Frederick Allen recounts the history of an unprecedented chain of executions carried out by citizen vigilantes with overwhelming public consent in A Decent Orderly Lynching—The Montana Vigilantes. This deadly episode of vigilante justice erupted in the gold fields of what is now the state of Montana during the first weeks of 1864 while the Eastern and Southern part of the United States was preoccupied with the Civil War.
On a bitter cold winter night, a silent posse of vigilantes rode into the gold-rush town of Bannock and executed Bannack’s sheriff, Henry Plummer, and two of his deputies. The vigilantes executed the men without trial or benefit of defense; they were hanged on the very gallows that Plummer had ordered built the previous year.
The posse had captured Plummer and two deputies at nightfall in Plummer’s home in Bannock. The commander of the posse ordered men to bring Plummer’s deputy Ned Ray to the Bannock gallows, which had never been used prior to that wintry night. On January 10, 1864:
“Guards placed a noose around [Ned Ray’s] neck, lifted him as high as they could, and then dropped him. In the split second he was falling, he managed to reach up and stick his hand inside the noose, so that his neck did not break on impact. Instead, he dangled in the frigid night air, strangling, his contorted face illuminated by torchlight and his desperate gasps for breath silencing all other sounds. It took him several minutes to die.”
A Decent Orderly Lynching, p. 227
Next to be hanged was deputy Stinson, who died cleanly of a broken neck. Then it was the sheriff’s turn, and he was dispatched quickly with no speeches or pleas for clemency.
The posse left Bannock and began the 40-mile ride to Virginia City where the purge of highwaymen and robbers would continue. Thus began a string of executions the likes of which had not been seen before. In a few weeks, the vigilantes would execute 21 ruffians who had been terrorizing miners in the Virginia City goldfields.
Montanans are proud of their history—stories of the gold mining and vigilante justice (especially hangings) are particularly popular and recurring themes. There is a strong popular movement in the state to preserve all types of artifacts of the 19th and early 20th century. The “old town” districts of several Montana cities have been restored to satisfy the urge to view the remaining relics of the “old west”.
The ghost town of Bannack is now the site of Bannack State Park. Sixty historic log and frame structures remain standing. Many are quite well preserved and most can be explored. The Bannack Historic District was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1961.
Virginia City is a now a restored frontier town and active tourist site. Across from the Virginia City Playhouse, where summer tourists can watch “old time” melodramas, is the restored Fairweather Inn, a gold rush hotel that was the scene of vigilante meetings. Adjacent to the hotel is civic museum with boasts a scale model of the jury-rigged gallows where the vigilantes arrested, tried and hanged five robbers only four days after the Bannock lynching. The men were hanged from the rafters of a partially constructed store destined to become the Virginia City post office. The dead were stretched out on the sidewalk for townsfolk to examine, and then buried quickly in Boot Hill Cemetery located on a hill overlooking the town.
These restored towns stand in testimony to the Vigilantes who cleaned up the mining area beginning in 1864. But, while the initial hangings seem justified by the facts, the lynching did not stop at 21—once started, it was not easy to disband the vigilantes and their lawless justice continued for 6 years. During those years, the vigilantes’ movement expanded to other cities in the newly formed Montana Territory. Before the law regained control, a total of 57 men had been hanged.
The book’s title, by the way, is taken from an incident in Dillon Montana in 1883. An angry Dillon, Montana lynch mob took an accused killer from jail intent on a hanging, but they returned the accused to jail when they became convinced that the man was innocent. However, an influential newspaperman took the contrary view on the man’s guilt. The newsman wrote and published an editorial where he advocated a “decent, orderly lynching”. This is a truly astounding view to express in a newspaper—perhaps this reflects the continuing acceptance of mob justice by an influential segment of Montana society into the final years of the 19th century.
Frederick Allen documents the story of the public acceptance of this unprecedented chain of mayhem in A Decent Orderly Lynching, and, along the way, narrates a very readable history of the gold rush leading to the founding of the state of Montana. This book is a good readable introduction to the wild and rowdy history of Montana Territory.
Day 43: A Decent Orderly Lynching—The Montana Vigilantes (Frederick Allen) (2004).