As for criminal records, only two came to the eastern mines as escaped convicts (both charged with mule theft), and though there had been no conviction, another had reportedly attempted horse thievery before his arrival. Three others were suspected of committing a robbery during their stay at Alder Gulch and two more of attempting a robbery. The man reputed to be the worst of the lot had killed twice but had escaped conviction. The twenty-one victims of the vigilantes' winter spree had several interesting commonalities: more than three-fourths had arrived in the area with no previous criminal record, had come from "the other side" of the mountain, had personal enemies among the vigilante leaders, and had never taken a human life. Of the nine who took an interest in politics, literally all were Democrats. And at the time of their capture, nearly half were either sick, wounded, or crippled.
Legally, of course, the lynched men were guilty of no crimes, nor were their lynchers. Federal legislators had failed to keep in force the criminal law codes existing in the territories from which Idaho was formed. Therefore, in January and February 1864 there was no criminal law for Idaho citizens to violate. But from a moral -- rather than a legal -- viewpoint, the important issue is whether each executed man actually committed the act for which vigilantes hanged him. Because the victims received no trials and because the charges against them were often based on hearsay or information obtained by coercion from another victim who hoped to save his own life, the twenty-one lynchings have left posterity a legacy of twenty-one unanswered questions.
In fairness to the vigilantes, it should be stated that many of their leaders advocated commendable reforms. As they recognized, justice should be administered in a timely and sure fashion, and jurors should be the wisest citizens in the community. But as one of their contemporaries commented, their idea of "breaking the laws themselves to induce others to respect" the laws was not sound.
The vigilantes, a member of the Executive Committee wrote, "had nothing to do... with the crimes he [a victim] had committed before he came to the Territory." Thus the organization claimed to deal only with acts committed in the Bannack-Alder Gulch area. Since most victims had committed no known crime at the eastern mines, the charge of belonging to a robber gang was the only justification for hanging them. The existence of such a gang is essential to the vigilantes' case.
Due to the dangers inherent in transporting gold dust from the mines, myths of robber gangs were prolific in the West. California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Nevada, and Idaho were all supposed to have their highly organized criminal networks. Stories about these various bands were quite similar. One California county, for example, feared "organized bands of desperadoes, with signs, passwords and grips, and with chiefs and lieutenants, who lay in wait in and around the mining camps, ready for plunder and murder." Another county preserved tales about "a band of cut-throats and highway robbers that numbered several hundred, and who pillaged the State [California] from the Oregon border to the southern lakes." This band also had a "regular code of signals, signs, and passwords, by which they made themselves known to each other whenever they met." An advantage of membership, in addition to receiving a share of the booty, was that "the individual being recognized as a member of the gang, was treated with all the hospitality due a 'man of the road." With such rumors abroad, a mob could justify almost any lynching by afterwards advising citizens that the victim had belonged to an outlaw group which represented a dire threat to the community. The lynching, the prohanging faction claimed, would help eliminate the gang and thus put an end to crime in the area.
Newspapers reported a Nevada gang operating out of a small valley in the Humboldt range and consisting of "about two hundred and fifty men, well armed and equipped." Their goal was "murder and pillage," and they enlisted "the red men" to aid them in their "diabolical deeds." A Utah editor, however, found it strange that so large a number could band together without anyone having sighted the "guerilla camp." "How much truth there may be in the rumors," the editor commented, "if any, cannot well be determined." But since the report was confirmed by "two men who had deserted from the band," Governor James Nye was anxious to capture the outlaws and condemn them to "pull hemp."
