Tales of the Old West

The magic storytelling of Thomas Dimsdale

2 July, 2008

To the Editor
Queen City News

Re: Gold Gave Birth to Western Montana, June 25, 2008

Dear Editor

Could capable journalists like Rick and Susie Graetz remain addicted to the libelous saga of Henry Plummer, the evil lawman whose gang of "outlaws, crooks and thieves" terrorized the early mining camps until our brave Vigilantes stepped in?

The tale of the slick outlaw sheriff and his gang of desperados has been a mainstay of pulp novels ever since, and stands as a demonstration of how easily yellow journalism becomes legend simply by virtue of being a good story. I will grant that it is a wonderful story, but it doesn't happen to be true. Thomas Dimsdale's version (The Vigilantes of Montana) is lacking enough in documentation to be dismissed as sensationalism at best, and apologia, at worst, for a murderous purge of political rivals by a band of feral Republicans in Montana's territorial days when power and business opportunities were up for grabs.

A much better documented account, Hanging the Sheriff, researched and written by R. E. Mather and F. E. Boswell in 1987, finds that whereas Henry Plummer was no angel, there is no reason to believe he was anything other than a capable lawman. Certainly he was innocent of the crimes for which he and many others were summarily lynched, not only because he was denied a trial, but because the crimes never happened. Mather and Boswell find no evidence that Plummer's "reign of terror" (102 murders!) ever took place. Lacking official reports, they appear to have been purely invented by Mr. Dimsdale, with the obvious blessings of the Vigilantes themselves, including a future governor, a future senator, venerable founders of the Montana Historical Society and upright citizens whose names today grace our streets and landmarks.

Clearly the victors get to tell the story. But a 144 year old lie does not become less a lie with age. The atrocities of the Vigilantes were a sordid moment in Montana history, by no means an example of courage or justice.

Michael Moore
Basin, MT


To the Editor
Queen City News

Dear Editor,

Michael Moore denies the veracity of Thomas Dimsdale. Other of his writings reflect similar thinking. It is not revisionist, but Michael does not like the "eye for a tooth" version of justice that is represented by such things as the death penalty, and good clean drops from a makeshift gallows especially when the dropee's foot gets caught in the stirrup of a spirited horse and the good drop results in a true head ripper. Never mind that it's Ned Ray or Boone Helm that gets the bad rip. Was it poor form for the Montana Masons to refuse Henry Plummer admission to their exclusive fraternity? Plummer was only his name, not his occupation. And think of acts of other Plummers a hundred or so years later; not an auspicious group, but then none of them got hanged, or even really brought to justice, although some of them did have their day in court.

Michael, the thing you are forgetting in your essay opposing vigilantee justice is the art. Dimsdale, a trained observer and jurnaler of the time was in a unique position to give us the true journalistic view of those events which could have passed into history forgotten and unnoticed. Dimsdale realized the uniqueness of his proximity to the events and activities of the frontier west in the gold fields and camps of Montana. He knew a good story when he witnessed one. I would argue that he siezed an opportunity to create a timeless genre that has been the source of countless great novels, stories and movies. The importance of the vigilante justice lies in the irony of the art form it spawned.

Miners strung up Boone Helm with no glorious intent. They were just tired of claim jumpers and disgusted that there was no other option. There was security in numbers and the solidarity of the miners court. In the remoteness of their diggins they were easy targets. Way easier to deal with bandits as a group, in town, and in broad daylight. They held a trial and made short work of it by tossing a lariat over the ridge beam of a nearby construction site, jerking the condemmed off his feet to swing and choke until he finally drowned in his own spit. Not many classic westerns built around that scenario. Not enough art to capture the interest of writers and story tellers. You need some vigilantes, some unrequited attempts to join the masonic lodge and a love triangle for that intrigue.

