As an armed party advanced on the cabin, they noted that the surrounding snow was still undisturbed and therefore felt certain that the boy was still inside. Ignoring their companions' warnings, George Copley and Smith Ball kicked open the cabin door and entered. Immediately two pistol shots rang out, and Ball retreated through the open door, clutching a flesh wound on his hip. Copley, who had taken a shot in the chest, staggered outside and collapsed. As bystanders carried the mortally wounded man to the hotel across the street, the arrest party -- now joined by outraged spectators -- quickly developed into an uncontrollable mob. Justice Edgerton, who stood among the crowd holding his Henry rifle, was so swept up by the tide of emotion that he offered the use of a small cannon stored under his bed. Tugging the howitzer to Thompson's store, members of the mob appropriated a dry goods box as a mount and shelled the suspect's cabin. On the third explosion, the door crashed inward, revealing a youth pinned beneath fallen debris. Quickly Smith Ball emptied his revolver into the trapped man's vital organs, and five men slipped a clothesline about the dying victim's neck and raised him to the top of a pole. Then onlookers emptied their weapons into the dangling body. "Pull down the cabin, boys, and burn him!" one participant shouted, and fifty men rushed to comply with the order. When flames leaped high from the pile of logs, six men cut down the corpse and, on the count of three, pitched it into the fire. Within an hour nothing remained of the residence and its former occupant except a heap of ashes, but it took weeks to discover that the dusky-skinned youth whom the Monday morning mob had cremated was not Spanish Frank.
SIDNEY EDGERTON. Courtesy of Montana Historical Society
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The victim was one Jose Pizanthia. Rather than admitting the case of mistaken identity, vigilantes spread the word that Pizanthia had been "one of the most dangerous men that ever infested our frontier." The rumor that "the Bannack Greaser" had thousands of dollars in gold dust cached in his cabin lured groups of treasure hunters to the cremation grounds. Francis Thompson watched one of the panners concentrating on the skeletal remains, in the hope that the Mexican "had gold dust upon his person when he was killed." But no amount of sifting ashes produced any reward. Despite the disappointing results -- which shed doubt on the claim that the young Mexican had been a robber -- Justice Edgerton assured his wife Mary that no miscarriage of justice had occurred. Pizanthia's tiny cabin, he told her, "had been the headquarters for all those villains for a long time."
On Tuesday, Wilbur Sanders resumed efforts to extract further information about the outlaw gang from Dutch John Wagner, the robbery suspect who had failed him at the Saturday night meeting. Though other interrogators had given up on Dutch John, Sanders displayed his usual resourcefulness. The prisoner, a mountain of a man with swarthy complexion and fine physique, was limping on frostbitten feet and had no use of blistered and ulcerated fingers. Around each hand, he wore a lumpish bandage of dirty rags, which he played with as the lawyer questioned him. Dutch John had lived in America long enough to understand the language, but he continued to insist in his broken accent that he knew nothing of a gang. The gold rush had brought the amiable six-footer from New York to California in the early fifties. Later he had traveled to Washington Territory and hired on as a stable groom at the Clark County garrison. While thus employed by the military, he had befriended the civilian in charge of the post's packtrains, George Ives. Next, the German immigrant had migrated to the Clearwater River mines, and in August 1863, at age twenty-nine, joined a band of Bannack-bound adventurers who included Doc Howard; James Romain; Chris Lowrey; Stephen Marshland; the cook, Red Yeager; and the guide enlisted near Cottonwood, Francis Thompson. At Alder Gulch, where he renewed his friendship with George Ives, Wagner intended to become a horse dealer, but only three months after his arrival, he became a suspect in the attempted robbery of a caravan of combined wagons and pack mules piloted by Milton Moody and Melanchthon Forbes.
BANNACK'S MEADE HOTEL, SITE OF JOHN WAGNER'S HANGING.
Photo by Boswell
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In an attempt to flee to Salt Lake, he sold his buckskin saddle horse and, carrying his gear in his arms, set out in forty below weather, walking on a trail covered with four inches of snow. At Horse Prairie, he camped on Martin Barrett's ranch, inquiring if the owner would be interested in a horse-trading deal. Barrett noted that the hiker's feet and hands were nearly frozen and that he seemed anxious to get out of the country. Sensing that he was "boss" of the proposed swap, Barrett offered a "sore back mule" that was "not much good," in exchange for everything Wagner was carrying -- saddle, bridle, blankets, and Colt revolver -- and, in addition, twenty-five dollars cash. Though Dutch John said that he hated to part with his revolver, he forlornly handed it over with his other possessions, promising to come back later with the money. But when he returned, it was as the prisoner of Neil Howie. Nevertheless, the robbery suspect invited his host to meet him in town to collect the money owed, and Barrett agreed.
Howie and Wagner reached Bannack on January 9, the same day that Beidler's party of four rode in from Virginia City with a writ of execution for the lawmen. Though the Bannack vigilance society was still in embryo stage, Howie soon learned that he need not cooperate with the reigning civic authority, Sheriff Plummer. The "powers behind the throne," Wilbur Sanders reassured Howie, would support him in refusing to give up his prisoner for a court trial. After Sanders informed Dutch John that he was to die, the prisoner made a lengthy statement which he believed would bring about his release. Instead, after allowing the confessor to undo his bandages and write his aged mother in New York, an armed squad -- smaller and more orderly than the Pizanthia crowd -- marched the shocked prisoner to the carpenter shop being used as a morgue for the lawmen killed two days previously. Buck Stinson's frozen remains still lay on the shop floor, and Plummer lay atop a workbench. By the time the entire execution detail had filed into the small building, it was tightly packed. As the executioner threw the rope over a beam, the tall, powerfully built prisoner gazed at the bodies of the two men who had already suffered the fate that awaited him. "I have never seen a man hanged," he managed in broken accent. "How long will it take me to die?" "Not long," a nameless voice replied. As William Roe stood below, looking up at "the tall form of 'Dutch John' standing there dimly in the candle light," the executioner jerked away the box. When curious spectators surged forward for a better view, the breeze set up by their motion extinguished the candle lantern, allowing Wagner to die in the privacy of darkness. On Wednesday, Martin Barrett rode to town and inquired after his debtor. "I found John hanging in a partly built frame house," Barrett recalled. "His feet were dangling two feet from the floor." Wagner's privacy had vanished with daylight; lines of people of all ages waited to examine the arm wound -- presumably where Milton Moody had shot John during the robbery attempt. "They would take him by the shoulders," Barrett said, "and swing him around like a top."