This article was published in the Winter 1999-2000 issue of Formulations
by the Free Nation Foundation

Vigilantes of Montana

by Thomas J. Dimsdale

Reviewed by Roy Halliday

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Outline
--introduction
Life before the Vigilantes Organized
The Case of George Ives
Formation of the Vigilance Committee
Rationale of the Vigilantes
Results of the Vigilance Committee's Actions
Conclusion
 

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Vigilantes of Montana by Thomas J. Dimsdale was published in book form 1865. It was first serialized in the Montana Post, of which Mr. Dimsdale was the editor-in-chief. It describes the exploits of vigilantes from Virginia City, Montana and its sister city Nevada, Montana from 1863 through 1865. It consists of true stories of courage and persistence on the part of the vigilantes as they pursued, arrested, tried, and punished road agents, murderers, and other dangerous criminals. More interesting to me than the stories, which constitute most of the book, are the occasional explanations of the rationale for the Vigilance Committee and the comments the author makes about the net result of its activities.

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Life before the Vigilantes Organized

Sometimes on the American frontier settlers had to take the law into their own hands because the federal government had no meaningful presence there yet and the territorial government had not been created. This was not the case in Virginia City and Nevada, Montana. The citizens of these mining towns did not lack government law enforcers. What they lacked was honest and effective law enforcers. They had a duly elected sheriff and legally appointed deputy sheriffs to enforce law and order, but, unfortunately, the sheriff was the leader of the road agents and his deputies were his partners in crime.

Highway robberies and murders by road agents and other criminals were common in Montana in the 1860s. Honest citizens lived in fear. The jury system used by the government courts was ineffective.

"No matter what may be the proof, if the criminal is well liked in the community, 'Not Guilty' is almost certain to be the verdict of the jury, despite the efforts of the judge and prosecutor. If the offender is a moneyed man, as well as a popular citizen, the trial is only a farce—grave and prolonged, it is true, but capable of only one termination—a verdict of acquittal." (13) Criminals gained popularity among prospective jurors by frequently buying rounds of drinks at the local saloons. But this was not their only means of swaying jurors. Intimidation of witnesses and jurors was another method commonly employed by the criminal community. Anyone who dared become a witness against a road agent was not likely to live long enough to testify in court, especially with the long delays associated with the governmental court proceedings. Potential witnesses were reminded that "dead men tell no tales." These were not idle threats. The road agents had spies who informed them whenever anyone reported a robbery or a murder to the authorities. Survivors of highway robberies were often tracked down and murdered so they could not testify. The members of any jury that dared to convict a criminal could not expect to outlive him, even if the criminal was sentenced to be hanged at dawn. So criminals who were guilty beyond a doubt were seldom arrested, and when they were arrested they were generally acquitted. "The chances of a just verdict being rendered is almost a nullity. Prejudices, or selfish fear of consequences, and not reason, rules the illiterate, the lawless, and the uncivilized. These latter are in large numbers in such places, and if they do right it is by mistake." (75) The author expressed the feelings of his fellow citizens sarcastically when he wrote that they "might as well have applied to the Emperor of China, for redress or protection, as to any civil official." (45)

Henry Plummer, the leader of the road agents, was able to use his ill-gotten gains to make enough friends in Bannack, Montana to be fairly elected as sheriff. He immediately appointed two of his partners in crime, Buck Stinson and Ned Ray, to be his deputy sheriffs. Then Plummer proposed to the honest sheriff of newly settled Virginia City, Montana, that he should step down and allow Plummer to be sheriff of both cities. The sheriff of Virginia City consented, knowing that certain death was his only alternative. If someone was foolish enough to report a crime, Sheriff Plummer would inform his fellow murderers about it and the reporting citizen's life expectancy would suddenly drop.

