Mountains

Organization of Vigilantes

About the time of the execution of Ives and shortly following the murder of Lloyd Magruder and his four companions, the citizens of Bannack, Virginia City and its twin settlement, Nevada, decided that some organization must be effected to promptly punish the reckless criminals who were carrying the communities with such a high hand. From the best evidence at hand, the movement was started by five men in Virginia City, four in Bannack and one in Nevada. A vigilance committee was formed with Paris S. Pfouts as president, Wilbur F. Sanders, official prosecutor, and Capt. James Williams, executive officer. Then, in total darkness, standing in a circle with hands uplifted, Colonel Sanders administered the following oath: "We, the undersigned, uniting ourselves together for the laudable purpose of arresting thieves and murderers and recovering stolen property, do pledge ourselves on our sacred honors, each to all others, and solemnly swear that we will reveal no secrets, violate no laws of right, and never desert each other or our standard of justice, so help us God." One of the by-laws read: "The only punishment that shall be inflicted by this committee is death." The vigilantes did not strictly conform to this by-law, as it was thought advisable to banish some of the minor criminals whose offenses did not warrant death, but whose permanent absence was obviously conducive to the well-being of Montana.

Hanging of Red and Brown

On the 23rd of December, 1863, twenty-four members of the Vigilance Committee, which had just been organized, started from Bannack City to run down the criminals of the region. Each man carried generally a pair of revolvers, a rifle or shotgun, blankets and some rope. The cavalcade, mounted both on horse and mule back, went by way of Stinking Water, on to the Big Hole and over the divide in the main range. The weather was very cold and there was much snow upon the ground. Fires could not be lighted when wanted at night, for fear of attracting attention. The men leaving their horses under a guard lay down in their blankets on the snow-"the wisest of them, in it." On Deer Lodge Creek they commenced to come in contact with the desperadoes. Red (Erastus Yager), the letter carrier of the band, was finally captured as well as Brown, the secretary.

The culprits were informed that they should be taken to Virginia, and were given in charge to a trustworthy and gallant man, with a detachment of seven, selected from the whole troop. This escort reached Lorraine's in two hours. The rest of the men arrived at sundown. The prisoners were given up, and the leader of the little party, who had not slept for four or five nights, lay down to snatch a brief, but welcome repose. About 10 P. M., he was awakened, and the significant, "We want you," announced "business."

The tone and manner of the summons at once dispelled even his profound and sorely needed slumber. He rose without further parley and went from the parlor to the bar-room where Red and Brown were lying in a corner, asleep. Red got up at the sound of his footsteps, and said, "You have treated me like gentlemen, and I know I am going to die I am going to be hanged." "Indeed," said his quondam custodian, "that's pretty rough." In spite of a sense of duty, he felt what he said deeply. "It is pretty rough," continued Yager, "but I merited this, years ago. What I want to say is that I know all about the gang, and there are men in it that deserve this more than I do; but I should die happy if I could see them hanged, or know that it would be done. I don't say this to get off. I don't want to get off." He was told that it would be better if he should give all the information in his possession, if only for the sake of his kind. Times had been very hard, and "you know, Red," said the vigilante, "that men have been shot down in broad daylight, not for money, or even for hatred, but for luck, and it must be put a stop to."

To this he assented, and the captain being called, all that had passed was stated to him. He said that the prisoner had better begin at once, and his words should be taken down. Red began by informing them that Plummer was chief of the band; Bill Bunton second in command and stool pigeon; Sam Bunton, roadster, (sent away for being a drunkard); Cyrus Skinner, roadster, fence and spy. At Virginia City, George Ives, Steven Marshland, Dutch John (Wagner), Aleck Carter, Whiskey Bill (Graves), were roadsters ; George Shears was a roadster and horse-thief; Johnny Cooper and Buck Stinson were also roadsters ; Ned Ray was council-room keeper at Bannack City ; Mexican Frank and Bob Zachary were also roadsters ; Frank Parish was roadster and horse-thief ; Boon Helm and Club-Foot George were roadsters; and telegraph men; George Lowry, Billy Page, Doc Howard, Jem Romaine, Billy Terwilliger and Gad Moore were roadsters. The password was "Innocent." They wore a necktie fastened with a "sailor's knot," and shaved down to moustache and chin whiskers. He admitted that he was one of the gang; but denied, as they invariably did, that he was a murderer. He also stated that Brown, his fellow captive, acted in the capacity before mentioned.

He spoke of Bill Bunton with a fierce animosity quite unlike his usual suave and courteous manner. To him, he said, he owed his present miserable position. He it was that first seduced him to commit crime, at Lewiston. He gave the particulars of the robberies of the coaches and of many other crimes, naming perpetrators. As these details have been already supplied or will appear in the course of the narrative, they are omitted, in order to avoid a useless repetition.

After serious reflection, it had been decided that the two culprits should be executed forthwith, and the dread preparations were immediately made for carrying out the resolution.

