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Hanging The Sheriff: A Biography Of Henry Plummer

by Ruth E. Mather And F. E. Boswell

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Montana Library Focus, By Don Spritzer; 11 April 1999
Revisionist history has always intrigued me-it is fascinating whenever serious scholars produce a well-documented version of events contradicting a long-accepted myth. Hanging the Sheriff is revisionist history at its best. For over a century, historians have accepted the accounts of Montana's vigilante era presented by writers Thomas Dimsdale and Nathaniel Langford. Writing shortly after the vigilante lynching spree of 1864, Langford and Dimsdale both concluded that the Bannack sheriff Henry Plummer led a secret life. He masterminded a gang of outlaws who were responsible for more than 100 killings and countless robberies throughout the gold camps of Montana Territory. Eventually, according to this version, a group of responsible citizens formed a vigilance committee, which strung up Plummer and his murderous associates and restored peace and order to the mining communities. Subsequent historians have accepted the Dimsdale/Langford version of events virtually without questions. K. Ross Toole concluded: "There is no evidence that these hangings were without justification." Rex Myers and William Long, in a textbook still used in many Montana schools, noted that "conditions seemed to warrant some dramatic action to end a potential reign of terror." Finally, in 1987, Mather and Boswell took a fresh look at Montana's infamous vigilante era. By unearthing eyewitness accounts, contemporary newspapers, diaries, and court records, the pair did what both the vigilantes and their latter-day apologists foiled to do. They gave Henry Plummer a fair trial. What they found was on honest lawman who had been involved in several gunfights both in California and Montana Territory. As a sheriff, Plummer had courageously carried out his duties. He had brought many outlaws to justice single-handedly. But in both California and Montana, Plummer ran into trouble because of his political convictions. In California he lost a close election for the state assembly. Later he shot a husband involved in a domestic dispute and was sentenced to prison. After examining court records, Mother and Boswell concluded that Plummer had acted in self-defense. Plummer's "shady" reputation followed him to Montana, but Bannack miners thought enough of him to elect him sheriff. A staunch Democrat, Plummer soon clashed with the local Republican leaders including Wilbur Fisk Sanders and future territorial governor Sidney Edgerton. They viewed the young sheriff as a formidable obstacle to their own political ambitions. So Mather and Boswell contend that the vigilante leaders had deeper motives than a simple desire to rid the territory of bandits. The authors examined the character and motives of each witness who pointed out Plummer as the leader of Bannack's outlaws. Most were ruffians cornered by the vigilantes, who told them what they thought they wanted to hear, hoping in vain to escape the hangman's noose. The authors argue persuasively that the reign of terror never really existed at all. There were only about a dozen killings in Montana's mining camps, and most of these could be traced to individual outlaws operating alone. Furthermore, such crimes did not diminish once the vigilantes allegedly restored order to the frontier. Since its first appearance in 1987, Hanging the Sheriff has been the topic of debate among historians. Despite its persuasive case, most have chosen to cling to the myth of the "Plummer Gang," their horrible crimes, and the brave vigilantes who brought them to justice. Legends die hard. Perhaps this paperback reprint of Mather and Boswell's out-of-print book will change a few more minds. The new edition contains the entire text of the original plus an interesting new introduction by Idaho historian Merle Wells and an afterward by co-author Ruth Mather, who remains convinced that Plummer was an innocent victim. Unfortunately, the publisher did not include Mather and Boswell's fine introduction to the original edition. Also, photographs reproduced in this edition are not nearly as crisp as those found in the original. But these shortcomings are minor, and the book deserves a wide readership.

Lorna Thackery of the Billings Gazette
It's too bad Montana's famous vigilantes didn't give Sheriff Henry Plummer a trial before hanging him on a freezing January night in 1864. It's even worse that R.E. Mather and F.E. Boswell weren't there to defend him.

Mather and Boswell, authors of "Hanging the Sheriff: A Biography of Henry Plummer," have done as good a job of rehabilitating the reputation of one of the state's most notorious characters as a good defense attorney. Albeit, as every defense attorney does from time to time, the authors occasionally stretch the envelope of credulity.

After all, Plummer did kill people in California and Nevada and later in Montana-although the authors put the best face on the incidents, leaving the reader to conclude that each was a case of self-defense. And well they may have been in the rough and tumble years of the American frontier simmering with gold lust and the heat of the Civil War broiling a few hundred miles to the east.

The Henry Plummer they describe is a decent, courageous, hardworking. honest, honorable and even romantic young man, misunderstood by his contemporaries and the victim of the fact that his enemies survived and wrote the history of early Montana.

