In his legal history of the Vigilante era, Judge Mark C. Dillon writes,
“The ceremonial and legalistic manner in which the organization was formed, including the oath of its membership and the adoption of bylaws, suggests that the vigilantes did not intend to conduct themselves as an unruly mob but as a ‘righteous’ and disciplined organization.”*
Who Wrote the Vigilantes'”Regulations and Bye-Laws”?
Although authorship of the two-page document titled “Regulations and Bye-Laws” is unknown, the document itself survives in the archives of the Montana Historical Society (SC953). (Except in quoting the title, I use modern spelling, Bylaws, in this post.)
Hoffman Birney, writing in 1929, quotes Adriel B. Davis, sheriff of Junction and one of the first members of the Vigilance Committee, who attributed authorship “to an unnamed clerk” who worked in the store owned by J. E. McClurg. The unnamed clerk, Birney was told, knew the bylaws of the 1851 and 1856 San Francisco Vigilance Committees. Judge Dillon also recognizes in the Bylaws’ phrasing the possible hand of Wilbur F. Sanders.**
Structure of the Committee
Sanders’s work may also be seen in the military-style structure of the committee. In 1861, at the outbreak of the Civil War, he had recruited a company of artillery and a company of infantry, and was commissioned a first lieutenant in the 64th Ohio Infantry. He was appointed Assistant Adjutant General of the infantry company, and by the time he resigned from the army in August 1862, he had achieved the rank of Lt. Colonel. Of course, he may not have been the only man with a military background involved in writing the Bylaws.
The structure of the vigilance committee included a president, an executive officer, secretary, treasurer, and an executive committee. The president appointed captains for each of the mining districts, who formed a company and chose his lieutenants. Together, captains and lieutenants chose other men of “known worth and integrity” to join them. At some point, each company elected its captain and lieutenant.
In his “Early History of Montana,” Sanders writes that he was the “leader,” i.e., captain of the Bannack Vigilantes.***
The bylaws call for the executive committee to consist of
“seventeen members: the President, Executive Officer, Treasurer, Secretary of the Committee, and three persons from Virginia City, three from Nevada [City],” one each from Junction, Highland, Pine Grove, Bivens Gulch, and two from Summit. “… any eight of [them, i.e., the executive committee] shall constitute a quorum.”
The three main officers were: President – Paris S. Pfouts; Executive Officer – James Williams; Treasurer – John S. Lott. Additionally, Dillon names Wilbur Sanders as prosecuting attorney. (p. 128) In his ”Early History,” Sanders refers to his role simply as “counsel.”
The Bylaws require the following procedure to identify a criminal, which is worth quoting verbatim:
“…whenever any criminal act shall come to their (a member’s) knowledge to inform his Captain or Lieutenant of the same, when the officers so informed shall call together the members of his Company, (unless the Company has chosen a committee for such purpose) when they shall proceed to investigate the case, and elicit the facts and should the said company conclude that the person charged with any offense should be punished by the committee, the Captain or Lieutenant will first take steps to arrest the Criminal and then report the same with proof to the Chief who will thereupon call a meeting of the Executive Committee and the judgment of such Executive Committee shall be final.”
The “Ferreting Committee”
The Vigilantes soon formed a “Ferreting” committee, led by John X Beidler, which collected evidence and investigated allegations. I don’t know if they evaluated the evidence they found, or turned it over to the Executive committee, whose job it was to assess what was known and determine whether or not to collect more, dismiss the particular accusation, or to proceed with an arrest.
Following the procedure mandated in the Bylaws, is this chilling sentence:
“The only punishment that shall be inflicted by this Committee is death.”
A Different Sentence
Despite this, in the summer of 1864, a young man was reported to have several times embezzled money from his employer. The evidence was conclusive. Called before the Executive Committee to answer for his crime, the very frightened youth (age 19 or 20) shakily confessed his guilt. James Williams was among those present. Maybe none of the men, having pronounced the death penalty and in some cases having carried it out personally more than two dozen times, wanted to hang this boy. Williams argued that justice would be best served by another sentence.
The Committee sentenced the lad to repay in full the money he had stolen, after which he was to leave Montana Territory never to return.
Some years later, the young man, now grown into a respected citizen of Portland, Oregon, wrote to thank the Vigilantes. If he had not been caught, and received that sentence, he believed that he might carried on with his life of crime to its inevitable end. Instead, he had been as the saying is, “scared straight.”
Next: The Vigilantes Ride (January 11, 2017)
*The Montana Vigilantes, 1863-1870: Gold, Guns & Gallows, p. 127.
** The Montana Vigilantes, 1863-1870: Gold, Guns & Gallows, p. 127; Vigilantes, 1929, p. 218.
Note: Both Birney and Dillon include the entire document in their books. Short as it is at about 1,650 words, printing it in full here would overwhelm this post, so I’ve decided to paraphrase its main points.
Dillon includes the “Regulations and Bye-Laws” in his Appendix B, “Bylaws of the Vigilance Committee,” pp. 404-405.
Quotations here are from the original document in …: “Vigilante Records (Virginia City) 1863-1863, MHS, SC 953.”
To defray the expenses of the Ferreting committee, such as paying confidential informants, John Lott, the treasurer, kept a meticulous record. It has survived intact and is deposited in the Montana Historical Society Archives. Lott, who wrote the oath subscribed to by the posse on Dec. 23, 1863, may not have been an accurate speller, but he balanced the books.
***Sanders and his immediate and extended families lived in Bannack. He happened to be in Virginia City to discuss the possibility of sending delegates to Washington, DC, to persuade Congress to break a new territory (Montana) away from Idaho Territory.