The trial of George Ives had demonstrated most unquestionably that no amount of certified guilt was sufficient to enlist popular sympathy exclusively on the side of justice, or to render the just man other than a mark for vengeance. The majority of men sympathize, in spite of the voice of reason, with the murderers instead of the victims; a course of conduct which appears to us inexplicable, though we know it to be common. Every fibre of our frame vibrates with anger and disgust when we meet a ruffian, a murderer or a marauder. Mawkish sentimentalism we abhor. The thought of murdered victims, dishonored females, plundered wayfarers, burning houses, and the rest of the sad evidences of villainy, completely excludes mercy from our view. Honor, truth and the sacrifice of self to consideration of justice and the good of mankind, these claim, we had almost said our adoration; but for the low, brutal, cruel, lazy, ignorant, insolent, sensual and blasphemous miscreants that infest the frontiers, we entertain but one sentiment aversion, deep, strong, and unchangeable. For such cases, the rope is the only prescription that avails as a remedy. But though such feelings must be excited in the minds of good citizens, when brought face to face with such monsters as Stinson, Helm, Gallagher, Ives, Skinner, or Graves, the calm courage and penitent conduct of Erastus Yager have the opposite effect, and loss of the goodly vessel thus wrecked forever, must inspire sorrow, though it may not and ought not to disarm justice.

Brief were the preparations needed. A lantern and some stools were brought from the house, and the party, crossing the creek behind Lorraine's ranch, made for the trees that still bear the marks of the axe which trimmed off the superfluous branches. On the road to the gallows, Red was cool, calm and collected. Brown sobbed and cried for mercy, and prayed God to take care of his wife and family in Minnesota. He was married to a squaw. Red, overhearing him, said, sadly but firmly, "Brown, if you had thought of this three years ago, you would not be here now, or give these boys this trouble. "After arriving at the fatal trees, they were pinioned and stepped on to the stools, which had been placed one on the other to form a drop. Brown and the man who was adjusting the rope, tottered and fell into the snow; but recovering himself quickly, the vigilante said quietly, "Brown we must do better than that."

Brown's last words were, "God Almighty save my soul."

The frail platform flew from under him, and his life passed away almost with the twang of the rope.

Red saw his comrade drop; but no sign of trepidation was visible. His voice was as calm and quiet as if he had been conversing with old friends. He said he knew that he should be followed and hanged when he met the party on the Divide. He wished that they would chain him and carry him along to where the rest were, that he might see them punished. Just before he was launched into eternity, he asked to shake hands with them all, which having done, he begged of the man who had escorted him to Lorraine's that he would follow and punish the rest. The answer was given in these words, "Red, we will do it, if there's any such thing in the book." The pledge was kept.

His last words were, "Good-bye, boys; God bless you. You are on a good undertaking." The frail footing on which he stood gave way, and this dauntless and yet guilty criminal died without a struggle. It was pitiful to see one whom nature intended for a hero, dying and that justly like a dog.

A label was pinioned to his back bearing the legend:

"Red! Road Agent and Messenger."

The inscription on the paper fastened on to Brown's clothes was:

"Brown! Corresponding Secretary."

The fatal trees still smile as they don the green livery of spring, or wave joyfully in the summer breeze; but when the chill blast of winter moans over the snow-clad prairie, the wind sighing, and creaking through the swaying boughs seems, to the excited listener, to be still laden with the sighs and sounds of that fatal night.

The bodies were left suspended, and remained so for some days before they were buried. The ministers of justice expected a battle on their arrival at Nevada; but they found the Vigilantes organized in full force,

Execution of Plummer, Stinson and Ray

When Dutch John Wagner was brought back to Bannack City, after his attempted escape to Utah, the Vigilantes of Virginia sent a communication to his captors, containing an order for the execution of Henry Plummer, Buck Stinson and Ned Ray, the first as captain, and the others as members of the road agent band. That action was followed by the formal organization of the Bannack Vigilantes, and Dutch John was taken by his captors to an empty cabin of Yankee Flat, where he was held, pending the more important affair in connection with the fate of Messrs. Plummer, Stinson and Ray.

About dusk of the following day, the three horses of the aforementioned outlaws were brought into Bannack by the Vigilantes, and not long afterward the principals were captured. The three details marched their men to a given point, en route to the gallows. Here a halt was made. The leader of the Vigilantes and some others, who wished to save all unnecessary hard feeling, were sitting in a cabin, designing not to speak to Plummer, with whom they were so well acquainted. A halt was made, however, and, at the door, appeared Plummer. The light was extinguished; when the party moved on, but soon halted. The crisis had come. Seeing that the circumstances were such as admitted of neither vacillation nor delay, the citizen leader, summoning his friends, went up to the party and gave the military command, "Company! forward inarch!" This was at once obeyed. A rope taken from a noted functionary's bed had been mislaid and could not be found. A nigger boy was sent off for some of that highly necessary, but unpleasant remedy for crime, and the bearer made such good time that some hundreds of feet of hempen neck-tie were on the ground before the arrival of the party at the gallows. On the road, Plummer heard the voice and recognized the person of the leader. He came to him and begged for his life; but was told, "It is useless for you to beg for your life; that affair is settled and cannot be altered. You are to be hanged. You cannot feel harder about it than I do! but I cannot help it, if I would." Ned Ray, clothed with curses as with a garment, actually tried fighting, but found that he was in the wrong company for such demonstrations; and Buck Stinson made the air ring with the blasphemous and filthy expletives which he used in addressing his captors. Plummer exhausted every argument and plea that his imagination could suggest, in order to induce his captors to spare his life. He begged to be chained down in the meanest cabin; offered to leave the country forever; wanted a jury trial; implored time to settle his affairs; asked to see his sister-in-law, and, falling on his knees, with tears and sighs declared to God that he was too wicked to die. He confessed his numerous murders and crimes, and seemed almost frantic at the prospect of death.