In their histories, the apologists for the vigilantes probably went overboard in the opposite direction. defending vigilante actions as a response to a criminal conspiracy that probably never existed-at least not to the degree that would justify their own murder spree.

The real Henry Plummer, all of 27 when he was lynched, probably fell somewhere between the two versions.

Wherever the reader's sentiments fall, the extent of research Mather and Boswell undertook in following Plummer's career is impressive.

Their work was first published in 1987. To prevent it from going out of print, Jeffrey J. Smith, former historic preservation officer at Virginia City, and Mark Weber, president of the Virginia City Preservation Alliance, teamed up to form Historic Montana Publishing.

In a new edition of "Hanging the Sheriff" released last year, they added an introduction by Merle Wells, an Idaho historian, and an afterward by Mather.

The authors' research even extended to Plummer's family tree. They surmise that he was born in Maine in 1832 to Jeremiah and Elizabeth Plumer, the surnames differing by just one "m." Plummer, they believe, was descended from a long line of puritans, and "his values and ways of thinking did not stray as far from these roots as we have been led to believe."

They trace his voyage from New York to San Francisco in May 1852 and pick up his trail again in Nevada City, Calif., in l853. He ranched and mined, apparently doing well for himself.

By the next year, Plummer had opened a bakery in the burgeoning mining community and by 1856 had taken up Democratic political causes, winning election as marshal.

It was in Nevada City that Plummer killed for the first time, the victim being a nasty character named John Vedder. According to Mather and Boswell, Plummer was intervening in a child-custody dispute between Vedder and his wife, Lucy.

The authors follow the case through newspaper accounts and court transcripts, riveting reading material. They explore in detail the evidence that supported Plummer's innocence and his defense attorney's claims that his client had been railroaded by a prejudiced jury.

The jury found him guilty of second-degree murder. He appealed and won a new trial, but the verdict was the same. Plummer was sentenced to 10 years and was taken to the new the state prison at San Quentin.

Plummer, apparently near death from tuberculosis, was pardoned about six months later in 1859. He moved back to Nevada City, where, in 1861, he had another fatal encounter, this time in a house of ill fame during a quarrel with a man the authors describe as a "secessionist antagonist."

Newspaper accounts noted that the victim struck the first blow with a knife and Plummer shot him in response. Plummer became an outlaw when he left town before the inquest.

According to the authors, Plummer had made many political enemies and had infuriated some in the community for his vigilance in enforcing the law during his term as marshal. He did not want to risk a third trial in Nevada City, they contend.

In 1862, Plummer had made his way to Bannack, where the history of Montana was being born.

Not long after, he killed Jack Cleveland in a gunfight at the Goodrich Saloon. Apparently. it was generally conceded that Cleveland got what he deserved. Plummer was acquitted and elected sheriff in the spring of 1863.

During Plummer's tenure as sheriff that lasted less than a year, the vigilantes perceived a murderous crime wave and determined that a well-organized gang lead by Plummer was stalking the frontier. But, as Mather and Boswell argue, there wasn't much evidence to support either the fact of a serious crime wave or the theory of a criminal gang.

It was probably just as hard then as now to separate the. fact from the legend, or to tell the good guys from the bad. From start to finish, "Hanging the Sheriff" is fascinating, although it's a good idea to be wary of the conclusions the authors reach from sometimes weak evidence. Plummer's marriage to Electra Bryan is a good example. Less than three months after she married him, Electra decided to go home to Iowa.

Mather and Boswell attribute her departure to the fact that Plummer's duties as sheriff, when combined with his attentions to his mining claims, kept him away from her too much.

"There were enjoyable experiences in Bannack for those with a companion, sitting on the doorstep on a warm evening or walking to a mountain meadow to pick wild flowers or hear meadowlarks; but Electra was always alone, and it was impossible she could continue to survive such loneliness when she had never yet been weaned from her older sister," the book says.

She never spoke of Plummer later in life and did nothing to try to restore his reputation, the authors tell us. They also inform us that neighbors gossiped about angry words and, bitter arguments between the newlyweds. Plummer, no doubt, could he irritable after a difficult day, they concede.

"There may have been some initial disappointments and some serious problems,'' the authors reason. "But not likely any conflicts sufficient to destroy their love so soon."

Other eyes viewing the same evidence could be equally justified in concluding that Plummer was an abusive husband. Adding his reputation as a womanizer and a tendency toward violence to the equation, her sudden disappearance makes more sense in that light than assertions that she was homesick and alone too much.

Anyone who has ever studied Montana history and its tumultuous beginnings in the gold fields of southwestern Montana, would find "Hanging the Sheriff" a good read.

