“The Vultures of Wahpeton” is perhaps the best of Robert E. Howard’s Westerns. It’s a hard-boiled, two-fisted tale of bad men in a bad town doing bad things, very much unlike the sentimentalized version of the west so often seen in fiction. For that matter, it was a bit out of the ordinary for Howard, who wrote far more comedic tall-tale Westerns about knuckle-headed giants, outlandish misunderstandings, and slapstick fisticuffs. That may not have been simply a matter of inclinations, Howard was a canny pro who knew his markets. He took an unusual gambit with “Vultures,” submitting two endings to the story to editor Clifford Campbell of Smashing Novels, a conventional “happy” ending and a grimmer, more violent ending. Campbell must have concurred with Howard on some level, for he ran both endings, letting the readers choose which they preferred.
“Vultures” touched on some subjects that were recurring interests of Howard: the “good” bad-man, corrupt lawmen, and the thin veneer of civilization over society’s boiling abyss of barbaric violence.
The tale revolves around a Texas gunman, Corcoran, who is recruited as a deputy by Sheriff Middleton of Wahpeton. Corcoran is to replace Deputy Jim Grimes and help clean up the town. A vigilante group is forming, but holding back because they believe Middleton to be a sincere lawman. Corcoran soon discovers that he is being used as a patsy, like Grimes. Middleton is actually the boss of a gold-rush Mafia, engaged in looting stage coaches and travelers. Corcoran cuts himself in on the deal, while courting dance-hall girl Glory Bland. Alliances are formed, enemies made, consciences are stretched to the limit, and blood flows.
As with many of Howard’s best-regarded tales, there is a great deal of interest in Howard’s sources of inspiration for “Vultures.” The principal inspiration was Howard’s imagination of course, coupled with the willpower to hammer away at the keyboard, until the last sentence is wrought like a keenly balanced blade, and The End gleams with razor sharpness.
But if one must know, then even Howard admitted he drew on sources from history to whet his appetite. Keith Taylor has studied Howard’s interest in Hendry Brown, the inspiration for Corcoran. Brown was at one time an outlaw associate of Billy the Kid. Later Brown took on the role of marshal of cowtown Caldwell, Kansas, while keeping up his outlaw activities by robbing banks in neighboring towns, a sideline that eventually led to a bloody death in a hail of lead.
But what of Sheriff Middleton? For that matter, what of Wahpeton? For role models that Howard drew on, we may look to Sheriff Henry Plummer of Bannack, Montana. Like Middleton, Plummer was a lawman who worked both sides of the law, being a secret ally of thieves and killers. His jurisdiction was the gold rush town of Bannack, named after a local Indian tribe, much like Wahpeton (the Wahpetons are a sub-group among the Sioux). Howard was certainly familiar with Sheriff Plummer, he mentioned Plummer in at least two letters to H.P. Lovecraft. In a letter dated September 22, 1932, Howard numbered Plummer among melodramatic, but deadly gunmen such as Ben Thompson, Bob Ollinger, and Bat Masterson. In the same letter he mentioned Boone Helm’s connection to Plummer’s gang in Bannack. In another letter from September 1934, Howard describes Plummer as an example of a sheriff using his office to loot the territory. That Plummer and Bannack served as models for Middleton and Wahpeton is a likely conjecture.
But who was Henry Plummer, and what sort of place could a crooked sheriff make such a dramatic rise and fall in? A study of his life and times reveals a story at least if not more bizarre than fiction.
Henry Plummer has been much debated, both before and since he met his end swinging from a vigilante noose on January 10, 1864. To the early historians of the era, men like Nathaniel Langford and Thomas Dimsdale who had participated in the vigilante movement of Montana Territory and meant to justify the vigilantes’ actions, Plummer was little better than the devil incarnate. To them, Plummer was a murderer and robber, who used the color of office to support other murderers and robbers. Ruth Mather and her co-author F.E. Boswell produced a revisionist history of the vigilantes, Hanging the Sheriff (University of Utah Press, 1987). To Mather and Boswell Plummer was a man who instinctively kept order in a lawless country, protected women, and paid with his life for his courage. Frederick Allen’s A Decent Orderly Lynching (University of Oklahoma Press, 2004) offers the most balanced view. Two facts stand out from Allen’s biography of Plummer, 1) Plummer had terrible judgement, 2) Plummer was a very dangerous man.
