— THE NIGHT THEY HANGED THE SHERIFF —
On a dark, cold night of January 10, 1864, a large group of mounted gunmen kicked up clouds of dust and thundered into Bannock, Montana, crowding the street in front of the sheriff’s office.
Several dismounted and barged inside. The self-appointed enforcers of justice dragged Sheriff Henry Plummer and his two deputies, Ned Ray and Buck Stinson, into the street.
For the previous six months, outlaws had been terrorizing Bannack and surrounding communities, robbing and killing miners. According to some accounts, the outlaw violence had claimed the lives of at least one-hundred individuals.
Disappointed with Plummer’s effort to stem the crime wave, a group of citizens organized the Montana Vigilance Committee in December 1863.
The committee wasted no time in enforcing its brand of justice.
Despite the lack of legal authority, the vigilantes lynched twenty-four men in its first month of operation.
In a surprise development, one of the outlaws caught by the vigilantes pointed to Sheriff Plummer as the ringleader of “The Innocents,” the gang terrorizing the region.
The vigilantes became convinced Plummer had conspired with road agents on information about gold shipments.
Plummer didn’t have a trial. And, the committee never took the time to determine whether the charges were true.
In reality, the group had little, if any, concrete evidence to tie the 27-year old Plummer to the crimes.
Convinced of his guilt, the vigilantes dragged the sheriff and his two deputies to a crudely-built gallows and lynched them.
Plummer did have a dark side. Various accounts say he served a year or so in San Quentin before being paroled.
Some historians question whether Plummer was guilty of the crimes for which he hanged. Some see Plummer as a victim of political injustice.
The bodies of Plummer and his deputies were buried in shallow graves at Hangman’s Gulch.
Ironically, the robberies and killings did not stop. The lynchings had little effect on the wave of criminal activity that gripped the area.
More than a century later—On May 7, 1993—a posthumous trial was staged in Virginia City, Montana. Twelve registered voters rendered a six-to-six verdict against Plummer. The judged declared a mistrial. Had Plummer been alive he would have been freed and not tried again.
Plummer would h ave been free and wouldn’t have to stand trial again.
Hundreds of vigilance committees administered summary justice throughout the American West.
In addition to Montana and California, similar committees ranged across a number of states—including Missouri, Texas, Colorado, Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, and even Alaska.
Historians believe the city of San Francisco may have been among the first communities to organize such a group. The San Francisco Committee of Vigilance was formed in 1851 and revived in 1858.
Even though these vigilance groups often abused their power, they were considered a necessary evil. According to one Colorado vigilante, the process involved no appeals, no writs of errors, and no attorney’s fees.
“Punishment was swift, sure and certain,” he said.