Some Afterthoughts on the Vigilantes
(Reproduced here by permission of the author)
by J. W. Smurr
MONTANA the magazine of western history
Vol. 8 No. 2 April, 1958
On Footnotes: To read a footnote, click on the number in brackets
[...] in this document. In the footnote document, click on the same number
to come back to where you were in this document.
In spite of the considerable volume of literature which has been published
on the subject, anyone whose mind is not stultified by romanticism is
bound to admit that the history of the Montana Vigilantes is very imperfectly
known. This is something of a blemish on the writing of the state. Dimsdale
wrote his little book almost a century ago, Langford came out with his
more than sixty years past, and, the writing that has been done since
has mostly been a reworking of these two authors.
If one does not find what he is looking for in Dimsdale and Langford,
he is not likely to find it at all. I do not mean to suggest that we can
get at the truth of the Vigilante movement simply by adding new information
to that which we already have, for I believe that the greatest failing
has been in making poor use of the older materials.
Perhaps if we could be certain of finding new evidence at least as good
as the old it would be wise to postpone any rigorous reexamination of
the standard literature until the hoped-for discoveries took place. The
recovery of records during recent decades has on the whole been so unimpressive
that it is no longer reasonable to expect future finds of importance.
Such tidbits as turn up, helpful though they may be in minor respects,
cannot and do not alter the realities of Vigilante history.
We are very much like the classicists in our dependence upon a few sources
of doubtful merit. Let us make a virtue of necessity by assuming, as is
indeed the case, that Dimsdale and Langford are unreliable, and apply
our critical knives to the puffy corpulence of their literary remains
in order to find out what, if anything, is buried inside. I propose in
this place to examine certain things which they either mentioned with
reluctance or not at all, with a view of finding the answer to two questions:
Was the Vigilante movement universally popular in Montana; and if not,
why not? It is a large investigation, and to get anywhere with it, in
a limited space, I must assume that my readers have read either Dimsdale
or Langford. I do not apologize for this, because both books are entertaining,
so entertaining that a good many people have augmented their incomes considerably
by rewriting them and adding colorful matter of their own invention. Whether
these sums have been fairly earned is a question which the reader must
answer for himself, after giving me a chance to invoke the statute of
A good place to start is with Langford's book of 1890. Mr. Langford
was a man of high purpose, and what that purpose was he hastened to make
clear the moment he took up his pen. If he enlivens his narrative with
melodramatic writing, he tells us, it is to show the situation in its
darkest colors so that the world might know why the Vigilantes took the
law into their own hands. In simpler terms, he proposes to justify them.
To justify them to whom? Drawing upon scattered remarks in his book, modern
writers have supposed that he was concerned with certain criticisms of
the Vigilantes which were current many years after the first period of
activity. Although the whitewashing of the movement was already an established
tradition in Montana when Langford began to compose, there had indeed
been something of a reaction. Col. W. F. Sanders was nettled by it and
showed his irritation in a speech before the Bar Association in 1886.
As everyone knows, Vigilante raids on the Musselshell by Granville Stuart
and other stockmen in 1884 were openly denounced at the time. A story
was spread to the effect that the ferocity of the plainsmen was so great
that Stuart executed his own son upon finding him with the criminals.
Unprejudiced readers will concede that people who found fault with Vigilante
activity in the 1880's might easily have come to believe that such proceedings
had been wrong from the first.
I myself question whether there was ever as complete a break in public
sentiment as Langford and later writers suggest. As early as 1867 an attempt
by the Helena Vigilantes to revive their former organization was publicly
condemned by a special group formed for that purpose. This group limited
itself to a criticism of the methods of the Vigilantes, but I think they
were out to eliminate Vigilante activity altogether. Judge for yourself.
Here is the notice the anti-Vigilantes ran in the Montana Post:
We now, as a sworn band of law-abiding citizens, do hereby solemnly
swear that the first man that is hanged by the Vigilantes of this place,
we will retaliate five for one unless it be done in broad daylight, so
that all may know what it is for. We are all well satisfied that in times
past you did do some glorious work, but the time has come when law should
be enforced. Old fellow-members, the time is not like it was. We had good
men with us; but now there is a great change. There is not a thief comes
to this country but what 'rings' himself into the present Committee. We
know you all. You must not think you can do as you please. We are American
citizens, and you shall not drive and hang whom you please.