Washington Territory also had its reports of a "band of desperadoes" to which "every gambler or rough infesting" the Clearwater and Salmon River mines belonged. In order to carry out their "designs of plunder and butchery," they appointed spies in every camp and set up "shebangs" along the trails and near the settlements of Lewiston and Walla Walla. Literally every successful miner was "marked as prey, sooner or later," by these "systematized" robbers and murderers. One of the more prominent lieutenants, Langford claimed, was Charley Harper, and the commander was Henry Plummer, who secretly gave all orders and directed affairs with an iron hand. For a two-year period -- beginning with spring 1861 and ending spring 1863 -- Langford went on, the Plummer gang held the northern mines under a reign of terror, committing "vicious" crimes and then splitting the "unlimited reward." Though a contemporary newspaper had challenged the rumors, warning readers that robbery reports were greatly exaggerated, the articles failed to squelch the myth. Neither did the fact that Charley Harper, a loner suspected of horse thievery, was not known to have participated in, let alone directed, a single highway robbery in Washington Territory. It is therefore understandable that stories of the Plummer gang's two-year stranglehold on Washington persisted, despite conclusive evidence that Plummer spent less than two months in that area.
When placed in the perspective of other stories circulating in the West at the time, Montana's alleged robber band assumes a different complexion. According to popular rumor, Plummer's band was a confederation of lieutenants, spies, roadsters, fences, and stool pigeons bound together by an oath signed in "devil's ink," which was "blood taken from the veins of some murdered man and kept in a bottle for that purpose." The penalty for disobeying the captain, or chief, was death. One hundred fifty robbers "shaved down to moustache and chin whiskers," wore a sailor-knotted tie signifying brotherhood, and operated under a complex system of hand signals, passwords, hieroglyphics, and "horseback telegraphy." Their plunder supposedly totaled "hundreds of thousands of dollars" and their murdered victims added up to 102. Their ultimate goal was to fly their "pirates' flag" over Virginia City by spring 1864. The Plummer gang, an 1867 visitor to Virginia City wrote home, was "the most perfectly organized and best appointed band of desperadoes ever known on the continent."
As in Washington, the number of robberies claimed at the eastern mines was greatly exaggerated. Langford claimed that crime was so prevalent that "men were daily and nightly robbed and murdered."In reality, there were only three profitable robberies, and there is no evidence that the perpetrators of these three crimes worked together. From the two stage holdups, the alleged gang would have accumulated $3,300 and from Nicholas Tiebolt another $200, making each gang member's share $23.33, a small payoff for a year of intensive spying.
Though only one man -- Nick Tiebolt -- was known to have been killed in connection with a robbery, vigilantes gained a great deal of support from the claim that the band regularly killed those they robbed. "It is a good job that the gang... was broken up," one citizen informed an Oregon editor, "for it is known that they have murdered over one hundred persons." Yet in a letter home, Mary Edgerton revealed that the one hundred murdered people "had not been discovered" because the bodies had been "cut into pieces and put under the ice, others burned and others buried." Mary was repeating the explanation her husband, Justice Edgerton, had given her. Evidently it did not occur to her that if the bodies had never been found, there would be no way to determine how many there were, nor what had been done to them. The rough estimate of 102 was based on letters various residents had received inquiring about a friend or relative. But even had there been a formal list of missing persons, their causes of death would have included disease, accident, and treachery from members of their own party, as well as from Indians. And in some instances, letters may have been lost, or travelers may have simply failed to keep relatives informed of their location. It is commendable that in the virtually lawless territory, a miners' court conducted a trial for the supposed perpetrator of the single confirmed robbery-murder.
Citing Tiebolt's murder as the only documented example, a contemporary newspaper expressed doubt about "whether the organization of robbers and murderers was as great as reported." And twenty-six years later, Langford admitted that much of the crime at Bannack and Alder Gulch -- burglaries, flume robberies, brawls, and livestock theft -- had had no connection to the twenty-one men executed as a gang. "Many suspicious characters... unaffiliated with the robber gang," Langford wrote, "were engaged in the constant commission of crimes.... The country was full of horse and cattle thieves."