"All along the route the ranchmen knew the road agents, but the certainty of instant death in case they revealed what they knew enforced their silence, even when they were really desirous of giving information or warning." (92) Plummer acquired a head deputy named Dillingham, who was an honest man. Dillingham tried to warn a man named Dodge that Buck Stinson, Haze Lyons, and Charley Forbes intended to rob him. Dodge told the robbers about Dillingham's warning and Stinson, Lyons, and Forbes murdered Dillingham. Lyons fired first and hit Dillingham in the thigh. Stinson's bullet went over Dillingham's head. Forbes' shot went through Dillingham's chest and killed him within a few minutes. By prearranged agreement, their friend Deputy Sheriff Jack Gallagher, rushed out, confiscated their pistols, reloaded Stinson's pistol, and arrested them. They were tried right away without any red tape by a people's court. Stinson and Lyons were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. Forbes was acquitted by a nearly unanimous vote because he was handsome and he made an eloquent speech at his trial, and because Stinson's fully loaded gun was presented as belonging to Forbes. Later, Forbes bragged that he killed Dillingham and laughed at the softness of the miners who acquitted him. Stinson and Lyons were brought to the gallows. Judge Smith was called for. Lyons begged for mercy. Ladies in the audience pleaded to save the poor young boys' lives. The judge ordered a new vote on the sentences. The people had two options: hang or release the convicted murderers. The first two votes were inconclusive. The third vote was managed differently. Those who favored hanging marched between two men and those who favored release marched between two other men. Those favoring release "ingeniously increased their votes by the simple but effectual expedient of passing through several times." (79) So the murderers were set free. "As a matter of course, after the failure of justice in the case of the murderers of Dillingham, the state of society, bad as it was, rapidly deteriorated, until a man could hardly venture to entertain belief that he was safe for a single day." (89) (to outline)  (to top of page)

The Case of George Ives

The case of George Ives began the vigilante movement in Montana. George robbed and murdered Nicholas Tbalt and hid his body in the sage brush where it froze solid and was discovered and brought into Nevada, Montana after 10 days. George had been seen with the dead man's mules and had been heard to say that Tbalt would never trouble anyone again. The citizens were so incensed by this crime that 25 men pledged mutual support to each other and rode out to capture George Ives in violation of the Magna Charta, the Bill of Rights, habeas corpus, and other sacred principles of legal hocus pocus.

"Marked for slaughter by desperadoes, these men staked their lives for the welfare of society." (107) Sheriff Plummer was sent for by friends of the murderer to save Ives from vigilante justice. During Ives' trial his criminal friends tried to help him by planning methods for his escape, intimidating witnesses, making appeals to the sympathies of the jurors, and insisting that fine points of the law be observed. But they deferred taking more drastic action until the arrival of their leader Sheriff Plummer. Unfortunately for George Ives, Plummer had heard rumors that a large body of vigilantes was coming after him so Plummer, more concerned for his own safety than for the safety of George Ives, stayed away from the scene. As a result, George Ives was found guilty of murder and was hanged while vigilante guards with loaded shotguns prevented Ives' friends from rescuing him. "At last the deed was done. The law-abiding among the citizens breathed more freely, and all felt that the worst man in the community was dead—that the neck of crime was broken, and that the reign of terror was ended." (115) (to outline)  (to top of page)

Formation of the Vigilance Committee

The local criminals were scared by Ives' execution, but soon they resumed their predations and tried to reestablish their dominance. They threatened, watched, and followed all the prominent citizens who supported the arrest and conviction of Ives—looking for the first opportunity to murder them out of sight of witnesses.

But this time the criminals' tactics didn't work.

"One thing was conclusively shown to all who witnessed the trial of Ives. If every road agent cost as much labor, time and money for his conviction, the efforts of the citizens would have, practically, failed altogether. Some shorter, surer, and at least equally equitable method of procedure was to be found." (118-119) Five men in Virginia City and one man in Nevada, Montana simultaneously began organizing a Vigilance Committee. Within two days they united their efforts. "Merchants, miners, mechanics and professional men, alike, joined in the movement, until, within an incredibly short space of time, the road agents and their friends were in a state of constant and well-grounded fear, lest any remarks they might make confidentially to an acquaintance might be addressed to one who was a member of the much-dreaded Committee." (121) The Vigilance Committee comprised nearly every good man in the territory. They pledged to render impartial justice to all. They took time from their work, their leisure, and their families to spend days tracking down dangerous criminals through the snow in the frigid climate of Montana. "The volunteers formed a motley group; but there were men enough among them of unquestioned courage, whom no difficulty could deter and no danger affright. They carried, generally, a pair of revolvers, a rifle or shotgun, blankets and some rope. Spirits were forbidden to be used." (125) The vigilantes received no monetary compensation. "The smiles of an approving conscience are about all, in the shape of reward, that is likely to be received by any of them for their brilliant services." (126) They returned all stolen property that they recovered to its rightful owners or their heirs. When they were unable to recover stolen goods, they tried to compensate the victim as best they could. After executing a thief in front of a crowd of citizens: "Before leaving the ground, a subscription was opened on behalf of the man whose money had been stolen, and the whole sum missing ($400) was paid to him by the Committee. This was an act of scrupulous honesty, probably never before paralleled in any citizen's court in the world." (225-226) (to outline)  (to top of page)

Rationale of the Vigilantes

Dimsdale regarded government courts as part of the ideal way to control crime, but like John Locke, he and the other good citizens of Virginia City believed that the people have the right to take control when the government fails.

