In May of 1993, as the sun shone warm on the streets of Virginia City, 12 registered voters of Madison County, Montana, attended a trial for a man who had been dead for almost 130 years. They listened to the evidence of both sides, and when the time came to deliberate, they returned to the courtroom a hung jury. Six of the jurors favored his guilt, and six his innocence. Henry Handy Plummer, lawman, Western legend, prospector, city marshal, killer, and suspected ringleader of a gang of thieves and murderers, had gotten off.
He didn’t have it as easy the first time around: outside of Bannock, MT, on a bitterly cold January day in 1864, Plummer and two other men were stopped on the road by a group of Vigilantes 50-75 strong, who overpowered the men and led them to the town gallows whereupon they were hung, and killed. Plummer himself had built those gallows, and his workmanship must have been satisfactory, as they were sturdy enough to convey him from this life.
Plummer, who was by all accounts a well-spoken, handsome man, had been accused of killing or facilitating the murders of 100 people, of stealing $100,000 dollars in gold, and of holding the town of Bannack in a grip of terror. But there has never been proof of his innocence, and there are some who maintain he was framed to this day.
There are few things known for sure about Plummer’s childhood. He was born in Maine, the youngest of six siblings. His father died when he was young, and Plummer, at 19, struck out for California, where within two short years he not only owned his own mine and ranch, but a bakery as well. He became an important part of the community, and was bandied about as a political prospect for state representative. He had brown hair and light, quick eyes. When he became angry, Ed Purple, traveler of the gold camps, said that his eyes grew “black and glistened like a rattlesnake’s.” Purple also remembered Plummer’s “low, quiet tone of voice”, which he was never without, “even when laboring under such intense excitement as the Murdering of a human being must produce.”
So it would appear that he always had something of the desperado about him. The first time he killed a man, and perhaps not the last, he was acting in his capacity as City Marshall of Nevada City, California, where he was tasked with protecting a woman named Lucy Vedder. He was ostensibly protecting her from her abusive husband. But the record also shows that Plummer had booked a room across from hers at the local hotel, and it seems to have been an open secret that they were romantically involved. Plummer was convicted of second-degree murder.
He served 2 years of his 10-year sentence at San Quentin before being pardoned by the Governor. Plummer, reinstated as police, went to visit a lady friend at a saloon and was engaged by an inebriate into a political argument. His adversary pulled a knife and attempted to plunge it downward through Plummer’s hat, managing to cut his scalp before Plummer pulled his gun and shot the man through his left side, killing him instantly.
Once again, Plummer cried self-defense, and the Nevada Democrat supported his claim when they reported that the dead man, at 21, had been a “quarrelsome and dissipative” presence in the camps. He decided to head back East, but was stymied in that plan by meeting and falling in love with a Ms. Electra Bryan of Bannack. So did Plummer’s sometime friend and often adversary Jack Cleveland, who had followed him north from Nevada City. The trio set out for Bannack, near Alder Gulch, to make their fortune.
ALDER GULCH and
PLUMMER’S ALLEGED REIGN OF TERROR
In the early 1860s gold was struck in Alder Gulch, now in Montana but then part of the lawless Idaho territory. Plummer, who must have been aware that the mounting body-count around him was making an unpopular figure in Nevada, came north to try his luck. As writer and historian Dorothy M. Johnson wrote of Alder Gulch, “no matter how dangerous it was to live there, or how desperately hard it was to get there, this was where the gold was. And this was where people were still going to go.”
Not long after arriving, Jack Cleveland got in an argument, apparently over a debt. Plummer tried to intercede, assuring the men that it would be paid, but Cleveland would not drop the matter, telling the men that he would be back, and he’d come shooting when he came. Plummer seemed to have had fill of Cleveland, and shot him, as author Greg Strandberg puts it, “below the belt”. Cleveland fell to his knees and begged for his life, and asked Plummer whether he would kill a man on his knees. Plummer said he would not, and told Cleveland to get up, whereupon he shot him through the head and the heart. In his zeal, Plummer even managed to shoot another man observing Cleveland’s murder, although it was only a flesh wound. Not long after, Plummer was elected Sheriff of Bannack.
The lawlessness of the territory was quite literal. According to Western historian Dr. Merle Wells, “congressional neglect” had left large portions of Modern Idaho, Montana and nearly all of Wyoming with “no criminal code or civil law whatever”. As a result, “vigilance committees” arose all over the territories in order to “police” non-existent laws, usually with violence. They took as their main enemies the road agents, gangs of thieves and murderers who harassed and killed travelers for their gold. The road agents were systematic, with an uncanny ability to pick victims who were carrying gold dust on their persons. They knew each other by small signs: the knot in their tie, the characteristic cut of their facial hair, and by the repetition of their pass-phrase: “I am Innocent”. They knew themselves, therefore, as the Innocent.
The citizens of Bannack had learned to be wary of their Sheriff, whose reputation preceded him as in the case of Sam Hauser and N. P. Langford, who were carrying $14,000 in gold dust across the country to St. Louis for some business-men. They found themselves in a coach with Plummer. Hauser shrewdly decided to announce to the whole coach, not just Plummer, that they were carrying a fortune, in cases witnesses would be needed later. During the tense ride, Hauser kept a pistol in his lap, while Langford conspicuously displayed a loaded double-barreled shotgun. The ride was without incident but, suspiciously, Plummer gave Hauser a gift before parting. It was something practical, thoughtful—and conspicuous: a red scarf. “You’ll find it useful these cold nights,” he told him.
Sure enough, they were followed. Several nights later, Hauser was unable to sleep and decided to take a walk around his camp. He found a group of masked men casing the camp, who, deprived of the element of surprise, scattered into the night.
Others, like the young Dutchman Nick Tiebolt, were less lucky. Well-liked by all, Tiebolt was discovered after disappearing while on route to deliver a passel of mules. He had been dragged for miles behind a horse, alive, after having already been shot in the head.
Plummer was implicated in many of the road agent’s crimes. The Innocents were known to convene at the Rattlesnake Ranch, 12 miles out of Virginia City, and so was Plummer. One man claimed that when he complained to Plummer about how treacherous the roads had become, Plummer had offered him some of his own purloined gold back. And finally, two victims of robbery identified him as one of their robbers. But it was Tiebolt’s murder that cinched the rope around Plummer’s neck: regardless of whether or not he had actually committed any of the crimes, he was in the Vigilantes’ sights.
On that January morning in 1864 when Plummer and two supposed accomplices were rounded up, Plummer asked for a drink of liquor and was obliged. Then they were hung.
News of Plummer’s death travelled fast. The next morning there was what one witness described as a “living stream” of people come to see Plummer’s body hanging from the rafters of a half-constructed cabin. The atmosphere in town that day was solemn, but satisfied to see Plummer hung “in his Sunday clothes” and “neatly shaved.” Around 30 more alleged road agents would be hung in the next six weeks, a frenzy of killings, but by February things became calm, and the remaining road agents left for friendlier climes.
A LEGEND’S LEGACY
A persistent legend has arisen in the years after Plummer’s death that he had hidden a large amount of gold somewhere, and that some clever treasure hunter might follow the clues and avail himself of it. But while small caches of road agent gold have been uncovered, no treasures have been found. Despite his acquittal a century later, most assume he deserved his fate.
Nevertheless we are left with a mystery that has only deepened with time. As more writers and artists have voiced their opinion on Plummer, interpretations of the man and his fate proliferate. He has become a legend, and, more, a symbol of a time in Montana’s history when the definition of justice was decidedly more ambiguous.