“THE LYNCHING AT HANGMAN’S GULCH”

— THE NIGHT THEY HANGED THE SHERIFF—

On a dark, cold night in early January 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.

THE NIGHT THEY HANGED THE SHERIFF

Several of the self-appointed enforcers of justice barged inside and dragged Sheriff Henry Plummer and his two deputies, Ned Ray and Buck Stinson, into the street.

For the previous six months, outlaws terrorized 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 enforcing its brand of justice and, despite the lack of legal authority, 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,” a 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 linking the 27-year-old sheriff to the crimes. 

Convinced of his guilt, the vigilantes gathered on the night of Jan. 10th and dragged the sheriff and two deputies to crudely-built gallows and lynched them. 

Plummer did have a dark side, serving a year or so in San Quentin before being paroled.

Some historians question whether Plummer was guilty of the crimes for which he was hanged and considered him a victim of political injustice.

The bodies of Plummer and his deputies were buried in shallow graves at Hangman’s Gulch

Ironically, the lynchings had little effect on the wave of criminal activity that gripped the area and the robberies and killings continued.

A century later—May 7, 1993—a posthumous mock trial by a real judge and twelve registered voters in Virginia City, Montana, rendered a six-to-six verdict against Plummer. Had he been alive, Plummer would have been freed and not tried again.

Hundreds of vigilance committees administered summary justice throughout the American West.

In addition to Montana and California, similar committees operated across several states—including Missouri, Texas, Colorado, Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, and Alaska.

Historians believe 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 vigilante groups often abused their power, some considered them 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.

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