Hiltebrandt’s murder in “Calamity” is based on a striking historical episode that shows how the bad guys held sway in the 1860’s frontier. The following account from Langford in “Vigilante Days and Ways” (pp. 33-4), tells a tale of a place that was, as Lo tells us, worse than Bannack:
“In a state of society where the majority of the people depend upon vicious pursuits for a livelihood, want and destitution are the natural elements. Increase of crime in all its forms follows. All through the Winter of 1861-62, and until returns began to come in from the mines the following Spring, Lewiston was daily and nightly a theatre where the entire calendar of crime was exhibited in epitome. Murders were frequent; robberies and thefts constant; gambling, debauchery, drunkenness, and all their attendant evils, openly flaunted in the face of day and defiance of law. Money and food were so scarce that robbery with the sporting community became an actual necessity. How to protect themselves against it sorely taxed the wit and tried the courage of the unfortunate property holders. Canvas walls offered slight resistance to determined thieves, and life was not protected by them from murderous bullets. An exemplification is furnished in the following incident:
“A German named Hildebrandt kept a saloon in a large canvas building in the centre of town. It was a principal rendezvous for the Germans, and a popular retail establishment. Hiltebrandt was known to possess a considerable amount of coin and gold dust, which the roughs resolved to appropriate. The barriers in the way involved only the possible murder of the owner and two friends who occupied a large bed in the front of the saloon. Between twelve and one o’clock in one of the coldest nights in the first week of January, the door was suddenly broken from its hinges, and a volley of balls fired in the direction of the bed. Hiltebrandt was instantly killed. His two companions, after returning the fire of the ruffians, seized the treasure and escaped. One of the villains was wounded in the finger. When firing ceased, the robbers coolly entered the building. Lighted a candle, and proceeded to search for money. Finding none they departed, uttering curses upon their ill-fortune, not, however, until several citizens appeared upon the scene, and witnessed the enormity of their crime. The murderers passed fearlessly and unconcernedly through the crowd, no effort being made to arrest them, lest a rescue might be attempted, which would prove fatal to all concerned, and possibly result in the burning of the town. The next day, however, a meeting of the citizens was held, for the avowed purpose of punishing the murders, and devising measures to arrest further progress of crime.
“This was the first effort at self-protection made by the people. The moment was trying one. All knew that the roughs were in the majority, and no one was bold enough to recommend open resistance to their encroachments, for fear of consequences. Henry Plummer took an active part in the proceedings, depicting with fervid eloquence “the horrors of anarchy” and solemnly warning the people to “take no steps that might bring disgrace and obloquy upon their rising young city.” Known as a gambler only, and suspected by few of any darker associations, his winning manner had the effect to squelch in its inception the initiatory movement, which at no distant period was to burst forth and whelm him, with hundreds of his bloody associates, in its avenging vortex.
“The brother of the murdered Hiltebrandt was in business at this time at the Oro Fino mines. Hearing of the murder, he openly avowed the intention of going immediately to Lewiston to bring the authors to justice. The banditti sent him a message that he would not live to get there, which had the effect to daunt him from his purpose, and the assassins, for the time, escaped punishment.”
Note also that this passage contains the basis for Plummer’s speech discouraging pursuit of the murderers of my fictional Mormon driver.
That was Lewiston, the town from which many in Bannack and the Alder area migrated. I gather from my readings that conditions were perhaps slightly better, in part because there were men with families in Bannack. But if conditions were better, it was barely so. Consider the following passage by Langford (p. 285-6):
“During this period, it was a custom with George Ives, when in need of money, to mount his horse, and, pistol in hand, ride into a store or saloon, toss his buckskin purse upon the counter, and request the proprietor or clerk to put one or more ounces of gold dust in it ‘as a loan.’ The man thus addressed dare not refuse. Often, while the person was weighing the levy, the daring shoplifter would amuse himself by firing his revolver at the lamps and such articles of furniture as would make a crash. This was done for amusement. It became so common that it attracted little or no attention, and people submitted to it, under the conviction that there was no remedy.”
Ives is the outlaw who murdered Tiebault, after which is patterned the murder of Lo in “Calamity.”