The descriptions of the robber band may have emanated from tales heard at the California, Washington, Nevada, and Colorado mines, but the details were those associated with any secret organization. The vigilantes themselves swore their own "oath of secrecy," chose lieutenants and a captain, uttered the password in "a low whisper," employed hand signals, adopted secret symbols and a number code for names, and relied upon spies in each camp. Dimsdale related the instance when a vigilante became "considerably scared" at forgetting the password, or in Dimsdale's esoteric language, the "articulate sound representing an idea." After being summoned before the chief, the forgetful man emerged from the meeting "with the drops of perspiration still on his forehead." The vigilantes, who never once encountered any organized opposition, seemed to have projected a mirror image of their own organization onto a supposed enemy.
But if there was no organized gang, what is to be made of Red Yeager's confession? According to Dimsdale, Williams ordered that Yeager's "words should be taken down." Thus the captain supposedly left the interrogation session with a written list of gang members. Yet, when quoting from this critical confession, four provigilante writers have come up with four different lists. Beidler, who was present during the confession, dictated twenty-three names for his journal. Yet Dimsdale added five more names to Beidler's list, and, though Langford agreed with Beidler in regards to the number of names on Red's list, he omitted four names Beidler had included and substituted four of his own. And Lew Callaway, who knew Captain Williams well and agreed that Yeager's confession was "committed to writing," prepared a roster which does not agree with any of the other three. Since the vigilantes preserved their "Oath," their "Regulations and Bye Laws," and even "Groceries Bought," but failed to retain the single document which might have justified lynching twenty-one men, no comparison can be made with the alleged original.
Dimsdale's list contained the following twenty-eight names: George Brown, Bill Bunton, Sam Bunton, Aleck Carter, Johnny Cooper, Bill Graves, Boone Helm, Doc Howard, Bill Hunter, George Ives, George Lane, George Lowry, Haze Lyons, Stephen Marshland, Mexican Frank, Gad Moore, Billy Page, Frank Parish, Henry Plummer, Ned Ray, Jem Romaine, George Shears, Cyrus Skinner, Buck Stinson, Billy Terwilliger, Dutch John Wagner, Red Yeager, and Bob Zachary. Only two of those listed -- Gad Moore and Billy Terwilliger -- did not die in the first part of 1864. The vigilantes killed twenty from Dimsdale's list; Lewiston authorities executed Doc Howard, G. C. Lowrey, and James Romain; a Lewiston citizen shot Billy Page a few months after he received immunity for testifying against the defendants in the Magruder murder trial; and Jason Luce fatally stabbed Sam Bunton.
In addition to the discrepancies between the various lists, Red Yeager's confession raises other questions. Why did Yeager's roster not include more names of alleged gang members who fled the area? Why, for example, was Tex Crow's name not included? Had Tom Reily's men not rescued him, would Reily's name have appeared on the list? Of 150 he had to choose from, how did Yeager happen to omit the names of those who would successfully escape and select those men who in ensuing weeks would become too weak to escape? How could he have been so prophetic as to foresee that Alex Carter and Johnny Cooper would quarrel on the very day they intended to leave for Pend Oreille and therefore still be at Cottonwood when Williams arrived? that Bill Bunton and Cyrus Skinner would not flee? or that Bill Hunter would become too ill to travel and that Adriel Davis would arrive at the cabin before Emery's partner could return with horse and gear? The simplest answer to these questions is that Red Yeager's roster was prepared after the lynchings. This would account for the membership roll conforming so closely to the men actually killed in early 1864, whether by vigilantes, authorities, or individuals. It would also explain how writers derived four different lists from one confession: there was no original to copy! If the order of events was actually killings followed by the making of a list of those killed (rather than the reverse, as claimed), those victims who cursed Yeager as a cowardly liar were blaming him for a list of names composed after his death.
