The actual history of the arrest and trial of Plummer and his gang is too complicated to present in my novel. First there was the trial and execution of Ives, then over days and weeks the pursuit of other gang members and their execution by military-like tribunals, and finally the arrest and execution of Plummer and two others of his gang. This essay is for readers of my novel who are interested in how closely my novel follows history in detailing Plummer’s execution, and a note on accidental symbolism.
Langford describes in “Vigilante Days and Ways.” (p. 363-4) Plummer’s last minutes.
“It is useless,” said one of the Vigilantes, “for you to beg for your life; that affair is settled, and cannot be altered. You are to be hanged. You cannot feel harder about it than I do; but I cannot help it if I would.”
“Do not answer me so,” persisted the now humbled and abject suppliant, “but do with me anything else you please. Cut off my ears, and cut out my tongue, and strip me naked this freezing night, and let me go. I beg you to spare my life. I want to live for my wife, my poor absent wife. I wish to see my sister-in-law. I want time to settle my business affairs. Oh, God!” Falling upon his knees, the tears streaming from his eyes, and with his utterance choked with sobs, he continued, “I am too wicked to die. I cannot go blood-stained and unforgiven into the presence of the eternal. Only spare me, and I will leave the country forever.”
To all these, and many more petitions in the same vein, the only answer was an assurance that his pleadings were all in vain, and that he must die. Meantime, Stinson and Ray [two other condemned members of Plummer’s gang] discharged volley after volley of oaths and epithets at the Vigilantes, employing all the offensive language of their copious vocabulary. At length the ropes were declared to be in readiness, and the stern command was given, “Bring up Ned Ray.” Struggling wildly in the hands of his executioners, the wretched man was strung up, the rope itself arresting his curse before it was half uttered. Being loosely pinioned, he thrust his fingers under the noose, and, by a sudden twist of his head, the knot slipped under his chin.
“There goes poor Ned Ray,” whined Stinson, who a moment later was dangling in the death-agony by his side.
As Stinson was being hoisted, he exclaimed, “I’ll confess.”
Plummer immediately remarked, “We’ve done enough already, twice over, to send us to hell.”
Plummer’s time had come. “Bring him up,” was the stern order. No one stirred. Stinson and Ray were common villains; but Plummer, steeped as he was in infamy, was a man of intellect, polished, genial, affable. There was something terrible in the idea of hanging such a man. Plummer himself had eased all importunity. The crisis of self-abasement had passed, hope had fled with it, and he was now composedly awaiting his fate. As one of the Vigilantes approached him, he met with the request, “Give a man time to pray.”
“Certainly,” replied the Vigilante, “but say your prayers up there,” at the same time pointing to the cross-beam of the gallows-frame.
The guilty man uttered no more prayers. Standing erect under the gallows, he took off his necktie, and, throwing it over his shoulder to a young man who had boarded with him, he said, “Keep that to remember me by,” and, turning to the Vigilantes, he said, “Now, men, as a last favor, let me beg that you will give me a good drop.”
The fatal noose being adjusted, several of the strongest of the Vigilantes lifted the frame of the unhappy criminal as high as they could reach, when letting it suddenly fall, he died quickly, without a struggle.
The necktie part was a detail that I wanted to include in my story, as it shows Plummer’s frame of mind in his last minutes. There is a slightly different account of Plummer’s execution in Ovitt’s “Golden Treasure” (p. 227):
Seeing that further efforts were useless he removed his necktie and threw it to Mr. Vail who had come to beg for his life and failed in his mission, his pleas being unheeded. “Give this to Joseph Swift,” he said. “He may have it to remember me by.”
Langford knew the men involved in these events intimately but was not present at Plummer’s execution. Ovitt published her book in 1952, almost a century after the events, but her account rings more true to me.
I also wanted to include the necktie in my story because it was in fact used by Plummer’s gang as a way of identifying each other. Langford relates this in his account of gang member Yager’s confession (p. 315), in which he describes the gang’s general organization: “These men were bound by an oath to be true to each other, and were required to perform such services as came within the defined meaning of their separate positions in the band. The penalty of disobedience was death. If any of them, under any circumstances, divulged any of the secrets or guilty purposes of the band, he was to be followed and shot down at sight. The same doom was prescribed for any outsiders who attempted an exposure of their criminal designs, or arrested any of them for the commission of any crime. Their great object was declared to be plunder, in all cases, without taking life if possible; but if murder was necessary, it was to be committed. Their password was ‘Innocent.’ Their neckties were fastened with a sailor’s knot, and they wore mustaches and chin whiskers.
So, from very early on I included the necktie in my story. Late in my writing process I came across an article or a chapter in a book about theme and symbolism that gave me the idea of using the bandana as a symbol of Jane’s acceptance into her group of friends. You are excused if you feel that the symbolism here is too heavy handed. Lefty sheds his criminal neckwear without malice towards Jane as he is about to wear his final “necktie.” He tells Jane to be careful whom she chooses for friends as he tosses her his neckwear, and her friends gift her the bandana in the end, same as the one she had rejected and thrown at them earlier. I have only this to say if you feel this is too heavy-handed. It was either accidental or unconscious. Both were meant to be symbolic, but I did not realize the dichotomy between the two until a couple weeks after I submitted the final story and started writing this essay.
How would you have re-written the story once you saw this aspect of the story?
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