In March of 1996, I went to Bannack alone. There wasn't ... anybody there besides me. (I was going to say ... not a soul around, but that may not be the right words here!) I left my truck in the parking lot on the west end of town.
I started my own solitary tour on the south side of Bannack's Main Street, the side with the Governor's Mansion, the school with the Mason's Lodge above, Carrhart's cabin, Crisman's store, (where Plummer's sheriff's office was), and of course where the two jails sit on the bank of the Grasshopper River.
The Governor's Mansion, Carrhart's cabin, the Lodge and Plummer's old office were locked at this time of year, whether to keep people like me out or something else in, is a question to consider.
The schoolroom with the student's desks and the chalkboard on the wall was open. As I stood for a moment in the back of the room, I wondered how many children once sat at these time-worn desks. What were their names and how many teachers once stood at the board writing down arithmetic problems for the children to solve. I walked through every building upstairs and down that wasn't locked, and did the same thing on the north side of Main Street. It was a calm day, kind of cool, there was no wind blowing, none at all.
Behind the north side of Main Street sit a few old miner's cabins built back up against the hillside. At one time there were many more than there are now. Where did your cabin sit Joe? It's been gone now for a long time. It's your story Joe that makes me wonder about all the rest of it.
Joe Piazantha was a Mexican miner and resident of Bannack. On January 11, 1864, the day after Henry Plummer and his two deputies were hanged, they came for you. How many were there Joe, eight, twelve, twenty or more? They called and told you to come out, but you didn't obey.
When George Copley and Smith Ball opened your door to bring you out you shot both of them. Copley suffered for the next few hours and died. Ball ended up crippled being shot in the hip. Were you guilty of the crimes they said you were or just willing to take some of them out with you?
Once Copley was dead, Langford tells us they brought up a mountain howitzer and fired three times into your cabin. The first two shells went clean through the shack without exploding, the third shell was aimed at your chimney and brought the whole thing in on top of you. They stormed your cabin and found you lying under the door. They dragged you out, wrapped a clothesline around your neck and hung you to a pole. They fired over a hundred rounds into your corpse, set what was left of your cabin on fire, then tossed your body on top of the pyre. The next day, the saloon girls panned the cold ashes sifting for gold.
They might've just given you a trial Joe. They would have hanged you anyway for killing George Copley.
I stopped inside the church and sat in the back row for a while looking forward. I reflected upon all the good people that once worshiped here, the bad people who came in an effort to make themselves look good to others, and a few of the ugly incidents that had once transpired outside these doors.
Heading west along the boardwalk, I passed the gallows at the base of Hangman's Gulch. This is a replica of the original gallows Sheriff Plummer erected in 1863 to hang the convicted Horan who killed his partner over a mining claim -- the same gallows Plummer himself was hanged on just a few months later.
I continued my stroll along the north side of the street and went up the front steps of the Meade Hotel next to Skinner's Saloon. I opened the hotel's front door and left it wide open. I went through every room on the ground floor then came back to the foyer and went up the winding staircase to the second floor.
Same thing, I walked through every room. When I got to the end of the hall on the second floor, it happened. The front door downstairs SLAMMED shut. It didn't slowly creak closed, it slammed shut with a bang that echoed through the hotel. The goosebumps rose on my arm with the sound of the echo.
I didn't run or panic. There was no sensation of harm or danger. I sort of smiled to myself and told Henry there was no reason to get excited. I wasn't there to take or to disturb anything. (Or anybody.)
I walked back down the hallway and down the stairs, reopened the front door and closed it gently, then walked across the bridge over the Grasshopper and up to the old mill. I was still smiling to myself as I walked across the bridge into the area they used to call Yankee Flats.
I'm not fool enough to think that I was ever in Bannack in another lifetime, but I feel at home when I go to Bannack. Every building that still remains has a story to tell you, if you have the time to listen and watch.
Bannack has been called the Cradle of Montana and indeed it was. She was born during the time the rest of the states back east were enduring the agony of our bloody Civil War. Her violent and turbulent birth represents the transformation from the Land Of The Shining Mountains as she was once known, to the Big Sky Country of the great State of Montana that we know today.
Maybe Henry Plummer still walks the streets of Bannack like some claim. Maybe they all do.
George Stringfellow February 4, 1998