Henry Plummer

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This article is about the old west lawman and criminal . For the American physician, see Henry Stanley Plummer.
Henry Plummer
Born 1832
Addison, Maine
Died January 10, 1864
Bannack, Montana
Occupation Criminal, Sheriff
Known for Leader of "Road Agent" gang, the "Innocents"
Founder Henry Plummer
Founding location Virginia City, Montana U.S.
Years active 1863-1864
Territory Montana
Ethnicity European-American
Membership over 20
Criminal activities road agents

Henry Plummer (1832 – 1864) was a prospector, government bureaucrat, law enforcement officer and outlaw in the 1850s-60 west. He was the elected sheriff of Bannack, Montana in 1863-64 when he was accused of being the leader of a "road agent" gang of outlaws known as the "Innocents". On from January 10, 1864 he was arrested in Bannack by a company of the Vigilance Committee of Alder Gulch and summarily hanged along with two other "road agents". At the time Bannack and Virginia City, Montana were part of a remote region of the Idaho Territory without formal law enforcement or justice system. Plummer's road agent gang was believed to be responsible for numerous robberies, attempted robberies, murders and attempted murders in and around Alder Gulch in October–December 1863. The criminal activity led leading citizens of Virginia City and Bannack to form the Vigilance Committee of Alder Gulch in Virginia City on December 23, 1863. Between January 4 and February 3, 1863, the vigilantes arrested and summarily executed at least 20 alleged members of Plummer's gang.

Early years[edit]

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.[1] 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[edit]

On September 26, 1857, Plummer shot and killed John Vedder. Plummer was the city marshal of Nevada City, California, and had been providing protection to Vedder's wife, Lucy, as she attempted to escape her abusive husband. Plummer claimed he was acting in self defense, but was convicted of second-degree murder, won an appeal, then was convicted again and sentenced to ten years in San Quentin.[2] However, in August, 1859, supporters of his wrote to the governor seeking a pardon based on his alleged good character and civic performance; the governor subsequently granted the pardon due to Plummer's poor health due to 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 and, fearing that his prison record would prevent a fair trial, allowed him to leave the state.

Life of a criminal[edit]

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.

On the way back east, waiting for a steamer to reach Fort Benton, Montana on the Missouri River, Plummer was approached by James Vail who was seeking 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. 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.

The Plummer gang[edit]

Between October and December 1863, robbery and murder in and around Alder Gulch increased significantly, and the citizens of Virginia City grew increasingly suspicious of Sheriff Henry 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 in fact criminals. Four other men in the party were also murdered in camp—Charlie Allen, Robert Chalmers, Horace Chalmers and William Phillips—by Lowrie, Doc Howard, Jem Romaine and William Page.[3]
  • 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.[3]
  • On November 13, 1863, a teenage Henry Tilden was in the employ of Wilbur Sanders and Sidney Edgerton to locate and corral some horses owned by Sanders and Edgerton. Near Horse Prairie, Tilden was confronted by three armed road agents. He was carrying very little money and was allowed to depart unmolested, but with the warning that if he talked, he would be killed. He did not heed the warning and told Sanders's wife, Hattie, and Sidney Edgerton that he had recognized one of the road agents as Sheriff Henry Plummer. Although Tilden's report was discounted because Plummer was respected, this incident led to increased suspicion in the region that Plummer was the leader of a gang of road agents.[3]
  • On November 22, 1863, the A.J. Oliver stage was robbed on its way to Bannack from Virginia City 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, made the mistake of reporting the robbery and identifying 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.[3]
  • In November 1863, Conrad Kohrs traveled to Bannack from Deer Lodge, Montana with $5,000 in gold dust to buy cattle. A conversation with Sheriff Plummer in Bannack led Kohrs to believe he might be robbed while on the trail back to Deer Lodge. While in an overnight camp his associates located road agents George Ives and "Dutch John" Wagner surveying the camp, armed with shotguns. A day or two later, Kohrs was on horseback returning to Deer Lodge when Ives and Wagner gave chase. Kohrs's horse proved the faster, and Kohrs evaded confrontation before reaching the safety of Deer Lodge.[3]
  • In early December 1863, a three-wagon freight outfit organized by Milton S. Moody was going to Salt Lake City from Virginia City. Among the seven passengers was John Bozeman. It was carrying $80,000 in gold dust and $1,500 in treasury notes. While camped on Blacktail Deer Creek, road agents "Dutch John" Wagner and Steve Marshland entered the camp, armed and ready to rob the 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.[3]
  • 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 was able to avoid being shot and escaped into the brush.[3]

Over December 19–21, 1863, a public trial was held in Virginia City by a miners' court for George Ives, the suspected murderer of a young Dutch immigrant, Nicholas Tiebolt. 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.[4]

On December 23, 1863, two days after the Ives trial, a group of five Virginia City residents, led by Wilbur F. Sanders, and including Major Alvin W. Brockie, John Nye, Captain Nick D. Wall, and Paris Pfouts, organized the Vigilance Committee of Alder Gulch.[5]

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 by George Ives. Near the Rattlesnake Ranch on the Ruby River, the posse located "Erastus Red" Yeager and George Brown, both suspected road agents. While traveling back to Virginia City, Yeager made a complete confession, naming the majority of the road agents in Plummer's gang, including Henry Plummer. After obtaining the confession, Yeager and Brown were found guilty by the posse and summarily hanged from a cottonwood tree on the Lorrain's Ranch on the Ruby River.[6] On January 6, 1863, "Dutch John" Wagner, a road agent wounded in the Moody robbery, was captured by vigilante Captain Nick Wall and Ben Peabody 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 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. Additionally, 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.

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.

In popular culture[edit]

  • 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.
  • 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.[7]
  • 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.[8] The song was written from the viewpoint of a member of the Bannack community who had reservation about Plummer's alleged crimes.


  1. ^ Genge, Will (2009). "The Legend of Henry Plummer-Outlaw Sheriff of Bannack, MT". Montana Historian 1 (1): 52–61. 
  2. ^ Allen, Frederick (2009). A decent, orderly lynching : the Montana vigilantes. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. pp. 38–48. ISBN 9780806140384. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g 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. 
  4. ^ 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. 
  5. ^ 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. 
  6. ^ 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. 
  7. ^ "Laramie: "Two for the Gallows"". Internet Movie Data Base. Retrieved October 10, 2012. 
  8. ^ "Plummer's Song, The David Latto Band". 

Further reading[edit]

  • 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. 

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