A Decent, Orderly Lynching: The Montana Vigilantes [NOOK Book]


The deadliest campaign of vigilante justice in American history erupted in the Rocky Mountains during the Civil War when a private army hanged twenty-one troublemakers. Hailed as great heroes at the time, the Montana vigilantes are still revered as founding fathers.

Combing through original sources, including eye-witness accounts never before published, Frederick Allen concludes that the vigilantes were justified in their early actions, as they...

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A Decent, Orderly Lynching: The Montana Vigilantes

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The deadliest campaign of vigilante justice in American history erupted in the Rocky Mountains during the Civil War when a private army hanged twenty-one troublemakers. Hailed as great heroes at the time, the Montana vigilantes are still revered as founding fathers.

Combing through original sources, including eye-witness accounts never before published, Frederick Allen concludes that the vigilantes were justified in their early actions, as they fought violent crime in a remote corner beyond the reach of government.

But Allen has uncovered evidence that the vigilantes refused to disband after territorial courts were in place. Remaining active for six years, they lynched more than fifty men without trials. Reliance on mob rule in Montana became so ingrained that in 1883, a Helena newspaper editor advocated a return to “decent, orderly lynching” as a legitimate tool of social control.

Allen’s sharply drawn characters, illustrated by dozens of photographs, are woven into a masterfully written narrative that will change textbook accounts of Montana’s early days—and challenge our thinking on the essence of justice.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
A respected former reporter and editor who wrote 1994's well-received Secret Formula on the history of the Coca-Cola Company, Allen here treats quite a different subject: vigilante activities in Montana in 1864. The initial actions of the vigilantes were widely reported and approved at the time, but their subsequent legacy is largely ignored or unknown. A solid addition book to the limited number of histories of this movement, this book is valuable partly for its examination of the legal and cultural underpinnings and circumstances of vigilante activity, such as the limited and often ambiguous powers of the territories and the role of Civil War partisanship. Allen makes interesting connections and comparisons with the contemporary struggle to decide how to respond to terrorists and what legal rights and status to assign to them. The book reads reasonably well and is well grounded in both primary and secondary sources. Of particular interest to libraries in Western states but also to collections strong in Western history or criminal justice.-Charlie Cowling, SUNY at Brockport Lib. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780806189888
  • Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
  • Publication date: 7/9/2013
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 641,230
  • File size: 15 MB
  • Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

Meet the Author

Frederick Allen is a former political editor and columnist with the Atlanta Constitution and commentator for CNN. His history of the Coca-Cola Company, Secret Formula, has been translated into seven languages. Atlanta Rising, his analysis of the forces that shaped modern Atlanta, is taught at several colleges. He and his wife, Linda, divide their time between Atlanta and Bozeman, Montana.

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A Decent, Orderly Lynching

The Montana Vigilantes

By Frederick Allen


Copyright © 2009 Frederick Lewis Allen III
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8988-8


Maine to California

Henry Plummer was born in 1832 on the Atlantic coast of Maine, about as far from the American West as a person could get in the United States, in climate and custom as well as distance. Long before he arrived in Montana and swirled into the mists of legend, young Plummer endured a difficult childhood in "down east" Maine, on the narrow strip of land that separates the ocean from the northern pine forests. There the mists were all too real—fierce, lashing storms, driven by high winds, trailed by banks of fog that rose up a mile or more and clung to the ragged shoreline for days on end. A frail boy, Plummer suffered from chronic lung illness made worse by weather that stunted the trees and thinned the soil and made the land look like tundra. It was "no place for sissies," in the words of one local chronicler, and the simple fact that Plummer survived marked him as a young man with a streak of durability.

Bone-chilling weather was not the only hardship Plummer faced. He was a member of a prominent clan, one of two dozen families that settled the Pleasant River Valley, near Maine's jagged coastline below the Canadian border, in the years just before the American Revolution. But Henry's branch of the family was poor. While other Plummers distinguished themselves as sea captains, ship-builders, and land-clearing lumbermen, Henry's father struggled to make ends meet. A lowly seaman, Moses Plummer IV bore the proud name of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, but he could not afford a home of his own, and his seven children, including Henry, grew up in the extended household of their grandfather, Moses Plummer III. For years, historians despaired of establishing Henry's parentage because his birth was not documented by name in the family records. Instead, it appears, he was merely listed as an unnamed son born to Moses Plummer IV and his wife sometime in the years between 1830 and 1835—an anonymous entry in the family ledger, one of a litter of whom not much was expected.