The first rope being thrown over the crossbeam, and the noose being rove, the order was given to "Bring up Ned Ray." This desperado was run up with curses on his lips. Being loosely pinioned, he got his fingers between the rope and his neck, and thus prolonged his misery.

Buck Stinson saw his comrade robber swinging in the death agony, and blubbered out, "There goes poor Ed Ray." Scant mercy had he shown to his numerous victims. By a sudden twist of his head at the moment of his elevation the knot slipped under his chin, and he was some minutes dying.

The order to "Bring up Plummer" was then passed and repeated; but no one stirred. The leader went over to this perfect gentleman, as his friends called him, and was met by a request to "Give a man time to pray." Well knowing that Plummer relied for a rescue upon other than Divine aid, he said briefly and decidedly, "Certainly; but let him say his prayers up here." Finding all efforts to avoid death were useless, Plummer rose and said no more prayers. Standing under the gallows which he had erected for the execution of Horan, this second Haman slipped off his neck-tie and threw it over his shoulder to a young friend who had boarded at his house, and who believed him innocent of crime, saying as he tossed it to him, "Here is something to remember me by." In the extremity of his grief, the young man threw himself weeping and wailing upon the ground. Plummer requested that the men would give him a good drop, which was done, as far as circumstances permitted, by hoisting him up as high as possible, in their arms, and letting him fall suddenly. He died quickly and without much struggle.

It was necessary to seize Ned Ray's hand and by a violent effort to draw his fingers from between the noose and his neck before he died. Probably he was the last to expire, of the guilty trio.

The news of a man's being hanged flies faster than any other intelligence, in a Western country, and several had gathered round the gallows on that fatal Sabbath evening many of them friends of the road agents. The spectators were allowed to come up to a certain point, and were then halted by the guard, who refused permission either to depart or to approach nearer than the "dead line," on pain of their being instantly shot.

The weather was intensely cold; but the party stood for a long time round the bodies of the suspended malefactors, determined that rescue should be impossible. Loud groans and cries, uttered in the vicinity, attracted their attention, and a small quad started in the direction from which the sound proceeded. The detachment soon met Madam Hall, a noted courtesan, the mistress of Ned Ray, who was "making night hideous" with her doleful wailings. Being at once stopped, she began inquiring for her paramour, and was thus informed of his fate: "Well if you must know, he is hung." A volcanic eruption of oaths and abuse was her reply to this information; but the men were on "short time," and escorted her toward her dwelling without superfluous display of courtesy. Having arrived at the brow of a short descent, at the foot of which stood her cabin, stern necessity compelled a rapid and final progress in that direction.

Soon after, the party formed and returned to town, leaving the corpses stiffening in the icy blast. The bodies were eventually cut down by the friends of the road agents and buried. The "Reign of Terror," in Bannack, was over.

The Greaser and Dutch John Hanged

Commenting on this triple execution, Professor Dimsdale says: "Men breathed freely; for Plummer and Stinson especially were dreaded by almost every one. The latter was of the type of that brutal desperado whose formula of introduction to a Western bar-room is so well known in the mountains: 'Whoop! I'm from Pike County, Missouri. I'm ten feet high. My abode is where lewd women and licentious men mingle. My parlor is in the Rocky Mountains. I smell like a wolf. I drink water out of a brook like a horse. Look out you! I'm going to turn loose!' A fit mate for such a God-forsaken outlaw was Stinson and he, with the oily and snake-like demon, Plummer, the wily, red-handed and politely merciless chief, and the murderer and robber, Ray, were no more. The Vigilantes organized rapidly. Public opinion sustained them."

On the Monday morning following the hanging of these wholesale criminals, the Vigilantes determined to arrest Joe Pizanthia, the Greaser, to see precisely how his record stood in Montana. Outside of it, it was known that he was a desperado, a murderer and a robber; but anything outside of the territory was not the business of the Vigilantes. Two of the party sent to arrest him were shot from his cabin, one of them fatally. The other, though wounded, shot the desperado, whose cabin was finally bombarded with a mountain howitzer directed by some military members of the assaulting party, now beside themselves with fury and unsatisfied vengeance. After the house had been partially wrecked, the wounded Greaser was dragged forth, again riddled with bullets, the body hoisted and fastened to a pole and made the target for a hundred shots. As if this were not enough, the crowd which had now become a mob set the cabin afire and threw the corpse into the fierce blaze where it was burned to ashes. And in the following morning, some women of ill-fame panned out the ashes to see whether the desperado had any gold in his purse. "We are glad to say," comments the professor, "that they were not rewarded for their labors by striking any auriferous deposit."