It is worthwhile remembering that when Dimsdale wrote his book, two years
before the incident just related and a quarter of a century before Langford,
he approached the Vigilantes in the same apologetic spirit as his successor
and gave the same reasons for it. He would demonstrate "not only the necessity
for their action, but the equity of their proceedings." I am unable to follow
writers who gratuitously assume that he, and Langford, too, were writing
with Eastern readers in mind; the difference here being that Dimsdale was
writing almost contemporaneously with the events he described, too early,
I think, for Eastern reaction to have become known. He may, of course, have
been anticipating a bad reaction from the East and seeking to forestall
it. One wonders why he wrote his book at all, if that was on his mind. Granville
Stuart's pro-Montana pamphlet of 1865 ignored the Vigilantes completely,
certainly a much wiser policy.
These theories about Western fear of Eastern reaction assume what I
believe remains to be proved, to wit, that the Vigilantes would have been
condemned out of hand if the Westerners had failed to publish books like
Dimsdale's. I call the reader's attention to the vulgar boastfulness of
Dimsdale in dealing with terrorism when applied to Western criminals.
If his object was to convince Easterners that the Vigilantes had a high
regard for human life, he might have chosen better language for the purpose.
But why must we assume that the East was unsympathetic? The success of
Mark Twain's Roughing It and the Beadle novels demonstrates that an appreciation
of Western conditions had existed in the East for some time past; built
up, no doubt, by the Dimsdale book and many others employing the California
style, an art form deeply rooted in American frontier experience and no
mere contrivance. A nation which could be led to excesses against the
Mormons and the Minnesota Sioux on the strength of sensational reports
easily disproved, a nation inured to the carnage of four years of Civil
War, was not a nation likely to blanch at a little bloodletting hundreds
of miles away in the Rocky Mountains. Violence on the frontier was an
old thing, as everybody knew. Perhaps the typical Eastern reaction was
that of Charles Dickens, who was fascinated by the Dimsdale book and expressed
a desire to meet X. Beidler, the Vigilante executioner.
Dickens was always interested in bizarre types. So were his readers.
The most logical persons to have criticized the Vigilantes were not
those who lived far from the scene, but people who were present at the
executions. They alone were in a position to know whether the actions
taken were necessary or not. A significant amount of space in Dimsdale
is taken up in explaining away certain hangings which should have been
left out of the book altogether if the author's object was to placate
the East. Other actions which reflected discredit on the Vigilantes were
not discussed by Dimsdale. Why this selectivity? Was it not because a
few episodes were so notorious locally that they had to be justified before
Montana critics, regardless of the effect this policy might have on Eastern
readers? I offer the Daniels affair as a case directly in point.
When a person is writing Vigilante history, so much depends on his point
of view. In a letter sent to the New York Tribune from Virginia City,
dated July 9, 1867, A. K. McClure said of the Vigilantes: "In these years
of operation, covering nearly one hundred executions, this organization
is not today charged, by friend or foe, with partiality or prejudice,
or with a single unjust punishment."
The popular writers of today would doubtless take this to be a complete
exoneration of the Vigilantes by a man who was in a position to hear grumbling
if there were any. A skeptic like myself wonders what McClure meant by
"friend or foe." But take it as it is, his statement is still false, because
we have evidence from eyewitnesses that some people did believe the Vigilantes
guilty of inflicting unjust punishments.
This evidence, though slight, is unimpeachable. If anyone feels that it
is unrepresentative, let him turn to Dimsdale-Langford. I contend that
when these two books are examined with care, one perforce comes to believe
that never did all the peaceloving citizens of Montana fully approve of
what the Vigilantes did during the very heyday of the movement, the period
1863-65. The following facts, well known to attentive readers of Dimsdale-Langford,
ought to be spread across the record at this point as evidence of the
public temper in those days.