The Plummers could trace their ancestry to an English linen weaver who arrived in Massachusetts in 1634, settled in Newbury, north of Boston, and built an estate valued at more than four hundred pounds by the time of his death. Four generations later, in 1768, Moses Plummer, Jr., joined a colony of pioneers, including several Quaker families from Martha's Vineyard, who settled along the Pleasant River in Maine and went to work chopping trees and diking the salt marshes to create farmland. They founded a small township, Addison, named for the English essayist and politician Joseph Addison, on the estuary that led from the ocean up to the mouth of the Pleasant River. Spreading out in the surrounding countryside, the families dug cellars, built simple but sturdy houses, grew hay, kept livestock, and battled nature. One woman, finding a black bear attacking her hog in the pen behind her house, was said to have driven the predator off by beating it with an old shovel handle. When war with the British came, in 1775, most of Addison's men joined the rebellion, and one was killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Despite hardship, the families of Addison proliferated. Moses Plummer, Jr., and his wife, Lucy, had nine children, and their eldest son, Moses Plummer III, fathered a dozen. The family name, originally spelled with one "m" as Plumer, gradually evolved into the more common version, Plummer, as its members spread across northeast Maine. The Plummers married into other pioneer families in the area—the Coffins, Driskos, Bucknams, Webbs, and Nashes—and formed an especially close bond with the Wass family that hailed from Martha's Vineyard and gave their name to Great Wass Island off the Maine coast. The first six children born to Moses Plummer III all married Wasses, including Moses IV, who chose Abigail "Nabby" Wass as his bride. (Today, Great Wass Island offers visitors a chance to wander through a Nature Conservancy preserve strewn with sheep laurel, Labrador tea, and jack pines, stubby trees that are "short-needled, twisted, dwarfed, and sculpted by wind and adversity into bonsai," in the words of one admirer.)

By the time Maine achieved statehood, in 1820, its upper coastal region was dotted with so-called "thrifty" farms that had twenty to fifty acres in crops, plus pasturage, a yoke of oxen, a dozen cattle, and perhaps a flock of sheep. A farm family might join in the barter economy by tanning hides into leather, shaving shingles, harvesting ice, or producing boots, barrels, or ax handles. Farm wives made brooms and straw hats, or sold eggs. The principal industry was lumbering, and many farmers moonlighted as ship builders. One man built a fourteen-ton fishing boat, the Sarah Ann, on his farm, and then organized a "hauling bee" with thirty-eight yoke of oxen to roll it on logs several miles to the water. The sea was Maine's other great calling, and several Plummers served as sailors and ship captains, carrying lumber and forest products to the West Indies in trade for rum, molasses, sugar, and coffee.

For a boy growing up on the coast of Maine, school was primitive and discipline harsh, often administered by buggy whip. But adventure abounded. Joshua Chamberlain, the great Civil War general, "considered it his duty" as a lad to climb the tallest mast of every vessel launched in the area "and hang his hat upon it," according to his biographer. Young Plummer likely did the same, clambering around on the wharves of Addison. He would have played blind man's buff, hunt the whistle, and other children's games, and watched with avid interest as the local militia drilled on the township's annual muster day. He would have picked wild blueberries in the hills above town. From his later display of skill with guns, we may assume that he learned to hunt game in the vast forests that carpeted Maine above the coast.

In 1840, a federal census taker found Moses Plummer III, aged seventy-two, serving as head of a large household in Addison that included adult children and grandchildren. His son, Moses IV, was away at sea much of the time and could not afford to maintain a home of his own, so the old man provided room and board at his farm for his son's wife, Nabby and her children, among them eight-year-old Henry. In all, there were ten mouths to feed. No written record of his childhood survives, but Henry's circumstances, living as a poor relation under his grandfather's roof, surrounded by richer and more successful Plummers and Wasses, may well have toughened him and fueled the ambition that marked his later life. In any case, his situation worsened over the decade to come. His mother died in 1844 and his grandfather in 1846, leaving him a ward of his step-grandmother.

For the Plummer clan, as for so many Americans, the gold rush of 1849 proved a pivotal event. Hearing of the rich discoveries in northern California, which were certified publicly as "extraordinary" by President Polk, some of the leading men of Addison decided to form a company and make the long voyage around Cape Horn to San Francisco. They invested in a sailing ship, the Belgrade, that was under construction in nearby Cherryfield, and had it fitted out for the ocean trip. Along with the usual supplies, they had a small stern-wheel steamer dismantled and added to the cargo, intending to run it as a ferry up the Sacramento and American rivers to the gold fields. In all, some fifty men joined the California Mining and Navigation Company, most of them descendants of the area's pioneer families, related to each other by blood or marriage. To serve as captain, they chose Horatio Nelson Plummer, an aptly named thirty-four-year-old mariner whose branch of the family enjoyed enough means that he could afford to put up a stake and become a part-owner in the venture. In turn, Horatio Plummer hired his older first cousin, Moses Plummer IV, then fifty-six, to be the ship's steward. Nothing could have pointed up the disparity in family status more clearly: Henry's father, getting too old for such hard duty at sea, would be serving meals to his cousin and the other principals in the company, working as a crewman for wages instead of a share in the profits.

