Henry Plummer before 1864
|Died||January 10, 1864|
|Other names||William Henry Handy Plumer|
|Occupation||prospector, city marshal, sheriff, outlaw, road agent, criminal gang leader|
|Known for||Leader of "Road Agent" gang, the "Innocents"|
Henry Plummer (1832–1864) was a prospector, lawman, and outlaw in the American West in the 1850s and 1860s, who was known to have killed several men, some in what was considered self-defense. He was elected sheriff of Bannack, Montana from 1863 to 1864, during which period he was accused of being the leader of a "road agent" gang of outlaws known as the "Innocents," which preyed on shipments from Virginia City to other areas. In response some leaders in Virginia City formed the Vigilance Committee of Alder Gulch, and began to take action against Plummer's gang, gaining confessions from a couple of men they arrested in early January 1864. On January 10, 1864 Plummer and two associates were arrested in Bannack by a company of the Vigilantes and summarily hanged.
Plummer was given a posthumous trial in 1993 which led to a mistrial. The jury was split 6-6.
He was born William Henry Handy Plumer in 1832 in Addison, Maine, the last of six children in a family whose ancestors had first settled in Maine in 1634, when it was still a part of the Massachusetts Bay colony. He changed the spelling of his surname to Plummer after moving West. His father died while Henry was in his teens.
In 1852, at age 19, Plummer 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. Supporters suggested 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. As city marshal of Nevada City, California, Plummer had been providing protection of Lucy Vedder, John's wife, who was seeking to escape from her abusive husband. Plummer claimed he was acting in self-defense in the incident, but was convicted of second-degree murder. He won an appeal for a retrial and was convicted again and sentenced to ten years in San Quentin. But in August 1859, supporters of his wrote to the governor seeking a pardon based on his alleged good character and civic performance. The governor granted the pardon due to Plummer's poor health as a result of tuberculosis, then incurable.
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. Fearing that his prison record would prevent a fair trial, they allowed Plummer to leave the state.
Life of a criminal
Plummer headed to Washington Territory where gold had been discovered. There he became involved in a dispute that ended in a gunfight won by Plummer. He decided to leave the West and return to Maine.
On the way back east, waiting for a steamboat to reach Fort Benton, Montana on the Missouri River, Plummer was approached by James Vail. He was recruiting volunteers to help protect his family from 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. The altercation took place in a crowded saloon, and observers agreed that Plummer had killed his foe in self-defense. Plummer was viewed very favorably by most town residents and, in May, he was elected sheriff of Bannack.
The Plummer gang
Between October and December 1863, the rate of robberies and murders in and around Alder Gulch increased significantly, and the citizens of Virginia City grew increasingly suspicious of Plummer and his associates.
Notable criminal acts by alleged members of the Plummer gang included:
- On October 13, 1863, Lloyd Magruder was killed by road agent Chris Lowrie. Magruder was an Idaho merchant leaving Virginia City with $12,000 in gold dust from goods he had sold there. Several of the men he hired to accompany him back to Lewiston, Idaho were criminals. Four other men in his party were also murdered in camp—Charlie Allen, Robert Chalmers, Horace Chalmers and William Phillips—by Lowrie, Doc Howard, Jem Romaine and William Page.
- On October 26, 1863, the Peabody and Caldwell's stage was robbed between the Rattlesnake Ranch and Bannack by two road agents believed to be Frank Parish and George Ives. Bill Bunton, the owner of the Rattlesnake Ranch who joined the stage at the ranch, was also complicit in the robbery. The road agents netted $2,800 in gold from the passengers and threatened them all with death if they talked about the robbery.
- On November 13, 1863, a teenage Henry Tilden was hired by Wilbur Sanders and Sidney Edgerton to locate and corral some horses owned by the two men. Near Horse Prairie, Tilden was confronted by three armed road agents. He was carrying very little money and was allowed to depart unmolested, but was warned that if he talked about whom he'd seen, he would be killed. He told Hattie Sanders, Wilbur's wife, and Sidney Edgerton that he had recognized one of the road agents as Sheriff Henry Plummer. Although Tilden's account was dismissed because of general respect for Plummer, suspicion in the region increased that Plummer was the leader of a gang of road agents.
