Henry Plummer -
Sheriff Meets a Noose
One of the most colorful characters of the
Plummer, allegedly played both sides of the law during his short twenty-seven
years. Though for more than a century he was thought to have been guilty
of numerous crimes and rightly hanged in
Montana, today's historians question whether or not he was truly guilty of the crimes he was accused of.
Born in Addison, Maine in 1832, to William Jeremiah and
Elizabeth (Handy) Plummer,
he was the youngest of seven children. His father, older brother and
brother-in-law were all sea captains and Henry was expected to follow in
their footsteps. However, the young man was slight of build and
consumptive, making the rigors of the sea trade too much for him to
was a teenager, his father died and the family began to struggle
financially. Just two years after the
began; Henry promised his widowed mother that he could help the family by
making his fortune in the West.
In April, 1852, nineteen-year-old Henry sailed from New York on
a mail ship to Aspinwall, Panama, traveled by mule train to Panama
City, then boarded another ship for the rest of his journey to
California. Twenty-four days after his departure, he arrived in San
Francisco. Gaining a job at a bakery, Plummer
soon earned enough money to move on to the mining camps of Nevada
County, about 150 miles north of San Francisco.
About a year after his arrival in
documents show that he owned a ranch and a mine outside Nevada City,
Some twelve months later, he traded some of his mining shares for the
Empire Bakery in Nevada City. By 1856, the local residents, so
impressed by the young man, persuaded him to run for sheriff. At
the age of 24, he became marshal of the third largest settlement in
The young marshal was well liked by the
Nevada City citizens and respected for his promptness and boldness in
handling his duties. He easily won the re-election in 1857.
But, shortly after the election, he killed his first
man. At the time, Henry was said to be having
an affair with the wife of a miner by the name of John Vedder and when
he was confronted by the angry husband, the two competed in a duel,
for which, Henry obviously won.
Plummer was arrested and
tried in a sensational, emotionally-charged case that went twice to
the California Supreme Court before he was finally convicted of second
degree murder and sentenced to ten years in
California's infamous San
Quentin Prison. He began to serve his sentence on February 22, 1859
and local residents quickly petitioned the Governor for a pardon,
claiming that Henry had acted in
Among his comrades behind bars was
Skinner, serving time for grand larceny, who would later be connected
with Plummer again. Plummer
served time only until August 16, 1859 when he was released due to his
tuberculosis and pressure on the Governor by the petition.
After his release, Henry returned to Nevada
City, to the bakery and became an avid customer to the many brothels
of the settlement.
Before long, he was penniless and soon joined a group of bandits intent
upon robbing area stage coaches. In one such incident, the stage
driver got way with his passengers and cargo, but Plummer
was arrested. Standing trial for the attempted robbery, the former
sheriff caught a reprieve when he was acquitted due to lack of evidence.
Bannack Montana, July 2008.
But trouble had begun to follow Plummer
around and soon he was caught up in a brawl over a "painted
lady” with a man by the name of William Riley. When Henry shot the man on October 27,
1861, he was once again arrested. This time he escaped prison by
bribing a jailer before he could be tried and fled for
Along the way, he met another
by the name of Jim Mayfield, who had alleged killed the sheriff of a
Both were obviously
wanted men, and the ex-sheriff sent word to California
newspapers that both he and Mayfield had been hanged in Washington. It had the desired effect, curtailing the need for the desperadoes to
constantly look over their shoulders for the pursuing posse.
In January, 1862, Plummer
landed in Lewiston,
a woman companion and registered at the Luna House. Working in a
casino, he soon ran into his old cellmate, Cyrus Skinner, and other
individuals destined for the gallows in
such as Club Foot George Lane and Bill Bunton.
Forming a gang, the
like-minded men began to rob the local families of the area mining camps,
and especially targeted the gold shipments traveling the roads from the
mines. Somewhere along the line, Plummer abandoned his mistress, a woman with
three children who had to resort to prostitution to feed herself and
family, and finally died an alcoholic, in one of the seedier brothels in
began to roam the area between Elk City, Florence and Lewiston. In
he killed a
saloon keeper by the name of Patrick Ford. When the saloonkeeper
kicked Plummer and some of his friends out of the saloon, Ford
then followed them to the stable where he fired upon them. Plummer
returned fire and killed Ford. When some of Ford’s friends began to
form a lynch mob, Plummer
hightailed it out of there and headed east to Montana.
