Secrecy in the George Ives Murder Trial?

Tom Rizzo subscribes to this newsletter and also blogs about Old West history. when he read the previous post on preparations for the George Ives trial he was struck by the secrecy. He wrote this comment on my blog:

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.

Meeting the history of this trial for the first time can leave a person gasping, “What?”

But as I’ve delved more into the archives at the Montana Historical Society and elsewhere, I’ve come to better understand what Dimsdale didn’t say. Some of that understanding contributed to writing God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana.

God's Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana

God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana

The Masonic Order was significant in uniting the men who brought down the Plummer Gang. There’s an old saying in Montana: “Not all Vigilantes were Masons, but all Masons were Vigilantes.” (I capitalize Vigilantes to set them apart as an organized group whose primary goal was to make the region safe from armed robbery and wanton murder. A small “v” means other vigilante organizations or mindsets.) Without their leadership and cohesion, Montana history might have been very different.

Back to Tom Rizzo’s comment about secrecy.

First, a written record was kept. Two young lawyers were assigned to take notes. William Y. Pemberton began the trial as a staunch believer in Ives’s innocence, but by the time it ended he was convinced of Ives’s guilt. His notes, as well as those of the other note-taker, have been lost. Judge Pemberton’s recollections of the trial are to be found in Vol. VIII of the Proceedings of the Montana Historical Society, published in 1917. I don’t know what became of the second note-taker, but Pemberton rose to be a Chief Justice of the Montana Supreme Court.

Revisionists give conspiracy reasons for the disappearance of the records. It’s more logical that they were lost to fire in Helena, Montana, where some of the Vigilante leaders had moved when the gold played out in Alder Gulch.

Another reason, which seemed innocent enough at the time, has given rise to conspiracy theories about the trial and the Vigilantes generally. Aside from the note-takers, there were no formal written records because the Masons were and are excellent at remembering. They train their memories as they rise through the degrees of Masonry to remember verbatim ever larger amounts of information which they pass on to upcoming members. Wilbur Fisk Sanders, a Mason and the attorney who was the counsel to the Vigilantes, prosecuted Ives. He wrote about the trial and his involvement in the Vigilantes some 30 years afterwards. His account has been published in Montana’s Righteous Hangmen by Lew L Callaway, and by Helen Fitzgerald Sanders in Vol. I of her History of Montana. (Callaway became a Chief Justice of Montana (1923 – 1934. Sanders was Wilbur Sanders’s daughter-in-law.)

In God’s Thunderbolt, attorney and Vigilante Daniel Stark keeps a notebook because he is not a Mason and does not have such a highly trained memory.

The trial was not held in secret. It took place on the main street of Nevada City, the next mining camp downstream from Virginia City. Some 1,500 people (perhaps 90% men) watched parts or most of the trial. They came and went, as inclination dictated. (Or thirst.)

The trial was not considered a weighing of evidence painstakingly gathered beforehand as trials are today. The posse who questioned Ives, Long John Frank, and George Hilderman determined that they had enough to bring them in for further investigation. Throughout both primary contemporary accounts, the term used is “investigation.” And that’s what happened during the three days. Men circulated through the crowd of miners and listened to conversations, asked questions, and connected dots. They brought what they learned forward and presented it. How the jury found the evidence is the subject of the next post.

Tom also asks why people wanted the trial over at 3 p.m. of the third day.

This trial was a miners court trial, in which a knowledge of the law was not important but common sense reigned, and the primary judge was a doctor. Although there were two formal juries of 12 men each, they were considered to be “advisory juries,” while the jury that would vote on Ives’s guilt or innocence was the “jury of the whole,” the crowd of 1,500 or so who watched the trial, and who happened to be present when the vote was taken. They were overwhelmingly miners.

The trial was held in the Nevada Mining District. One of the rules held that any claim not worked for three days, except for illness or winter, could be jumped (taken over by someone other than the owner).

The demand to end the trial at 3 p.m. on December 21, 1863, was made to prevent men from losing everything because they attended the trial or served it in some capacity (such as an armed guard).

I’m grateful to Tom Rizzo for asking the questions. If anyone else has questions, or wants to challenge what I’ve written, I’d welcome it!

1 thought on “Secrecy in the George Ives Murder Trial?

  1. Tom Rizzo

    Thanks, Carol, for addressing my curiosity and replying with such a thorough point-by-point explanation–all of which answered my questions.

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