Like Don Quixote, Captain Williams may have believed that he was fighting evil, an intricately organized, heavily armed outlaw band, but a recurring image in the twenty-one stories is a band of heavily armed vigilantes tracking a crippled loner, who on capture proved unable to walk though the snow to a corral or cottonwood limb without support. There is no evidence of any confederacy between the various individuals who carried out two stage holdups, Tiebolt's murder, the attempted robbery of the Forbes-Moody train, and the few undocumented robberies ranging from two to ten dollars. And if no organization, then there is no crime to attribute to men such as George Brown, and no gang for the miners' sheriff to have directed.
The stormy events of early 1864 were too complex to characterize as a combat between good and evil. The contest was not so much about highway robbery as about supremacy at the mining settlements. As Langford pointed out, some vigilantes used the organization to "promote their own selfish purposes." From each camp's inception there was conflict of interest and a resulting struggle to conduct affairs according to the benefit of one's own group. A difference which surfaced early was politics. As previously noted, the miners' sheriff and the majority of the twenty-one victims were Democrats, while vigilante leaders were mainly Republicans. "The Vigilance movement," one proponent of summary executions complained, "would have been a success if we had not been fool enough to admit two or three Democrats into the organization." Anyone who doubts the politics involved in the assassination at Bannack has only to peruse Langford's personal correspondence.
A basic difference between warring factions was their stand on the rights and worth of the individual. While the miners' organization governed the territory east of the Bitterroots, proceedings were democratic, and therefore were, to paraphrase Socrates, as good or as bad as those participating. At their mass meetings, the miners voted on the rules that guided their activities and elected officials to enforce them. In their courts, they settled such diverse problems as claim disputes, wife or child abuse, and murder. The judgments in these cases, two early attorneys agreed, usually "conformed to the dictates of reason and justice."
But the vigilante takeover represented a departure from camp democracy. "Government by the people en masse," Dimsdale stated, "is the acme of absurdity." The mining camps, he went on, were notorious for "uneducated and unprincipled people" being in "possession of vast sums of money," and, in addition, costs for conducting the miners' courts were "absolutely frightful." At their October 19, 1862, meeting, for example, miners had voted to pay a judge "the sum of $5.00 for presiding at each and every suit, together with 25 cents for all oaths administered," and to sheriff and deputies "25 cents each for summoning witness and jurors." The vigilantes' solution to the expensive court system was to replace judge and jurors with an elite, appointed group, and sheriff and deputies with an army of recruits. "I," President Pfouts wrote, "selected, with great care, an Executive Committee, to decide upon the guilt or innocence of accused persons, and appointed Captains of companies."
Under the vigilantes, Dimsdale wrote, "the face of society was changed." He was correct, for the individual had lost both voice and vote. Members of the rapidly growing organization were recruited by coercion if necessary, and dissension was quickly silenced by the same methods employed against suspects: a ring of cocked rifles. Whereas Sheriff Plummer and deputies had delivered suspects to the court for trial, the new judiciary system did not require the presence of the accused. In the cases of the Bannack law officers, for example, the Executive Committee determined guilt without interviewing the suspects. As Dimsdale explained, even without "conclusive evidence," guilt could be "morally certain." In making their judgments, vigilante officers relied heavily upon "intuitive insight" into men's characters.
Thus the miners' organization and the vigilantes had a basic disagreement as to the best method of administering justice. Yet even had they reached a compromise on the law and order issue, allowing the miners to govern the area still would have created unrest among the merchants. It was the investors who most needed to transport large sums of money from the mines, and they were dissatisfied with the protection the miners' law officers provided. Many of the merchants were men accustomed to dominating civic matters, and in their journals and memoirs they frequently grumbled about their lack of power at the mines, charging that the free elections were dominated not by hardworking miners, but by "roughs."