The Vigilantes constituted a private group.
They tried their victims in secret.
They seldom boasted of their exploits then or later, and the rollcall
of their organization was never published.
Taking their lead from Dimsdale-Langford, modern writers have construed
these facts entirely in favor of the Vigilante . We learn that they remained
a private society because they feared reprisals by uncaught rogues. They
worked in a dark and mysterious manner for much the same reason, and also
to forestall last-minute rescues by force. They did not choose to make
their former connections with the organization known, because they were
modest or because they had found the work distasteful. And so on and so
The ordinary way of treating malefactors in a mining camp was to convene
all the miners of the district and to call for a verdict by all. A variation
of the scheme was to appoint a jury from among the larger number, but
with the understanding. that an appeal to the whole group could be had,
upon conviction. The Vigilantes abandoned this democratic procedure and
substituted private trials by men who were usually convinced of the guilt
of those they hunted down, even before interrogating them. Had they kept
to their original intention of punishing only with death, the break with
tradition would have been more startling, but the inhumanity of such a
procedure forced them to fall back on banishment in some instances. One
may assume that the policy of by-passing the miners' court annoyed quite
a few people, because both Dimsdale and Langford were so determined to
justify it. They explained it away by relating how earlier attempts to
convict known murderers had been foiled by cheap appeals for mercy and
by fear of armed rescues and reprisals by friends of the accused. They
emphasized the difficulty in trying to operate an open court system where
the sheriff himself was the leader of the criminal gang. To these excuses
they sometimes added a fourth, namely, that speed in capturing criminals
being essential, the ponderous miners' courts could not act fast enough.
Were these explanations as acceptable to the men of the time as they apparently
are to modern worshippers of the Vigilantes?
The first defense employed by Dimsdale-Langford, that the miners were
weak in judgment and easily persuaded by the wrong side, was in reality
an attack on the rationale of the entire American court system, a fact
as obvious to them as it is to us. The amour propre of any modern citizen
would be grossly affronted were he to be told by some self-constituted
authority that he was unsuited to serve on a jury confined to the select
few. Was it otherwise one hundred years ago? The impression I get from
the sources is that before the hanging of Boone Helm the miners would
have abdicated their civil rights to the hounds of hell, had that been
the quickest way of ridding themselves of the murderers, but that afterwards
they had doubts on the matter and showed their feelings in criticism of
the Vigilantes. Dimsdale's description of popular reaction to the executions
of Slade and Brady seems to bear me out here. In any case, inasmuch as
Dimsdale-Langford placed more stress on other defenses it is obvious that
they had little faith in this one.
They preferred to say that the Vigilantes operated privately out of
fear of counter-action by criminals. If the Vigilantes feared that criminals
still loose in society would form a band and attack them in order to free
their prisoners, was the threat as important in the later phases of the
clean up as it was, say, during the sensational trial of Ives? I think
not. After the leading men in Plummer's gang had been executed in Bannack
and Virginia City the Vigilantes decided to punish the others as well.
Though somewhat out of order in this place, I cannot refrain from pointing
out that many of the remaining members of the road agent band were planning
a flight to Idaho and might have succeeded if the Vigilantes had not apprehended
them first. In spite of that it is commonly said the Vigilantes desired
only to drive the criminal element out of the Territory. These lesser
figures had no opportunity to raise a strong force for any purpose. Judging
from the small numbers sent in their pursuit, the Vigilantes never expected
them to do so. The record shows that after Helm's death there was no real
chance of a last-minute raid on the Vigilantes, and a trial by the miners
in open court could have been had in some cases. If it was personal reprisal
which the Vigilantes most feared why, when the years passed and this danger
had lost all meaning, did they remain obdurate on the issue of publicity?
The policy was carried to such lengths that several families of deceased
members destroyed all evidence linking them to the organization. When
one remembers that the Vigilantes usually went unmasked, it is hard to
give much credence to the fear of reprisal as an excuse for closed trials.
