William Henry Handy Plumer was born in Addison, Maine in 1832. He was the youngest of six children born to Jeremiah and Elizabeth Plumer. Jeremiah died when William was still a teenager. Henry left home in 1851, at age 19, and headed for the goldfields in California — where he began calling himself Henry Plummer (adding an extra “m”).
By every indication, Henry was an enterprising young man. Within two years, Henry owned a mine, a bakery, and a small cattle ranch in Nevada City, California. In 1856, the citizens of Nevada City elected Plummer as their sheriff and city manager. His supporters urged him to run for state representative as a Democrat, but the party was divided and without their full support, he lost in the primaries.
In 1857, in his capacity as town marshal, Henry Plummer was protecting Mrs. Lucy Vedder from her abusive husband John when he shot and killed John Vedder. Plummer claimed that he shot Vedder in self-defense, but he was convicted of second-degree murder. On appeal of the conviction, he won a new trial. Convicted a second time, he was sentenced to ten years in the San Quentin State Prison. In 1859, the citizens of Nevada City appealed to the governor for a pardon on Plummer’s behalf. Because Plummer was then suffering from tuberculosis, the governor granted the pardon, and Plummer was released from prison. Plummer returned to Nevada City. In 1861, Plummer attempted to execute a citizen’s arrest of William Riley, an escapee from San Quentin. Riley resisted arrest and was killed. Local police accepted that the killing was justified, and Plummer was allowed to leave California.
At first, Plummer traveled to the goldfields in the Washington Territory. He became involved in a dispute that resulted in gunplay, and again Plummer killed his adversary. Plummer decided to return to Maine. On the way back east, waiting for a steamboat at Fort Benton, Montana (on the Missouri River), James Vail approached Plummer, asking him to volunteer to help protect Vail’s family from Indian attacks at the mission he was attempted to establish at Sun River. Since there was no passage available on the boat at the time, Plummer accepted the position, along with Jack Cleveland — a horse dealer who had known Plummer in California.
While at the mission, both Plummer and Cleveland developed emotional ties with Mr. Vail’s attractive sister-in-law, Miss 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 him and his intended wife. Cleveland, angry, followed Plummer to Bannack. In January 1863, the angry Jack Cleveland forced Plummer into a gunfight and was killed. The altercation took place in a crowded saloon where numerous witnesses confirmed that Plummer shot Cleveland in self-defense. In May 1863, the 31-year-old Plummer was overwhelmingly elected sheriff of Bannack, Montana.
Between October and December 1863, the number of armed robberies and murders in the vicinity of Alder Gulch increased significantly; citizens of Virginia City grew increasingly suspicious of Henry Plummer and his associates, whom they began calling the “Plummer Gang.”
As examples of the Plummer Gang’s alleged crimes:
- Lloyd Magruder was a Lewiston, Idaho merchant doing business in Virginia City. With $12,000 in gold from the sale of goods in Virginia City, Magruder hired several men to protect him during his journey home. These men included Chris Lowrie, Doc Howard, Jem Romaine, William Page, Charlie Allen, Robert Chalmers, Horace Chalmers, and William Phillips. On 13 October 1863, while en route to Idaho, Lowrie murdered Magruder and Howard, Romaine, and Page killed Allen, the Chalmers’ brothers, and Phillips.
- On 26 October, road agents Frank Parish and George Ives held up the Peabody-Caldwell Stagecoach between Rattlesnake Ranch and Bannack. Bill Bunton, the owner of the Rattlesnake Ranch, was complicit in the robbery. Parish, Ives, and Bunton took $2,800 in gold from the passengers and threatened them with death if they ever talked about the robbery.
- On 13 November 1863, Wilbur Sanders and Sidney Edgerton hired teenager Henry Tilden to locate and corral several horses they owned. While in the performance of this task, three armed men confronted Tilden and relieved him of the animals near a location known as Horse Prairie. If Tilden didn’t want to get hurt, he’d better keep his mouth shut. Henry Tilden told Hattie Sanders what happened and gave a statement to Judge Edgerton that he recognized one of the men as Henry Plummer. At first, Edgerton dismissed Tilden’s statement about Plummer. No one was prepared to believe that the sheriff was involved in such activities. As time went on, however, suspicion of Plummer increased.