If it's a bit to laudatory of the sheriff's virtues, it all the same provides a perspective that was long overlooked.

Book Description
This is a ground-breaking look at the sheriff elected in Bannack, Montana in 1863 and hanged by vigilantes in January, 1864. This is also a revisionist history of the Montana Vigilantes. After thirty-five years of research, the authors conclude that the conventional story of the Vigilante activities in Montana's gold camps is erroneous.

From the Publisher
Historic Montana Publishing brings back into print this revisionist biography of the controversial Montana elected official hanged by vigilantes in 1864. The second edition begins with a new introduction by the noted historian Merle Wells, Ph.D., and ends with an afterword by Ruth Mather, in which she calls the stories of a secret gang of outlaws led by a murderous sheriff are myths, "fabulous tales . . . created in an attempt to exonerate the vigilantes, as well as increase newspaper sales."

About the Author
R.E. Mather and F.E. Boswell are partners in six western histories, including the popular GOLD CAMP DESPERADOES, VIGILANTE VICTIMS, and JOHN DAVID BORTHWICK: ARTIST OF THE GOLD RUSH.

Excerpted from Hanging the Sheriff : A Biography of Henry Plummer by R. E. Mather, F. E. Boswell, Pub Code Request by Pac on 4, 20 and 99. Copyright © 1998. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
(from pages 15-20)


In mid-September of the Vails' first year at Sun River, about the time the hot, dry season was finally drawing to a welcome close, Henry Plummer set out for Fort Benton, mulling over plans to leave the territories and the problems he had encountered there and return to the East. The prospects of the Civil War raging at home may have been more an incentive than a deterrent to a man who preferred action and constant opportunity to prove courage. Near Deer Lodge Valley, he and his companion, Charles Reeves, met the two brothers who are credited with discovering gold east of the Rockies, James and Granville Stuart, and the Stuarts jotted down the meeting in a diary they took turns keeping. "On our way to Hell Gate at Beaver Dam we met two fine looking young men. One of them said his name was Henry Plummer, the other was Charles Reeves.... They were from Elk City on Clearwater, and enquired about the mines at Gold Creek and at Beaverhead. They rode two good horses and had another packed with their blankets and provisions. We liked their looks and told them that we were going down to Hell Gate and would return to Gold Creek in a few days and asked them to return to Hell Gate with us and then we could all go up the Canyon together. They accepted our invitation."11

The first night back at Gold Creek, the men got up a friendly poker game in which James Stuart lost twenty-two dollars, though he did better the next night, losing only eighteen. Besides the poker losses, the Stuarts noted in their diary that they repaired Plummer's double-barreled shotgun, which he had broken off at the grip while crossing the mountains. Apparently uninterested in the scanty profits being made at Gold Creek, Plummer and Reeves moved on the morning of 21 September 1862 in the direction of the first major gold strike to be made on the eastern side of the Rockies, the Beaverhead mines, so-called because they were located on a tributary of that river. Though Reeves may have continued to Grasshopper Creek, Plummer and an old acquaintance from California named Jack Cleveland, who had been trailing behind, took the Mullan Road to Fort Benton, where they hoped to hire a mackinaw down the Missouri River. But on their arrival at the fort, they discovered that due to numerous reports that mackinaw passengers had suffered atrocities at the hands of Indians along the banks, boatmen were unwilling to attempt the trip. Plummer and Cleveland were stuck at Fort Benton where another steamer would not be arriving until the next spring.

Indian unrest had also caused alarm at the government farm, and fearing an attack on the palisade, James Vail rode to Fort Benton searching for men to assist him in defending his family. There he met Plummer and Cleveland and asked them to return with him to protect the farm until danger from the Indians subsided, offering them a small cabin inside the fort.12

At the farm, Electa Bryan and Henry Plummer met for the first time. Electa was shy and reserved, but Plummer, as well as Jack Cleveland, quickly took a romantic interest in her. Francis Thompson, in one passage of his reminiscences, refers to Electa as "pure," "unsophisticated," and "beautiful," though elsewhere he calls her only "pretty," a description that probably fits better.13 After all, she was still single at age twenty in times when it was common for teenage girls, long since chosen for marriage, to be carrying small children in their arms.

Electa was now faced with deciding between the attentions of Plummer and Cleveland, who was supposedly crude and foul-mouthed. Plummer, on the other hand, is almost universally described as handsome, meticulously clean, soft-spoken, intelligent, and polished. He looked to be about 5' 11", and to weigh around 150 pounds, had gray-blue eyes, light brown hair that glinted reddish tints in the sunlight, and a slender, athletic build. It is needless to say which of the two men would be more attractive to a young Christian woman. In addition to Electa, the farmhand Joseph Swift was also completely taken with Plummer.