At best, the excuse has meaning only for the small group of leaders who
performed entirely in the shade. Little time need be spent in disposing
of the argument that the Vigilantes had no choice but to abandon the miners'
court because its chief police officer, the sheriff, was in cahoots with
the criminals. Henry Plummer was hanged in January of 1864. The majority
of the road agents were executed after that event.
The fourth reason advanced by Dimsdale-Langford for not trying the suspects
in the regular miners' court strikes me as the feeblest of all. Pursuing
and punishing persons accused of crime are distinct operations. The Vigilantes
could have served as a regular posse and left trial, judgment, and execution
to the miners in their court. Such, in fact, seems to have been their
general policy with respect to the People's Court set up at Virginia City
at a later date, although even here, I think, the Vigilantes performed
as prosecutors as well as policemen. The slowness of the miners' court
would have been unimportant if the Vigilantes had stood by to prevent
escapes. If dissatisfied with the verdict (which would rarely have gone
contrary to their wishes), they had the option of recapturing the guilty
men and hanging them anyway, the policy applied against Daniels. If the
reader is honest with himself he will admit that there was just as much
need for fair trial procedure in a gold camp as anywhere else. On one
occasion the Vigilantes hanged a man for murder while his victim was still
alive. The victim recovered later. At a regular miners' court, had one
been convened, some friend of fair-play might have prevailed on the jury
to withhold action until the issue of life-or-death were known, but the
Vigilantes moved too fast for that. The most cynical passage I have ever
seen in a book of Western literature closes a summary of the tragedy in
these words: "somewhat to the chagrin of the Vigilantes the wounded man
eventually recovered." 
I believe that the Vigilantes kept trial and punishment in their own
hands because they had little faith in the jury system itself, and I cannot
help but think that their attitude was well known and resented, at least
by some people. A group which received so much tender consideration from
contemporary writers (themselves Vigilantes or friends of Vigilantes)
obviously had a record which needed defending. That the Vigilantes finally
relinquished their power to the civil authorities does not speak for their
attitude in earlier days, a fact which Judge Hosmer took into account
when setting up the first district court in December of 1864. Why appeal
to them to be law-abiding otherwise?
As it turned out, his fears were well founded.
There is little point in denying that the Vigilantes had good reason
for mistrusting public trials. Mining camp populations were transitory
in nature and a free-and-easy toleration of the criminal element had helped
to elevate Plummer to great power in the first place. Such toleration
was of the most reprehensible kind, because no one with two eyes could
conceal from himself (howevermuch he might conceal from his neighbor)
the vicious behavior of the road agents or doubt that they were the persons
responsible for the criminal acts committed day after day, often with
the flimsiest kind of concealment. Dimsdale-Langford indulged in fictioneering
when they described Plummer as a leader of genius. He and his cohorts
blundered again and again, as the record plainly shows. As repositories
of dark secrets they were flat failures. Compared to criminals like Murell
of Natchez Trace, they were bumpkins fresh from mother's knee.
Admitting all that, I still feel that the Vigilantes have a good deal
to answer for if they deliberately flaunted a court system which they
might have used once in a while. I am impressed by the fact that on several
occasions a specific pledge to a criminal that he would be taken to Virginia
City for trial was deliberately broken. As we have noted, Dimsdale-Langford
ascribe such behavior to the fear of armed assault by thugs still at large
in the town. It seems probable that what the Vigilantes feared much more
was subjection to anguished appeals by women. They always dreaded that
contingency, even when facing prostitutes. The Vigilantes themselves would
hold firm, of that they were sure, but what about the fickle miners? The
precedents were most discouraging.
The most revealing action of the Vigilantes with respect to the court
system the early period is found in the Slade affair. Slade was a public
nuisance of the first order and a menace to society, but at the time of
his hanging he had supposedly committed none of the crimes for which men
were ordinarily executed in Montana Territory.
At one time, it seems, he had even been a member of the Vigilantes. After
the mass executions in Virginia City early in 1864, Alexander Davis shamed
the reluctant Vigilantes into setting up what was known as the People's
Court. Davis was elected presiding judge of it. 
