Photo Essay

The Mystery of Henry Plummer and the Innocents

The View of Bannack from the North

In 1832, Henry Plummer was born in the state of Maine. His father, brother and brother-in-law were all ship captains. Henry was expected to follow in his fathers footsteps. But he had tuberculosis and the moist air would aggrivate the condition. Henry's father died when Henry was 19. He decided he needed to head west to find his own fortune. His family was wealthy but Henry didn't want to be a financial burden to his newly widdowed mother.

He left on a boat to Panama where he traveled over land to a waiting boat for the other half of the voyage to the gold fields of California.

He mined for gold and within two years, he had a stake in a business and a successful gold claim. The towns people took notice of his business acumen and the people of Nevada City CA asked him to be the town marshall. While in this duty, Henry came to be known as the man people should go to when in trouble and needs advice. One such citizen, John Vedder, an unsuccessful gambler and drunk came to Henry because he was being evicted. Henry allowed John and his wife Lucy Vedder to have his own house and he moved to the jailhouse.

One day, a man walking by Henry's house and witnessed John beating his wife Lucy. Henry was made aware of the situation and when he confronted John Vedder, he was convinced John was abusive. He removed John from the house and provided Lucy with police protection around the clock and also procurred an attorney for Lucy.

After the divorce, Lucy decided to relocate back home and Henry decided he would take the last shift while she packed. John Vedder, seeking revenge, suddenly breaks in and fire two rounds at Henry. Henry returned fire with one shot, hitting John Vedder who later died. The towns people felt Henry must have been having an affair with Lucy and subsequently, Henry was tried and found guilty of murder. He was sentenced to 10 years in San Quentin Prison. In August 1859, the people regretted their hasty decison and petitioned the governor for a pardon. He was granted the pardon.

In 1861, Henry tried to effect a citizens arrest on William Riley, an escapee from San Quentin, and ended up shooting Riley. Henry turned himself in to the local police and after hearing his story and that of witnesses, were convinced Henry was justified but feared that Henry would not get a fair trial so he was advised to leave the territory.

Henry eventually ended up in Bannack, Idaho Territory. Henry was attacked in the town saloon in January 1863. He shot and killed the attacker and fortunately, the majority of the town was present and witnessed this and all knew Henry was defending himself. The town took such a good liking, they elected Henry sheriff of Bannack.

Gold miners were being robbed and Henry was often riding alongside gold laden wagons providing escort. Henry and his two deputies tried to stop the robberies but it was a hard task. While Henry was on escort duty in December 1863, a group of vigilantes organized and called themselves the Vigilante Committee. Over the next month, 24 men were sent to the gallows. One man, with a noose on his neck, named Henry as the leader. On the morning of January 10, 1864, a group of Vigilantes seized Henry and both deputies and hung them.

I have been researching this since I came to Montana. Bannack is in the state of Montana and is now a state park.

In my research, I am more convinced that Henry was indeed innocent.

*No gold from the robberies was ever found.

*Letters from several town residents claimed they knew Henry was innocent.

*One town resident, believing Henry was guilty, wrote a letter claiming over 100 people were killed, mutilated and maimed and their bodies buried in the snow and "never to be seen" She admits no one had seen the carnage Henry is blamed for and after careful research, only four murders were committed during gold robberies and all of them occured when Henry was either escorting or sick in bed with TB.

*Henry had his own gold claim and worked it from time to time. The Miners Court passed a law that said any claim not worked in three days was surrendered and available for anyone. The only exceptions were if the claim was not worked due to illness or other obligations. The Miners Court decided what other obligation was reason or not.

*Henry came from a wealthy family and didnt need to rob people of their gold. He was good at mining and panning and if he couldn't find his own gold, his family money was more than enough to support him and his wife Electa. Henry was also had a good business head. If he got a few ounces of gold, he knew how to invest it and reap returns.

As part of their story to support hanging the sheriff, the Vigilante Committee claimed Henry led the gang before coming to Bannack. The problem with that story is it was supposed to be in 1860 when he started the gang but Henry was nowhere near Idaho Territory, or the Montana region. He was still in California trying to rebuild his life after the false conviction and before the William Riley episode. From the Riley episode to Bannack, Henry didn't stay in one place long enough to organize a gang. I cant find the one peice of the puzzle that says Henry was 100% innocent. But I can't say he was guilty either.

In 1993, a posthumous trial was held for Henry Plummer and it resulted in a hung jury, which would have ended in Henry being released. Several of the 24 people that were killed by the Vigilantes were known to oppose them because the Vigilantes didnt provide a trial. One young man that called a group of miners stranglers for supporting the vigilantes was found dead hanging in a tree three weeks later. No one in the town could recall him ever committing a crime. Henry was known to oppose the vigilantes and the fact that they never allowed the accused a trial. Henry was law and order. He built the gallows and had no problem with the death penalty. He just felt everyone deserved a trial and to be lawfully convicted. Some historians think this is what got him on the bad end of the noose.

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1 response

  • Saroj Swain

    Saroj Swain gave props (13 May 2013):

    OUTSTANDING SHOTS!!! Great narration... Vote!!!

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