- On November 22, 1863, the A.J. Oliver stage was robbed on its way from Virginia City to Bannack by road agents George Ives, "Whiskey Bill" Graves, and Bob Zachary. The robbery netted less than $1,000 in gold and treasury notes. One of the victims, Leroy Southmayd, reported the robbery and identified the road agents to Bannack sheriff Henry Plummer. Members of Plummer's gang confronted Southmayd on his return trip to Virginia City, but Southmayd was cunning enough to avoid injury or death.
- In November 1863, Conrad Kohrs traveled to Bannack from Deer Lodge, Montana with $5,000 in gold dust to buy cattle. After talking with Sheriff Plummer in Bannack, Kohrs worried about the risk of robbery on his return to Deer Lodge. While his group was camped overnight, his associates found road agents George Ives and "Dutch John" Wagner surveying the camp, and armed with shotguns. A day or two later, Kohrs was riding on horseback to Deer Lodge when Ives and Wagner gave chase. As Kohrs's horse proved the faster, Kohrs evaded confrontation and reached the safety of Deer Lodge.
- In early December 1863, a three-wagon freight outfit organized by Milton S. Moody was going from Virginia City to Salt Lake City. Among the seven passengers was John Bozeman. It was carrying $80,000 in gold dust and $1,500 in treasury notes. While the outfit was camped on Blacktail Deer Creek, road agents "Dutch John" Wagner and Steve Marshland entered the camp, armed and ready to rob the pack train. Members of the camp had armed themselves well, and Wagner and Marshland were able to escape by claiming they were just looking for lost horses. Two days later, Wagner and Marshland were both wounded in an unsuccessful attempt to rob the train as it crossed the Continental Divide at Rock Creek.
- On December 8, 1863, Anton Holter, who was taking oxen to sell in Virginia City, survived an attempted robbery and murder. When road agents George Ives and Aleck Carter, whom Holter recognized, discovered Holter was not carrying any significant wealth, they tried to shoot him. He avoided being shot and escaped into the brush.
At the time Bannack and Virginia City, Montana were part of a remote region of the Idaho Territory; there was no formal law enforcement or justice system for the area. Some residents suspected that Plummer's road agent gang was responsible for numerous robberies, attempted robberies, murders and attempted murders in and around Alder Gulch in October–December 1863.
From December 19 to 21, 1863, a public trial was held in Virginia City by a miners' court for George Ives, the suspected murderer of Nicholas Tiebolt, a young Dutch immigrant. Hundreds of miners from around the area attended the three-day outdoor trial. George Ives was prosecuted by Wilbur F. Sanders, convicted, and hanged on December 21, 1863.
On December 23, 1863, two days after the Ives trial, leading citizens of Virginia City and Bannack formed the Vigilance Committee of Alder Gulch in Virginia City. They included five Virginia City residents, led by Wilbur F. Sanders, and including Major Alvin W. Brockie, John Nye, Captain Nick D. Wall, and Paris Pfouts. Between January 4 and February 3, 1864, the vigilantes arrested and summarily executed at least 20 alleged members of Plummer's gang.
Shortly after its formation, the Vigilance Committee dispatched a posse of men to search for Aleck Carter, "Whiskey Bill" Graves, and Bill Bunton, known associates of George Ives. The posse was led by vigilante Captain James Williams, the man who had investigated the Nicolas Tiebolt murder. Near the Rattlesnake Ranch on the Ruby River, the posse located "Erastus Red" Yeager and George Brown, both suspected road agents. While traveling under guard back to Virginia City, Yeager made a complete confession, naming the majority of the road agents in Plummer's gang, and Henry Plummer. The posse found Yeager and Brown to be guilty and hanged them from a cottonwood tree on the Lorrain's Ranch on the Ruby River.
On January 6, 1864, vigilante Captain Nick Wall and Ben Peabody captured "Dutch John" Wagner, a road agent wounded in the Moody robbery, on the Salt Lake City trail. The vigilantes transported Wagner to Bannack, where he was hanged on January 11, 1864. By this time, Yeager's confession had mobilized vigilantes against Plummer and his key associates, deputies Buck Stinson and Ned Ray. Plummer, Stinson, and Ray were arrested on the morning of January 10, 1864, and summarily hanged.
