Organizing for a Murder Trial

Picture a crisp, sunny day in December with temperatures more like October, and no snow, although frost rimed the edges of Alder Creek. The friends of Nick Tbalt had made three arrests on suspicion of Nick’s murder. They brought George Ives, Long John Frank, and George Hilderman to Nevada City late the previous afternoon, Dec. 18, 1863. After winning the fierce argument to have the trial in Nevada City rather than in Virginia City, they incarcerated the defendants had been held in a low log building, and bound them with “light logging chains” to prevent escape. (Logging chains, no matter how light, are not trivial. Nick’s friends were determined that Ives, especially, should stick around for the trial.)

(Both Nevada and Virginia were too new to have built a jail.)

Both Dimsdale and Langford each say that considerable discussion occurred on December 19, the first day of the trial.* About 1500 men were present, and everyone who wanted to have his say made a contribution. Dimsdale remarks that the discussion went on for most of the day, but he says almost nothing about what the lawyers argued about.

Accordng to both authors, the discussion as to the “mode of trial” (Langford) accomplished four things:

  1. “The investigation should be made in the presence of the entire assemblage”
  2. “The miners reserved the final decision of all questions”
  3. “To avoid all injustice to people or prisoners, an advisory commission of twelve men from each of the districts was appointed”
  4. “W. H. Patton of Nevada and W. Y. Pemberton of Virginia City were selected to take notes of the testimony.”**

In a letter to his sister, Sanders wrote that he was the only lawyer of the “Union persuasion,” but at the time he had not met Charles S. Bagg, who became his co-counsel in the prosecution of Ives. Langford mentions Alexander Davis and J. M. Thurmond for the defense. Both of them were Secessionists, Davis having served as a Colonel in Gen. Sterling Price’s Missouri Home Guard. Three other attorneys appeared for the defense: H.P.A. Smith,

Although the investigation into Ives’s guilt or innocence began late in the afternoon of the 20th, the wrangling among the attorneys, with much of the crowd offering their opinions, went on throughout the trial, it appears. Langford gives the flavor of the discussions: “unprofitable wrangling, long speeches, captious objections, and personal altercations.” Finally, on the morning of the 21st, attorneys for both sides were told that the trial must end by 3:00 p.m. that day.

For me, the most frustrating statement about the trial occurs in Langford’s description, “The Trial of George Ives.” He writes, “I am unable from any facts in my possession to recapitulate the testimony.” Not only was Langford not present at the trial, he may not have written the book that bears his name. The daughter of Hezekiah L. Hosmer, Montana’s first Territorial Chief Justice, states in her father’s unfinished autobiography that Judge Hosmer ghostwrote Langford’s book. Dimsdale, writing in 1865 directly after the events, makes an even more frustrating statement in The Vigilantes of Montana: “It is unnecessary to describe the trial, or to recapitulate the evidence.” (Aargh! That was a rotten thing to find in a history when it’s exactly what I wanted to know!)

Both sources describe two alibis offered for Ives which failed because the men who alibied Ives were known miscreants. George Brown was hanged a week later, and Honest Whiskey Joe is never mentioned in any other source that I’ve been able to locate.

Fortunately, we don’t have to depend on Dimsdale and Langford for all the information available on the Ives trial.

Wilbur Fisk Sanders offers more information, thank goodness. Because Sanders’s uncle was the Chief Justice of Idaho Territory, Sanders probably knew that the territory was formed without Congress passing any laws from one of the “mother” territories down to Idaho, although the U. S. Constitution was boilerplate in the “Organic Act” defining Idaho Territory, as it was for all the territories.

The trial began in earnest late in the afternoon of December 19, and continued the next day.

Next: Guilty or Innocent?

*Dimsdale’s The Vigilantes of Montana was published in 1866. Langford’s Vigilante Days and Ways was published in 1890.
**Both men’s notes have disappeared. W. Y. Pemberton, who later became a Chief Justice of the Montana Supreme Court, gave a talk on what he remembered of the Ives trial to a meeting of the Montana Historical Society, which is reprinted Contributions to the Historical Society of Montana, Vol. VIII, 1917.

2 thoughts on “Organizing for a Murder Trial

  1. Tom RIzzo

    Carol, I found this story fascinating because of all the secrecy involved–if that’s the correct term. For example: no record was retained of what the lawyers argued about. I also found it bizarre that the trial had to end by 3 p.m. What was so pressing as to shortcut an event that dealt with someone’s life? (Happy Hour?) Worst of all, as you pointed out, few facts were available. I had to laugh when I read that it was “unnecessary to describe the trial or to recapitulate the evidence.” Things were sure different back then in terms of maintaining specific historical records.

    I can imagine how frustrating it was to explore that particular event since you tend to be quite detailed in your research.

    Thanks! Enjoyed it.

    1. Carol Buchanan Post author

      Thank you for the comment, Tom. You have sparked an entirely new blog post to answer your questions. I’ll have it up by the end of the week. I’m not delaying; it’s just that you deserve a full explanation.

Comments are closed.