Footnotes to Some Afterthoughts on the Vigilantes
by J. W. Smurr
There are many editions of
Thomas J. Dimsdale's Vigilantes of Montana, published as a newspaper serial
in 1865 and as a book in 1866. The two should probably be compared. I used
the 1949 reproduction by McKee Printing Company of Butte. The most recent
re-issue of Nathaniel Pitt Langford's Vigilante Days and Ways (1890) is
the Montana State University edition of 1957. I regret that Langford's own
introduction was not included in it. Eyewitness accounts published after
1866 were influenced by Dimsdale's presentation and must be used with caution.
This applies in particular to two "primary" sources for the period, the
Beidler and Thompson narratives. In her History of Montana (Chicago & N.
Y.: Lewis Publishing Co. 1913, 3 vols.), I, pp. 183-230, Helen Fitzgerald
Sanders drew heavily on a Beidler manuscript which she says he composed
in 1S89-90, the last six months of his life (I, p. 194n). In a recent and
peculiar edition by herself and William H. Bertsche, Jr., earlier dates
are mentioned: X. Beidler, Vigilante (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press,
1957), pp. vii, xii, xiii, 117n. Francis M. Thompson, another who was present
during part of the early Vigilante movement, did not write his story until
he was an old man. It appeared as "Reminiscences of Four-Score Years," in
the Massachusetts Magazine, as follows: (1912, Supplement), 5:123-67; (January,
1913), 6:28-45; (April, 1913), 6:63-81; (July, 1913), 6:99-124; (October,
1913), 6:159-90; (January, 1914), 7:11-31; (April, 1914), 7:85-94; (July,
 In a radio broadcast later reprinted in the East Boston Leader of October 7, 1949, Edward Rowe Snow located the family home of Henry Plummer at 56 webster street, East Boston, Massachusetts. The Plummers were bakers, he said, and Henry was a baker too. In that capacity he shipped out of Boston on November 11, 1851, on Donald McKay's clipper, "Flying Fish." From there he went to California, etc., etc. The story is plausible even though it conflicts with Langford at some points. Langford claims to have met the Plummer family in later years. He placed their home in Connecticut.
 Edward C. Russell (ed.), Proceedings of the Montana Bar Association [1885-1902] (Helena: State Publishing Company, 1902 [? ] ), pp. 174-75.
 The story was still circulating in the 1920's when the publication of Stuart's memoirs put it to rout. There it was revealed that Stuart's nephew, not his son, was involved in the affray, and that he was merely impounded: -- Granville Stuart, Forty Years on, the Frontier, edited by Paul C. Phillips (Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1925), II, p. 207 and note. Stuart's valuable book was recently reissued by the Clark company.
 Few people put such sentiments into print. There was little profit in doing so, since by 1890 authoritative literature had loaded the scales in favor of the Vigilantes. Persons likely to suspect Dimsdale's candor were everborne by the mass of documents presented by H, H. Bancroft in Vol. I of his Popular Tribunals (San Francisco: History Company, 1887), pp, 67O-714. These documents seemed to support Dimsdale on all points. They tempered the loose statements of Olga Bandel, whose Banditti of the Rocky Mountains and Vigilance Committee in Idaho (Chicago, 1865) was described by Dimsdale as "vulgar fable" (Montana Post), August 26, 1865). Contemporaries of Bancroft like John W. Clampitt, author of Echoes from the Rocky Mountains (Chicago: American Mutual Library Ass'n., 1890 ed. of the 1888 work) were no less uncritical in accepting Dimsdale. Langford's book both reinforced the Dimsdale-Bancroft tradition and was reinforced by it.
 Bancroft tells the story in Popular Tribunals, I, p 704. He was frankly baffled by the incident and did not know how to fit it into his vigilante philosophy, in spite of which he was good enough to say that the pro-Vigilante editor of the Montana Post considered the members of the new group "honest and respectable."
 Montana As It Is, Paul C. Phillips, ed.. The Frontier (November, 1931). Vol. 12; reprinted as No. 16 of Sources of Northwest History (Missoula: State University of Montana).
 Helena Weekly Herald, June 28, 1888.
 A. K. McClure, Three Thousand Miles Through the Rocky Mountains (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1869), p.238 This writer was in no position to know the facts. One month after making the above statement in Virginia City he wrote: "During the six weeks I have been in Montana I have not rotated outside of a circle of eight miles from this place..." -- Ibid. p. 239. During his stay in Montana, Sanders, Beidler. Howie and other Vigilante stalwarts filled him with stories which probably made him useless as a reporter.-- Ibid., p, 420.
 In later years, at least, Amede Bessette stated that the Vigilantes made a mistake in hanging R. C. Reighly (or Rawley) in the fall of 1864: -- Amede Bessette, "The last Bandit Hanged in Bannack" (ms. B R27, Historical Society of Montana Library, Helena). Addison Wolfe opposed the hanging of Slade the same year A. I. Noyes, "Mr. and Mrs. Addison Wolfe" (ms B W83 Historical Society of Montana Library).