Henry Plummer arrived in California in 1852 at the age of twenty. Plummer was an enterprising youth who became part owner of a bakery and later a saloon in Nevada City, California, a booming gold rush town. In 1856 Plummer was elected city marshal, partly on the strength of his business connections which included the saloon-owners, gamblers, and brothel-keepers of the town. He was as much an aspiring politician as lawman.
Plummer displayed his knack for disastrous misjudgment early. One night in June, Plummer was making his rounds with George Jordan, a drunk and belligerent character who had just been bailed out of jail after breaking a man’s jaw with a piece of lumber. When Plummer intervened in a bar fight, Jordan provoked a gunfight with the saloonkeeper that left Jordan dead and a bystander wounded. Plummer avoided official blame, but taking armed drunks on police business was hardly the way to keep the peace.
Despite the setback, Plummer soon displayed a talent for law work, and gained a reputation for arresting wanted men (a profitable line, as wages for lawmen were low and fees for executing warrants, rewards, and bounties were the way for a lawman to prosper). That reputation took a beating when a joint effort by Marshal Plummer and the local sheriff to bring in a wanted man ended in disaster when a civilian posse gunned down the sheriff and a deputy, mistaking them for the wanted outlaws.
In 1857 Plummer made his worst decision. He got personally involved in the marriage of his tenants George and Lucy Vedder. The Vedders rented a house from Plummer. George was a card dealer and Lucy was raising their child. When their marriage began to fail, George displayed a violent side and began to threaten Lucy. In turn Lucy appealed to Plummer for protection. Plummer took a personal interest in Lucy’s troubles and began spending time with her. While Plummer’s deputy also kept watch over Lucy Vedder, gossip spread. George Vedder now began to threaten Plummer’s life. Matters came to a head when Vedder showed up armed at Lucy’s hotel room and Plummer gunned him down. Vedder never got a shot off. By 21st century standards, it would have been a clear act of self-defense, but “no duty to retreat” and the “castle doctrine” were not so well established. Plummer was put on trial. In a shocking turn, Lucy Vedder testified against him, claiming that Plummer’s solicitude for her safety was a pretext to turn her out as a prostitute. It was a damning indictment, though it may have been a lie, wrung from her by Vedder’s father who was threatening to take her child. True or not, it sunk Plummer and despite getting a second trail he was sentenced to ten years hard labor.
Life in San Quentin took a toll on Plummer’s health. His friends on the outside petitioned for an early release on the grounds that his death was imminent. Plummer walked out of San Quentin in 1859. In a questionable move, he returned to Nevada City. He briefly served as constable until his political patron lost office. Plummer seems to have become a bouncer in a brothel, as if confirming the worst opinions of him.
As a bouncer, Plummer was a deadly one. A man named Muldoon died after Plummer pistol-whipped him, but charges were not filed. In October 1861 Plummer became involved in a fatal altercation with a hard case named William Riley. There are varying accounts of the cause. Plummer may have recognized Riley as an escapee from San Quentin and attempted a citizen’s arrest, as one does in a brothel at 2 A.M. The other version of the story is that Riley and Plummer got in an argument about the Civil War, which could certainly happen to anybody. Riley carved on Plummer’s scalp with a bowie knife, while Plummer ventilated Riley with a six-shooter.
Nevada City’s patience with Plummer was gone. He had three deaths to his credit. He was jailed but managed to escape with the assistance of one of the girls from the brothel. Nobody seemed to regret his departure. Even a one-time ally said that Plummer wasn’t worth jailing if he’d just run off and never come back.
Plummer took refuge with Billy Mayfield, a gambler over in Carson City. While hiding out with Mayfield, Sheriff John Blackburn came looking for Plummer. The gambler and the lawman tangled in a gunfight that left Blackburn dead. So much for laying low.
Mayfield and Plummer headed for the gold rush town of Florence in the northern reaches of Idaho territory. While there Plummer was involved in yet another senseless killing. Plummer was with a gang of gold-field “roughs” who were breaking up a saloon. Plummer and his pals were ejected, but as they were preparing to ride out the saloonkeeper, Pat Ford came out. According to some accounts, Ford opened fire without provocation and was gunned down by return fire from Plummer and his pals. For obvious reasons, we do not have Ford’s version of events.