By September, 1862,
was beginning to feel the effects of his tuberculosis and wanted to
return home. Heading from Idaho
across the Bitterroot Mountains, he traveled to
Fort Benton with the
intention of going back east. Unfortunately, the upper
Fort Benton was frozen and closed to Riverboat traffic. Planning to hold over for the winter, Henry went to work as a ranch
hand at the Sun River Farm, a government ranch and Indian Agency, in
soon became enamored with Indian Agent James Vail’s beautiful
sister-in-law, Electa Bryan. Henry and Electa spent about two
months together and were quickly engaged to be married.
A former cohort of Plummer's by the name of Jack Cleveland was also vying for
Electa’s attention, which incensed
Henry. Nevertheless, both men
the most recent site of gold rush fever, in January 1863.
Hastily built to accommodate the many
miners flooding to the area,
was called home to all manner of transient men including Civil War
deserters from both sides, river pirates, professional gamblers,
outlaws and villains. Lawlessness ran rampant as holdups
occurred daily, and killings were just as frequent.
soon rounded up another gang, calling themselves the
began to relieve the gold-laden travelers from the
camps of their valuables. The
Innocents grew quickly and became
so large that secret handshakes and code words were instituted so one
"Innocent" could recognize another.
One night while
was drinking in
Jack Cleveland, his old nemesis, began to taunt him by making numerous
references to Plummer's
outlaw activities. When
warned him to stop, Cleveland continued to spout his accusations and
fired a warning shot. Cleveland then pulled his own six-gun, but
was faster and soon Cleveland lay on the floor, mortally wounded.
Not yet dead, Cleveland was taken to the
home of a butcher named Hank Crawford, two doors down from the
saloon. Crawford heard Cleveland’s last words as he continued to extol the
tale of Plummer's deceit and corruption. Three hours later,
Cleveland was dead and Plummer
was arrested. However, Plummer
received yet another reprieve when he was acquitted based on witness
testimony that Cleveland had threatened him.
first tasks was to build a jail for the growing community.
It still stands
today, Kathy Weiser, July, 2008.
By late spring 1863,
there were more than 10,000 men hunting for gold along Grasshopper Creek
and the lawlessness in
reached epidemic proportions. The frightened citizens of the
settlement decided that the outlaws had to be stopped and advertised for a
sheriff. Two men, vowing to corral the
outlaws, stepped up to the plate -- Plummer
and a butcher named Hank Crawford.
lost the election to the popular butcher, an event that fired his reckless
temper and he went after the new sheriff with a shotgun. However, a friend
warned Crawford, who shot Plummer
in his right arm, temporarily ruining his gunfighting abilities. Undaunted,
immediately began to practice shooting with his left hand until his
accuracy was just as deadly. When Hank Crawford caught wind of this,
he turned in his badge and left
never to return.
In the new election for sheriff, Plummer was made became the leading lawman on May 24, 1863.
was quick to appoint two of his henchmen, Buck Stinson and Ned Ray, as
deputies. Unknown to the people of
Innocents had now reached over 100. Having the opposite desired effect
for the citizens of
crime in the town increased dramatically after Plummer
was elected. In the next few months, more than 100 citizens were murdered.
On June 20, 1863,
and Electa were married and soon settled into their log home in
Bannack. However, Electa did not stay long. Less that three months later, she
left for her parents home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She would never see
Innocents stepped up their efforts at
robbing the gold-laden travelers from the
camps and helped the Sheriff to punish the "villains” of the community on
a gallows that Plummer
had erected. However, the few that were hanged on it by Plummer
and his men were not members of the
well organized and said to have killed anyone that might be a witness to
their crimes, most of which were easily covered up. Blatant killings
went unpunished. Local residents who suspected anything feared for
their lives and kept their mouths closed. The ambitious sheriff soon
extended his operations to
City when he was appointed Deputy U.S. Marshal for the region of
Territory east of the mountains in August of 1863.
December, 1863, the citizens of
City had had enough. Men from Bannack,
City and nearby
Nevada City met
secretly and organized the
Montana Vigilantes. Masked men began to visit suspected
outlaws in the middle of the night issuing warnings and tacking up
posters featuring a skull-and-crossbones or the "mystic" numbers "3-7-77." While the meaning of these numbers remains elusive, the
State Highway patrolmen wear the emblem "3-7-77" on their shoulder patches
The vigilantes dispensed rough justice by hanging about twenty-four men.
When one such man, by the name of Erastus "Red" Yager, who was about to
be hanged, pointed a finger at Henry Plummer as the leader of the gang, all hell broke loose.