The evening after the death of Pizanthia, the newly organized committee met, and, after some preliminary discussion, a vote was taken as to the fate of Dutch John. The result was that his execution was unanimously adjudged, as the only penalty meeting the merits of the case. He had been a murderer and a highway robber, for years.

One of the number present at the meeting was deputed to convey the intelligence to Wagner; and, accordingly, he went down to his place of confinement and read to him his sentence of death, informing him that he would be hanged in an hour from that time. Wagner was much shocked by the news. He raised himself to his feet and walked with agitated and tremulous steps across the floor, once or twice. He begged hard for life, praying them to cut off his arms and legs, and then to let him go. He said, "You know I could do nothing then." He was informed that his request could not be complied with, and that he must prepare to die.

Finding death to be inevitable, Wagner summoned his fortitude to his aid and showed no more signs of weakness. It was a matter of regret that he could not be saved for his courage, and (outside of his villainous trade) his good behavior won upon his captors and judges to an extent that they were unwilling to admit, even to themselves. Amiability and bravery could not be taken as excuses for murder and robbery, and so Dutch John had to meet a felon's death and the judgment to come, with but short space for repentance. He said that he wished to send a letter to his mother, in New York, and inquired whether there was not a Dutchman in the house, who could write in his native language. A man being procured qualified as desired, he communicated his wishes to him and his amanuensis wrote as directed. Wagner's fingers were rolled up in rags and he could not handle the pen without inconvenience and pain. He had not recovered from the frost-bites which had moved the pity of X. Beidler when he met John before his capture, below Red Rock. The epistle being finished, it was read aloud by the scribe; but it did not please Wagner. He pointed out several inaccuracies in the method of carrying out his instructions, both as regarded the manner and the matter of the communication; and at last, unrolling the rags from his fingers, he sat down and wrote the missive himself. He told his mother that he was condemned to die, and had but a few minutes to live; that when coming over from the other side to deal in horses, he had been met by bad men, who had forced him to adopt the line of life that had placed him in his present miserable position; that the crime for which he was sentenced to die was assisting in robbing a wagon, in which affair he had been wounded and taken prisoner, and that his companion had been killed. (This latter assertion he probably believed.) He admitted the justice of his sentence.

The letter, being concluded, was handed to the Vigilantes for transmission to his mother. He then quietly replaced the bandages on his wounded fingers. The style of the composition showed that he was neither terrified nor even disturbed at the thought of the fast approaching and disgraceful end of his guilty life. The statements were positively untrue, in many particulars, and he seemed to write only as a matter of routine duty; though we may hope that his affection for his mother was, at least, genuine.

Dutch John was marched from the place of his confinement to an unfinished building, where the bodies of Stinson and Plummer were laid out, the one on the floor and the other on a work bench. Ray's corpse had been handed over to his mistress, at her special request. The doomed man gazed without shrinking on the remains of the malefactors, and asked leave to pray. This was, of course, granted, and he knelt down. His lips moved rapidly; but he uttered no word audibly. On rising to his feet, he continued apparently to pray, looking round, however, upon the assembled Vigilantes all the time. A rope being thrown over a cross-beam, a barrel was placed ready for him to stand upon. While the final preparations were made, the prisoner asked how long it would take him to die, as he had never seen a man hanged. He was told that it would be only a short time. The noose was adjusted; a rope was tied round the head of the barrel and the party took hold. At the word, "All ready," the barrel was instantly jerked from beneath his feet, and he swung in the death agony. His struggles were very powerful, for a short time; so iron a frame could not quit hold on life as easily as a less muscular organization. After hanging till frozen stiff, the body was cut down and buried decently.

Captain J. A. Slade's Taking-Off

The execution of Capt. J. A. Slade is in a class by itself; naturally, an able, likable man, when sober, but a reckless rough and outlaw when drunk. If ever there was a man of "two natures," under such conditions, that unfortunate man was Slade. He came of a respectable Illinois family and was for several years a law-abiding resident of Clinton County. Subsequently he was a division manager on the Overland Stage line and murdered and mutilated one of the station agents on the Platte River, but under most aggravating circumstances. Far from committing any bloody crime since coming to Virginia City, in the spring of 1863, he had upheld the vigilantes, when sober; when drunk, he flouted all evidences of law and order, and rode rough-shod over everything and everybody. From the fact that his influence was so strong with the naturally lawless element, such manifestations formed a menace to the entire region; and it was imperative that an example be made of him. There has always been more or less of a dispute as to whether his hanging was not beyond his deserts, as based upon his record in Montana. Mark Twain, in his "Roughing It," and Professor Dimsdale, J. X. Beidler and others have pictured Captain Slade in the foregoing lines, and have graphically described the events leading to his execution, as well as his last moments on earth.