From being a lawman and would-be politician, Plummer was now an associate of the thugs and desperadoes. While Plummer had been associated with the saloon crowd—gamblers and pimps—in California, this was to a certain extent to be expected. They were after all the very group lawmen were expected to police, a group that was to be tolerated but kept in check. Moreover, they had money and thus a degree of political influence.
The “roughs” were a different class. The gold rushes drew many who adapted to the lawlessness of the frontier by crude bullying. The saloon crowd offered alcohol, games, or women for money. The roughs relied on thuggery to take what they wanted, intimidating store-keepers for food or clothing, saloon-keepers for drinks, and often threatening honest citizens for sheer amusement. Some of the roughs might become gunmen for hire, or footpads, as muggers were called then, or take up highway robbery. Mostly they were simply parasites, a rabble that drifted on the tides of the gold rushes, leaving whenever society got organized enough to produce vigilantes or lawmen, and commonly meeting their end by means of knife, bullet, or noose.
Not too long after the Ford killing, Mayfield and his friends shot up Florence. Plummer was reputed to have taken part, but that was untrue. Instead, Plummer was in Fort Benton, having crossed the Rockies with a traveling companion, Jack Cleveland, another ex-con that knew Plummer in San Quentin. The pair found work as handy-men at a farm run by a missionary, James Vail. In an even more unlikely turn of events, Plummer wooed Vail’s sister-in-law, Electa Bryan. All accounts agree that Plummer could be charming when he wanted to, though one wonders if he simply looked better in comparison to guys like Jack Cleveland.
Plummer and Cleveland moved on to the booming gold-rush town of Bannack. The town was wild and wooly. Indians of both the Sioux and Shoshoni tribes were increasingly involved in skirmishes with travelers, which would lead to years of bloody warfare from the Rockies to the plains. Law enforcement was more of a notion than a fact. By custom informal “miners’ courts” gave rough justice, but there was no town marshal or county sheriff. The federal government was too busy fighting the Confederacy to worry about problems in a place that no one in Washington D.C. had heard of.
While Plummer seems to have lived quietly, Cleveland joined the local roughs in raising hell and bullying everyone in his path. He was soon suspected of murdering a man who had left town carrying a sack of gold dust. He had also taken to threatening Plummer, hinting that he knew something about Plummer’s past. Plummer had plenty in his past, though he was not advertising it was not precisely secret, so just what nugget of scandal Cleveland had in mind is anybody’s guess. Matters came to a head in Goodrich’s Hotel. Cleveland was making threats to get even with sundry scoundrels when he became enraged with Plummer. In turn Plummer’s patience came to an end and he shot Cleveland. “You won’t shoot me when I’m down?” Cleveland pleaded. Sportingly, Plummer instructed Cleveland to get up before finishing the job.
With his fifth killing behind him, Plummer soon found it advisable to take to the hills in the company of several thugs who had shot up a group of Bannock Indians and a white bystander as a consequence of a domestic dispute. The town responded by electing a sheriff, whose jurisdiction remained sketchy in the absence of an organized county. Plummer and the other fugitives returned on guarantee of receiving a trial.
Miners’ courts were very good at common sense decisions about disputed claims, business partnerships, and similar matters. They were a good deal less firm in dealing with violent crime. Miners’ courts were simply a group of disparate newcomers acting on the authority of being on the spot. Plummer was acquitted, mostly because no one liked Cleveland. While feeling ran high that his companions deserved hanging for murdering four people, the court shrank from imposing death penalty. Lacking a jail, they ordered the men banished and their guns confiscated. After a few days the banished men returned complaining that it was cold and they were hungry. They also wanted their guns back. They got them.
The newly elected sheriff, Henry Crawford, had made an enemy of Plummer. The sheriff hinted that it bore some relation to Cleveland’s secret revelations about Plummer. Crawford began to go about with a group of armed friends. Plummer protested his innocence, but he was now known as a deadly gunman. Crawford took matters into his hands by ambushing Plummer. Crawford shot Plummer from behind, crippling his right arm (his left hand was crippled from an earlier injury). Plummer turned on his attacker and dared him to shoot again. Crawford obliged, but his aim was off. Ostracized for his cowardly action, Crawford fled town. Lacking a sheriff, the people of Bannack chose none other than Plummer.
The final stage of Plummer’s career was perhaps the strangest. Plummer’s politician side re-emerged. He appointed several deputies and departed to marry Electa Bryan. In his absence Deputy D.H. Dillingham began to suspect that fellow deputy Buck Stinson was involved in some recent highway robberies. Stinson was considered one of the town’s roughs. He confirmed that by gunning down Dillingham with the help of a gambler Hayes Lyons, and a young man Charley Forbes.
