Henry Plummer – Sheriff Meets a Noose

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.

Bannack Montana Jail

Bannack Montana Jail

By late spring 1863, there were more than 10,000 men hunting for gold along Grasshopper Creek and the lawlessness in Bannack had 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.

Plummer 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, Plummer 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 Bannack, never to return.

In the new election for sheriff, Plummer was made became the leading lawman on May 24, 1863. Plummer was quick to appoint two of his henchmen, Buck Stinson and Ned Ray, as deputies. Unknown to the people of Bannack, Plummer’s group of Innocents had now reached over 100. Having the opposite desired effect for the citizens of Bannack, 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, Henry 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 Henry again.

The Innocents stepped up their efforts at robbing the gold-laden travelers from the Montana 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 Innocents. The Innocents were 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 Virginia City when he was appointed Deputy U.S. Marshal for the region of Idaho Territory east of the mountains in August of 1863.

Bannock, Montana Gallows

Bannock, Montana Gallows

By December, 1863, the citizens of Bannack and Virginia City had had enough. Men from Bannack, Virginia 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 Montana State Highway patrolmen wear the emblem “3-7-77” on their shoulder patches today. Interesting.

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 not Henry was part of the murderous gang. But one night after heavy drinking in a local saloon, the vigilantes decided that Henry 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 Ned Ray. The three 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 neck.

After the 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 gallows.

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 Montana Territory – the vigilantes themselves. Many of the early stories, on which the outlaw tale is based, were written by the editor of the Virginia 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.

Bannack Barn & Wagon

Barn and wagon found in the ghost town of Bannack. Photo by Kathy Weiser-Alexander, 2008. Click for prints, downloads and products.

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 Henry Plummer as the gang’s leader.

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