 When they did boast it was before their own kind or in the presence of Eastern journalists easily taken in. See sources in note 9, above.
 The situation in Idaho was different. There the criminals not only captured many law-enforcement agencies but important political offices as well: William J. McConnell, Frontier Law (NY: World Book Company, 1924), pp. 172-95, et passim. According to Beidler, Henry Plummer applied for the position of U. S. marshal and the commission was granted and arrived after his death. (Sanders and Bertsche, Beidler, p, 22.) Had Plummer lived to claim his office the Vigilantes could have safely hanged him anyway, certain of the support of Chief Justice (later Governor) Edgerton. (McConnell's book should be weighed against his earlier manuscript in the Bancroft Library. He covered somewhat the same ground in his Early history of Idaho [Caldwell: Caxton Printers, 1913] )
 Hoffman Birney,Vigilantes (Philadelphia: Penn Publishing Company, 1929), p. 340. The old saying that knights of the quill are more bloodthirsty than soldiers is borne out in Vigilante literature.
 Thompson purports to give Hosmer's charge in its entirety. He reproduces the first part of it, and what he offers is highly flattering to the Vigilantes. What he does not print is the longer section following the introduction, wherein Hosmer insists that Vigilante activity must be halted at once or it will end by corrupting the Vigilantes themselves. His inspired prophecy was wasted: -- Francis M. Thompson, "Reminiscences," etc., Massachusetts Maqazine (January, 1914), 7:12-13; Montana Post, December 10, 1864.
 There are many accounts of Slade's life and most of them contradict one another. The latest information shows that he was indicted by a Colorado grand jury on March 2, 1863, for assault with intent to kill. He fled to Montana before his trial commenced. On learning that the Montana Vigilantes had hanged him the Colorado marshal scribbled on the arrest warrant, "Slade is dead, defunct." -- Forbes Parkhill, The Law Goes West (Denver; Sage Books, 1956), pp, 55-57.
 The best source of information on the People's Court of Virginia City is the account written by Davis' son:-- Walter N. Davis, "Hung For Contempt of Court" (ms. 97S.6 D28, Historical Society of Montana Library, Helena).
 This, at any rate, is the conclusion I have come to after consulting the welter of statements on the size of the Vigilante organization from one period to the next. In the case of Slade the question is whether the men who came to the execution from surrounding areas are to be counted as Vigilantes or not. Dimsdale-Langford are fuzzy here. In some cases the confusion of numbers is probably no accident. Whenever something was done which might reflect discredit on the Vigilantes, their apologists have been tempted to say that the real culprits were crude outsiders, thereby implying a rather small Vigilante organization. A prime example is Bancroft's comment on the killing of Joe Pizanthia. Those present at the slaying went berserk and treated the corpse in a barbarous manner. "It was a mob, not the Vigilance Committee, which in a frenzy executed its vengeance in this way," he says. (Popular Tribunals, I, p. 682.) For other accounts see Bandel, Banditti, p, 136; and William H. Clandening, "Across the Plains in 1863-65," North Dakota Historical Quarterly (July, 1928, II, p, 269.)
 The Regulations are reproduced in Birney's Vigilantes, pp. 218-21.
 Here we should say that the Committee always held their examinations in secret, and executions in public."-Bandel, Banditti, p. 95.
 The authority of the Executive Committee was sometimes delegated, it seems, but always to small and select groups. The men who pursued and captured the road agents after the execution of Boone Helm usually "tried" their prisoners before hanging them. These trials were probably modelled on those conducted in the city by the Executive Committee and are interesting for that reason. They had the supreme merit of taking place without the intervention of defense attorneys, a very desirable state of affairs from the Vigilante point of view. One of the reasons for the Vigilantes' dislike of miners' courts was the success of defense lawyers who appeared there to defend road agents. Some writers imply that all these attorneys were crooks. Langford says that one of them "was a man of remarkable ability in his profession, and of correct and generous impulses. To a clear, logical mind and thorough knowledge of his profession, he added fine pointers as an orator; and it was these qualities, more than any sympathy he indulged for his clients, that rendered him obnoxious to public censure and suspicion. After an exile of two years he returned to the Territory, and resumed the practice of law, which he followed with success until his death, which occurred in Helena in 1870. He was greatly lamented by all who knew him."
 Confirmed by Wayne Gard, Frontier Justice (Norman: Oklahoma University Press, 1949), pp. 183-88; Bancroft, Popular Tribunals, I, pp. 696-713; M. A. Lee- son. History of Montana. 1739-1885 (Chicago; Warner, Beers & Company, 1885), pp. 302-16; and McClure, Three Thousand Miles, pp. 286, 378-79, 391,et passim.
 Bancroft, Popular Tribunals, I, p. 694.
