The Dillingham Murder Trial

The Dillingham murder trial cast a long shadow over future events, perhaps because it was a farce that overshadowed the reality of a man’s death. Not that murder was uncommon in the region; Thomas Josiah Dimsdale later claimed that 104 murders were carried out before the Vigilantes went to work.*

D. H. Dillingham’s murder disgusted people because it was not the result of a drunken argument or any of the usual reasons for death by shooting. It was an act of pre-planned, pure meanness on the main thoroughfare of the largest settlement in Alder Gulch. People were shocked and horrified.

And yet the murderers got away with it, even though dozens, if not hundreds, of people saw them shoot down Dillingham in cold blood.

As Dillingham lay dying, Deputy Sheriff Jack Gallagher rushed forward and seized the three killers’ guns. Dimsdale recounts that he reloaded Buck Stinson’s gun so that no one would know who fired the fatal shot.

Dr. Steele ran out of the wickiup in which he had been presiding over another trial and ordered Deputy Gallagher to arrest the men. Gallagher took them into custody.

People clamored for a speedy trial. As usual they argued about which form the trial should take: the jury of the whole or a formal jury. As you will recall, the jury of the whole comprised everybody who happened to be present when the vote was called for.

Those who wanted the jury of the whole won out.

Dr. Steele asked two other doctors, G. Gaylord Bissell and Samuel Rutar, to act as judges with him. A large wagon was rolled out to the foot of Wallace Street facing Alder Creek and the three judges sat on the seat.

What had seemed a simple and straightforward event quickly became complex. Charley Forbes had shouted, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” as the bullets struck Dillingham. Some people who heard him thought he did not shoot, but others claimed they saw him aim and fire as he shouted. His shot, to Dillingham’s chest, was the fatal one. A cry went up for two separate trials, and the judges decided to try Forbes separately from Buck Stinson and Haze Lyons.

Associate Justice Mark C. Dillon writes, “It was determined, therefore, that the defendants would be split into two trials, with the first being that of Stinson and Lyons, followed by a second trial for Forbes only. At the time, nobody, including Forbes, could have foreseen that the splitting of the trials would have a profound effect on the outcomes of both.”**

Both trials took place the following day. Stinson and Lyons were convicted of murder, but Forbes was acquitted after testifying that he had tried to prevent the shooting.

Have you ever played a game in which someone burst into a room unexpectedly, shouted something and ran out? Or have you watched videos of criminal acts on TV, only to disagree with other people on what each of you saw? Eyewitness reports can vary as to the number of people and what actually happened.

So it was in the Dillingham murder trial. Some saw Forbes shoot even as he shouted, “Don’t shoot,” others claimed that his shot was the fatal one, and still others said he did not shoot at all.

Besides, Forbes was by all accounts a handsome man. In the nineteenth century the pseudo-science of phrenology carried wide belief. People commonly believed that they could discern a person’s character by their physical appearance, so they were predisposed to believe that Forbes was not a murderer.

As he rode away, he called “Good-bye” and waved happily at everyone. He was never seen again in Alder Gulch. A few weeks later, he was murdered at Big Hole.

Meanwhile, John Xavier Beidler (X to his friends) had dug three graves in anticipation of the outcome. X was particularly outraged at this public murder and furious that one of the killers had gone scot-free. He probably had some hope of justice, however, as Stinson and Lyons were helped into a wagon to go to the place of execution.

Forbes’s acquittal had an effect on people. Their feelings had cooled since the previous day, and they began to reconsider the justice of one man going free while they killed his friends. Some women in the crowd began to weep over the fate of the two men, and beg that their lives be spared on the grounds that their youth gave them time to reform, and that now they had been exposed as killers they would not dare to do anything like that again.

Someone called for another vote. That vote proved inconclusive because a clear majority was not counted either for or against hanging. Another vote yielded the same results, as did several more. After the third or fourth vote (accounts vary), Deputy Gallagher, says Dillon, “rode his horse into the crowd with a pistol in his hand and yelled, ‘They’re cleared! Let them go!”

Gallagher succeeded in usurping the authority of the miners court and having Stinson and Lyons freed as Dillingham’s corpse lay in a nearby wickiup awaiting burial.

Before they left, Lyons and Stinson went to Beidler’s graves and, as Dimsdale wrote, “made vulgar sport with them.” Historians of recent times are not so delicate: the two men urinated into the graves and laughed at Beidler.

After X Beidler buried Dillingham, he put signs in the scorned graves: “Graves to rent.” Six months would pass before the Vigilantes found tenants.

* The Vigilantes of Montana, or, Popular Justice in the Rocky Mountains… by Thomas Josiah Dimsdale, first serialized in The Montana Post 1865 – 1866, published in book form in 1866.

** The Montana Vigilantes, 1863 – 1870: Gold, Guns, & Gallows, p. 32. Mark C. Dillon, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, Appellate Division. 2013.

(Header photo of Plummer’s gallows [reproduction] by Richard Buchanan)