- On 22 November 1863, George Ives robbed the Oliver stagecoach between Virginia City and Bannack. Assisting Ives were Whiskey Bill Graves and Bob Zachary. It was a low-yield robbery, netting the thieves with less than $1,000 in gold and treasury notes. Passenger and victim Leroy Southmayd gave testimony to sheriff Plummer identifying the robbers. Later, in Virginia City, members of the Plummer Gang visited Mr. Southmayd, but he was able to avoid injury or death.
- In that same month, Conrad Kohrs traveled to Bannack with $5,000 in gold to purchase cattle. Kohrs was worried about the safety of himself and his men and communicated this concern to Sheriff Plummer, who reassured him. While his group was camped overnight, his associates discovered road agents George Ives and “Dutch John” Wagner, armed with shotguns, surveying the Kohrs camp. A day or two later, Kohrs was riding horseback to Deer Lodge when Ives and Wagner gave chase. As Kohrs’s horse proved faster, Kohrs evaded confrontation and reached the safety of Deer Lodge.
- In early December 1863, Milton S. Moody organized a three-wagon freight caravan from Virginia City to Salt Lake City. John Bozeman, one of the passengers, was carrying $80,000 in gold and $1,500 in Treasury notes (cash). While camped at Blacktail Deer Creek, Dutch Wagner and Steve Marshland entered the camp intending to rob the caravan. What they discovered were armed men who had little interest in allowing that to happen. Wagner and Marshland then pretended to be searching for lost horses. Two days later, Wagner and Marshland made their move as the caravan crossed the Continental Divide at Rock Creek. The Moody group shot and wounded both criminals and thwarted their second robbery attempt.
- On 8 December, George Ives and Aleck Carter waylaid Anton Holter, who was moving oxen to Virginia City. A highly agitated Ives tried to kill Holter when he learned that his victim had no cash or gold on his person. Holter was able to escape uninjured into the brush and later gave testimony that he’d recognized Carter as one of the holdup men.
More than a few residents suspected that Plummer’s road agent gang was responsible for numerous robberies, attempted robberies, murders, and attempted murders in and around Alder Gulch in October–December 1863. Because there were no regular courts in the Idaho Territory at the time, a miner’s court convened in Virginia City between 19-21 December to consider the case of George Ives, named as a suspect in the murder of Nicholas Tiebolt, a young Dutch immigrant. It was an outdoor trial led by jurist Wilbur Sanders. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury found Mr. George Ives guilty. George was a pragmatic man who believed that “coming clean” would lighten his sentence; thinking that, he shared with the court the names of men who were regular members of the Plummer Gang. After singing like a canary, the miner’s court-ordered Mr. Ives hung, which was promptly carried out. Since the execution took place almost immediately, Mr. Ives did not appeal his sentence.
Two days later, the leading citizens of Virginia City and Bannack formed the Vigilance Committee of Alder Gulch. The committee included five residents of Virginia City, led by Wilbur Sanders, and a posse of several more men led by Captain James Williams. For the next two and a half months, Williams and his posse were busy rounding up members of the Plummer Gang. During this time, vigilantes arrested, tried, convicted, and executed twenty or so “alleged” gangsters. They were mostly “alleged” criminals because, true to form, the criminals ratted on one another once taken into custody: Carter, Graves, Bunton, Wagner, George Brown, Erastus “Red” Yeager (the loudest canary of all), and of course, Henry Plummer, his two deputies, Buck Stinson, and Ned Ray, and his pal George Lane (known as Clubfoot George).
Mock Trial, 1993
On 7 May 1993, the Twin Bridges Public School District conducted a mock trial of Henry Plummer, held in the Virginia City, Montana courthouse. The jury was split on the verdict, which led Judge Barbara Brook to declare a mistrial. Half the people walked away thinking that justice was done; the other half thinking that vigilantes violated Mr. Plummer’s rights. What no one considered, apparently, was that when these accused men were executed, murder, robbery, cattle rustling, and horse stealing dropped to zero in the Virginia City-Bannack area.
- Dimsdale, T. J. The Vigilantes of Montana: Popular Justice in the Rocky Mountains. State Publishing, 1915.
- Langford, N. P. Vigilante Days and Ways: The Pioneers of the Rockies. Merrill Publishing, 1980.
- Mather, R. E., and D. E. Boswell. Hanging the Sheriff: A Biography of Henry Plummer. University of Utah Press, 1987.
 Later, a U.S. Senator from Montana.
 Previously, U.S. Congressman, Chief Justice of the Idaho Territory Court, and later, first Territorial Governor of Montana.