The residents were divided on whether or
Henry was part of the murderous gang. But one night after
heavy drinking in a local
the vigilantes decided that
was guilty and tracked him down. On January 10, 1864 fifty to
seventy-five men gathered up Plummer
and his two main deputies,
Buck Stinson and
were marched to those very same gallows that Plummer,
himself, had built.
Ned Ray was the first hanged, followed by
Buck Stinson--both men spewing epithets every step of the way.
According to one legend, Plummer
promised to tell the vigilantes where $100,000 of gold was buried, if they would let
him live. However, the vigilantes ignored this as they gradually hoisted him up by the
Henry Plummer was hanged from the very gallows that he, himself had built earlier in the year.
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execution, armed guards stood by the gallows for about an hour. The
three bodies were left hanging until the next morning. Plummer's
was the only body placed in a wooden coffin and none were buried in
the cemetery; but instead all three were buried
in shallow graves in Hangman’s Gulch about a hundred yards up from the
The vigilantes went on to hang the rest of the Road Agents that they could locate, in
such locations as Hellgate (Missoula), Cottonwood (Deer Lodge), Fort
Owen and Virginia City.
Vulnerable to vandalism, legend has it that the grave was broken into
on two occasions. The first time, allegedly by the local doctor,
who out of curiosity, severed the right arm from the body to search
for the bullet that had hit Plummer
when he went after Hank Crawford. Reportedly, the doctor found
the bullet "worn smooth and polished by the bones turning upon it."
The second time it was broken into, it was reportedly by two men
around the turn of the century who, after spending several hours in a
local bar, decided to dig up the grave. To prove they had done it,
they severed the head and carried it back to the Bank Exchange Saloon,
where it remained on the back bar for several years, until the
building burned, along with all its contents. Yet, another
legend states that the skull found its way into the hands of an
unnamed doctor who sent the specimen back east to a scientific
institution to try to figure out why Plummer
was so evil.
Electa learned of her husband’s death in a
letter and she always maintained that he was innocent. In fact, in
the past several decades many historians, researchers and authors have
also questioned whether the tale of Henry Plummer was rightfully told.
Many believe that the
whole thing is all a fraud, a story fabricated to cover up the real
lawlessness in the
Territory - the vigilantes themselves. Many of the early stories, on which the outlaw
tale is based, were written by the editor of the
City Newspaper, who was a member of the vigilantes, himself.
Further testimony to support the theory is
that the robberies did not cease after the twenty-one men were hanged in
January and February of 1864. In fact, after the "Plummer
Gang" hangings, the stage robberies showed more evidence of organized
criminal activity, more robbers involved in the holdups, and more
intelligence passed to the actual robbers.
Having taken control, the
vigilantes were ruthless. On one such occasion, in attempting to
get the names of the road agents, they looped a noose around the neck of a
suspect named "Long John" Franck and repeatedly hoisted him until the poor
man gasped out the answers the vigilantes wanted to hear. They
did the same to Erastus "Red" Yager who pointed the finger at
Plummer as the gang’s leader.
vigilantes brooked no
criticism of their methods. When a preacher’s son named Bill Hunter
expressed his outrage by shouting on a mining camp street that pro-vigilantes
were "stranglers," his frozen corpse was found three weeks later dangling
from the limb of a cottonwood tree.
There is really
little evidence connecting Plummer
with any crime committed in the
area, other than the "confession" of a criminal attempting to save his own
activities as an outlaw band leader in Lewiston have also been disputed;
when evidence was found that he was actually living in
California at the time.
Three years after
was killed, the vigilantes virtually ruled the
mining districts. Finally, leading citizens of
including Territorial Governor Thomas Meagher, began to speak out against
the ruthless group.
March, 1867, the miners issued their own warning that if the
hanged any more people, the "law abiding citizens" would retaliate "five
for one." Though a few more lynchings occurred, it was clear that the era
As to what
happened to Electa -- she ultimately moved to Vermillion,
where she married James Maxwell, a widower with two daughters. Electa and
James had two sons of their own, Vernon and Clarence. Electa lived until
May 5, 1912 and was buried at Wakonda, South Dakota.
The historical town of
was placed under the protection of
Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks in 1954 and is now called the
Bannack State Park.
of America, updated October, 2012.
The Hotel Meade first served as the Beaverhead
County Courthouse in
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photographic prints and downloads
- Gold to Ghosts
Bannack Vintage Photo Gallery
Ghost in Bannack, Montana
Henry Plummer by Emerson Hough
Idaho & Montana
Vigilantes of California, Idaho, & Montana
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