(Spoiler alert- do not read this prior to reading “Calamity Jane- How the West Began”)
What set of circumstances and innate personality traits made Henry Plummer who he was? How could a man’s outward persona be so the opposite of who he really was? Seeming so refined and civilized; how was it that he turned to a life of crime, and the leader of the outlaws at that? Men who knew him and wrote of him all puzzled over this question. Calamity herself asks him this question in my story, and his response, that he was just born to lead is, of course, my response to that question.
In his history “Vigilante Days and Ways” (p.366), Langford gives us an idea of who Plummer was before he headed West. After the Sheriff’s execution, a man by the name of Purple heard that Plummer’s family was making preparations to travel to Bannack to “punish the murderers of their brother.” Purple and Langford traveled some distance by train to visit them, and found them to be “well educated, cultivated people.” Langford continues:
“…Both Mr. Purple and I used all the plausible arguments we could summon to dissuade them from the undertaking, without revealing any of the causes of Plummer’s death. All to no purpose. Finding them resolved, we concluded that, rather than allow them to suffer from the deception they labored under, we would put in their hands Dimsdale’s “Vigilantes,” with the assurance that all it contained relative to their brother was true. We urged them to satisfy themselves, from the perusal of it, of the utter fruitlessness of their contemplated journey. The following day we called upon the brother, who, with a voice broken by sobs and sighs, informed us that his sister was so prostrated with grief at the revelation of her brother’s career that she could not see us. He thanked us for making known to them the terrible history, which otherwise they would have learned under circumstances doubly afflicting, after a long and arduous journey.”
How Plummer evolved from someone his family would presume to be blameless into an arch villain can be traced in the book “Hanging the Sheriff” by Mather and Boswell. Those authors come to a different conclusion as to Plummer’s guilt, (see my essay “Revisionist History”) but they present a lot of useful research (pp. 119-175).
On arrival in Nevada City, California around 1853, Plummer took up an honest living ranching and mining with a partner from Maine. He was very successful at that, and by 1854 he had established a bakery with his partner, which was also successful, and which he sold. In that same year he ran for election as Marshall on the Democratic ticket and won by a narrow margin. Mather and Boswell report an episode that shows the kind of risks that position entailed (pp. 128-129):
“Plummer and two friends had entered the billiard saloon one evening for a little recreation, but even before they could get a game going, a brawl broke out. When a Mr. Johnson pulled the nose of a Mr. Post and then pushed him against the bar, Plummer stepped in to restrain Johnson. But the owner of the saloon, Lewis, objected to the young Marshall trying to keep order in his establishment, saying that ‘he would keep peace in his house, that he had always kept an orderly house, and would still do so, peaceably if he could, or by force.’ Though Plummer’s companion, Jordan, who just that afternoon had been released on bail of $500 for breaking a teamster’s jaw, suggested to Lewis that he allow Johnson and Post to fight it out, the owner did not want any more suggestions as to how he should run his saloon, and a new altercation broke out between him and Jordan. Bragging that he could whip Lewis anytime, Jordan followed after the owner as he attempted to retreat behind the bar, casually replying that it was not true that his customer could whip him. When Jordan insisted that he could whip him, Lewis responded that he was nothing but a liar, and Jordan, angered by the insult, called him a ‘d—d son of a b—h,’ at the same time reaching across the counter to hit at him. Snatching up his gun, Lewis fired at Jordan, who had crouched down, peeking up over the bar with a glass tumbler in his hand as a weapon, and though Lewis missed Jordan, he did hit Johnson, the original trouble maker. Quickly firing again, Lewis this time struck Jordan in the chest, killing him immediately. Plummer now moved to arrest Lewis, but was prevented from doing so by the wounded Johnson, who was scrambling to obtain a pistol himself. As Plummer was fending off Johnson with his police club, Lewis sent out for the county officers and surrendered himself to Sheriff Wright rather than give in to Marshall Plummer. During the moments the decision was being made as to who should arrest Lewis, Sheriff Wright or Plummer, Johnson took advantage of the opportunity to flee into the streets, complaining loudly of the bad treatment he had just received at Plummer’s hands. In reporting the incident, the ‘Journal’ criticized the new Marshall for not having arrested Johnson after he had hit him on the head with a club, but instead letting him wander the streets ‘raving and delirious from the effects of the blows’ and thereby disturbing the ‘quiet of the town.’”
One can wonder also if part of the reason for criticism was that Plummer was the sort who chose the company of a man jailed for breaking someone’s jaw.
Plummer gained a reputation as an effective lawman subsequent to this, bravely bringing in criminals without violence. His life took a U-turn, however, when he was convicted of second degree murder for shooting a man named Vedder who had come after him with a gun. Plummer initially had become involved in the affairs of Vedder and his wife when he had rescued her from her husband’s violence. An individual implied to Mr. Vedder some time later that Plummer was having an affair with his wife, so Vedder borrowed a gun and went after the Marshall. It is difficult to see how Plummer could have been convicted when it appears from the facts that came out in the trial that Plummer acted in self-defense. Mather and Boswell paint a picture of sentiment set against Plummer by the suspicion raised that he had been involved with the wife. That was laid on top of already negative sentiment towards Plummer due to his having been involved in a “friendly fire” death of a very popular town sheriff some time prior to Vedder’s death. Also, the office of Marshall was an elected one, and thus subject to the politics of the time. The nation was severely divided on political lines at the time, so when Plummer ran for that office on the Democratic ticket, there appears to have been a smear campaign against him by Union sympathizers.
In any case, despite having acted in self-defense, Plummer was convicted of second degree murder. While his attorneys prepared an appeal, Plummer spent four months in the local jail. His conviction was overturned on appeal, the judge taking the view that at least two of the jurors had been so prejudiced that there had not in any way been a fair trial. Plummer was retried, and this time, prosecuting attorneys were able to create even more suspicion that Plummer had been intimate with Mrs. Vedder (which looks very unlikely based on Mather and Boswell’s detailed recounting of events).
Plummer was sentenced to ten years in San Quentin, but was released 6 months later, in part due to a view that he was near death anyway from lung disease (likely tuberculosis). Perhaps prone to violence by this time, or as Mather and Boswell see it, a target of others now, Plummer killed another man in a drunken quarrel after his release from prison (and in the process received a deep scalp wound from the man’s knife.) His jailers, who of course would likely have worked closely with him previous to this, set him free, and after a period of recuperation in hiding, he made his way to the gold fields of Idaho and Montana. Mather and Boswell’s view is that there he took up the life of a lawman, with fidelity to that role, but ended up being wrongfully executed by an extralegal mob. My view is that, in the months between the first murder verdict and ultimately fleeing California, Plummer evolved into a hardened criminal. It is easy to see how he would feel betrayed and abandoned by good citizens. Certainly, for him to have evolved into a hardened criminal, he would have had to have had a fundamental character flaw as well. In prison he made new acquaintances. He was a natural leader, so he led.
(Please see the essay “Revisionist History” for an elaboration of my view vs. Mather and Boswell’s view of Plummer’s guilt.)