"Peace and justice we must have, and it is what the citizens will have in this community; through the courts, if possible; but peace and justice are rights, and courts are only means to an end, admittedly the very best and most dependable means; and if they fail, the people, the republic that created them, can do their work for them." (268) Dimsdale proposed this test for determining when it is necessary to establish a Vigilance Committee: "The question of the propriety of establishing a Vigilance Committee depends upon the answers which ought to be given to the following questions: Is it lawful for citizens to slay robbers or murderers, when they catch them; or ought they to wait for policemen where there are none, or put them in penitentiaries not yet erected?" (16) Dimsdale agrees with the answer arrived at by the vigilantes: "Under these circumstances, it becomes an absolute necessity that good, law-abiding, and order-sustaining men should unite for mutual protection, and for the salvation of the community." (15) Dimsdale defends the practice of hanging the criminals arrested and convicted by the vigilantes: "... nothing but severe and summary punishment would be of any avail to prevent crime, in a place where life and gold were so much exposed." (225)

"None but extreme penalties inflicted with promptitude are of any avail to quell the spirit of the desperadoes with whom they have to contend; considerable numbers are required to cope successfully with the gangs of murderers, desperadoes and robbers who infest mining countries, and who, though faithful to no other bond, yet all league willingly against the law. (15)

"Finally, swift and terrible retribution is the only preventative of crime, while society is organizing in the far West. The long delay of justice, the wearisome proceedings, the remembrance of old friendships, etc., create a sympathy for the offender, so strong as to cause hatred of the avenging law, instead of inspiring a horror of the crime. ... in affairs of single combats, assaults, shootings, stabbings, and highway robberies, this civil law, with its positively awful expense and delay, is worse than useless." (13-14)

He also defends the vigilantes' policy of secrecy: "Secret they must be, in council and membership, or they will remain nearly useless for the detection of crime, in a country where equal facilities for the transmission of intelligence are at the command of the criminal and the judiciary; and an organization on this footing is a VIGILANCE COMMITTEE." (15) Membership in the Vigilance Committee was voluntary, but a member's freedom to quit was not always respected, especially if he chose to quit at a critical moment. Dimsdale relates once incident in which a member of a vigilante group that had just captured and voted to execute two men tried to leave before the sentence was carried out: "One of the party who had been particularly lip-courageous, now began to weaken, and discovered that he should lose $2000 if he did not go home at once. Persuasion only paled his lips, and he started off. The click! click! click! of four guns, however, so far directed his fears into an even more personal channel, that he concluded to stay." (131-132) The vigilantes did not attempt to capture and punish every known criminal. Their goal was not retributive justice. Instead they wanted to break up the criminal gangs and make the territory safe. Their strategy was to go after the leaders and the most dangerous criminals and to arrest them, try them, and, if found guilty, to hang them (1) to prevent the criminal from continuing his life of crime, and (2) to set an example to deter other criminals.

At the execution of John Dolan in 1864, the executive officer of the Vigilance Committee "addressed the crowd, stating that the execution of criminals such as Dolan was a matter of public necessity, in a mining country, and that the safety of the community from lawlessness and outrage was the only reason that dictated it." (224)

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Results of the Vigilance Committee's Actions

According to Dimsdale’s reporting, the Vigilance Committee was an unmitigated success amounting to a triumph of good over evil.

"Less than three years ago, this home of well-ordered industry, progress and social order, was a den of cutthroats and murderers. Who has effected the change? The Vigilantes; and there is nothing on their record for which an apology is either necessary or expedient." (268) Being arrested by vigilantes was not equivalent to being found guilty and hanged. If the evidence was inconclusive, they released their prisoners—even when they were almost certain that their prisoners were morally culpable. "The Vigilantes rigidly abstained, in all cases, from inflicting the penalty due to crime, without entirely satisfactory evidence of guilt." (165)

"The truth is, that the Vigilance Committee simply punished with death men unfit to live in any community, and that death was, usually, almost instantaneous, and only momentarily painful." (154)