The most captivating story is the one of Magruder and his group. They were ambushed in the wilderness between Bannack and Lewiston, it was all Idaho Territory then, I think. A small family of merchants infiltrated by killers posing as teamsters were hacked and bludgeoned in their bedrolls, cut into pieces and stuffed into the guts of their horses. The whole lot got tossed over a cliff and was not discovered until the spring thaw. Who would not cheer the fortitude of Neil Howie in his relentless search for the crime, and the criminals. This stuff happened and happens on the frontier (witness the Paraguay triangle of 2007.) Star Wars, the movie series would not have been nearly so engaging without these frontier stories of mayhem begetting disrobed justice that inspired generations of literary development.

Why would Michael Moore denigrate the creator of the genre when in our own enlightened time, justice is blinded and Texas war criminals stuff their pockets with stolen oil revenue. They will never see the inside of a courtroom. If they do, the court will look some other way to find them not guilty for the murder and displacement of hundreds of thousands of innocents. Nor will they see justice for the four thousand or so of their brothers, lured and committed to death on the battlefield for ignoble purpose. Those heroes were squandered in the name of swaggering patriocy along with the wealth and good will of a nation. My question? "Where are the Montana Vigilantes when we need them?"

Martin Holt
Helena MT


Dear Mr. Holt:

Too bad your reply was so long. They made me cut mine back to 300 words, which I guess didn't hurt. It would be a great debate - Montana's long overdue conversation about vigilantism. Queen City should be jumping on this.

As we swim in the confusion of narratives about our current Mideast fiasco we are led to wonder what tale will be told about it 150 years from now, and to question whether history has any connection to real events or is more like mythology - a collection of good stories. As our revisionists examine what passed for journalism in Victorian times they find that sensationalism and jaded storytelling were even more rampant than today. For all their apparent lawlessness, the mining camps were not significantly more violent than modern day Columbia Falls. Of the six or eight murders that occurred in the mining camps of SW Montana in 1863-4, all were reported, recorded and resolved, and none were connected to Henry Plummer by any credible evidence. Granting that some robberies did occur, and that barroom brawls were worrisome to freemasons and their families who had to live right across the street, still Dimsdale's 102 murders, countless robberies and virtual reign of terror are nowhere to be found outside his own B movie and those whose fortunes it favored. It sounds to me like 2% history and 98% hysteria. Or like today, hysteria that found a way to become history.

Dimsdale was de facto press secretary to the Vigilantes. An embedded reporter. (Unlike ourselves, he was witness to his times, but he was also partisan. He did not hesitate to report as facts all the wicked things Sheriff Plummer was doing when nobody could see him. Sounds ominously familiar.) Like Bush's freedom hatin' evildoers, the epic drama of Montana's reign of terror is bogus on its face, even without comparing it to the considerably more diligent scholarship that followed. His account was vetted by the Vigilance Committee. A prudent and obedient journalist, he was their apologist and scribe. His perfunctory assertions simply assure the reader that whatever Mr. Plummer's confirmed behavior, it could be explained by his dark motives. At best, his account is conventional paranoia from beginning to end, at worst political assassination. That it was also packaged as an artful and entertaining bit of future folklore speaks well for Dimsdale's skills, but because this romanticization of frontier justice has stuck in the American character in the forms of our gun fetish, our high crime rate and our disregard for international law, it has also been the cause of much mischief.

Michael Moore can set aside his general opposition to the death penalty and still make a good case against vigilantism. The purpose of due process is to establish guilt or innocence beyond a reasonable doubt, and if it frequently has the effect of exculpating the nearest persona non grata we'd like to be rid of, it also serves the goals even of retributive justice by attempting to assure that the people who commit the crimes are the same people who pay for them. It should be noted that lynch mobs are prone to a lethal error in logic when they assume that the severity of the crime adduces to the guilt of the guy they are fixing to hang. The fact that Mr. or Mrs. Victim were chopped up and stuffed inside a horse and left to rot until Spring tells us only that we are very mad at whoever did it, but does not tell us who he is. Outrage should be all the more reason to make sure we have the right culprit and that he doesn't walk away while we're stringing up the town drunk. (Magruder's killers had a jury trial and were represented by lawyers, and though there were some jurisdictional issues, the proceeding was fair enough to suit Michael Moore.)

