The Dillingham Murder

1860 Model Colt .44

1860 Model Colt .44 with fluted cylinder., one of the most-used revolvers of the Civil War. and widely used in the West.

When the miners of the Bannack mining district organized on May 24, 1863, they elected Henry Plummer sheriff and D. H. Dillingham, secretary. Plummer, who was in a hurry to travel to Fort Benton and marry Electa Bryan, appointed Dillingham to be his chief deputy. Dillingham was in effect acting sheriff while Plummer was away. Plummer also named other deputies, among them Ned Ray, Buck Stinson, and Jack Gallagher.

In one of history’s great coincidences, Plummer left Bannack on May 26, 2863, the day Bill Fairweather & his friends found gold in Alder Creek.

Electa Bryan’s older sister, Martha Jane Vail, was a strong Methodist, as was her husband James Vail. They — and probably Electa — insisted on a proper Methodist wedding, but the Methodist minister was stranded on a boat delayed by low water on the Missouri river 200 miles east. As the days became weeks, the young couple grew impatient. The Vails objected strongly to the wedding, and would not hear of a civil ceremony. They sent to St. Peter’s mission for the nearest available cleric, a Catholic priest named Father Minatre. The wedding went ahead on June 20. Mrs. Vail refused to act as her sister’s matron of honor, but a visiting friend, Francis M. Thompson, tied a white handkerchief around his arm and stood in with the bride.

Meanwhile, in Alder Gulch, miners were busy digging as much gold as they could before winter set in. Some had chosen to get the gold the quick way. The road between Bannack and Virginia City was particularly dangerous because of the increasingly frequent holdups.

George Washington Stapleton, known to his friends as “Wash,” planned to move from Bannack to Virginia City with two friends. It became known that he would be carrying a large amount of gold dust. Deputy Sheriff Dillingham overheard deputy Buck Stinson, and his pal Hayes Lyons planning to waylay the Stapleton party and rob them. Duty bound, he mentioned his suspicions to Stapleton in confidence, but Stapleton felt he should forewarn his companions. One of them repeated the warning to Buck Stinwson, who laughed it off.

But as Frederick Allen notes in A Decent Orderly Lynching, that warning “triggered a blood feud” between Stinson and Dillingham.

On June 29, Dillingham went to Virginia City on business. On Main Street, Dr. William L. Steele was holding court, in a wickiup.* Buck Stinson and Hayes Lyons were in town and saw Dillingham walking up the street. A third man, Charles (Charley) Forbes was inside the wickiup, taking notes for Dr. Steele, in effect acting as the recorder. Stinson and Hayes called for Forbes, who immediately ran out. “Come here,” called Stinson or Hayes, “we want to see you.” When Dillingham was close enough, all three of them drew their pistols and shot him down in front of hundreds ot witnesses.

One ball hit Dillingham in the chest, another in the thigh, and the third missed entirely. He bled to death within minutes.

(*A wickiup is a teepee made of brush.)

Next: The Trial of Dillingham’s Murderers