One tends to associate the dark legacy of lynching almost exclusively with the South of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but in point of fact the most extensive episode of vigilante justice in American history actually took place in the Montana territories in the 1860s. The Montana vigilantes have long been hailed as heroes in Montana (Montana Highway Patrolmen, for example, still bear a patch honoring these men and their cause), men who took upon themselves the obligation to rid their community of dangerous individuals. In this thrilling historical account, however, Frederick Allen pries open the chinks in the vigilante movement's historical armor to show that their brand of frontier justice eventually descended into something much darker and much less defensible.
In the early 1860s, Montana was a wild country overrun by thousands of men clamoring for the new-found gold in its rivers and streams. Even as gold camps began appearing overnight, there was no government of any sort to oversee justice - just miners' courts to settle disputes over claims and the like. The nearest outpost of territorial authority lay hundreds of miles west of the Montana frontier. Thus, it is easy to see how lawlessness could prevail under such conditions; it manifested itself most particularly in the form of stagecoach robberies on the paths leading away from town. A man could lose a whole season's worth of gold dust in the blink of an eye, and such hold-ups could turn deadly on occasion. What could the settlers do to secure their safety and safe passage back to the States or elsewhere? There was no legal system in place in the territory, there were no cells to hold prisoners, and there were no courts or judges to adjudicate cases. There was a sheriff, however, a fascinating man named Henry Plummer - and he really stands at the core of the entire drama. He came to be suspected of complicity in the robberies and murders in the area, and this growing sense of doubt in their sheriff served as the final impetus for the leading men of Bannack and Virginia City to take the law into their own hands. Plummer was among the 21 men hanged during the first six weeks of 1864. There will always be a level of debate as to Plummer's guilt or innocence, and Allen examines this fascinating man's life in great detail. The real question is how a man twice convicted of murder could have become a sheriff in the first place, but this speaks to the true remoteness of the Montana territory in those days.
In all, 51 men were killed by the vigilantes over a six-year period. Allen agrees with the consensus opinion that the early stage of the movement was justified, as there is evidence that all 21 of the men lynched in the first six weeks of 1864 were guilty, dangerous men - including Henry Plummer. Were the story to stop there, the Montana vigilantes would deserve nothing but admiration for bringing order and security to their local community. They did not stop, however, and their activities inevitably devolved into acts of personal vengeance and the very perversion of justice. In that first crucial period of early 1864, accused men were given trials of a sort, their fates usually decided by the entire community. Hangings took place in broad daylight, and the identities of the vigilantes were in no way kept secret. As time went on, however, men were summarily executed by individuals acting upon little more than their own authority. With no hope or manner of defending themselves, it is very likely that some innocent men were hanged - and there can be little doubt that many of the guilty had not committed crimes serious enough to warrant death.
As is always the case in history, the most fascinating aspect of this whole story is the lives of the men involved. Allen identifies the vigilantes as leading citizens of the area, an unusual amalgamation of men both for and against the battle for Southern independence being waged during that chaotic time. Politics came to play a significant role in the whole saga, as the appointed leaders of the newly-established Montana Territorial government did themselves no favors by immediately alienating the significant number of Democrats among the local populace. This new government was ineffective at best, with the executive and judicial branches nullifying each other's authority - and this provided the pretext for the vigilantes to continue their operations.
A Decent, Orderly Lynching really is a fascinating book. Allen brings to life the mining camps of gold-rush Montana, recreating all aspects of society there on the remote frontier. He offers penetrating assessments of the men at the heart of this story, those on both sides of the hanging rope, drawing a sharp distinction between the early, honorable activities of brave men determined to establish order in their lawless region and the excesses of those who continued to pursue vigilante justice after Montana's new territorial government had been established. Through it all, he maintains an objective air, making his own judgments based on the evidence in hand - and his research efforts were impressive, to say the least. The story of the Montana vigilantes is a most telling part of the history of America, and Allen has done a superb job telling that story to those of us unfamiliar with it.