These merchants made a great distinction between themselves and the class of citizen they labeled roughs. "Many of them resided on ranches," Pfouts wrote, "but few of them exercised their muscles in the mines." The necessities of the roughs, Langford expounded, were "saloons, hurdy-gurdies, bagnios, and gambling-rooms." And when the roughs needed "clothing, ammunition, or food," they obtained it on credit, which no merchant "dared refuse." Until vigilantes broke up the gang, Langford contended, the roughs, who were "united by a bond of sympathetic atrocity, assumed the right to control the affairs of the camp by the bloody code."
In reality, the miners' lawmen -- the network of local sheriffs and deputies under Bannack's elected sheriff -- attempted to deal with all community disturbances and crime. For instance, when a young miner named Peter John Horan (or Herron) killed his aged partner on August 25, 1863, Bannack officers apprehended the suspect and, following his conviction and sentencing, duly executed him. Contrary to Pfouts's and Langford's contentions, there was no sharp distinction between businessmen and roughs. In Langford's own words, "all classes of society were represented" at the "drunken and rowdy" amusements, and "citizens of acknowledged respectability often walked... with noted courtesans in open day." As mentioned earlier, the respectable Paris Pfouts fought a constant battle with his gambling addiction. At the mines, Granville Stuart recalled, "everybody is on the gamble.... Funny how often our little testament gets lost, but we can always dig up a deck of cards any place or anywhere." And roughs were not the only citizens who invested in mines worked by someone else; Justice Edgerton, for example, owned seventy-five claims. When it came to gathering in the miners' hardearned gold dust, merchants who sold gum boots for an ounce an inch fared better than the robbers. Rather than contrasting businessmen and roughs, Conrad Kohrs drew a comparison. After the Virginia City banker charged $500 interest for a few day's loan of $5,000, Kohrs described the transaction as "almost like highway robbery."
The provigilante writers quoted above characterized the subjects of this book as roughs, but the twenty-one men did not have exclusive rights on vice in the mining communities any more than the businessmen had exclusive rights on religion and Masonry. A more accurate label for the group of vigilante victims would be "free-rangers," that is men associated with livestock herds. Unlike Justice Edgerton, who had difficulty staying on a horse, they were skilled riders. And unlike butcher Hank Crawford, who was not good with a pistol, or Wilbur Sanders, who set his overcoat on fire by testing a cocked revolver in his pocket, the free-rangers were adept with weapons. In selecting men to capture and kill the so-called roughs, it was necessary for merchant Pfouts to turn to individuals such as James Williams, who possessed skills equal to those possessed by the men he was pursuing.
The free-rangers followed a code of conduct which demanded both generosity and courage. "Any violation of a frank and manly course was severely censured," Langford admitted, and "a person guilty of any meanness, great or small, lost caste at once." With the exception of certain outcasts, such as Boone Helm, the group enjoyed a better reputation in the community than provigilante writers would have us believe. Those hanged as road agents "were not, as in California and Colorado, the shunned and abandoned men of the communities in which they lived," a contemporary wrote; "they were the most wealthy; influential, and by many at first believed to be useful citizens."
That the frontier-wise free-rangers provoked jealousy among the less adept is obvious in the latters' writings. Those hanged as gang members "were men of the world," an early Montana historian recorded. "Their knowledge of Western life was perfect." But, the writer continued, "knowing so much" was a "fault" which led them "above all thoughts of honest labor" and therefore "toward that life of shame" which necessitated "their execution." In order to "detect and punish the viciousness," it became expedient for the vigilantes to assume "justice-giving power." As the national commission on violence has pointed out, the bond between vigilantism and Freemasonry was "an intimate one," and the leaders of the Alder Gulch movement were drawn from "the upper level of the community," while the middle level supplied "the rank-and-file." Citizens joined the organization for a variety of reasons: pressure applied by recruiters, a desire to curb crime, political ambition, private revenge, the excitement of the hunt, or personal aggrandizement. The power wielded by the vigilantes appealed not only to men such as Williams, Beidler, Davis, and Beehrer, but also to Dimsdale. The timid schoolmaster was especially impressed by the domination the organization maintained over society. He referred to the vigilantes as "the power behind the throne of justice," the authority whose "power reaches from end to end of Montana." And indeed the 1864 events were a struggle for power, not only judicial, but also economic, political, and social.