In a scene reminiscent of the opening of “Vultures,” Forbes distracted Dillingham by shouting “Don’t Shoot!” as the deputy was gunned down by his comrades. Forbes was acquitted. A miners’ court sentenced Stinson and Lyons to hang, but backed down when it came to carry out the deed.
The shooting had occurred in Alder Gulch, which had its own sheriff, but Stinson remained Plummer’s deputy even after he returned. It was not the sort of personnel choice to inspire confidence. Plummer was certainly busy as sheriff, recording claims, conducting official auctions, looking after livestock, promoting the town to visitors, and even carrying out a hanging of a convicted murderer, but not doing anything in particular about the rising number of highway robberies. To be fair, few of the sheriffs in the area did much, but Plummer was the most visible man to hold the title. At one point a local political group was prepared to endorse Plummer for appointment as deputy marshal. But details of Plummer’s background were brought up and the endorsement was withdrawn.
In September of 1863, Electa Plummer left for Iowa to spend more time with her family, and less with her husband. As Electa departed, she crossed paths with Sidney Edgerton, the chief justice for Idaho Territory. Edgerton stopped in Bannack because he was unclear as to where the capital was. It was not entirely Edgerton’s fault, Congress had left the matter rather vague. Edgerton declined to get involved in any of the local crime issues since he had not taken the oath of office yet. A group of locals presented Edgerton with a cannon as a sort of symbol of authority. Edgerton stowed it under the bed. Perhaps the cannon did not go with Mrs. Edgerton’s decor.
As winter approached, men who had acquired gold and were looking to spend it began to think of making the trek to more settled areas before being snowed in. But highway robbery was on the rise, whether of stagecoaches or of lone travelers. Suspicion against Stinson never abated, and Deputy Ned Ray was also suspected of collusion with robbers. Rancher George Ives was notorious for his thuggish behavior when drunk and had in fact chased travelers, apparently with the intent to rob them. Some suspected that those he caught did not live to tell the tale.
Five men crossing the Bitterroots to Lewiston were murdered by their traveling companions and their supply of gold dust looted. The killers were later revealed to be men Plummer had warned against privately. Indeed, some found that Plummer seemed to have suspicions of a number of robbers, but never made any visible effort to investigate or arrest them. Some folks began to think the Plummer knew a lot more about the robbers than an honest man should.
In December 1863 a young man named Nicholas Tiebolt was found shot to death. A posse swiftly arrested Ives and two other well-known roughs and brought them to Nevada City (a town that shared the name of Plummer’s old stomping ground). Edgerton’s nephew, Wilbur Sanders, was pressed into service as prosecutor. A raucous trial followed, with Sanders offering to duel a local sheriff who tried to horn in and pack the jury. The men were found guilty and sentenced to death. Well aware of the fickle nature of the local courts, and the accused men’s reputation for retaliatory violence, Sanders pressed for an immediate hanging, before anyone could stir up a case of cold feet. When Plummer learned of the proceedings, he gloomily predicted that he would be the next target.
At this point a group of vigilantes formed. The Ives trial had been a close run thing, and they were determined to take no more chances. The vigilantes were no mere mob, they were an organized group who elected officers, published their by-laws, and openly signed their oath of allegiance. Their openness ended there, trials were to be secret and the only punishment was death.
The rest of December 1863 passed quietly as the vigilantes scouted the area for the men they suspected of being robbers. On January 4, 1864, a vigilante posse seized “Red” Yeager, the bartender at the Rattlesnake Ranch, a stagecoach stop and hangout for the area’s unsavory characters, who included Yeager. Under questioning Yeager claimed to be part of an organized gang that called themselves the “Innocents.” Gang members used a special recognition phrase, “I am innocent,” wore their neckties in a special knot, and even shaved their beards in a certain way so gang members would know each other. He also gave a list of gang members, including the leader, Sheriff Henry Plummer.
There is much reason to doubt Yeager’s revelations. Why would a handful of drunks and armed robbers need to have passwords, let along special rules for facial hair? If he had really been willing to rat out his fellow gang members, why not keep him alive until the last outlaw had been caught and hung? And was it true that Yeager’s confession followed being hoisted up by a rope around his neck repeatedly? Whatever the truth, it sealed Henry Plummer’s fate.