When you argue for vigilantism you imagine the mob as composed of people like yourself, fed up with one abomination or another, detesting the same assholes you do, and inclined to dispense with cumbersome legal procedures to be rid of them. But the object of their animosity could just as well be you if they don't happen to like your looks. Thanks to the science of phrenology, people in the 19th century had the ability to tell whether you deserved hanging or not just by observing the shape of your head.

The force of gossip, suspicion and paranoia seems to riddle the accounts of contemporaries like Dimsdale and the later recollections of Nathanial Langford et al (and Sidney Edgarton's lovely wife Mary, who could hardly wait until all the indians were safely killed), informing public decisions with the dignity of hard evidence and true science. It looks to me like the kind of madness you'd expect from a bunch of unsophisticated, acquisitive fortune hunters faced with the imagined dangers of getting out of the wilderness and making it to Salt Lake with their pockets stuffed with gold dust. Hauser probably saw a road agent behind every tree, like Bush's terrorists.

Speaking of which, I am confused by your reference to Bush & Co. as an example of a pack of owlhoots who are today getting off scott free for want of a good lynching party. As much as the idea makes me want to grab a rope, if anyone fits the definition of a lynching party itself it is BushCo. I cite the following similarities:

1. Both claim jurisdictional authority by fiat.

2. Both promote fear and mass hysteria to gain popular support and intimidate rivals.

3. Both invent crimes or encourage belief in intended crimes to justify preemptive murder.

4. Both deny their victims a fair trial or a presentation of evidence against them (habeus corpus.)

5. Both carry their prejudicial attacks to pathological extremes and allow the dementia of power to extend their proprietary justice (death) to people they simply don't like.

6. Both make a calculated effort to rewrite history to legitimize their motives and exculpate themselves from responsibility for lethal actions which decline even to imitate civilized judicial procedures.

Both Henry Plummer and Saddam Hussein, apart from the question of whether they were bad people or not, were railroaded by false accusations and lynched before they could defend themselves. In Plummer's case, due process would have revealed that he did not preside over 102 murders, since we have no reason to think they ever took place. In Saddam's case, due process would have revealed (as happened anyway) that he was not planning to blow up the Middle East with his vast horde of nuclear weapons. You might say (as I do) good riddance to him anyway, but he is only about 1/800,000th of the dead people who might have been spared if due process had been observed.

Bush and his people are as close to a band of feral Republicans as I can imagine, and with the help of the Thomas Dimsdales in our own yellow media they are doing their best to see that their pious, sensational, sanctified version of all that carnage is the one that sticks, even if at first glance it looks like common piracy. Given their expertise in the mechanics of fear, it is hard to believe that the neocons did not make a study of Montana's Vigilantes before writing their own operating manual. Southwest Montana's dubious contribution to the American psychosis.

One can always hope that they will not get away with it. If the appeal of Dimsdale's supershitkicker myth reveals anything it is that the best story wins. If that is true, then the story of the robber president will surely trump the story of the plain spoken Texas cowboy who brought peace and democracy to the Islamic world. But rather than lynching him I would propose that we prolong our satisfaction with a proper investigation and trial, lasting at least as long as his so-called war, in which every excruciating secret detail of his corrupt administration is dragged one by stinking one into the light of day. Then, instead of whacking him, we might send him to live in Fallujah among his grateful beneficiaries.

Let us get together soon. I just got back from a few days in Bannack, which unintentionally coincided with their annual "Bannack Days" celebration, so I am steeped in buffalo hunters and muzzle loaders and gold panners and dance hall floozies. Henry's ghost sends his regards, and says that the next time he sees you he will have your lungs for lunch. I will call this evening and see if hopefully anything is going on that might command my august presence. Haven't seen Brynn yet. I guess I must be secluding, but have not much art work to show for it.

Best regards