My historical fiction Calamity Jane- How the West Began, includes a minor character, Ben Ezekial, a Jewish Mason and vigilante. Jews as Masons? Sure. Jews as Vigilantes in frontier Montana? That might take some explaining. First, some background from A guide to Historic Virginia City, by Marilyn Grant, (pp. 14-16).
“Among the early merchants in western mining towns were European Jews, many from Prussia, Bavria, and Poland, who had immigrated to California during the 1848 gold rush. They sold their merchandise to California miners and eventually developed networks of family who owned dry-goods stores as they moved eastward with the new gold strikes. At least eleven Jewish merchants owned Virginia City businesses. John and Moses Morris, for example, ran clothing stores in Denver, Virginia City, and Helena. Gumbert Goldberg, who joined his brother-in-law, John Morris, in the clothing business, held Passover seder services in his home for Jewish families until he left Virginia City in 1866. Solomon Content built Virginia City’s most prestigious commercial building in 1864.”
Interesting, but no vigilantes. Not even a Mason. And there is no mention of those names in Vigilante Days and Ways by N. P. Langford, which means that Jews were not among the most prominent of the Vigilantes. More background from Golden Opportunities, Julie L. Coleman, (pp.47-48):
“In Montana, Masons dated their place here back to the gold camp of Bannack. On November 12, 1862, when William H. Bell died in that town, he requested a Masonic burial. A notice was posted throughout the mining camp asking all Masons to assemble at a certain log cabin at a certain hour; to everyone’s surprise seventy-six members gathered for the funeral service, conducted by Nathanial P. Langford.* The large gathering persuaded the men that they might be able to organize a lodge in Montana, and they received dispensation to do so on June 16, 1863. By that time, however, gold had been discovered at Alder Gulch, the men had scattered, and the idea of organization was temporarily abandoned. Soon, though, there were lodges established in Virginia City and Helena, and on January 24, 1866 a meeting to organize the Montana Grand Lodge of Masons took place. The organization grew rapidly after that, and almost all of the Jewish citizens of the new Montana communities became active Masons, many achieving the highest orders.”
Almost all of the Jewish citizens became active Masons, you say? But that describes 1866. What of early Bannack and Alder? Here we find an account from the diary of Isador Strasburger, in Golden Opportunities, (pp. 48-49):
“Arrived in Bannack July 4, 63. Went with the excitement to Alder Gulch. Lived in a tent till fall. Had some experiences with George Ives [the bandit]. It was on Sunday. He came in V[irgini]a City [and] demanded a pair of gloves. Not having any, I could not comply with his request. He then drew a six shooter, leveled at me and with a S. of B. and other wild exclamations, coaxed me for the gloves. Being afraid to advance or retreat, I tried to assure him of his waywardness, and with a few more invectives he took an axe that I had as a show and to my utter astonishment, left me unharmed and departed.
“A few months later he and others went to where other good Injuns go, to the happy hunting ground, by way of the rope. There were considerable hanging bees in the early times, but as I had witnessed such trifles in 59 and 60 at Denver, it did not amuse me any more in Virginia City, and therefore paid no attention to them, but left all the fun for Col. Sanders.”
Clearly, though he had motive, Strasburger was not a vigilante, and he does not say he was a Mason. Samuel Cohen, an orthodox Jew who had a clothing store in Bannack in 1862 reports in Helen Sanders’ A History of Montana that he was an enthusiastic Mason, originally from Ancient Chapter number One, New York City, but he doesn’t admit to being a vigilante.
So enough teasing already! Here is the history that gives rise to my Jewish vigilante character, from Golden Opportunities, (pp. 21-22):
“(Benjamin) Ezekial was born at Tiverton, Devonshire, England, in 1827, the son of Benjamin and Florence Ezekial. He arrived in the United States at age fourteen in 1841. Little is known about his wanderings in this country, but by 1863 he had drifted into Alder Gulch to mine for gold. He joined the Vigilante movement, which was devoted to ridding the area of the bandits who preyed on gold-laden stagecoaches and miners. Ezekial was part of the group that helped to hang the infamous Sheriff Henry Plummer and his gang.”
So he was part of it. But that description makes it sound like he joined because it was the socially responsible thing to do, which it was perhaps, but the above passage doesn’t capture the outrage and determination that comes across from the writings of those who participated in the manhunt and trial of Ives. Was Ben Ezekial just a passive observer? No, he was not. We learn more from Hoffman Birney’s description of Ives’ execution in Vigilantes (p. 209):
“A hundred shotguns and rifles leaped to the shoulders of the guards. Unconsciously the crowd shrunk back, those in front ranks pushing against the men in the rear. There was a second’s hush and two of the sentries—Nelson Story and Benjamin Ezekial –jerked the box from beneath George Ives’ feet.” Nelson Story, Sr. relates in Sanders’ history that he, Ezekial and another man then turned to the threatening crowd with guns cocked, and the crowd dropped to the ground.”
And there you have it; Ben Ezekial, vigilante sentry, executioner of the man regarded as the most evil of this episode in history.
* (the bible verse used by Langford at that funeral is presented verbatim in Calamity as Glick’s speech at Lo’s funeral.)