“HANGED AT HELL GATE”

— REVOLVING DOOR PRISONER —

Cyrus Skinner spent most of his life reigning terror on others. But on a cold winter night in 1864, Lady Justice rode into Hell Gate, Montana, leading a mob of vigilantes.

HANGING HELL GATE

Born in Ohio in 1829, Skinner spent his youth robbing people. Then, at age 21, he moved to California and became a revolving-door-prisoner.

Authorities arrested Skinner in 1851 for burglary and sent him to prison at San Quentin. 

Two years later, on August 18, he walked out a free man but resumed his life of crime career six months later.

The law caught up to Skinner again, and he found himself behind bars staring at a three-year sentence in San Quentin. This time, he escaped and committed five more robberies.

But authorities captured him again. So back to San Quentin he went. This time for fifteen years. And, as before, he managed to escape. 

In the spring of 1860, Skinner headed for the gold camps of Idaho, where he joined outlaw Henry Plummer, the leader of a gang that plundered miners and travelers.

Before long, Skinner began feeling the heat from Idaho authorities and left for the goldfields of Montana, where he opened saloons at Bannack and Virginia City.

Plummer and his road agents soon followed Skinner into Montana. Together, they began a reign of terror, robbing and killing Montanans. 

The law considered Skinner among the most brutal of the Plummer gang. He reportedly murdered others “just for the fun of it.”

Some reports contend the outlaw band killed at least a hundred people.

Thomas Dimsdale, editor of the Montana Post in Virginia City, described Skinner as a “blood-thirsty and malignant outlaw, without a redeeming quality . . . a hardened, merciless and brutal fiend.”

During the crime wave, Plummer kept a low profile and, ironically, became the sheriff of Bannack. 

Skinner, in the meantime, used the profits from his businesses and the crimes he committed to invest in mining claims and accumulated a substantial profit. 

But the people of Bannack and Virginia City had enough and decided to strike back at the unrelenting crime wave.

A group of citizens secretly organized the Montana Vigilantes and began dispensing lynch mob justice.

Wearing masks and striking in the middle of the night, the vigilantes went calling on suspected outlaws.

At first, they issued warnings. Then, they began lynching suspects they found guilty. 

Vigilantes tracked down Plummer on January 10, 1864, and hanged him and two partners. 

Skinner, fearful of being caught up in this brand of swift justice, sold his businesses and moved to Hell Gate. There, he reopened a saloon previously shuttered the year before. 

But the vigilantes weren’t far behind and tracked down Skinner later that same month.

After staging a three-hour mock trial, they judged him guilty. 

Sometime after midnight, they hustled Skinner and two associates to a makeshift gallows at Higgins corral.

While making their way to the corral, Skinner suddenly broke free from one of his guards and took off running.

Not able to stand the thought of dying by a hangman’s noose, he shouted, “Shoot! Shoot!” hoping the vigilantes would gun him down.

But his captors caught up to him.

A few hours later, Skinner and five others were swinging from the neck at Captain Christopher Higgins’ corral fence—the last of the twenty-four suspected outlaws targeted by the vigilantes.

_______

 

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