Although its announced purpose was to hold fair and open trials of a more
constitutional sort, the Vigilantes opposed what they considered its kid-glove
treatment of Slade. They favored his direct punishment at their own hands.
When Slade defied the court after one of his wild carousals the Vigilantes
lost patience and called for a general meeting of their members. At that
time the more timid miners had enrolled as Vigilantes and the small groups
which had initiated the movement were swelled by hundreds.
The leading members constituted the Executive Committee, hitherto the
real power of the organization. When the angry miners poured in from neighboring
localities, as bloodthirsty now as they had been timorous before, the
Executive Committee reluctantly surrendered control and Slade was hanged
against their wishes. Consider the episode from the Committee's point
of view. What was this larger assemblage but the old miners' court all
over again, with its running after extremes, its intense emotionalism,
and its lack of respect for the "better element" of the Vigilantes? If
the Vigilante leaders retained any confidence in popular juries before
the Slade affair, surely that fiasco convinced them it was misplaced.
I do not think most people realize how strongly the Vigilante officers
must have felt about juries. I say "must have," out of deference to those
who may be unconvinced by my previous remarks on the subject. For them
I have a final consideration to offer. When we read that "the Vigilantes"
did this or that, it is important to keep in mind the structure of the
organization, because the number of Vigilantes who performed the more
important tasks was very small. Under the "Regulations and Bye Laws" adopted
in 1863, the trial and sentencing of criminals was left to an Executive
Committee of seventeen members. 
When I speak of "the Vigilantes" operating in a secret manner, it is the
Executive Committee I refer to, as the other branches of the organization
simply carried out orders handed down from on high. The "hundreds" or
thousands" whom, the public saw at the most famous executions had no more
to do with the trials of the accused than the public itself.
Confusion on this point has developed out of an unfortunate use of the
word "committee." At times Dimsdale-Langford use it in reference to the
Executive Committee, and at other times to the entire body of Vigilantes.
By remembering the special powers entrusted to the Executive Committee,
the reader can easily keep the two groups separate when studying any particular
action by "the Vigilantes" or "the Committee." Arguments to the effect
that the Vigilantes were justified in ignoring the miners' courts, since
these they could not trust, are less impressive when it is realized that
the Executive Committee rarely permitted the rank-and-file Vigilantes
to participate in the trial of accused persons.
Under the procedure laid down by the regulations it was fairly easy for
the leaders to keep a close scrutiny over the membership, so I do not
think they retained supreme power in their own hands out of fear of infiltration
by the criminal class. Nor, for that matter, do I think they did so out
of sheer perversity. All the observations I have made with respect to
their attitude toward the miners' court apply equally well here. They
just did not trust juries, that is all. Let us pass to another subject
for the moment.
Langford tells us in so many words that Vigilante activity disappeared
gradually. Once the Vigilantes
"found the courts adequate to their necessities," they saw no reason to
continue. Later revivals of the organization were "extreme cases" in which
"the slower process of law" had to be anticipated, but "only when the
offense was of a very aggravated character." During Plummer's day the
excuse had been that there was no judicial system at all; now, with People's
courts and Territorial district courts in operation, the slowness of ordinary
procedure is considered sufficient justification for private killings.
Quite a change. Competition with established courts was no new thing for
the Montana Vigilantes, however. In August of 1864 the deputy sheriff
of Madison county and a Vigilante captain both appeared in a Salt Lake
court to claim a man charged with theft in Montana. He had been "arrested"
in Utah by the Vigilante officer. It is not certain that the sheriff and
the captain contested one another's claim to the man, but when the court
freed him (because neither claimant had a warrant) .it "refused to deliver
him to either of the applicants for custody..." 
Montana Vigilantes in the vicinity then ignored the court by kidnapping
the thief and bringing him to trial in Montana Territory, where he was
hanged. (The reader might also keep this episode in mind when he reads
that the sole object of the peacemakers was to drive the criminal element
out of Montana.)
