The Innocents were an alleged gang of outlaw road agents from Montana that operated during the gold rush of the 1860s. According to the early chronicler Thomas Dimsdale, the gang attempted to steal gold while it was being transported and killed many travelers who resisted. Sheriff Henry Plummer of Bannack, Montana was accused of leading the group, and was executed by a group of vigilantes along with several other alleged members in January 1864.
Early historians, originating with Dimsdale, stated that the gang consisted of over one hundred members at its height. Their headquarters was supposedly located at the Rattlesnake Ranch, twelve miles outside of Virginia City. The gang allegedly killed over one hundred people (only eight deaths can actually be confirmed by historical documentation) and stole a significant amount of gold while it was being transported the seventy mile distance between Virginia City and Bannack. The gang is believed by many to have been split into units in order to rob groups in different towns. Watchmen were allegedly placed in mine offices and gambling offices to determine when gold would be shipped. The members of the gang were believed to have secret code words to recognize each other, and were believed to use a particular secret knot in their tie. Many residents soon became frustrated by the amount of crime that was occurring. In 1863 they formed a committee of vigilantes (the Montana Vigilantes) to combat the rash of murders and robberies.
Plummer was initially suspected of criminal activity after two residents who had been robbed claimed that they had recognized him during the robberies. Another local resident who had been robbed claimed that after he confronted Plummer about the danger of the roads Plummer offered to return some of his money to him. The vigilante committee arrested three men in Nevada City in December 1863 and charged them with murder. One man was executed and the group banished the other two. After hearing of this event, local boot-maker George Lane rode to Bannack to tell Plummer what had occurred. For the next month, the vigilante committee arrested many local men. The sentences that they passed varied from execution to flogging to banishment. Shortly before one man was hanged, he told the assembled crowd that Plummer was the ringleader behind the recent crime spree. This confirmed the suspicions held by the vigilantes and they soon arrested Plummer. After being arrested, he attempted to bribe his captors but was unsuccessful. Between December 1863 and February 1864 the vigilante committee executed Plummer and twenty two alleged members of his gang, including George Lane. At one point the vigilantes assembled a force of over 500 men and sealed off Virginia City in order to catch gang members. The gallows on which Plummer was hanged had been built by his own request during a previous case. Over 5,000 people assembled to watch members of the gang being led to the gallows.
The lack of any historical evidence pertaining to the Innocents, combined with unreliability of the earliest accounts and the fact that their alleged activities and secret codes, as described by these early sources, conform to a common pattern of frontier mythography (the number of members was "over a hundred," the number of victims also "over a hundred," their secret password was "I am innocent"), have caused modern scholars to question the exact nature of the Innocents gang (as for example in the work of Frederick Allen). Some even deny altogether the idea that the relatively few documented robberies in the area were perpetrated by a secret society of organized criminals, claiming instead that they were more likely the work of a small number of independent (or at most loosely-organized) outlaws (Cf. Mather and Boswell).
- Allen, Frederick. A Decent, Orderly Lynching. Omaha: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.
- Clark, Cecil (1999), "Boone Helm – The Murdering Cannibal", Outlaws & Lawmen of Western Canada, Surrey: Heritage House Publishing Co, p. 161, ISBN 978-1-895811-87-2, retrieved 24 March 2011
- Mather, Ruth E., and J. Boswell. University of Nebraska Press, 1993.
- Miller, Donald C.; Miller, Shari (2008), Ghost Towns of Montana: A Classic Tour Through the Treasure State's Historical Sites, Guilford: Globe Pequot, p. 167, ISBN 978-0-7627-4517-3