Henry Plummer (1832 – 1864) served as sheriff of Bannack, Montana, from May 24, 1863 until January 10, 1864, when he was hanged without trial by the controversial Montana Vigilantes. Some believe him to have been the head of a gang that was responsible for nearly a hundred deaths; he was hanged along with twenty-two others for their presumed crimes.
He was born William Henry Handy Plumer, the last of six children in Addison, Maine, to a family that had settled in Maine in 1764, when it was still a part of the Massachusetts Bay colony (he changed the spelling of his surname after moving West). His father died while Henry was in his teens. In 1852, age 19, he headed west to the gold fields of California. His mining venture went well: within two years he owned a mine, a ranch and a bakery in Nevada City. In 1856, he was elected sheriff and city manager and it was proposed that he should run for state representative as a Democrat. However, the party was divided, and without its full support, he lost.
To this point, most accounts of Plummer's life agree. There is also general agreement that he was handsome, well spoken and intelligent. But some see these attributes as a veneer, hiding a dishonest, cruel, crafty, violent nature. Others see him as a victim of jealous, malicious gossip--character assassination for personal and political gain.
On September 26, 1857, Plummer shot and killed John Vedder; he had been having an affair with Vedder's wife. In the resulting trial, Plummer was sentenced to ten years in San Quentin. However, in August, 1859, his many supporters wrote to the governor to seeking a pardon based on his good character and civic performance; the governor subsequently granted the pardon, but it was based on his health-- Plummer was suffering from tuberculosis. Then, in 1861, Plummer tried to carry out a citizen's arrest of William Riley, who had escaped from San Quentin; in the attempt, Riley was killed. Plummer turned himself in to the police, who accepted that the killing was justified, but, fearing that his prison record would prevent a fair trial, recommended that he leave the state.
Plummer headed to Washington Territory where gold had been discovered. However, he once again became involved in a dispute that ended in a gunfight won by Plummer. This event left him feeling that his only recourse was to return to Maine. While his skill with guns was keeping him alive in the violent towns of the gold rush, it was also making it hard for him to accomplish anything.
Half way home, waiting for a steamer to reach Fort Benton on the Missouri River, Plummer was approached by James Vail who was seeking volunteers to help protect his family from anticipated Indian attacks at the mission station he was attempting to found in Sun River, Montana. No passage home being available, Plummer accepted, along with Jack Cleveland, a horse dealer who had known Plummer in California. While at the mission, both Plummer and Cleveland fell in love with Vail's attractive sister-in-law, Electa Bryan; Plummer asked her to marry him, and she agreed. As gold had recently been discovered in nearby Bannack, Montana, Plummer decided to go there to try to earn enough money to support them both. Cleveland followed him.
In January 1863, Cleveland, nursing his jealousy, forced Plummer into a fight and was killed. Fortunately for Plummer, this happened in a crowded saloon, and there was no doubt that it was self-defense. In fact, Plummer was viewed very favorably by most town residents and, in May, he was elected sheriff of Bannack. However, the following winter the stage was robbed twice, an attempt was made to rob a freight caravan, and a man was murdered. In late December, while Plummer was out of town providing an escort to a gold shipment, a group of men calling themselves the Vigilance Committee formed in nearby Virginia City to take matters into their own hands. Over the next month, 21 men were hanged, including, on January 10, 1864, Henry Plummer. The last man hanged by the vigilantes may have done nothing more than express an opinion that several of those hanged previously had been innocent.
The Montana Vigilantes became an admired group in Montana history. Beginning in the late 20th century, that view has been widely challenged. Books have appeared depicting Plummer as an innocent victim. In recent years, many historical researchers have come to question the "traditional" histories relating to Henry Plummer, most of which were written by Masons. Given that the Masons played a critical role in the hanging of Henry Plummer, and further that political ambitions clearly were the predominant force underlying the hangings, there is strong reason to believe that Henry Plummer was not implicated in a "road agent" gang. Historical fiction writers, too, have examined the issue. The most recent is the historical novel by James Gaitis, entitled "A Stout Cord and a Good Drop" (Globe Pequot Press 2006). In contrast, Frederick Allen, in his highly praised 2004 book, "A Decent, Orderly Lynching: The Montana Vigilantes," goes somewhat against this trend. He believes there is considerable evidence of Plummer's guilt, and he suggests the early phase of the lynchings was a widely supported response to a real breakdown of law and order, and a fairly measured response for its time. (This was the era of the Civil War and vigorous campaigns against Indians.) Allen does believe, however, that the movement later degenerated into a campaign of terror that still haunts the state.
In May 1993 a posthumous trial on Plummer resulted in a mistrial because of a split verdict. Since this trial, more evidence has come to light to proves Henry Plummer's innocence. He was dying of TB when he was hung without the drop, therefore he died slowly and in agony. He simply decided that vigilantism was wrong and presumed some of the executed may have been innocent. This brought the ire of the ringleader of the vigilance committee.
Interview: Jerome Fowler discusses the reversal of the dishonorable discharge of his great-uncle, Chaplain Henry Plummer
Feb 10, 2005; MICHELE NORRIS All Things Considered (NPR) 02-10-2005 Interview: Jerome Fowler discusses the reversal of the dishonorable...