 An eyewitness account, presumably by Dimsdale himself, is printed in the Montana Post for June 17, 1865. It should be used in conjunction with the version given in his book. In the newspaper Keene is described as surrendering himself to a citizen, who then gave him over to the sheriff. (For this and certain other newspaper references used by me in this article I am indebted to Mr. John Hakola of the Historical Society of Montana, Helena.) Beidler uses the word "Committee" in such a way when telling of the Keene affair that I think he meant to show that the action ended as a Vigilante project, regardless of how it began: -- Sanders and Bertsche, X. Beidler, p. 115.A worthless rehash of the Dimsdale version appeared in the St. Louis Globe Democrat of October 11, 1889.
 Montana Post, August 5, 1865. In theory, felons could have been taken to the courts which were operating in the southern part of the Territory, but I think the Vigilantes were right in saying that the long delays which such a procedure entailed gave rise to further crime. They also said that district court juries never found capital offenders guilty. Contempt for the district courts was widespread, according to McClure: -Three Thousand Miles, pp. 332-35, 388, 411.
 This accounts for the otherwise puzzling inactivity of Chief Justice Edgerton of the Idaho court during 1863. His encouragement of the Vigilante movement is something else again.
 The appointment of Miles is reported by the Montana Post for February 18, 1865.
 Russell, Proceedings of the Montana Bar Association, p. 174.
 For example, the authority bestowed upon Governor Sargent of Mississippi Territory in 1798: -- Clarence E. Carter (ed.), The Territorial Papers of the United States, v. (Mississippi), p. 32; Sargent's Code (Jackson: Historical Records Survey, 1939), p. ii.
 Davis, "Hung For Contempt of Court," (Historical Society of Montana Library, Helena).
 The People's courts have been neglected by legal historians. Modern writers tend to confuse them with the well-known miners' courts, for one reason because they did not always distinguish themselves by name, and for another because they did not exist except where the miners' courts had time to develop into this more mature form. Most mining camps were ephemeral. Langford says that the People's court which operated in Virginia City from January to December of 1S64 "possessed all the requisites for trial of a constitutional court..." Davis' account (see note 16, above) is in the same vein. This means that the court had regular magistrates, regular juries, regular rules of procedure; and for these reasons differed from the hit-or-miss miners' courts of an earlier day. (Other sources on the People's court can be found by working back through the footnotes in Gard's Frontier Justice, pp. 254-89.)
 Popular Tribunals, I, p. 706.
 Ibid., p. 712. Also described in Gard, Frontier Justice, p. 186. An uncritical and laudatory account written by an impressionable boy is presented by David Hilger in his "Vigilante Trail and Execution," Rocky Mountain Magazine (April, 1901), 2:632-36.
 Daily Rocky Mountain Gazette, January 18, 1870; Helena Daily Herald, January 25; Daily Rocky Mountain Gazette, January 26; Helena Daily Herald, January 26; Daily Rocky Mountain Gazette, January 27; Ibid., January 28; Helena Daily Herald, January 31; Daily Rocky Mountain Gazette, January 29; Ibid., February 1; Ibid., February 2; Ibid., February 4.
 Again, the contrast with Idaho is interesting. The cautious and methodical William J. McConnell, leader of the famous Payette organization, was elected governor and U. S. senator by his state. Like Beidler of Montana he was first rewarded for his Vigilante service with an appointment as deputy U. S. marshal, but there the parallel ends. Beidler had a coarse strain and did not shrink at bloodshed. McConnell avoided violence at all costs, a fact which sets him and his group apart from their Montana counterparts. In the later days of the Virginia City Vigilantes there was some kind of a liaison with McConnell's people, but I gather that it did not last long: -- McConnell, Frontier Law, p, 202.
 Donald L. Sorte, a graduate student in history at Montana State University, has made a brief check of road agents whose names are known, and if his findings are correct these men were mostly from non-Southern states. The conclusion is tentative. Possibly other criminals punished later by the Vigilantes were of Southern extraction.
 Sorte's material seems to bear this out.
 History of Montana, p. 242.
 Albert D. Richardson, Beyond the Mississippi (Hartford: American Publishing Co, 1867), p. 487.
 Judge Lew L. Callaway in Gould's History of Freemasonry Throughout the World, edited by Dudley Wright (NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1936), V, p. 396.
 Most of the lodges had a Kansas heritage. Others came from Kansas via Colorado: -- Ibid., p. 396. Of course, Southern lodges had difficulty in spreading to the West during the Civil War.
 Congress finally admitted its responsibility for building places of detention and erected Territorial penitentiaries all over the West. Seldom were they constructed soon enough. The earlier Territories were even more shabbily treated: -- "Resolution No. 19," March 4, 1841, Act and Resolutions of the Legislative Council of the Territory of Florida [19th sess., 1841] (Tallahassee: C. E. Bartlett, 1841), p. 70.
 Walter Prescott Webb, "The American West, Perpetual Mirage," Harper's Magazine (May, 1957), 214;25-31; "The West and the Desert," Montana, the Magazine of Western History (Winter, 1958), 8:2-12. My essay was written before I read "Their Majesties the Mob, by John W. Caughey [Pacific Historical Review, XXVI (August, 1957), pp. 217-34]. It appears that my conclusions agree with his on all points, although he was not especially concerned with Montana.