After the execution of the five men, on the 14th of January, the vigilantes considered that their work was nearly ended. They had freed the country from highwaymen and murderers to a great extent, and they determined that, in the absence of the regular civil authority, they would establish a People's Court, where all offenders should be tried by judge and jury. This was the nearest approach to social order that the circumstances permitted, and, though strict legal authority was wanting, yet the people were firmly determined to maintain its efficiency, and to enforce its decrees. It may here be mentioned that the overt act which was the last round on the fatal ladder leading to the scaffold on which Slade perished, was the tearing in pieces and stamping upon a writ of this court, followed by the arrest of the judge, Alexander Davis, by authority of a presented Derringer, and with his own hands.

On returning from Milk River, where he had been unsuccessfully engaged as a freighter, he became more and more addicted to drinking; until at last, it was a common feat for him and his friends to "take the town." He and a couple of his dependents might often be seen on one horse, galloping through the streets, shouting and yelling, firing revolvers, etc. On many occasions he would ride his horse into stores; break up bars; toss the scales out of doors, and use most insulting language to parties present. Just previous to the day of his arrest, he had given a fearful beating to one of his followers; but such was his influence over them that the man wept bitterly at the gallows, and begged for his life with all his power. It had become quite common, when Slade was on a spree, for the shop-keepers and citizens to close the stores and put out all the lights; being fearful of some outrage at his hands. One store in Nevada he never ventured to enter, that of the Lott brothers, as they had taken care to let him know that any attempt of the kind would be followed by his sudden death, and, though he often rode down there, threatening to break in and raise, yet he never attempted to carry his threat into execution. For his wanton destruction of goods and furniture, he was always ready to pay, when sober if he had money; but there were not a few who regarded payment as small satisfaction for the outrage, and these men were his personal enemies.

From time to time, Slade received warnings from men that he well knew would not deceive him, of the certain end of his conduct. There was not a moment, for weeks previous to his arrest, in which the public did not expect to hear of some bloody outrage. The dread of his very name, and the presence of the armed band of hangers-on, who followed him alone prevented a resistance, which must certainly have ended in the instant murder or mutilation of the opposing party.

Slade was frequently arrested by order of the court whose organization we have described, and had treated it with respect by paying one or two fines, and promising to pay the rest when he had money; but in the transaction that occurred at this crisis, he forgot even this caution, and goaded by passions and the hatred of restraint, he sprang into the embrace of death.

Slade had been drunk and "cutting up" all night. He and his companions had made the town a perfect hell. In the morning, J. M. Fox, the sheriff, met him, arrested him, took him into court, and commenced reading a warrant that he had for his arrest, by way of arraignment. He became uncontrollably furious, and seizing the writ, he tore it up, threw it on the ground and stamped upon it. The clicking of the locks of his companions' revolvers was instantly heard and a crisis was expected. The sheriff did not attempt his capture; but being at least as prudent as he was valiant, he succumbed, leaving Slade the master of the situation and the conqueror and ruler of the courts, law and law-makers. This was a declaration of war, and was so accepted. The Vigilance Committee now felt that the question of social order and the preponderance of the law-abiding citizens had then and there to be decided. They knew the character of Slade, and they were well aware that they must submit to his rule without murmur, or else that he must be dealt with in such fashion as would prevent his being able to wreck his vengeance on the Committee, who could never have hoped to live in the territory secure from outrage or death, and who could never leave it without encountering his friends, whom his victory would have emboldened and stimulated to a pitch that would have rendered them reckless of consequences. The day previous, he had ridden into Dorris's store, and on being requested to leave, he drew his revolver and threatened to kill the gentleman who spoke to him. Another saloon he had led his horse into, and buying a bottle of wine, he tried to make the animal drink it. This was not considered an uncommon performance, as he had often entered saloons, and commenced firing at the lamps, causing a wild stampede.

A leading member of the committee met Slade, and informed him in the quiet earnest manner of one who feels the importance of what he is saying: "Slade, get your horse at once, and go home, or there will be to pay." Slade started and took a long look with his dark and piercing eyes, at the gentleman. "What do you mean?" said he. "You have no right to ask me what I mean," was the quiet reply. "Get your horse at once, and remember what I tell you." After a short pause he promised to do so, and actually got into the saddle; but, being still intoxicated, he began calling aloud to one after another of his friends, and, at last seemed to have forgotten the warning he had received and became again uproarious, shouting the name of a well-known prostitute in company with two men whom he considered head of the Committee, as a sort of challenge; perhaps, however, as a simple act of bravado. It seems probable that the intimation of personal danger he had received had not been forgotten entirely; though fatally for him, he took a foolish way of showing his remembrance of it. He sought out Alexander Davis, the judge of the court, and drawing a cocked Derringer, he presented it at his head, and told him that he should hold him as a hostage for his own safety. As the judge stood perfectly quiet, and offered no resistance to his captor, no further outrage followed on this score. Previous to this, on account of the critical state of affairs, the committee had met, and at last resolved to arrest him. His execution had not been agreed upon, and, at that time, would have been negative, most assuredly. A messenger rode down to Nevada to inform the leading men of what was on hand, as it was desirable to show that there was a feeling of unanimity on the subject, all along the gulch.

