“THE NIGHT THEY HANGED THE SHERIFF”

 — HANGMAN’S GULCH —

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.

THE NIGHT THEY HANGED THE SHERIFF

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 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 to tie the 27-year old Plummer to the crimes. 

Convinced of his guilt, the vigilantes dragged the sheriff and two deputies to 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 was hanged. Some still 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.

A century later—May 7, 1993—a posthumous trial in Virginia City, Montana, by twelve registered voters rendered a six-to-six verdict against Plummer. The judge declared a mistrial.

Had Plummer been alive, he 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 ranged 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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13 comments to “THE NIGHT THEY HANGED THE SHERIFF”

  • Mary stafford

    It does not seem that anyone was safe during those trying times.

  • Tough times. Many had to learn how to survive all kinds of challenges and obstacles and take effective steps for problem-solving.

  • They indeed faced a variety of challenges, Mary. Thanks for stopping by.

  • Gordon Beck

    Seems “Frontier Justice” was pretty common back then…hope they got it right most of the time. Nice write-up, Tom!

  • Thanks, Gordon. Vigilante groups were often scary because they served as judge, jury, and executioner often without proof of any “crime.” I’m sure they got a few right, though! Thanks for stopping by.

  • An eye-opener. Hard times, hard “justice”. Thank you for the interesting post.

  • Thanks for stopping by, Gini. Glad you enjoyed the post. AThey were indeed hard times with hard justice.

  • Adele Embrey

    Hi Tom, With that sort of Justice the outlaws would have needed to do something pretty bad to make dying worth while. It’s kind of Damned if you do and Damned if you don’t.
    Must have been quite scary living in those times,well it would be to me.
    All the best and thanks for another great story. Adele

  • Hello Adele–I agree it must have been scary, especially if you were a lawbreaker and hanging about in an area where vigilante committees operated. Glad you enjoy it. Thanks for visiting again. -Tom

  • Adele Embrey

    Hi Tom, I may not comment every time but I do read your stories every time. It is fascinating what went on in those times. I think we need a bit more serious punishment for some of the law breakers of today to be a deterrent to stem some of the violence of today. Judges and Magistrates are much too lenient in the punishment they give out.
    Prisons today are like Motels that offer every convenience that there are too many re-offenders taking advantage of the system.
    Hugs
    Adele

  • Hello Adele–I believe a great many people share the same viewpoint. Most of us want – above all – justice. And, justice isn’t a concept arrived at quickly or delivered in an attractive package. It can be messy. And, when things are messy, it gets frustrating. A vital ingredient in this pursuit of justice is fairness. But, I do believe many people believe justice has often been lost in the undertow of fairness. -Tom

  • Lee

    Tom, thanks for being a linchpin tying us to our great history. Any good stories on vigilance committees being held to account by citizens when they themselves got out of hand?
    Lee

  • Hello Lee– Glad you enjoyed the post. I’ll check your idea out and see what I can find. Thanks for stopping by.

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