Public reaction to vigilante justice was favorable. Upon hearing of the hanging of Jem Kelly an old miner said, "Served him right; he ought to have gone up long ago; I don't believe in whipping and banishing; if a fellow ain't fit to live here, he ain't fit to live nowhere, by thunder—that's so, you bet your life." (215)

The law-abiding public had no fear of being unjustly punished by the vigilantes:

"There is not now—and there never has been—one upright citizen in Montana, who has a particle of fear of being hanged by the Vigilance Committee." (250) Even criminals who were hanged by the vigilantes agreed that what the vigilantes did was just. The last words of Erastus Yager, known simply as "Red," just before he was hanged were, "Good-by boys; God bless you. You are on a good undertaking." (135) Aleck Carter after being arrested and hearing the names of others hanged by the vigilantes said, "All right; not an innocent man hung yet." (179) When Bob Zachary was arrested, tried, and sentenced to death, he dictated a letter to his mother, "in which he warned his brothers and sisters to avoid drinking whisky, card playing, and bad company, which, he said, had brought him to the gallows." When he was about to be hanged he prayed to God "to forgive the Vigilantes for what they were doing, for it was a pretty good way to clear the country roads of road agents." (185) Just before Bill Hunter was hanged "he shook hands with each of the company, and said that he did not blame them for what they were about to do." (192) Just before he was hanged, James Brady wrote a letter to his daughter which included these words, "I have been arrested, and sentenced to be hanged by the Vigilance Committee. In one short hour I shall have gone to eternity. It is my own fault." (213) At his hanging in front of five thousand people Brady addressed the crowd and said he hoped his execution would be a warning to others. (214) After his trial and conviction for murder, John Keene got up and said, "All I wanted was a fair and just trial; I think I have got it, and death is my doom; but I want time to settle up my business; I am not trying to get away." (239)

The vigilantes arrested, tried, and convicted men who were responsible for murdering 102 people. Under the laws and procedures enforced in the governmental courts these criminals probably would have been set free and protected from molestation.

After they executed Bill Hunter on February 3, 1864, there was no longer any openly organized gang of robbers in the territory. (194) The execution of R. C. Rawley, a road agent who fled the territory when the vigilantes organized but made the mistake of returning to Bannack in September 1864, prevented the criminal community from reorganizing.

"The effect of the execution was magical. Not another step was taken to organize crime in Bannack, and it has remained in comparative peace and perfect security ever since." (229) The Vigilance Committee quickly rid Virginia City, Bannack, and the surrounding country of criminal gangs. Some of the criminals fled to Helena to resume their activities. The citizens of Helena followed the example of Virginia City and organized their own Vigilance Committee. After the initial war against criminals in the vicinity of Helena: "Very little action was necessary on the part of the Vigilance Committee to prevent any combination of the enemies of law and order from exerting a prejudicial influence on the peace and good order of the capital; in fact the organization gradually ceased to exercise its functions, and although in existence, its name more than its active exertions sufficed to preserve tranquility." (253) (to outline)  (to top of page)

Conclusion

If you are the type of person who judges actions by their results, it is hard to deny that the vigilantes of Montana greatly improved conditions for their fellow citizens. This is the way Dimsdale saw it:

" ‘All's well that ends well,’ says the proverb. Peace, order and prosperity are the result of the conduct of the Vigilantes..." (267) I am not sure that a more pacific approach would have worked. As much as I am philosophically opposed to retribution, I am tempted to justify what the vigilantes of Montana did on the grounds of self-defense. The stories in this book provide food for thought, especially for anyone considering forming a free nation in which dealing with crime, and everything else, will be handled exclusively by the private, voluntary sector. D

Vigilantes of Montana: Or popular Justice in the Rocky Mountains by Thomas J. Dimsdale was republished by McGee Printing Company, Butte, Montana in 1950.  Used copies may be found for sale at <http://www.bookfinder.com>
 

Roy Halliday was a long-time friend of Murray and Joey Rothbard and he was saddened to hear about the recent passing of Joey. She had always welcomed him whenever he knocked on the door of their apartment in Manhattan, even on Sunday afternoons after she and Murray had been up all night drinking cocktails and playing Risk with other friends such as Leonard Liggio and Walter Block. More than once she dragged poor Murray out of bed to entertain and edify him. Roy regards Murray Rothbard as the most intelligent and knowledgeable person he has ever known and as one of the jolliest and most gracious of hosts.

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