The miners turned out almost en masse, leaving their work and forming in solid column, about 600 strong, armed to the teeth, they marched up to Virginia. The leader of the body well knew the temper of his men, on the subject. He spurred on ahead of them, and hastily calling a meeting of the Executive, he told them plainly that the miners meant "business," and that if they came up, they would not stand in the street to be shot down by Slade's friends; but that they would take him and hang him. The meeting was small, as the Virginia men were loath to act at all.

The committee were most unwilling to proceed to extremities. All the duty they had ever performed seemed as nothing to the task before them; but they had to decide, and that quickly. It was finally agreed that if the whole body of the miners were of the opinion that he should be hanged, that the committee left it in their hands to deal with him. Off, at hot speed, rode the leader of the Nevada men to join his command.

Slade had found out what was intended, and the news sobered him instantly. He went into P. S. Pfouts's store, where Davis was, and apologized for his conduct, saying that we would take it all back.

The head of the column now wheeled into Wallace Street and marched up at quick time. Halting in front of the store, the executive officer of the committee stepped forward and arrested Slade, who was at once informed of his doom, and inquiry was made as to whether he had any business to settle. Several parties spoke to him on the subject; but to all such inquiries he turned a deaf ear, being entirely absorbed in the terrifying reflections on his own awful position. He never ceased his entreaties for life, and to see his dear wife. The unfortunate lady referred to, between whom she and Slade there existed a warm affection, was at this time living at their ranch on the Madison. She was possessed of considerable personal attractions; tall, well-formed, of graceful carriage, pleasing manners, and was, withal, an accomplished horsewoman.

A messenger from Slade rode at full speed to inform her of her husband's arrest. In an instant she was in the saddle, and with all the energy that love and despair could lend to an ardent temperament and a strong physique, she urged her fleet charger over the twelve miles of rough and rocky ground that intervened between her and the object of her passionate devotion.

Meanwhile a party of volunteers had made the necessary preparations for the execution, in the valley traversed by the branch. Beneath the site of Pfouts's and Russell's stone building there was a corral, the gateposts of which were strong and high. Across the top was laid a beam, to which the rope was fastened, and a drygoods box served for the platform. To this place Slade was marched, surrounded by a guard, composing the best armed and most numerous force that has ever appeared in Montana Territory. The doomed man had so exhausted himself by tears, prayers and lamentations that he had scarcely strength left to stand under the fatal beam. He repeatedly exclaimed: "My God! My God! Must I die? Oh, my dear wife!"

On the return of the fatigue party, they encountered some friends of Slade, stanch and reliable citizens and members of the committee, but who were personally attached to the condemned. On hearing of his sentence, one of them, a stout-hearted man, pulled out his handkerchief and walked away, weeping like a child. Slade still begged to see his wife, most piteously, and it seemed hard to deny his request; but the bloody consequences that were sure to follow the inevitable attempt at a rescue, that her presence and entreaties would have certainly incited, forbade the granting of his request. Several gentlemen were sent for to see him, in his last moments, one of whom (Judge Davis) made a short address to the people ; but in such low tones as to be inaudible, save to a few in his immediate vicinity. One of his friends, after exhausting his powers of entreaty, threw off his coat and declared that the prisoner could not be hanged until he himself was killed. A hundred guns were instantly leveled at him; whereupon he turned and fled ; but, being brought back, he was compelled to resume his coat, and to give a promise of future peaceable demeanor.

Scarcely a leading man in Virginia could be found, though numbers of the citizens joined the ranks of the guard when the arrest was made. All lamented the stern necessity which dictated the execution.

Everything being ready, the command was given, "Men, do your duty," and the box being instantly slipped from beneath his feet, he died almost instantaneously.

The body was cut down and carried to the Virginia Hotel, where, in a darkened room, it was scarcely laid out, when the unfortunate and bereaved companion of the deceased arrived, at headlong speed, to find that all was over, and that she was a widow. Her grief and heart-piercing cries were terrible evidences of the depth of her attachment for her lost husband, and a considerable period elapsed before she could regain the command of her excited feelings.

Beidler's Account of Slade's End

While stirring up Virginia City in his last drunken spree, Slade had come across Beidler (X, he was called for short), who had done all in his power, both individually and through friends, to induce the whiskey crazed man to "go home and behave himself." Kiscadden, a friend, who afterward married Slade's widow, was among the most earnest in making these requests. They had no effect, and while Slade was grossly insulting, a local storekeeper, at the latter's place of business, "over two hundred honest, determined miners (says Beidler), headed by Captain Williams (the executive of the Vigilance Committee), were just turning the corner. They came up to Pfouts's store and Captain Williams stepped up and arrested Slade while he was holding up Pfouts, Fox and Davis with a Derringer in each hand. Captain Williams was backed up by two hundred miners, each of whom could have shaken two or three dollars' worth of pay dust out of the rims of their hats and who had rifles and revolvers in abundance.

