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Henry Plummer (1832 – 1864) served as sheriff of what became Bannack, Montana, from May 24, 1863 until January 10, 1864, when he was hanged without legal system trial by the controversial Montana Vigilantes. [Notes of historical clarification: the original Idaho Territory, declared July 4, 1863 at Lewiston, Idaho included all of what is now Montana. The Montana territory was created in 1864. Thus at the time of his death, Plummer was sheriff in Bannock, Idaho Territory. By a 2:1 decision of the Idaho Territorial Supreme Court, Boise became the capital in 1866.] He is generally believed to have been the head of a gang that was responsible for nearly a hundred deaths; he was hanged along with twenty-three others for their 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.
On September 26, 1857, Plummer shot and killed John Vedder who had been having an affair with Plummer's wife. In the resulting trial, Plummer was sentenced to ten years in San Quentin. However, in August, 1859, supporters of his wrote to the governor seeking a pardon based on his alleged 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, allowed him to 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.
Halfway 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 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, 24 men were hanged, some in the basement of Joe Griffith's general store, including, on January 10, 1864, Henry Plummer.
The most common account is that the two youngest members of the gang were spared. One was sent back to Bannack to tell the rest to get out of the area and the other was sent ahead to Lewiston to do the same with the others of the gang there. [Lewiston was the territorial connection to the world, as it had river steamers that transited to the coast at Astoria, Oregon]. Plummer was known to have traveled to Lewiston during the time when he was an elected official in Bannack. The hotel registry records with his signature during the period still exist. Additionally, the large gang robberies of gold shipments ended with Plummer's and the alleged gang members' deaths. One gang member who was hanged at about the same time with Plummer was Clubfoot George.
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.