For a period of several months in 1863 and ’64, vigilantes became the only just and true law in and around the gold fields and young settlement of Virginia City, Montana.
The Vigilante Committee formed in late 1863 and composed mostly of miners and local citizens became “the law,” because various criminal elements — including the duly elected Sheriff William Plummer — were truly the “bad guys.”
Several good books have been written about vigilante justice in the Old West, and particularly about vigilantes in Montana during this rough and volatile period around the time of the Civil War.
(There’s an excellent narrative of these events titled “Vigilantes of Montana: Or popular Justice in the Rocky Mountains,” by Thomas J. Dimsdale. Dimsdale was the editor-in-chief of a local paper when these events took place. His book was originally published in 1865, and reprinted in 1950. Since this article was written, a couple of editions of this book — including a Kindle e-book edition — have become available.)
When “vigilantes” are portrayed in Western movies and television, they often are shown as angry, sometimes even ignorant, and always willing to “take the law into their own hands.” In point of fact, the Montana committee in Virginia City did include angry, violent people. But many of them were reasonable, intelligent leaders of the community who felt they were doing justice in the only way it could be done.
One eye opening account of the Vigilante Committee in action is found in a short excerpt in a book I recently purchased, “Eyewitness to the Old West: Firsthand Accounts of Exploration, Adventure, and Peril,” edited by Richard Scott (Taylor Trade Printing: Paperback Edition, 2004). Scott includes a chapter titled “The Vigilante Committee Takes Care of Slade, c. January 1864,” excerpted from an account of the Nevada City vigilantes by one of their members, identified only as “X. Beidler.”
Beidler’s account gives a very casual, almost matter-of-fact glimpse of the capture an execution of a local rowdy in Virginia City, Montana, named in the account excerpt only as “Slade.” Mr. Slade began is fatal rampage by insulting all present at a theatrical performance by forcing one of the women, Kate Harper, to take offer her ballet outfit and disrobe completely. This was done in front of men, women, and children — causing the outraged attendees to leave the theater in droves, ending the play and embarrassing everyone involved.
Slade was approached to settle down and go home. He refused, and began a night of brawling and intimidation throughout the town: He tipped over a milk truck, beat up people on the street, and began harassing and pillaging through the various merchants’ stores.
X. Beidler and others who were leaders in the newly formed Vigilante Committee observed all this. At some point during the early morning hours, after Slade had been warned repeatedly to settle down and go home, a group of over 200 miners formed up, armed themselves under the leadership of someone identified as “Capt. Williams,” and came after Slade. Williams stepped forward as Slade was threatening a store owner with a “Derringer in each hand,” as Beidler told it. Beidler tells what happened next:
“Slade looked around and said: ‘My God!’
“He was informed he had one hour to live and if he had any business to attend to he had better do it. … 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, and when the hour given by the Committee to Slade had expired Slade expired with it.”
Was vigilante justice every justifiable in the Old West? If the citizens in and around Virginia City, Montana, were justified in forming the Vigilante Committee and dealing with a wide range of lawlessness in this fashion — who is to say that such actions would be wrong today?
This glimpse into one of the more violent, and indeed more colorful, episodes of the history of the Old West raises questions societies have debated and disagreed on for most of recorded history. Was vigilantism justified? Is it ever justified?
Do you have strong feelings one way or the other about vigilantes? Leave a comment and tell us what you think about vigilantism then and now.