"Slade looked around and said 'My God!' He was informed that he had one hour to live and if he had any business to attend to, he had better do it. I was well aware of the approach of the committee, and was informed long before that the boys rifles and revolvers were being cleaned and loaded fresh, which meant business, and I had begged Slade to go home, but I knew when he got off his horse and I made the remark to Kiscadden (asking him to coax Slade homeward) that it was his last ride. If Slade had gone off when he was told, the committee would not have hung him at that time.

"Slade was taken into the back room of the store to settle up his business and begged all the time most piteously for his life. A party was sent to arrange a place for the execution. They went down the gulch and found an empty beef scaffold, made the noose and fixed everything for the hanging. * * * While Slade was standing on the boxes under the scaffold, with the rope around his neck, he asked for Col. W. F. Sanders, and the boys around were afraid to do too much shouting, and I said 'Pass the word along for Sanders,' which was done, but he could not be found, and Slade then asked for Alex Davis, who came up and talked with the doomed man. Slade asked Davis to plead to the crowd for his life and Davis said, 'Mr. Slade, I can only repeat your words. I have no influence but would gladly do so, if I had.' The two hundred miners were getting impatient and shouted 'Time's up!'

"These men were running mines on their own account and wanted to get back and clean up and attend to their business, as they did not come on any child's play. A noble German by the name of Brigham adjusted the rope around Slade's neck and afterward left the territory, being afraid of the Slade men. Dutch Charley selected the place for the execution. Captain Williams, when he heard how impatient the miners were getting, said: 'Men do your duty,' and Slade died!"

Justice, as backed by a preponderance of honest public sentiment, was master of the situation.

The most notorious and dangerous of the road agents had met their deserts through the Vigilantes and the miner's courts, but the champions of law and order were not satisfied and would have nothing but a thorough clean-up of infesting criminals. On the evening of January 13, 1864, the executive committee of the Vigilantes determined on hanging six of the worst men still alive. The morning of January 15th came, and the detachment of Vigilantes marched in from Nevada, Junction, Summit, Pine Grove, Highland and Fairweather, and halted in a body in Main Street of Bannack. Parties were immediately detailed for the capture of the road agents, and all succeeded in their mission except the one which went after Bill Hunter, who temporarily escaped. The other five were "rounded up" the same day and executed in front of the Virginia Hotel. It will serve no purpose to enter into details as to the different attitudes assumed by the criminals at their arrest and execution. Some were cool, some profane, some furious, some rebellious and some resigned almost to the point of repentance. But the men paid the just penalty for their many crimes and the days of outlawry were doomed in Montana.

The operations of the Vigilantes were, at this time, especially, planned with a judgment, and executed with a vigor that has never been surpassed by anybody, deliberative or executive. On the 15th of January, 1864, a party of twenty-one men left Nevada under the command of a citizen whose name and actions remind us of lightning. He was prompt, brave, irresistible (so widely did he lay his plans) and struck when least expected. Bill Hunter had temporarily escaped and was in hiding, but he was rooted out of his nest about twenty miles above the mouth of the Gallatin River, and started with his escort toward Virginia City. The captors proceeded on their way in that direction for about two miles and halted at the foot of a tree which seemed as if it had been fashioned by nature for a gallows. A horizontal limb at a convenient height was there for the rope, and on the trunk was a spur like a belaying pin, on which to fasten the end. Scraping away about a foot of snow they camped, lit a fire and prepared their breakfast. An onlooker would never have conjectured for a moment that anything of a serious nature was likely to occur, and even Hunter seemed to have forgotten his fears, laughing and chatting gaily with the rest.

After breakfast, a consultation was held as to what should be done with the road agent, and after hearing what was offered by the members of the scouting party, individually, the leader put the matter to vote. It was decided by the majority that the prisoner should not go to Virginia; but that he should be executed then and there. The man who had given Hunter to understand that he would be taken to Virginia, voted for the carrying out of this part of the programme; but he was overruled.

The earnest manner of the Vigilantes, and his own sense of guilt, overpowered Hunter; he turned deadly pale, and faintly asked for water. He knew, without being told that there was no hope for him. A brief history of his crimes was related to him by one of the men, and the necessity of the enforcement of the penalty was pointed out to him. All was too true for denial. He merely requested that his friends should know nothing of the manner of his death, and stated that he had no property; but he hoped they would give him a decent burial. He was told that every reasonable request would be granted; but that the ground was to hard for them to attempt his interment without proper implements. They promised that his friends should be made acquainted with his execution, and that they would see to that. Soon after, he shook hands with each of the company, and said that he did not blame them for what they were about to do.

His arms were pinioned at the elbows; the fatal noose was placed round his neck, and the end of the rope being thrown over the limb, the men took hold and with a quick, strong pull, ran him up off his feet. He died almost without a struggle; but, strange to say, he reached as if for his pistol, and went through the pantomime of cocking and discharging his revolver six times. This is no effort of fancy. Every one present saw it, and was equally convinced of the fact. It was a singular instance of "the ruling passion, strong in death."

The place of the execution was a lone tree, in full view of the travelers on the trail, about twenty miles above the mouth of the Gallatin, The corpse of the malefactor was left hanging from the limb, and the little knot of horsemen was soon but a speck in the distance.

