Henry Plummer | The Undoing of a Sheriff
With Electa out of the picture, Plummer had little reason to spend time at home and threw himself into his work. When he was in Bannack, he took meals with his in-laws, the Vails, and their two boarders – Joseph Swift and Francis Thompson. Not two and a half months after Electa left (mid-November), there was an incident that truly threw Plummer’s character to speculation.
This incident involved the ward of the Edgertons, Henry Tilden. Sam Hauser, later to become the Governor of the Montana Territory, got on the Virginia City Express with Langford (a friend of the Edgertons) with $14,000 in gold dust headed East for the States. It was noted that Plummer was also on that train and offered Hauser a gift of a red scarf to warm him. Hauser interpreted this gesture as a mark of someone transporting money and was extremely uneasy. The next day it is said that the shrieks of Tilden could be heard across the valley.
Tilden recounted the incident saying that the cries were the result of taking a tumble into a ditch and his horse falling on top of him. The boy had been hurrying back to town in fear of what he had seen only minutes before: three masked horsemen had searched him at gunpoint, finding nothing of value in his pockets and subsequently letting him go. He identified one of the men as Henry Plummer, stating that he knew the man by his overcoat and his pistol. When Sheriff Plummer heard of Tilden’s experience, he immediately questioned the boy about the robbery. In fear of Plummer, Tilden was silenced. While questions about Tilden’s testimony remain, it cast doubt on Plummer to those of notable standing (the Sanders and the Edgertons) in town.
Following the Tilden incident, much of the response to Plummer’s actions were brought on out of fear. The Sheriff asked Sidney Edgerton if he could send a package along with him as he traveled East to the States – Edgerton was so skeptical of Plummer’s motives that he cancelled his trip altogether. In like fashion, Lucia Darling, the Sanders, and the Edgertons accepted the Vail’s Thanksgiving invitation partly out of fear of offending Plummer. This meal however is written about only in a positive light. Although the dinner was enjoyable, Sanders and Edgerton were already planning the undoing of the Sheriff.
In the proceeding weeks, there are accounts of Plummer riding among a group of bold riders showing off and speculation of his involvement in a series of robberies. In one of these robberies, George Ives was suspected of being the leader. Ives was also said to be responsible for the death of Nick Tiebolt. The trial was held on the streets of Nevada City – the jury could not come back with a unanimous decision, but Sanders (the prosecution attorney) would not accept the verdict and, being in control of the crowd, moved that Ives be hanged immediately. It was following this trial and execution that the Vigilance Committee was formed in the back room of a Virginia City store.
Ives dying declaration was that Alex Carter had killed the Dutchman. With this insight, 24 men took off to find Carter on December 23. When they arrived at Deer Lodge Creek, Red Yeager informed them that they would find Carter drunk at the Cottonwood station. This turned out to be false information that would give Carter and associates a chance to escape. For his interference with justice, Yeager was sentenced to death. Yeager is said to have continued naming members of the Road Agents, wanting to see others who deserved to die far more than himself, hang. He accused Plummer as being the gang’s leader, and continued with: Bill Bunton, George Brown, Ned Ray, Sam Bunton, Cyrus Skinner, George Shears, Frank Parish, Hays Lyons, Bill Hunter, George Ives, Stephen Marshland, Dutch John Wagner, Alex Carter, Whiskey Bill Graves, Johnny Cooper, Buck Stinson, Mexican Frank, Bob Zachary, Boone Helm, Clubfoot George Lane, Billy Terwilliger, and Gad Moore.
The Vigilantes were prepared to take the law into their own hands and set out to execute those on the list immediately. While some of the committee stayed in the Alder Gulch area, others took off to find Plummer and associates in Bannack.
Meanwhile, Plummer was ill and had taken to the Vail’s couch for several days. Thompson, one of the Vail’s boarders, was privy to Sander’s and Edgerton’s plan to eliminate Plummer; yet, he feared for his own life did not consider warning Plummer. Late on the evening of January 10, 1864, Thompson heard the creak of the small footbridge under the feet of a group of 50-75 men who would split into three groups to collect Ned Ray, Buck Stinson, and Henry Plummer. When the men knocked at the Vail’s, Martha opened the door and Plummer, unarmed, obliged their request to discuss Dutch John and sent Martha inside where Thompson kept her company.
Plummer soon realized that the men intended to hang him on the gallows that Plummer himself had built and utilized as Sheriff. He, like Ray and Stinson, pleaded for his life begging for a fair trial or time to get his affairs in order. All of these requests were ignored. Ray was hanged first, with his lover, Madame Hall, forcing her way through the crowd and making a large scene. Stinson was next, and finally the crowd turned toward Plummer. Joseph Swift rushed to the scene nearly too late and began pleading on Plummer’s behalf to no avail. While Swift wept, Plummer made a final request, “give me a high drop, boys.”
**Stay Tuned: Part 5 on the discrepancies in his story.