One of the lesser recognized victims of this complexly motivated struggle has been history itself. During the period under discussion, two stage holdups did occur, but it is uncertain whether the robbers were among the lynched men. It was the very difficulty in identifying the disguised robbers so they could be convicted, plus the cost and time involved, that prompted the formation of the vigilantes. Their leaders believed that even if the victims happened to be innocent, their pursuit and execution would serve as an awesome example which would discourage would-be criminals and make roadways safer. Yet the summary executions have left unsettled questions of guilt or innocence. Montana's first book, Dimsdale's Vigilantes of Montana, did not acknowledge these unsettled questions. Though the book is marred by propaganda prepared after the fact, it has greatly influenced subsequent writers, even those working from their own diaries and journals. Throughout Montana's territorial period, the vigilante bias was painstakingly nourished. After Dimsdale first presented the provigilante slant in his articles and book, writers such as Langford, Stuart, Thompson, Kohrs, Leeson, and Helen Sanders reinforced it; and as president of the Montana Historical Society for its first twenty-five years, Wilbur Sanders preserved the bias in state archives. The result has been poor histories. Despite the lack of evidence and the preponderance of mythic qualities, the account of Montana's robber band found its way into western histories as fact. The echo of Dimsdale's voice resounds in many a modern volume. In their 1976 history, for example, Michael Malone and Richard Roeder repeat Dimsdale's argument that crime at the mines was so rampant that summary executions were the only possible remedy to the lawlessness in the territory. "Certainly," Malone and Roeder state, "the incredible lawlessness at Bannack-Virginia City called for some action, and most of the convictions of January 4-February 3, 1864, seem to have been necessary and appropriate." Not only have the authors accepted Dimsdale's exaggerated picture of crime in the area, but it does not seem to trouble them that no impartial trials were carried out in order to first determine which of the convictions were "necessary and appropriate," and which were not!
THOMAS DIMSDALE. Courtesy of Montana Historical Society
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As damaging as the acceptance of one-sided accounts has been the adoption of Dimsdale's and Langford's dichotomies: causes were either righteous or demonic; citizens were either upright or criminal. As a result of the poor characterization, posterity has not really become acquainted with historical personages. For example Hank Crawford -- not only the owner of the Bannack butcher shop, but also miners' sheriff before Plummer -- is routinely portrayed as a "respectable citizen" who possessed the vigilante flair for intuiting character. This depiction ignores the fact that Crawford shot Plummer from behind, an act of cowardice to which many desperadoes would not have stooped. Also ignored has been the colorful description left by Crawford's butcher. "Hank," Conrad Kohrs wrote, was "a man who caroused around a good deal." Crawford disliked tending to his business and keeping accounts, but he did like drinking and gambling. He also liked vigilance movements.
As a second example of stereotypes rather than characters, Malone and Roeder present the standard image of James Liberty Fisk as a "famed wagon master and Montana pioneer." But Granville Stuart's diary entries provided a livelier picture of the "famed" wagon master's arrival in the territory. On September 26, 1862, Stuart noted that "Captain James Fisk, who lately arrived with a large emigrant train that he brought across the plains from St. Paul, Minnesota... camped just below here [Gold Creek]." Then on September 28, Stuart wrote, "I dined with Captain Fisk and had a splendid dinner. He was considerably 'high' in the evening. The boys had lots of fun with him." On September 29, "Captain Fisk started below. Several parties quite drunk.
As for Stuart, what reader would not have been interested in knowing that when Granville married his Indian bride, she was only twelve years old! And in regard to Langford, the overwhelming conceit revealed in the lifelong bachelor's personal letters is rarely mentioned. As one of his acquaintances expressed it, "Langford... makes himself out too much of a hero." A more realistic depiction of Wilbur Sanders appears in an interview with one of his admirers: "I shall always be a worshipper of Sanders," John Lott said, "even if he goes a little wrong in policies and guesses at some things he writes for publications."