On November 28, 1849, the Belgrade was launched and piloted down the Narraguagus River to the sea. After a brief delay to fix a leak, Captain Plummer set sail on the long voyage to the far coast of the continent. Jared Nash, a member of the company who kept a diary, recorded an auspicious beginning as good winds sped the big bark down the Atlantic coast, with the crew often "crowding on" all twenty-one sails to make fast time. The ship passed several other vessels, all pressing urgently for the Pacific and the chance to find gold. In good spirits, the men sang hymns and listened to Bible readings and sermons on Sundays, and feasted on fresh chicken and turkey on Christmas and New Year's Day. One of the men brought a fiddle to provide music.

The Belgrade crossed the equator on January 8, 1850, and two weeks later made port in Rio de Janeiro. There the ship's fortunes changed. According to Nash's diary, a terrible sickness laid waste to the men, giving them wracking aches followed by high fever and delirium, and in three cases death. The ship struggled for three weeks to round Cape Horn, buffeted by snow, hail, rain, and wind, pitching about in seas Nash described as "mountains high." The desperate crew reached the island of Juan Fernandez, off the coast of Chile, on March 22, and spent nearly a week there savoring fresh fruit and water and replenishing their supplies.

The winds continued against the Belgrade, until she finally anchored in San Francisco harbor on May 28, 1850, six full months after her launching. As the members of the company stood on deck, preparing to disembark, someone noticed that Moses Plummer was missing. A party was sent to look for him and after a brief search found him lying in his bunk, dead. The hardships of the voyage, capped by the death of the ship's steward, seemed to drain the venture of its energy. Some of the men continued on to the gold mines and prospected, but most returned home to Maine. After selling the Belgrade and dividing up the company's interests, Horatio Plummer made his way back to Addison, where he faced the difficult task of telling his fellow townsmen—and his kinsmen—about the tragedies that had befallen the ship.

By now, Henry Plummer's older siblings had grown up and moved away, leaving him a younger brother and sister to look after. With his father gone, he likely had to help support them and the remaining members of his grandfather's household. But it may be that Henry was too ill to work. A later examination would show that his lungs bore the telltale scars of tuberculosis, evidence of a long struggle against the punishing elements of the Maine shore. What is certain is that young Plummer eventually felt the tug of the gold fields. In 1852, when he was nineteen years old, he made his way to New York, sailed south to Panama, crossed the isthmus by mule train, and booked passage on the Golden Gate, a steamer bound for San Francisco. Perhaps he hoped to follow his father's footsteps and learn why they had led to death.

* * *

Four years into the great rush, the trip to California was still a rough piece of business. Those who decided to cut their time at sea by crossing Panama had to stay in the squalid "hog-hole" hotels of Chagres, cover sixty-eight miles of muddy jungle by dugout canoe and mule, and hope against hope they could avoid dysentery, cholera, and other disease while waiting six weeks or more for an over-priced ticket on a fast steamer from Panama City up the Pacific coast. On the day Henry Plummer shipped out, the Golden Gate carried more than twice her authorized limit of passengers, with a thousand first-class travelers doubled up in cabins and half again that many jammed into steerage. The decks were teeming with humanity day and night, prompting the captain to complain of a "pandemonium of drunkenness and riot, from her departure until her arrival." The ship left Panama City on May 8, 1852, and landed at San Francisco thirteen days later. Two men died along the way.

At least the place of destination had improved. The mud flats, frayed canvas tents, and wood-plank sidewalks that greeted new arrivals in San Francisco in 1849 were gone, pruned by repeated fires and replaced by brick buildings and a grid of streets. The rudiments of a zoning system were in place, nudging the gambling dens, bordellos, and saloons into separate quarters away from the residential neighborhoods and central business district. With state and municipal government in their infancy and law enforcement anemic, order of sorts was imposed in the summer of 1851 by a self-styled "Committee of Vigilance," a civilian army hundreds strong, led by the merchant elite, that lynched four suspected criminals and ran off vast numbers of scruffy young men, some of them guilty of nothing more than having a foreign accent. Still the flood of newcomers continued. Plummer was one of an estimated 65,000 passengers who landed at San Francisco in 1852, and he could count himself lucky when he found a room to rent at a boarding house on Bush Street.

