By the time he was 31 years old in 1863, Down East Maine native Henry Plummer had already hit it big in the California gold rush, and had been elected to office in several wild west towns.
Six months later, he’d be dead, hanging from the gallows in Bannack, Montana, convicted of murder without a trial.
Plummer’s short and explosive life began in the Washington County town of Addison in 1832, and ended with accusations that he was the ringleader of a gang of violent outlaws. Though he’s not as famous as some other wild west characters like Billy the Kid or Butch Cassidy, his story contains just as much intrigue, and takes place in an equally fascinating period in American history.
Plummer was born in Addison in 1832, the youngest of six, part of a family that traced its Maine roots back to the 17th century. His father and older brother were both sea captains, but Plummer, who caught tuberculosis while a child and was often in poor health, did not wish to pursue a career in sailing. He did, however, share his family’s adventuresome spirit.
By 1849, word had spread around the globe of the untold riches in California thanks to the gold found at Sutter’s Mill. People from all over the world came down with “gold fever,” and made their way to the Golden State to try their luck at prospecting.
According to Maine historian Jan Eakins, Maine had one of the highest rates of departure to California in the country. Newspaper advertisements offered relatively cheap transport to San Francisco, either via Panama, Mexico or around the Strait of Magellan. For many Mainers, the kind of wealth possible out west seemed impossible to attain at home, where farming, fishing and logging were the primary industries.
In April 1852, Plummer boarded a ship in Maine. He sailed to New York, then to Panama, where he made the land crossing by mule to the Pacific coast, and then sailed to San Francisco, arriving in May.
Plummer stayed in San Francisco for a year, then moved to Nevada City, in the heart of California gold-mining country. There, he purchased a mine and a ranch, and so impressed the locals with his business acumen that in 1856 he was elected town marshal, when he was just 24.
According to a 1993 article in Wild West Magazine, he was involved in the high-profile case of Lucy Vedder, the abused wife of John Vedder, which in 1857 escalated to the point that Plummer shot the husband. After two trials, Plummer was convicted of murder in 1859, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. His fellow police officers pleaded with California’s governor to pardon him, attesting to his upstanding character, and he eventually was — though that would certainly not be the end of Plummer’s brushes with the law.
Not long after his pardon, in late 1861 Plummer left California for the Washington Territory, where gold had also been found. At the time, the territory included what is now Washington plus parts of Montana and Idaho. There, he found himself torn between his inclination to uphold the law, and associating with the outlaws and vigilantes who populated mining camps and towns.
Discouraged, Plummer decided he’d had enough of the west, and in 1862 planned to go home to Maine. But while waiting for a steamboat in what is now Montana, he was convinced to join a posse that had formed to protect a government installation from attacks by Native Americans.
While there, Plummer met his future wife, Electa Bryan. In order to make money to support her, he traveled to Bannack, Montana, where more gold had been discovered. In January 1863, he killed another man, Jack Cleveland, in self-defense. This time, however, he did not go to trial for the killing, and in May 1863 Plummer was elected sheriff of Bannack.
Plummer’s time trying to keep the peace in Bannack was short-lived. Between October and December of 1863, the region was swept by a wave of robberies and violence, with stagecoaches being ambushed and people getting killed in the process.
Eventually, suspicion turned to Plummer, who locals began to believe was the head of a group of road agents — people who rob travelers — known as the Innocents. Several victims said they recognized Plummer during the robberies, as well as other associates of his. Rumors began to circulate about the Innocents, including tales that they spoke in code and operated highly secretive “cells” in settlements and towns across the region.
History will never know if Plummer had, in fact, turned to a life of crime, because rather than put him to trial, some local vigilantes decided to round up all the suspects and hang them one by one. In total, 21 men were hanged, including Plummer, who was executed on Jan. 10, 1864, the same day he was arrested.
Was Plummer a nice Maine boy, trying to make his fortune and do the right thing in a lawless land, who was essentially murdered by an angry mob? Or was he a brilliant criminal, projecting the guise of an upstanding citizen while still robbing and murdering his way across the frontier, and receiving rough justice in turn? The historical record shows very little evidence that either is completely true, and as with much of wild west lore, there’s as much fiction as fact.
Bannack, Montana, is now a renowned ghost town and a state park. Plummer’s story has been retold in books and articles — including a comprehensive series of articles from the Southwest Montana tourism board — and in 2013, he was even a character in a popular video game, “Call of Juarez: Gunslinger.” He has many family members and descendants buried in Addison and in other parts of New England, but Plummer himself was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere on the Montana frontier.
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