The provigilante accounts mentioned do not simply, in Emily Dickinson language, tell all the truth but tell it slant; they have also propagated many inaccuracies. In her 1913 history, Helen F. Sanders wrote that the vigilantes "had the support of every decent, lawabiding citizen of the community." Yet Mollie Sheehan claimed that "many good citizens, among them my own people, criticized this sort of summary vengeance." A second inaccuracy is the claim that the vigilante takeover was necessary because Sheriff Plummer's administration was corrupt. Yet under succeeding sheriffs, the lynchings continued. Eight months after Plummer's death, Captain Williams was still insisting that a lynching he had just performed was necessary to protect the community from "lawlessness and outrage." Also inaccurate are the various lists of vigilante members. Some sources, for example, mistakenly identify Amede Bessette and staunch antivigilante Alexander Davis as members, while, on the other hand, Conrad Kohrs's descendants denied that he was a member, even though Kohrs himself described his participation in some hangings of the Deer Lodge Valley expedition.
Neither were some writers above altering historical documents and changing known facts in order to suit their own purposes. Helen Sanders explained that she deleted the "vulgar" passages from Beidler's journal, but "made no attempt to tone down the vile language of the road agents" because she "felt it was the key to the character of evil men." Like Helen Sanders, Dimsdale felt it necessary to put a better face on certain events. Rather than depicting Beidler as the sort of individual who would rob a corpse, Dimsdale related that Tom Baume recovered his own pocketknife from Nick Tiebolt's dead body. But a witness who had hurried to the wagon stationed on Nevada's main street in order to view the dead man, stated that "X. came up and also recognized him [Tiebolt], taking a pocket knife from his pocket that he had given him a year previous in Colorado." Beidler confessed a similar yen for John Wagner's beaded leggings. Despite his intuitive powers, Beidler failed to recognize the robbery suspect for whom he was looking and inadvertently told Dutch John that he planned to appropriate the fancy leggings. "Why," Dutch John said, "would you have taken them?"
"Yes," Beidler answered, "if I found the man dead."
In another instance, Dimsdale omitted the role Nevada City residents had played in the formation of the vigilance organization. When asked for an explanation, he replied that "it cost money to publish the history and if Nevada was in it must 'grease the wheels.' " As a final example of alterations made to suit purpose, one author added a name to Red Yeager's alleged list several decades after the fact. But for all the shuffle to get all the names on the list, no later writer ever corrected Dimsdale's omission of Jack Gallagher.
Dimsdale's influence -- the bias, propaganda, myth, and stereotypes -- has been so pervasive partly because most historians believed that the Oxford-educated editor was not a vigilante. Dimsdale's lack of participation in vigilance activities, Merrill Burlingame wrote, "should make the narrative more objective than if he had been a member." And though Dimsdale did claim that his narrative was "impartial," it is naive to suppose that a delicate consumptive who attempted to avoid any form of dispute could muster the fortitude of an Alexander Davis and stand "stiff-legged" against the threats of vigilante recruiters. In all probability, the "gentle" schoolmaster who would pout like a child rather than directly confront an antagonist, had the same relationship with the vigilante organization as his successor.
When Dimsdale succumbed to tuberculosis in September 1866, his book was still in the galley stage. Henry Blake, the young Bostonian who assumed the editorship of the Montana Post (a Republican triweekly), also inherited the task of proofreading Dimsdale's still unpublished book. After only two weeks in Virginia City, Blake received notification that he "had been elected a member of the Vigilantes." "I was not invited to attend any meeting," Blake recounted, "but was informed as to what had been done after the act was recorded." There is no reason to suppose that the vigilantes dealt with Blake any differently than they had handled Dimsdale.
