Innocent Men Don’t Run

In the March newsletter: A posse of Nick’s friends, led by William Clark and James Williams rode to Wisconsin Creek, where they woke up the men sleeping in and around Long John Frank’s wickiup. The story today picks up at the point where the men question Frank.

James Williams and three or four others took Long John Frank near to the spot where William Palmer had found Nicholas Tbalt’s body. They and questioned Frank, at length and hard. Modern historians such as Mark C. Dillon have hinted at coercion, and while that may be true, the interrogators were ultimately convinced by an unexpected witness — a mule. As Thomas Josiah Dimsdale put it (in The Vigilantes of Montana), they were questioning Frank when they heard a mule bray. Investigating, they found John X Beidler’s mare mule, Black Bess, on George Ives’s land. Frank admitted knowing the animal and who she belonged to, and how she happened to be there. “That’s the mule the boy was riding.”

From there on, getting the story of Nick’s death appears not to have been difficult. Long John did not actually witness the murder, but he saw and heard Ives say that it wasn’t fair for the boy to have all that gold and those good mules while he could make better use of them. He also witnessed Ives ride after Tbalt, heard a gunshot, and saw Ives return with the poke of gold. That, together with the presence of the mule convinced the leaders of the posse they had enough to bring Ives in for trial. They also had the name of George Hilderman, who had also been present.

Returning to the wickiup with Long John Frank, they found everyone enjoying a breakfast of hot coffee and whatever food the camp afforded. Many of the posse, unable to believe that men they knew could be part of Nick’s killing or other crimes, had let down their guard to socialize over a meal. Williams put a stop to that right away. He ordered them, “Look to your guns.” He said it strongly enough that no one who rode with him on later errands of justice ever had to be reminded twice.

Williams also ordered them to confiscate the weapons belonging to the men at Frank’s camp. He sent several of the posse into the wickiup to search for evidence of Tbalt’s murder or any other crime. They found, among other items, $70,000 in greenbacks and a pistol Leroy Southmayde later identified as one stolen from him in a robbery in November. But they found nothing that directly tied anyone in the camp to Nick’s murder.

All they had was Long John’s confession that he had done nothing to prevent George Ives from murdering Nick. And they had Black Bess’s corroborating testimony. When confronted with her, Ives at first said she had strayed there, but no one had reported finding a good saddle mule. The last time Beidler had seen her was when he loaned her to Nicholas to ride on his errand, and he had prior history with Ives over that same mule. Ives liked her, but after he borrowed her once, Beidler told him he’d never loan her to him again.

The posse arrested both Frank and Ives. Ives’s friends, particularly Johnny Gibbons, protested vigorously, but Williams and others held firm.

Many in the posse may have thought that Ives could not have committed so heinous a crime. After all, he was handsome, charming, and very likable. (Modern writers have called him a “charming psychopath.”) In an era that believed a person’s character could be read in his face or in the bumps of his skull, Ives’s good looks established his innocence for many people.

When Williams and the others who believed Frank’s confession told Ives they wanted him to come with them, he agreed willingly enough. (Frank had no choice but to ride along.) The entire group — posse, prisoners, and the prisoners’ friends — set out along the road to Virginia City.

It was a beautiful day, not as cold as December can be in Montana but more like October. The group decided to have a little fun. Ives challenged them to a horse race, and before anyone could say “They’re off!” they had spurred their horses into a run.

Ives cleverly managed to lose the first race, perhaps two races. But he won the last race, and to their chagrin, the posse watched him steadily pull away from them. They galloped flat out after him, chasing him into a nearby gully where his horse collapsed from exhaustion. When they brought him out, they put him on a different horse, tied his hands to the horn and his ankles with a rope under the animal’s belly. After picking up George Hilderman at Robert Dempsey’s ranch where he was helping to build a bridge over Ramshorn Creek, they rode to Nevada City at a sedate pace to accommodate the broken-down horse he had ridden.

Perhaps Ives and his good friend Johnny Gibbons thought their persuasive powers would convince the posse to take Ives, Frank, and Hilderman to Virginia City where Ives had many friends.

They thought wrong. The posse determined to take them to Nevada City for trial, for the very reason that Ives had many friends in Virginia City. Including Sheriff Henry Plummer.

The escape attempt hardened the opinions of many in the posse. It was then and still is a principle in law that unlawful flight to avoid prosecution weighs heavily as an indicator of guilt.

Next month: A Change of Venue