Eager as he was to go northeast to the gold fields, Plummer first had to earn the money to get there. Having arrived broke, he secured a position as an accounts clerk in a business on Montgomery Street and began saving up his pay. But by now, as his new friends undoubtedly warned him, the days of striking it rich with pick and pan were gone. Gold mining had evolved quickly "from a treasure hunt to an industry," in the words of one historian, and Plummer's chances of finding a good claim and working it by himself for profit were essentially nil. By 1852, the overwhelming majority of miners were wage- earners, averaging a modest $5 a day, breaking rocks and performing hard labor more suited to felons than fortune seekers. Hefting a twenty-pound pick, swinging it overhead and driving it down into a bed of gravel, setting off sparks and stinging the hands, was muscle-breaking, agonizing work. This stark truth may explain why Plummer remained in San Francisco for several months, and why there is no record of him spending so much as a single day digging for gold during the next eight years he was to live in California. The one skill he picked up was at cards, indicating that he devoted his spare time to the faro and monte tables in San Francisco's celebrated, gilded gaming halls.

In the early part of 1853, Plummer left San Francisco and made his way up the Sacramento and American rivers to the mining country on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, the majestic mountain range that derived its name, deservedly from the Spanish words for saw-toothed and snow-clad. The arrival of a letter addressed to Plummer care of general delivery at Nevada City (the first of several western settlements to bear the same name) was advertised in the newspaper there on July 3, 1853, suggesting that he had shared his plans and destination with friends or perhaps a member of his family back home. It was the first time his name appeared in print.

Rather than pursue a belated effort at mining, Plummer turned his hand to ranching. He and a partner named Robinson operated a small spread in the Wilson Valley north of Nevada City, raising livestock. In October 1853, they ran an ad in the newspaper saying that a large, bay-colored ox, "marked with a triangular figure on the right hip," had wandered into their corral and could be claimed by the rightful owner. Thus Plummer appeared for a second time in public print, making an honest gesture.

Familiar as the tasks were from his youth, ranching did not suit Plummer, and he gave it up after less than a year. His weakened lungs made a convenient excuse for abandoning the venture, but the fact was he disliked physical labor and made a point of avoiding it whenever possible. In 1854 he moved to Nevada City and found gentler work as a salesman for a bakery. A handsome, convivial young man, now twenty-one years old and sporting a luxuriant handlebar mustache, Plummer preferred the amenities of urban life to the quiet drudgery of the countryside. Certainly his conduct in later years reflected an appetite for the buzz and bustle of saloon culture and the company of women. He liked being around other people. Standing just under five-foot-nine, he had a slight, wiry build, a fair complexion, light brown hair, and gray eyes that seemed to change color with his moods.

Nevada City was by 1854 a mature town, the county seat of an area swarming with more than 20,000 settlers, the third largest population center in California. The downtown boasted twenty buildings made of brick, a Wells Fargo office, a theater, and sixty-five saloons. Construction had begun on the three-story National Hotel, today the oldest continually operating hotel west of the Mississippi River. Traveling actors and entertainers made regular visits, including the legendary Lola Montez, who performed her signature "Spider Dance" for an appreciative audience. The hilly side streets of Nevada City were lined with simple wood-frame houses, giving the impression of ordinary family life—a false impression, as it happened, since fewer than a thousand of the residents were women. Many businesses thrived by selling the individual components of domesticity to single men by hourly or daily rates: room and board, laundry, sewing, dances, and sexual companionship.


Excerpted from A Decent, Orderly Lynching by Frederick Allen. Copyright © 2009 Frederick Lewis Allen III. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
List of Maps,
Author's Note,
Introduction: The Murdered Boy,
Chapter 1. Maine to California,
Chapter 2. "A Seducer" on Trial,
Chapter 3. Wooing Electa Bryan,
Chapter 4. The New Sheriff,
Chapter 5. The Dillingham Killing,
Chapter 6. "Cut-Throats and Robbers",
Chapter 7. The Reluctant Chief Justice,
Chapter 8. A Rashomon Night,
Chapter 9. The Southmayd Robbery,
Chapter 10. The Ives Trial,
Chapter 11. "Men, Do Your Duty",
Chapter 12. The Vigilantes,
Chapter 13. "Red" Yeager's List,
Chapter 14. Five Hanged Side by Side,
Chapter 15. One Hundred and Two!,
Chapter 16. Slade of the Overland,
Chapter 17. "The Wounded Man Recovered",
Chapter 18. "No More Midnight Executions",
Chapter 19. Thomas Francis Meagher,
Chapter 20. Pax Vigilanticus,
Appendix: Targets of the Montana Vigilantes,
Note on Sources,

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