The possibility of Dimsdale's membership in the organization sheds new light on his motivation for writing the book. By the fall of 1864, those who had engaged in vigilance activities had several reasons for uneasiness. Not only had national newspapers condemned the Montana vigilantes as "cruel, barbarous, and criminal," but local opposition was also surfacing. Certain zealous executioners, such as Beidler, had received anonymous death threats. The critics, Callaway explained, had become "vocal," the "anvil chorus" was swelling, and rumors were afloat of an investigation into some of the hangings. As Langford made clear, his fellow members were worried about legal prosecution. "The Vigilantes," he wrote, "knew full well that when the Federal courts should be organized, they themselves would in turn be held accountable before the law for any unwarrantable exercise of power."
Captain Williams's solution to the threatened investigation was to maintain the same secrecy that had seen the organization through its most active days, but another faction favored the opposite approach. A skilled writer could "make a case," for the vigilantes, which would "not only exonerate them from guilt," but "entitle them to the thanks of the civilized world." That Dimsdale performed this task well cannot be denied, and if himself a member, he was literally writing for his life.
His Montana Post articles on the summary executions, later presented in book form, elevated the little man -- known as a "runt" in his own family of English engineers and public works contractors -- to great heights. But even before his first article, he had achieved recognition. In the spring of 1864, Governor Edgerton had rewarded the "professor" by appointing him as Montana Territory's first superintendent of public instruction. And after his vigilante articles proved so popular with the public, appreciative vigilantes presented the editor with "an ivory-handled, silver-mounted," pistol. Those present at the award ceremony watched Dimsdale accept with "bashful hesitancy" and then dash off with "almost boyish glee" to learn how to "shoot it off."
DIMSDALE'S GRAVE. Photo by Boswell
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The spring before his death, he married Annette Hotchkiss, a thirty-year-old woman from Pennsylvania who held the distinction of being "the first white woman that settled in Virginia City." When at age thirty-five Dimsdale died, his bride of four months and his intimate friend Wilbur Sanders were at the bedside. After a masonic funeral, the widow buried the Englishman who had come to love his adopted mountain home so well atop Virginia City's cemetery hill. Though he did not live to enjoy it, his volume had a historical influence perhaps even beyond his hopes. Three years after his death, former vigilante officers were still putting the work to its intended purpose. In the summer of 1869, Langford visited Henry Plummer's older brother and sister -- Wilmot, a sea captain, and Rebecca, a sea captain's wife -- and presented them with a copy of Dimsdale's book, advising them of the "utter fruitlessness" of traveling to Montana. After reading the book, Captain Plummer informed Langford, in "a voice broken by sobs," that Rebecca was "prostrated with grief," and that the pair had given up their plan to travel West and "find and punish the murderers" of their younger brother. Other delegates paid an equally successful visit to Electa Bryan Plummer, the sheriff's widow.
Like certain modern Montana historians, Langford made it clear that he sanctioned the justified vigilante executions, but not those "which on any principle of ethics were wholly indefensible." But since there were no trials to determine which hangings were justifiable, the individual is left to form his own judgment in each individual case. This dilemma ranks posterity, as well as the twenty-one men whose unalienable right to life was taken lightly, among the victims of the 1864 hanging spree. In addition, the vigilantes' reign has had its effect on the collective national conscience, for the story of the lynchings not only bears upon western history, but also upon the issue of man's importance in the universe. As earlier studies of frontier violence have made clear, citizens came to place more value on property than on human life. The vigilantes' lack of regard for life is mirrored in western history and literature. When relating a lynching, writers frequently adopt a jocose tone, calling it a "necktie party" and describing the death throes of an untried human being as "dancing at the end of a rope" or "having his neck stretched." But where there is no respect for life, there is no basis for any moral or ethical code. "A reverence for life," Dr. Albert Schweitzer has pointed out, "is the beginning and foundation of morality."