On June 7, 1865, what appears to have been another conflict with the
courts took place, this one in the new town of Helena. A person named
Keene surrendered to a citizen of the town immediately after murdering
a man in plain daylight in front of a saloon. The prisoner was turned
over to the sheriff, and there can be little doubt that at a regular trial
he would have been sentenced to death by any jury that ever sat. Before
that could happen a crowd gathered and formed a committee to try him at
once. Vigilantes from Alder Gulch were on hand to provide leadership.
The sheriff refused to surrender his prisoner (a sure sign that sentiment
for regular trials was growing), but he was overpowered and the victim
was hanged by orders of a special jury called on the spur of the moment.
As this "trial" was only partly dominated by Vigilante influence, the
public saw a good deal of it and the deliberations were long According
to Dimsdale, the episode demonstrated that a more formal Vigilante organization
was required. The Helena Vigilantes immediately took form, to commence
without delay the great work of executing criminals at no cost to the
The Keene hanging illuminates certain dark aspects of Vigilante history
which I must deal with here in order to show that the crowd which tried
him in this informal manner had a perfectly feasible alternative before
them. A word on the court system is in order. Although Keene was tried
and punished almost a full year after Montana Territory was constituted,
the only Territorial court authorized to try felonies did not sit in Helena
until August 1, 1865, too late to be of service to Keene or his accusers.
Montana was a part of Idaho Territory for a time and subject to its laws,
but the Idaho district courts did not fully organize before Montana was
set off as a separate Territory, so they did not figure in the Vigilante
history of this state. I mention the Idaho courts at this point so the
reader may understand that the situation facing the Helena people in the
Keene affair was legally the same as that which the citizens of Bannack
and Alder Gulch had to contend with in 1863-64.
The only duly-constituted court in Helena at the time was that held by
Justice of the Peace Qrsin Miles, and JP courts had no authority to try
felonies.  What, then, were
the good people of Helena to do? Release Keene and give him liberty to
murder others because there was no legal way of terminating his career?
The people of the West were often faced with such a dilemma during the
first months of Territorial government. Unwilling to free dangerous criminals,
they had no choice but to try them by a court which had justice, if not
law, on its side; a court of their own devising. Two such courts had emerged,
the Vigilante court and the People's court. To the uncritical reader there
might seem to have been little difference between them, since both were
extra-legal and both had to rely upon the inchoate mass of the citizenry
for support. But the differences were fundamental. The Vigilante "court"
was a private affair whose principal sanction was violence. Lawyers were
not permitted to argue for defendants, as a general rule, and other elements
of fair trial were missing. Vigilante decrees were irrevocable, since
the Vigilantes answered to nobody but themselves. The People's court represented
an orderly evolution from the old, unwieldy miners' court. Our information
for such courts in Montana is scanty, but very likely they operated here
much as they did elsewhere Defense attorneys were sometimes present and
in general there was some effort to adhere to the spirit of the common
law, the People's courts thereby serving as a check on the blood-lust
of enraged mobs anxious to inflict summary punishment. Vigilante committees
were irregular by their very nature. People's courts were continuing bodies
with a sense of responsibility. As we have seen, the Vigilantes more than
once competed with the established courts. I know of no instance in Montana
where a People's court did so, and most of them gladly laid down their
authority when Territorial district courts appeared on the scene.
I think it was to the People's court which Sanders referred when he
later said that the "voluntary organization of miners' courts had in the
spring [of 1864] yielded their jurisdiction without resistance or regret
to the justices of the peace and the probate courts...
If he had some other body in mind he was wrong. Criminal trials before
the old-fashioned miners' courts ended with the Ives trial of December,
1863. They were succeeded first by Vigilante action, then by the People's
court of Virginia City, and finally by the Vigilantes again, working parallel
with the People's courts. Probate courts had only civil jurisdiction.
In suggesting that justices of the peace tried major criminals, Sanders
probably meant that these officers often presided at the People's courts
in order to give a semblance of legality to their proceedings, a common
practice in other Territories and doubtless here. I think that wherever
a justice of the peace is found presiding at what is otherwise described
as a simple miners' court, one is in reality dealing with a People's court.
I refer to real justices of the peace, men who bore commissions from some
Territorial governor, and not to persons elected to that office by miners.