The setting could not have been more conducive to romance: a deceptively peaceful Indian summer, cottonwood leaves turning yellow and dropping one by one along the Sun River banks, and emotions of those inside the fort heightened by the imminent danger outside, making each moment of life seem precious. It soon became apparent to everyone that Plummer's interest in Electa was serious, and when he had an opportunity to speak to her alone, he told her about his past problems in Washington and California, explaining that he was a peaceful man by nature, but that he had been forced to kill men to save his own life. His confession did not stop Electa from falling in love with him.

The choice Electa and Plummer made at Sun River that fall reveals something about both of them. Electa was, as Thompson wrote, completely unsophisticated, in fact so much so that he did not consider her as a marriage partner for himself. Though Thompson had found her kind and likable in the many weeks he had spent with her on the steamer, he also realized she was not of the social background that would be suitable for a man with his career plans. Having spent her life on a farm tending livestock and laboring had left her with tastes a little too simple for him. The best dress in her wardrobe was one of brown calico which she had sewn herself. Even though she was educated, Thompson would not trust her as hostess to the guests he hoped to entertain in his home at some future date.

Plummer, even more worldly-wise than Thompson and considered an excellent judge of character, could not have failed to make the same observations about Electa, and the obvious question is why he did not follow the same line of reasoning regarding her suitability. Wherever Plummer had gone, beautiful women had been attracted to him, and he had formed relationships with some who, as the editor of the Montana Post, Thomas Dimsdale described, wore "the finest clothes money can buy," dresses "worth from seven to eight hundred dollars" each.14 Certainly in Plummer's mind Electa could not compete with such women, and he also had to be aware how important religion was in her life. Nevertheless, there is no reason to doubt that the very qualities that caused men such as Thompson to reject Electa were precisely the very ones that drew Plummer to her-her wholesomeness and naivet. And surely he appreciated most of all her unshakable belief in him. It is possible he felt no concern for what help she would be in his future career because he was confident he could succeed with or without her help, but more than likely, he saw in her a potential to be whatever she chose to become. It would be safe to say that Electa and Plummer had faith in each other.

Thompson believed Electa fell in love with Plummer only because of her being "isolated in a palisaded log house with no companion of her own sex, excepting her married sister," and there is some truth to his statement.15 Though she was a loved sister and aunt, firmly included in all activities of the Vail family, Electa was somewhat of an outsider looking wistfully in, made more aware of her aloneness and lack of fulfillment by helping Martha through the experiences of motherhood, constantly observing the relationship Martha and James shared. But this need for a relationship of her own does not completely explain the feeling she developed for Plummer. She had undoubtedly had previous chances for marriage and rejected them, and by every indication we are led to believe that Plummer was simply the man for whom she had been waiting. Apparently she felt no anxiety that he neither shared her strong religious convictions nor seemed to value close family ties as highly as she. There was something of the romantic in her nature, a flair for the exotic that made her believe she could never again love anyone else as much as the young desperado, who spoke so gently to her in an accent that sounded almost foreign to the ears of an Ohio farm girl. The trait which prompted her to love him so was the same one which had brought her all the way to this wilderness fraught with countless dangers. But despite her romantic tendencies, Electa's judgment of Plummer should not be taken lightly. She was not a starry-eyed adolescent, but a mature woman, sensitive and intelligent, and quite different from the average Victorian woman in her open-mindedness and acceptance. Also, Electa may have been the one person to hear what is lacking from any historical record: Henry Plummer's version of his life story. Her opinion deserves considerable weight in an evaluation of his character, and after listening to Plummer talk about his past, Electa firmly believed he was a good man.16

The courtship had taken place during a period of tense watching and waiting in the close environs of the fort, but with the approach of winter, James Vail concluded that danger had passed. Though he had to inform Cleveland and Plummer that he had not received expected funds from the Indian agent and therefore would not be able to give them any pay for their time, all parted as friends.

With thoughts of settling down on his mind, Plummer abandoned his plans to return to the East, instead turning back toward the location he considered the land of greatest opportunity, the new mines rumored to contain the "purest" gold in the world, the diggings on the Beaverhead tributary nicknamed Grasshopper Creek. Plummer was an experienced miner, known for the good luck he had had in California and Nevada, and naturally his hopes were high. Before leaving the Sun River farm, he promised Electa he would come back to marry her in the spring.



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