was no doubt that it was self-defense. In fact, Plummer was viewed very favorably by most town residents and, in May, he was elected sheriff of Bannack. However, the following winter the stage was robbed twice, an attempt was made to rob a freight caravan, and a man was murdered. In late December, while Plummer was out of town providing an escort to a gold shipment, a group of men calling themselves the Vigilance Committee formed in nearby Virginia City to take matters into their own hands. Over the next month, 24 men were hanged, some in the basement of Joe Griffith's general store, including, on January 10, 1864, Henry Plummer. The last man hanged by the vigilantes may have done nothing more than express an opinion that several of those hanged previously had been innocent.Citation needed
The Montana Vigilantes became an admired group in Montana history.[who?] Beginning in the late 20th century, that view has been widely challenged. Books have appeared depicting Plummer as an innocent victim. In recent years, many historical researchers have come to question the "traditional" histories relating to Henry Plummer, some of which might have been written by Freemasons. Some of the researchers[who?] think that the Masons played a critical role in the hanging of Henry Plummer and his gang. However, this is speculative, as Plummer left Bannack as part of a group and without notice. The vigilantes had to have (1) been organized and ready when Plummer left and gotten ahead of them, (2) been in sufficiently large numbers to have stopped Plummer and his associates, (3) possibly held a "trial," though it might have been a kangaroo court, (4) carried out the hangings, (5) returned to town without creating suspicion, and (6) kept the secrets of the actions and details. The one group that most stands out as meeting all six of the above criteria in organization, secrecy and status as upstanding citizens was the Freemasons; hence the speculation of their involvement.
Historical fiction writers, too, have examined the issue. The most recent is the historical novel by James Gaitis, entitled "A Stout Cord and a Good Drop" (Globe Pequot Press 2006). In contrast, Frederick Allen, in his highly praised 2004 book, "A Decent, Orderly Lynching: The Montana Vigilantes," goes somewhat against this trend. He believes there is considerable evidence of Plummer's guilt, and he suggests the early phase of the lynchings was a widely supported response to a real breakdown of law and order, and a fairly measured response for its time. (This was the era of the Civil War and vigorous campaigns against Indians.) Allen does believe, however, that the movement later degenerated into a campaign of terror that still haunts the state. If so, that would be a strong argumentation against the Masons.
In May 1993 a posthumous trial on Plummer resulted in a mistrial because of a split verdict.
Since this trial, more evidence has come to light to prove Henry Plummer's possible innocence. He was dying of TB when he was hanged without the drop, therefore he might have died slowly and in agony. [Note: if the noose is placed to the side, the neck breaks and death is quick. If a noose is placed behind the head, the result is strangulation. There is no known record of how Plummer and his accomplices were hanged.] He simply decided that vigilantism was wrong and presumed some of the executed might have been innocent. This brought the ire of the ringleader of the vigilance committee.
The most common account is that the two youngest members of the gang were 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 to do the same with the others of the gang there. [Lewiston was the territorial connection to the world, as it had river steamers that transited to the coast at Astoria, Oregon]. 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 the period still exist. Plus, whether the historical revisionists like it or not, the large gang robberies of gold shipments ended with Plummer's and the alleged gang members' deaths. One gang member who was hanged at about the same time with Plummer was Clubfoot George.
In popular culture
- Ernest Haycox's 1942 novel Alder Gulch depicts Plummer as a cold and calculating murderer and thief, handsome and well-spoken and conscienceless, and the vigilantes as justified but equally remorseless in their slow-strangulation lynchings. In his last moments, Plummer breaks down, pleading for his life. His tuberculosis is not mentioned.
- John Dehner played Plummer in an episode of the 1950s western television series, Stories of the Century, starring and narrated by Jim Davis.
- In "Two for the Gallows" (April 11, 1961) of NBC's Laramie, series character Slim Sherman (John Smith) is hired under false pretenses to take a "Professor Landfield", played by Donald Woods, into the Badlands to seek gold. Landfield, however, is really Morgan Bennett, a member of the former Plummer gang who has escaped from prison. Slim has no idea that Lanfield is seeking the loot that his gang had hidden away. Jess Harper (Robert Fuller) and Pete Dixon (Warren Oates), and Pete's younger brother, soon come to Slim's aid. The title of this episode stems from the talk that the undisciplined Dixon brothers would eventually wind up on a hangman's noose.
- Scottish folk act, The David Latto Band, wrote a song about the story of Henry Plummer called 'Plummer's Song' released on their 2012 eponymous debut album. The song was written from the viewpoint of a member of the Bannack community who had reservation about Plummer's alleged crimes.
- Langford, Nathaniel Pitt (1890). Vigilante Days and Ways-The Pioneers of the Rockies. New York: D. D. Merrill.
- Hough, Emerson (1907). The Story of the Outlaws-A Study of the Western Desperado. New York: The Outing Publishing Company.
- Dimsdale, Thomas J. (1915). The Vigilantes of Montana-or Popular Justice in the Rocky Mountains. Helena, MT: State Publishing.
- Hough, Emerson (1918). The Passing of the Frontier-A Cronicle of the Old West. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Johnson, Dorothy M. (1971). The Bloody Bozeman-The Perilous Trail To Montana's Gold. New York: McGraw Hill Book Company.
- Mather, R. E.; Boswell, D.E. (1987). Hanging the Sheriff-A Biography of Henry Plummer. Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah Press. ISBN 0-9663355-0-3.
- Malone, Michael P.; Roeder, Richard B.; Lang, William L. (1991). "The Mining Frontier". Montana-A History of Two Centuries. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press. pp. 64–91. ISBN 0-295-97129-0.
- Callaway, Lew L. (1997). Montana's Righteous Hangmen-The Vigilantes in Action. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0-8061-2912-9.
- Fabel, Dennis W. (1998, 2001). Electa: A Historical Novel. Authorhouse. ISBN 0-7596-7920-7
- Elliott, Diane (2002). Strength of Stone: The Pioneer Journal of Electa Bryan Plumer, 1862-1864. Guilford, CT: The Globe Pequot Press. ISBN 0-7627-2464-1.
- Genge, Will (2009). "The Legend of Henry Plummer-Outlaw Sheriff of Bannack, MT". Montana Historian 1 (1): 52–61.
- Minneapolis, The New Sawdust Town, By H.L. Griffith, Bolger Publications, Minneapolis, 1968
- "Laramie: "Two for the Gallows"". Internet Movie Data Base. Retrieved October 10, 2012.
- "Plummer's Song, The David Latto Band".
- A reevaluation of Henry Plummer
- May 24, 1863 Henry Plummer is elected sheriff of Bannack, Montana
- Henry Plummer — a brief history
- Google books results