Between the Acts

Happy New Year!

This edition of the Montana History Newsletter was originally scheduled for last month, but the king of colds laid me up most of December, and it clogged my brain far too much to write or rewrite. With no energy to do more than read, I stayed home and finished reading a giant book (nearly 1,000 pages) titled Madison County Trails and Trials, 3-7-77. Published in 1976, it is described as “a compilation of family and community histories of Madison County Montana,” and spans the time from 1863 – 1920 (Montana Memory Project). Although formal historians might scorn it, I find it a valuable resource for information only found through family legends. For example, one entry confirms my long-held suspicion that a great many landmarks were obliterated when the road was oiled and widened, and gold dredging operations in Alder Creek destroyed settlements like Adobetown, as well as all of Nevada City between the creek and the road.

Now, to continue the story of the Vigilantes….


Between the George Ives trial that ended with his hanging on December 21, 1863, and when word of the Magruder Massacre came to Alder Gulch, events moved at warp speed (to use a 20th century metaphor).

  • December 21 – 23, 1863: Two Vigilante groups organized, one in Nevada City and one in Virginia City. So secret were these organizations that neither group knew of the other for the first few days.
  • December 22 – 23, 1863: The miners court tried George Hilderman and Long John Frank. Rather than hanging them as complicit in the murder, the court rewarded them for testifying against Ives and banished both men, who left the area forthwith.
  • December 23, 1863: Twenty-four men in Nevada City signed an oath of loyalty to each other and rode out in pursuit of Aleck Carter. (As Ives stood on the gallows, he had said, “I am innocent of this crime. Aleck Carter killed the Dutchman.” They took that as a dying declaration, automatically considered to be true.)

Cover, God's Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana

Where there is no code of law, ruffians rule and murder is tolerated, but Vigilante prosecutor Dan Stark cannot stand by while outlaws rob and murder innocent people, 2009 Spur Award winner

At some undetermined point, perhaps after the Nevada City Vigilantes rode out – but before the New Year – word came that Lloyd Magruder had been murdered and robbed. Magruder was a well liked and much respected merchant from Lewiston, the Idaho territorial capital. He also seems to have been one of nature’s innocents, a trusting man who believed the best of everyone until they proved him wrong. He had brought a mule train load of supplies from Lewiston to Virginia City during the summer. While there, he hired men to help him manage the merchandise and his animals.
When he sold out, he offered them jobs herding his mules and acting as guards until they all reached Lewiston.

They left Alder Gulch at the beginning of October 1863 and never arrived.

Along the way, two of his “guards” murdered Magruder and the four other men, slaughtered the animals, and threw everything – corpses and equipment – into a ravine. They kept $14,000 in gold. They let one man, Billy Page, live to help them reach Lewiston on condition he keep silent. Page was much too frightened to do anything but comply.

(Their route over the mountains still exists. It is maintained by the Forest Service, which marks the place where the Magruder Massacre happened.)

For our purposes, and for you to keep in mind during future newsletters, a man named Robert (Bob) Zachary was among Magruder’s summer employees. He knew the massacre was planned, but having an unaccountable objection to murder, he refused the job.

And he kept his mouth shut. He did not warn Magruder. (In fact, several people apparently knew of the plan, but all claimed to fear the outlaw gang so much they said nothing.)

When the murderers reached Lewiston, Magruder’s friend Hill Beachy became suspicious of three men acting too much as though they wanted to escape notice. He obtained a warrant for their arrest from Idaho officials and pursued them all the way to San Francisco. There he persuaded the Sheriff of San Francisco county to arrest them and hold them pending an order of extradition from Idaho Territory.

When it arrived, he took them into custody and escorted all three men back to Lewiston, where the first Territorial Legislature, then in session, began to consider a criminal code so that Magruder’s murderers could be tried.

Largely on the word of Billy Page, as well as a saddle positively identified as Magruder’s in their possession, a jury convicted them, and they were hanged.

Both Nathaniel P. Langford (Vigilante Days and Ways) and Thomas Josiah Dimsdale (The Vigilantes of Montana) think that learning of Magruder’s murder hardened people’s attitudes towards criminals. Had Hilderman and Franck been tried after people learned of the Magruder Massacre, they might well have been hanged rather than banished. (See Langford, chapter 31, and Dimsdale, chapters 14 and 15.)

Rather than lengthen this post, I’ll follow it up next month, when the Nevada City Vigilantes ride through the tenth circle of Hell. In his Inferno, Dante Alighieri describes ten rings of Hell. Sinners find their places on the ring appropriate for their crimes, in descending order of evil. The worst of the worst he assigned to the tenth circle, the circle composed of ice and eternal cold.