By Emerson Hough
Henry Plummer was what might be called a good instance of the gentleman desperado, if such a thing be possible; a man of at least a certain amount of refinement, and certainly one who, under different surroundings, might have led a different life. For the sake of contrast, if for nothing else, we may take the case of Boone Helm, one of Plummer’s gang, who was the opposite of Plummer in every way except the readiness to rob and kill. Boone Helm was bad, and nothing in the world could ever have made him anything but bad. He was, by birth and breeding, low, coarse, cruel, animal-like and utterly depraved, and for him no name but ruffian can fitly apply.
Helm was born in Kentucky, but his family moved to Missouri during his early youth, so that the boy was brought up on the borderland between civilization and the savage frontier; for this was about the time of the closing days of the old Santa Fe Trail, and the towns of Independence and Westport were still sending out their wagon trains to the far mountain regions. By the time Boone Helm was grown, and soon after his marriage, the great gold craze of California broke out, and he joined the rush westward. Already he was a murderer, and already he had a reputation as a quarrelsome and dangerous man. He was of powerful build and turbulent temper, delighting in nothing so much as feats of strength, skill, and hardihood. His community was glad to be rid of him, as was, indeed, any community in which he ever lived.
In the California diggings, Helm continued the line of life mapped out for him from birth. He met men of his own kidney there, and was ever ready for a duel with weapons. In this way he killed several men, no one knows how many; but this sort of thing was so common in the case of so many men in those days that little attention was paid to it. It must have been a very brutal murder which at length caused him to flee the Coast to escape the vengeance of the miners. He headed north and east, after a fashion of the times following the California boom, and was bound for the mountain placers in 1853, when he is recorded as appearing at the Dalles, Oregon. He and half-dozen companions, whom he had picked up on the way, and most of whom were strangers to each other, now started out for Fort Hall, Idaho, intending to go from there to a point below Salt Lake City.
The beginning of the terrible mountain winter season caught these men somewhere west of the main range in eastern Oregon, in the depths of as rugged a mountain region as any of the West. They were on horseback, and so could carry small provisions; but in some way they pushed on deeper and deeper into the mountains, until they got to the Bannack River, where they were attacked by Indians and chased into a country none of them knew. At last they got over east as far as the Soda Springs on the Bear River, where they were on well-known ground. By this time, however, their horses had given out, and their food was exhausted. They killed their horses, made snowshoes with the hides, and sought to reach Fort Hall.
The party was now reduced to one of those awful starving marches of the wilderness which are now and then chronicled in Western life. This meant that the weak must perish where they fell.
The strength of Helm and one of the others, Burton, enabled them to push on ahead, leaving their companions behind in the mountains. Almost within reach of Fort Hall, Burton gave out and was left behind in an abandoned cabin. Helm pushed on into the old stockade, but found it also abandoned for the winter season, and he could get no food there. He then went back to where he had left Burton, and, according to his own report, he was trying to get wood for a fire when he heard a pistol-shot and returned to find that Burton had killed himself.
He stayed on at this spot, and, like a hyena, preyed upon the dead body of his companion. He ate one leg of the body, and then, wrapping up the other in a piece of old shirt, threw it across his shoulder and started on further east. He had, before this on the march, declared to the party that he had practiced cannibalism at an earlier time, and proposed to do so again if it became necessary on this trip across the mountains. His calm threat was now verified. Helm was found at last at an Indian camp by John W. Powell, who learned that he was as hard a character as he had ever run across. None the less, he took care of Helm, gave him food and clothes, and took him to the settlements around Salt Lake. Powell found that Helm had a bag containing over fourteen hundred dollars in coin, which he had carried across the divide with him through all his hardships. He would take no pay from Helm, and the latter never even thanked him for his kindness, but left him as soon as he reached the Mormon settlements.
Here the abandoned ruffian boasted of what he had done, and settled down for a brief time to the customary enjoyments of the rough when in town. He spent his money, hired out as a Danite, killed a couple of men whom the Mormons wanted removed, and soon got so bad that he had to leave. Once more he headed west to California, and once more he started back north from San Francisco, for reasons satisfactory to himself. While in California, as was later learned, he undertook to rob and kill a man at an outlying ranch, who had taken him in and befriended him when he was in need and in flight from vengeance. He showed no understanding of the feeling of gratitude, no matter what was done for him or how great was his own extremity.
In Oregon, Helm went back to robbery as his customary means of support, and he killed several men at this time of his life, how many will never be known. In 1862, as the mountain placers were now beginning to draw the crowds of mining men, it was natural that Boone Helm should show up at Florence. Here he killed a man in cold blood, in treachery, while his enemy was not armed, and after their quarrel had been compromised. This victim was Dutch Fred, a man of reputation as a fighter, but he had never offended Helm, who killed him at the instigation of an enemy of his victim, and possibly for hire. He shot Fred while the latter stood looking him in the face, unarmed, and, missing him with the first shot, took deliberate aim with the second and murdered his man in cold blood.