I spent more than twenty years off and on researching and writing “Calamity Jane- How the West Began.” Why this obsession? I was compelled by the stories of the iron-willed men that moved events on the one hand, and the emotional tipping point that led to the triumph of the good guys on the other.
Langford, in “Vigilante Days and Ways” says that one of the reasons that the bad guys ruled the Montana frontier at first was that they knew each other prior to their arrival in Bannack and had a loose organization around which to form. The good guys, in contrast, at first did not know who to trust and individually felt powerless. They began a loose association when a Masonic funeral was called for after the death of a man named Bell (he died of natural causes). Seventy-five Masons met at the funeral, many more than anyone had expected, and they continued to meet informally afterwards. Some of the Masons had had experience in prior vigilante movements, but even as the situation became more and more dire, they were not able to act for many months. It took a particularly heinous crime to serve as the catalyst to action, and a man named Palmer to goad them into action.
The tipping point that outraged the community was the torture and murder of Tiebault (portrayed in “Calamity” as the murder of Lo). Tiebault was just a young kid sent on an errand of mules and a small sum of money. He was murdered by Ives after being dragged through the brush alive, as evidenced by brush grasped in his fists in death. Palmer was not a Mormon, but otherwise is portrayed closely to the historical figure in “Calamity’. Palmer brought Tiebault’s frozen body to town and left it out for hours for townsfolk to see, with intent to finally spur action, saying that “This thing has been running on long enough and has got to be stopped.” (Calloway in “Montana’s Righteous Hangmen” p. 24). Up to that point, no individual had been willing to openly challenge the bad guys.
The men who answered Palmer’s call come across the pages of history as an extraordinary breed. In the initial days of the vigilantes, they took on great personal risk and hardship to chase down the outlaws and bring them to justice, albeit tribunal justice. One of the few of those men who left his memoirs was Charles Beehrer, a minor character in “Calamity”. His account is found in Al Noyes’ book, “Dimsdale’s Vigilantes of Montana”, (pp.263-275). I present this part of his autobiography here, events that preceded his Montana experience, to show what sort of man he was.
“I was born in Stuttgart, Germany, on the 4th day of December, 1836, and came to America, where I landed in New York City in the spring of 1855. I went at once to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I remained but a short time, as I got the gold fever, and went to Colorado, where I worked in the mines for two seasons… In the fall of 1862, I made arrangements with some of the young men to go to Idaho… so I bought a pair of mules, but the Indians got so bad that they burned the stage stations… We had intended to go to Idaho and make beer, as I had learned two trades, brewing and coopering.
“That summer I met two Texas men, and they wanted me to go down to Arizona with them. They claimed that the Indians had stolen 300,000 sheep and large herds of cattle, which we could get, if we could only secure men enough who were willing to take a chance. …taking this stuff away from Indians could not be considered wrong.
“One of the Texas men had a brother who lived down of the Platte River, twenty miles below Denver. So when I got there, this man, who was an honest fellow, said to his brother, ‘you had better not take this boy in your gang,’ and he turned to me and said, ‘You had better not go. You don’t know what kind of men they are.’ He told me they were highway robbers. I replied that I did not believe it, and that I would go and see the camp. So I went down and counted the horses. There were 48 men in camp besides myself and two were out some place, and there were only 46 saddle horses. So I said, ‘Boys, I can’t go with you.’ And they wanted to know why, and I said, ‘there are only 46 horses and there a fifty of us altogether.’ They replied that that was all right; that they could pick up horses enough at the first ranch they came to, and that I should go. I told them no. Then they threatened to kill me, and told me I had to go. I repeated that I would not go, and that if I had done anything for which they thought I should be killed, to go ahead, as I would not go with them. I went to these men from Texas and had a long talk. They told me if I would make a solemn promise not to tell, they would let me go….
(see my blog/essay on Glick for the parts deleted here)
“…Fifty years ago they did not make much beer in the summer time, so a friend of mine, who had a butcher shop, gave me a job.
“Although I never did like the saloon business, I made up my mind to buy a place close to where I could get a high-class lot of trade, such as the officers, etc. The first night I opened my place, I noticed that quite a lot of hobos, such as you find in all mining camps, came in. I call them all up probably ten or fifteen of them, and said: ‘Boys, I want to make a few remarks to you; come up and take another drink with me, and promise never to come in my saloon again; if you do, you will put me to the trouble of leading you out.’ And I did have to lead a few out. I had a nice place, as far as saloons go….
“I was called Charlie the Brewer.” I had beer ready for the 4th of July, and as I had agreed to deliver some to a party in Virginia City, I looked for my mules and could not see them, and as I needed money pretty bad, I put 22 gallons on my back, and carried it all the way to Virginia City – two miles-never setting it down; 196 pounds, and I got my money, $88.00, in gold for it….
“(I) never saw such a person who was as fearless as Col. Sanders was at that trial. That he stood there and defied the toughs to do their worst, and in language that was not soothing, either in choice of words or manner of expression. After Sanders had made his remarkable speech, ‘that they hang George Ives by the neck until he was dead,’ Judge Byam, who was a neighbor, got up on a butcher wagon, and made a speech, and proposed all those in favor of Ives being hung say, ‘Aye,’ and those opposed say ‘No.’
“You see, it seemed to me so foolish, I told the boys to run the wagon down the street. The Judge was an old man, and could not get out until they stopped; he came back and said, ‘Charley, why did you have the boys run the wagon down the street?’ and I said, ‘Why didn’t you make a sensible speech?’ Then I told him to say, ‘All those in favor of turning Ives loose, walk across the street, and those in favor of hanging, stay here.’ And he said, ‘What is that for?’ and I told him it was done so we could tell what the results were. We could tell then who the good men were, and who were the bad ones. The result was that there were about twenty to one in favor of the good men….
(Beehrer goes on to explain his role with the Vigilantes when they rounded up the rest of Plummer’s gang in the terrible cold of January 1864. On his return to town…)
“I recall one incident that happened the same day the five men were hanged. I was in Nick Kessler’s saloon, in Virginia City, and a lot of these men, in fact, nearly all of them, were standing at the bar, cursing the Vigilantes, and Kessler told me he wanted to speak to me, and called me to one side. Before he could say anything, something was said by some of those fellows that made me mad, and I turned and told them that we had hanged five that day, and when it became necessary to hang any more, if they did not have any timber, I would furnish the timber and the rope also. One of them replied: ‘Yes Charlie, we know you, and you would be glad to hang the last one of us.’ Kessler told me he would not have said what I said for all the gold in the mountains, because his life would not be worth anything after that. That they would get him sure.”
Back to my thesis of how good overcame evil. In 1864 Montana there were three factors I see that drove events to overcome the bad guys. One was the catalyst to action, the tipping point, which was the vicious murder of an innocent young man. Second was that the good guys had a loose, secret organization already in place, the Masons, organized on moral principles, with prior experience of vigilante activities in the West. The third, though, and I think the most important, was the force of individual personalities of the men in that organization. Primary sources of the day cite the bravery of James Williams, who led the poorly supplied vigilantes, through bitter cold that left Beehrer suffering the effects of frostbit hands for the rest of his life. They laud Neil Howie for capturing one of the gang without violence (he showed his prisoner how he could not have been wounded by a bullet from an overheated gun, as echoed in “Calamity”). They also universally laud Wilbur Sanders, who acted as prosecuting attorney in the trial of Ives (the trial of Lefty and Weasel-Snout in “Calamity” is patterned after that trial). These men acted with courage and force of personality in face of the threat of death. Mr. Beehrer was such an individual, and although he played a small role compared to the others mentioned, I wanted to give him his due here.
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