On January 10, 1864 the vigilantes struck in Bannack. Plummer and his deputies Stinson and Ray were seized and hanged. Despite claims that he confessed, it appears that Plummer went to his death proclaiming his innocence. The vigilantes’ work was barely begun. January 11th saw the hanging of another suspect, and the first resistance to the vigilantes.
Jose Pizathena, whom Yeager had implicated, barricaded his cabin and shot it out with the vigilantes. Seeing the situation growing difficult, the vigilantes paid a call on Chief Justice Edgerton. It would of course be inappropriate for a judge to take part in a vigilante action, but if he wasn’t using that cannon under his bed…
After Pizathena died in a hail of bullets amid the ruins of his cabin, the vigilantes hung another thirteen men in the month of January. The dead included Boone Helm, the notorious cannibal, robber, and all-around thug. Six more lynchings took place in 1864, the last on Halloween. The best-known victim was J.A. Slade, a former stage-line manager and well-known shootist.
By then, there was a new judge in the territory. In fact the vigilantes were in a new territory. Sidney Edgerton hadn’t contented himself with collecting artillery. He had returned to Washington D.C. to lobby for the creation of a new territory, to be named Montana, and incidentally offer his services as governor. Edgerton’s maneuver worked and he took his post as the first territorial governor of Montana. As governor he took a careful line with the vigilantes, discouraging them, but avoiding direct confrontation, after all, his nephew Wilbur Sanders was a founding member.
Despite the advent of organized (relatively speaking) government in Montana, vigilante hangings continued throughout the 1860s and there were recurrences when cattlemen went to war with rustlers and angry mobs dealt with stage robbers. In the 1870s the vigilantes adopted the cryptic numbers 3-7-77 as a form of trademark to warn off potential victims, and to mark actual ones.
Montana’s vigilante ways remained a fixture in the 20th century. In 1917 Frank Little, a labor organizer working on behalf of the far-left International Workers of the World, was lynched in Butte, Montana. Dashiell Hammett’s saga of gangsters, gunmen, and vigilantes, Red Harvest, was directly inspired by his experiences working as a Pinkerton Operative in the violence-wracked copper mining region Montana. Hammett’s fictional Continental Op bears a certain resemblance to Howard’s Corcoran. As lynchings faded into the past, the vigilantes took on a glow of nostalgia. In 1956 the Montana Highway Patrol added the numbers 3-7-77 to the agency’s insignia.
One may well wonder if after all the loose talk, gunplay, and hangings, was Henry Plummer truly as awful as his executioners made him out to be. Was he a master manipulator, a murderous gang chieftain like Sheriff Middleton? Was he a misunderstood man, simply doing the best he could while dark forces undermined him? At this stage one cannot know, but one can guess.
In California Plummer worked to keep in good with the saloon crowd while burnishing his political standing. He did much the same in Montana. But things had changed. The saloon crowd in Nevada City made their money offering liquor, games of chance, or easy women to willing customers. They weren’t robbing stagecoaches or murdering unwary travelers for their money. Plummer had changed too. Perhaps he was too close to being a rough himself to see them for what they were, a bunch of shiftless, violent drunks. Plummer was also crippled in both hands, so perhaps taking on murderous armed robbers was not as appealing as it once was. And perhaps he really was extending the protection of his office to thugs and bullies because it suited some purpose of his, financial or political. If so, it was the worst miscalculation of his short and violent life.
The truth, or whatever passes for it, a far cry from the legend of the Innocents, with their neckties and passwords. Plummer is big enough character, going from respected lawman to gutter thug, wooing Electa Bryan, defying Crawford to shoot him, and re-emerging as an almost respectable man. It’s even more bizarre than the sinister gang-boss of vigilante memoirs and Western pulp fiction. But the West is the land of the bizarre and improbable, where men re-invented themselves regularly, and are re-invented over and over again in legend. Whatever the truth, as ever the legend lives on.
David Hardy is a master wordslinger who has authored a number of books including Crazy Greta, A Skinners War, The, Badlands Rustlers, Red Shadows, Green Hell, Tales of Phalerus the Achaean and The Palmetto Empire.
Much like Howard, David dabbles in numerous genres: horror, fantasy, western, and adventure. Be sure and check out David’s author Facebook page for up-to-date news on his current projects and you can find many of his books on Amazon.com.