Bill Hunter was the last of the old road agent band that met death at the hands of the Committee. He was executed on the 3rd of February, 1864. There was now no openly organized force of robbers in the territory, and the future acts of the Committee were confined to taking measures for the maintenance of the public tranquility and the punishment of those guilty of murder, robbery and other high crimes and misdemeanors against the welfare of the inhabitants of Montana.

Last Work of the Vigilantes

On looking back at the dreadful state of society which necessitated the organization of the Vigilantes, and on reading these pages, many will learn for the first time the deep debt of gratitude which they owe to that just and equitable body of self-denying and gallant men. It was a dreadful and disgusting duty that devolved upon them; but it was a duty, and they did it. Far less worthy actions have been rewarded by the thanks of Congress, and medals glitter on many a bosom, whose owner won them, lying flat behind a hillock, out of range of the enemy's fire. The Vigilantes, for the sake of their country encountered popular dislike, the envenomed hatred of the bad, and the cold toleration of some of the unwise good. Their lives they held in their hands. "All's well that ends well." Montana is saved, and they saved it, earning the blessings of future generations, whether they receive them or not. * * *

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, though in existence, its name, more than its active exertions, sufficed to preserve tranquility. When Chief Justice Hosmer arrived in the territory, and organized the Territorial County Courts, he thought it his duty to refer to the Vigilantes, in his charge to the Grand Jury, and invited them to sustain the authorities as citizens. The old guardians of the peace of the territory were greatly rejoiced at being released from their onerous and responsible duties, and most cheerfully and heartily complied with the request of the Judiciary.

For some months no action of any kind was taken by them; but, in the summer of 1865, news reached them of the burning and sacking of Idaho City, and they were reliably informed that an attempt would be made to burn Virginia, also, by desperadoes from the West. That this was true was soon demonstrated by ocular proof ; for two attempts were made though happily discovered and rendered abortive, to set fire to the city. In both cases, the parties employed laid combustibles in such a manner that, but for the vigilance and promptitude of some old Vigilantes, a most destructive conflagration must have occurred in the most crowded part of the town. In one case the heap of chips and whittled wood a foot in diameter had burnt so far only as to leave a ring of the outer ends of the pile visible. In the other attempt a collection of old rags were placed against the wall of an out-building attached to the Wisconsin House, situated within the angle formed by the junction of Idaho and Jackson Streets. Had this latter attempt succeeded, it is impossible to conjecture the amount of damage that must have been inflicted upon the town, for frame buildings fifty feet high were in close proximity, and had they once caught fire, the flames might have destroyed at least half of the business houses on Wallace, Idaho and Jackson Streets.

At this time, too, it was a matter of every-day remark that Virginia was full of lawless characters, and many of them thinking that the Vigilantes were officially defunct, did not hesitate to threaten the lives of prominent citizens, always including in their accusations, that they were strangling. This state of things could not be permitted to last; and, as the authorities admitted that they were unable to meet the emergency, the Vigilantes reorganized at once, with the consent and approbation of almost every good and order-loving citizen in the territory.

The effect of this movement was marvelous; the roughs disappeared rapidly from the town; but a most fearful tragedy, enacted in Portneuf Canyon, Idaho, on the 13th of July, roused the citizens almost to frenzy. The overland coach from Virginia to Salt Lake City, was driven into an ambuscade by Frank Williams, and though the passengers were prepared for road agents, and fired simultaneously with their assailants, who were under cover and stationary, yet four of them, viz: A. S. Parker, A. J. McCausland, David Dinan and W. L. Mers, were shot dead; L. F. Carpenter was slightly hurt in three places and Charles Parks was apparently mortally wounded. The driver was untouched, and James Brown, a passenger, jumped into the bushes and got off, unhurt. Carpenter avoided death by feigning to be in the last extremity, when a villain came to shoot him a second time. The gang of murderers, of whom eight were present at the attack, secured a booty of $65,000 in gold, and escaped undetected.

A party of Vigilantes started in pursuit, but effected nothing at the time; and it was not till after several months patient work of a special detective from Montana, that guilt was brought home to the driver, who was executed by the Denver committee, on Cherry Creek.

The last offenders who were executed by the Vigilance committee of Virginia City, where two horse thieves and confessed road agents, named, according to their own account, John Morgan and John Jackson, alias Jones. They were, however, of the "alias" tribe. The former was caught in the act of appropriating a horse in one of the city corrals. He was an old offender, and on his back were the marks of the whipping he received in Colorado for committing an unnatural crime. He was a low, vicious ruffian. His comrade was a much more intelligent man, and acknowledged the justice of his sentence without any hesitation. Morgan gave the names and signs of the gang they belonged to, of which Rattlesnake Dick was the leader. Their lifeless bodies were found hanging from a hay-frame, leaning over the corral fence at the slaughter house, on the branch, about half a mile from the city. The printed manifesto of the Vigilantes was affixed to Morgan's clothes with the warning words written across it, "Road Agents, beware!"

Montana Days of Outlaws | Execution of George Ives

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Source: Montana its Story and Biography, by Tom Strout, Volume 1, The American Historical Society, 1921

 
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