Readers who must have a villain to hate but nevertheless cannot bring
themselves to criticize the Vigilantes, in spite of all I have said, may
vent their spleen on the Federal government, especially Congress; for
there was no immutable law barring the solons from providing for the judicial
interregnum which frequently took place between the founding of a Territory
and the establishment of Territorial district courts. In earlier days
of Territorial government, governors could be empowered to establish a
temporary police system designed to operate until the Territorial judges
arrived and set up shop. By
1864, when Montana was created, the Territorial system had become too
rigid for that, largely because of the indifference of Congress. But this
is beside the point. We have seen the suspicion with which Judge Hosmer
regarded the Vigilantes. The district court not only refused to retry
an issue determined by the People's court but affirmed its judgments in
an official manner. The law-abiding
citizens of Montana should have supported their People's courts and used
the Vigilantes as policemen only. Where no People's court existed it was
the work of a minute to establish one. It is wrong to say that Montanans
had the Vigilantes or nothing.
Returning to the later revivals of Vigilante power, we have already
seen the attitude of a Helena group in 1867 toward the new appearances
there, and Langford admits that one such revival (the lynching of Daniels)
was wholly wrong. He nevertheless gives a broad sanction to the later
activities in the words quoted above, and speaks insinuatingly about irresponsible
elements within the Vigilante organization, or of persons who were not
Vigilantes at all, as the agents responsible for occasional lapses from
high standards. It seems to me that the failures he glosses over so easily
were inevitable in any organization which set itself above the law. The
logical end of the process was reached in Helena, in 1870, where the Vigilantes
coolly seized two prisoners from jail by force and hanged them in outright
defiance of a Territorial judge who urged that the prisoners be turned
over to the Territorial court. The deed was not done in the heat of passion
but calmly, with the fullest knowledge of the seriousness of what was
afoot. While few modern writers discuss this outrage, earlier historians
were more forthright. Bancroft said that it would "recommend itself to
all lovers of justice." Was
this what was known as "mobocracy, lynch law, the work of the infuriate
rabble?" Certainly not. 
I am quite sure that a goodly number of Montana citizens did not approve
of these revivals, and I point to efforts by Langford to de-odorize the
hangings as demonstrating the existence of criticism. What of the executions
he does not mention? In spite of the fact that Langford had ample opportunity
to treat the revivals in detail it is significant that he speaks only
in general terms, the Daniels case excepted. He gives us accounts of Vigilante
activity all over the West, but of the two actions last described, not
a word. As an example of his crafty methods his treatment of the Helena
affair of 1870 is worth emphasizing. Only a few weeks before it took place
a hot controversy pro and con the Vigilante system raged in the regional
press. If Langford had discussed
the hanging he could hardly have passed over the newspaper war, so he
omitted both. His slavish successors have done the same.
There is still another way to measure the public attitude toward the
Vigilantes, and that is to examine the Vigilantes' attitude toward the
public. The only man of the original group of leaders who derived great
political profit from his Vigilante work was Col. W. F. Sanders, and he
was a special case. Sanders was best known to the people as the prosecutor
of Ives, an action which preceded organized Vigilante activity in Montana.
The trial of Ives was of the old-fashioned sort, a real miners' meeting.
Sanders had no formal organization to defend him at the time, and it was
his personal bravery under harrowing circumstances which paid political
dividends later. Other members minimized their Vigilante connections.
They did so at a time when a universal rage for public office incited
the host of candidates to boast of anything which had the effect of setting
them apart as bold leaders of men. If the ex-Vigilantes did not choose
to run on their record as public benefactors, was it because Vigilante
activity was not as popular as Dimsdale-Langford suggest?
In closing I wish to call attention to several other aspects of Vigilante
behavior which need more study than they have received. I will not have
been the first to suggest that there may have been some connection between
the politics of the Vigilantes and their standing with both the criminal
class and the public at large. Dimsdale, Bancroft, Langford, and other
early historians speak as though most of the Montana roughs were Southerners
and perhaps Secessionists.