The two youngest members of the gang were said to be 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, Idaho to warn gang members to leave that town. (Lewiston was the connection from the Territory to the world, as it had river steamboats that traveled to the coast at Astoria, Oregon via the Snake and Columbia rivers.) 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 this period have been preserved. The large-scale robberies of gold shipments by gangs ended with Plummer's and the alleged gang members' deaths. Gang member Clubfoot George was hanged at about the same time with Plummer.
In popular culture
- Francis M. Thompson's 1914 article in The Massachusetts Magazine (Vol. VI, No. 4 - pages 159-190) describes his relationship with Plummer and presents some of the details of the case, from a personal view of being a mercantile owner in Bannack, MT during that period. In 2004, Montana gathered F.M.'s memoirs into their book, A Tenderfoot in Montana, leaving out F.M.'s earlier experiences in the mid-western region as a banker which knowledge served him well on his western sojourn.
- Ernest Haycox's 1942 historical novel Alder Gulch depicts Plummer as handsome and well-spoken, but a cold and calculating murderer and thief without conscience. He portrays the vigilantes as justified but equally remorseless, as they conducted their lynching executions by slow strangulation hangings.
- 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 is purportedly Morgan Bennett, a member of the former Plummer gang who has escaped from prison. Slim has no idea that Lanfield is seeking the loot which his gang had hidden. Jess Harper (Robert Fuller), Pete Dixon (Warren Oates), and Pete's younger brother, soon come to Slim's aid. The title of this episode is based on the two Dixon brothers likely to be headed for the hangman because of their activities.
- Scottish folk act The David Latto Band, wrote "Plummer's Song" about Henry Plummer, released on their 2012 eponymous debut album. The song was written from the viewpoint of a Bannack resident with doubts as to Plummer's guilt for his alleged crimes.
- Ghost Adventures (2008) S9, E4 "Bannack Ghost Town" talks about Henry Plummer.
- In the video game Call of Juarez Gunslinger (2013) Plummer is featured as an enemy encountered by Silas Greaves.
- Expedition Unknown (2016) S3, E1 "Plummer's Gold": Josh Gates sets off for gold rush country to search for the lost fortune of a notorious Montana sheriff. During his investigation, Josh explores hidden cave systems and blows open a mine that's been sealed for over a century.
- Zane Grey wrote a book called "The Border Legion", recently republished under the name of "Cabin Gulch", which was loosely based on the history of Henry Plummer and the Alder Gulch gold strike.
- Genge, Will (2009). "The Legend of Henry Plummer-Outlaw Sheriff of Bannack, MT". Montana Historian. 1 (1): 52–61.
- Allen, Frederick (2009). A decent, orderly lynching : the Montana vigilantes. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. pp. 38–48. ISBN 9780806140384.
- Dillon, Mark C. (2013). "The Third Factor Leading to Vigilantism in the Region-The Insecure Means of Transporting Wealth". Montana Vigilantes 1863-1870 Gold, Guns and Gallows. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press. pp. 57–88. ISBN 9780874219197.
- Dillon, Mark C. (2013). "The Murder of Nicolas Tiebolt and the Trial and Execution of George Ives". Montana Vigilantes 1863-1870 Gold, Guns and Gallows. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press. pp. 89–118. ISBN 9780874219197.
- Dillon, Mark C. (2013). "Formation of the Vigilance Committee". Montana Vigilantes 1863-1870 Gold, Guns and Gallows. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press. pp. 119–134. ISBN 9780874219197.
- Dillon, Mark C. (2013). "The Hanging Spree Begins". Montana Vigilantes 1863-1870 Gold, Guns and Gallows. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press. pp. 135–155. ISBN 9780874219197.
- "Laramie: "Two for the Gallows"". Internet Movie Data Base. Retrieved October 10, 2012.
- "Plummer's Song, The David Latto Band".
- Philip, Rohan (22 May 2013). "Call of Juarez Gunslinger Wiki: Everything you need to know about the game". Gaming Bolt. Retrieved 14 December 2018.
- 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.
- Allen, Frederick (2009). A Decent, Orderly Lynching : The Montana Vigilantes. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 9780806140384.
- 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.