Born in Ohio, Cyrus Skinner and his younger brother, George, made their way to Texas when they grew up. However, the pair found some trouble there, as when they hightailed it out of the Lone Star State, they used the aliases of Cyrus and George Williamson. Next, they appeared in California in 1850. The pair immediately got into trouble again and were arrested in El Dorado County in August 1851 on charges of burglary and grand larceny. George was able to escape, but Cyrus was sent to San Quentin. Brother George was picked up in November 1852 and sent to the penitentiary. In August 1853, Cyrus was released, but within six months, he was arrested again on grand larceny charges in Yuba County, California, and began a three-year sentence in June 1854. However, on October 24, he escaped and went to Nevada County, California.
Soon, his brother was also released. The two soon hooked up with Richard “Rattlesnake Dick” Barter, who had formed a gang that “worked” the Sierra foothills, relieving muleskinners of their loads of gold coming from Nevada City, California. In 1856, when Barter learned from a drunken mining engineer that a large gold shipment would be sent down Trinity Mountain from the Yreka and Klamath River Mines, he sent George Skinner and three others to intercept the shipment. The four bandits successfully stopped the mule train outside Nevada City and demanded the gold at gunpoint. Meekly, the bullion was turned over without a shot being fired.
George and the rest of the bandits then began to make their way to Folsom, where they were to meet Barter and Cy Skinner. However, they quickly found it next to impossible to take the heavy gold shipment down the mountain passes without fresh mules. Soon, they split up the gold shipment, burying half of it in the mountains and taking the rest with them. As they made their way to Auburn, the thieves were intercepted by a Wells Fargo posse, and a gunfight ensued. In the melee, George Skinner was killed, and his confederates fled. The lawmen recovered $40,600 of the stolen loot, and though they searched diligently, they failed to find the remaining $40,000.
In the meantime, Rattlesnake Dick and Cy Skinner weren’t at the rendezvous point in Folsom, as they had just been jailed for stealing mules. When they were released, Barter immediately sought out George Skinner to obtain his share of the gold shipment, only to find that Skinner had been killed. Cy Skinner and Dick Barter then spent the next several weeks trying to find the buried gold before they finally gave up. To this day, the lost gold has never been found.
Both men soon went back to robbing stagecoaches, but their luck ran out on July 11, 1859, when the pair were trapped in a mountain pass by Sheriff J. Boggs. When the outlaws resisted, Boggs shot Rattlesnake Dick, killing him instantly, and Skinner was wounded. However, he would live to be once again sent to San Quentin. There, he made the acquaintance of Henry Plummer, who was serving time for second-degree murder. The two would become friends and would later “hook up” again in Idaho.
Many who believed that Plummer had acted in self-defense petitioned the governor, and he was released in August 1859. Though Skinner was to spend 15 years in prison, he once again escaped in May 1860 and fled north to the gold camps of Idaho. In January 1862, he ran into Henry Plummer in Lewiston, Idaho, and the pair were said to have then formed a gang of road agents, which included such men as “Clubfoot” George Lane and Bill Bunton, robbing travelers of their possessions and relieving stage and freight companies of their gold shipments. Soon, Idaho citizens were becoming suspicious of the men, who then made their way to the goldfields of Montana. There, Skinner established a saloon in Bannack and another in Virginia City. He began investing in mining claims with his profits and soon became a “wealthy man.” He then met and married a woman named Nellie, who some said married him only for his money.
In the meantime, Henry Plummer had become the sheriff in Bannack when road agents in the area were rampant. By December 1863, the citizens of Bannack and Virginia City had had enough, and men from both towns soon 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 skull-and-crossbones or the “mystic” numbers “3-7-77.” The vigilantes began to dispense rough justice by hanging those they found guilty, some 24 men, before they were done.
Despite his successful businesses in Bannack, a nervous Skinner soon sold his businesses, packed up his belongings, and he and Nellie hightailed out of the area. They then settled in the tiny town of Hellgate, Montana, where, again, Skinner set up a saloon.
Hiding out in Hell Gate, Skinner wasn’t safe either. On the afternoon of January 24, 1864, the Montana Vigilantes tracked him down. The vigilantes quickly held a “mock trial,” and before the night was over, Skinner and a man named Alex Carter were hanged.
In the meantime, back in Bannack, the Montana Vigilantes had captured a man named Erastus “Red” Yager, and as he was about to be hanged, the condemned man pointed a finger at Henry Plummer as the leader of the gang. The town was in an uproar as the news quickly traveled, and Bannack 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 Henry was guilty and tracked him down. On January 10, 1864, Plummer and two deputies were hanged from the same gallows that Plummer had built less than a year earlier.
© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated March 2023.
Bannack, Montana – Gold to Ghosts