The principal Vigilantes, on the other hand, seem to have been mostly
Unionists. While it would be
too much to say that the Vigilantes ever hanged anybody for political
reasons, unless in the case of Daniels, it is conceivable that the sympathy
given to some of the accused men by non-Vigilantes sprang from a common
political sentiment. If true, it would help to explain why some men never
became Vigilantes. It would also tend to justify the mistrust of popular
juries by the Vigilantes. The political question has many ramifications.
Leeson has a statement to the effect that the Vigilantes once warned Governor
Edgerton that they would "resume the actual government of the Territory"
if he did not conduct an election according to their wishes.
Sanders denied the episode flatly, but Leeson often had good sources for
his stories. An unbiased journalist of wide experience visited Montana
in 1865, and after describing the Territorial government which supposedly
ran things there he said: "Actually the power was vested in the 'Vigilantes,'
a secret tribunal of citizens, organized before civil laws were framed,
when robberies and cold-blooded murders were of daily occurence."
The journalist was on good terms with the Vigilantes and apparently wrote
these words as a simple matter of fact, obvious to all. I am still treading
where others have trod when I assert that a little research might show
a similar connection between the Freemasons and the Vigilantes. From a
suggestive chapter in Langford it has long been suspected that the Masons
sponsored the Vigilantes in Montana and carried the movement to success.
The official spokesman for the order has held otherwise, however, although
he identified eleven of the original twelve Vigilantes as members. "This
fact," he said, "is significant to this extent only: the Masons knew they
could trust each other and consequently they took counsel of each other
and acted in conjunction... I do not think it occurred to any one at that
time that anybody was active in the work because he was or because he
was not a Mason." Henry Plummer
had doubts on this point, and so do I. The Masonic order in Montana was
an offshoot of the Northern branches of the organization and was probably
loyal to the Union. A considerable
number of miners were Roman Catholics as well as Democrats, and the inharmonious
relationship between the church and the fraternity is too well known to
require further discussion here. The Masonic order may thus have served
to reinforce other prejudices which caused the Vigilantes to act as they
did. Furthermore, I am pretty well convinced that the ceremonial character
of Freemasonry, as well as the traditions of the California Vigilante
movement, inspired the forms adopted by the Vigilantes. These considerations
do not prove Callaway wrong, of course, but they temper his reasoning
somewhat. While reading accounts of Vigilante activity in the West I have
often been impressed by the importance of taxation a factor responsible
for the poor support given to the regular courts and magistrates. Bancroft
admits that men were sometimes hanged as a substitute for trying and punishing
them at the public expense. Dimsdale-Langford allude to the same attitude
in Montana. There was nothing to prevent the miners from taxing themselves
sufficiently to provided a fund from which a large police force, a strong
jail, and a reasonably well paid judiciary might have been supported-nothing
but their dislike of taxes. I find myself wondering whether those who
might otherwise have denounced the Vigilantes remained quiet rather than
pay out money for a better system of law enforcement.
In the course of my critique I have refrained from citing relevant passages
in the books of Dimsdale and Langford as support for my assertions and
suspicions in order that you, the reader, might study these works and
draw your own conclusions on the basis of the whole record and not just
parts of it. I probably ought to add that I arrived at my present position
on the strength of my reading of these two books alone, and turned to
other evidence merely out of curiosity, never doubting what I would find
there. I have introduced some of this outside evidence because I feared
that without it my conclusions would seem incredible to those who have
read Dimsdale-Langford in the traditional manner. Additional material
in my possession reinforces my feeling on these matters, but as this material
will eventually be published by others I will not anticipate what they
have to say. My motive in writing this little study was to stimulate critical
thinking about a phase of our history which has been treated superficially
by the popular writers, the ones most people read. When Professor Webb
recently implied that the history of the Far West was hardly worth writing
I had to disagree with him, but had he said that it was hardly worth reading
on the basis of what we find in the book stores today, I must have supported
John Welling Smurr is an instructor of history at Montana State University.
Recently he co-edited, along with K. Ross Toole, the first book length
publication of the newly created Western Press of the Historical Society
of Montana, Historical Essays on Montana and the Northwest.