Some 153 years after the Vigilantes came into possession of the list of outlaws (aka “road agents”) given them by Erastus “Red” Yeager, the list is still controversial.
As the posse led by James Williams was about to hang Yeager, he gave them the list shown in the previous newsletter. No one except for the Vigilantes knew it existed until Thomas Josiah Dimsdale, the editor of the The Montana Post, from September 17, 1864 – August 30, 1866, published the story on page 4, November 25, 1865.
No other copy of the list has ever been found, and over the years opponents of the Vigilantes have continued to raise doubts as to the actual existence of the list apart from Dimsdale’s article. That article was published as Chapter XVI (“The Deer Lodge Scout”) of The Vigilantes of Montana by Dimsdale, who serialized his book in the Post August 26, 1865 – March 24, 1866. (In the Post, Dimsdale spelled the name as “Yager.”)
The Vigilantes’ modern opponents, revisionist historians and history buffs, doubt that the list ever existed as an independent entity. Questions probably existed at the time, too, as they do now:
- Where did the list come from?
- How did Dimsdale get hold of it?
- Was Dimsdale himself a Vigilante?
Dimsdale never told how he came by the list, or where it came from other than his account of it in Chapter XVI. In describing the hanging of Yeager and Brown, he referred to some of the posse members jotting down names that someone (or more than one) kept track of as their grim work went on.
He was a journalist, however. He went after stories, riding his horse up and down the Gulch and beyond to find information about quartz mines, and other matters that would bear on the life and future of Montana Territory. He had access to sources no other writer could have cultivated in his hunt for a story.
He knew where to look, and whom to talk to – his friends and associates in the Masonic Lodge.
The Masonic Connection
Dimsdale was an active Mason, a member of the Virginia City lodge when it was formed. He held the title of Grand Orator, and gave speeches at memorable occasions. His best friend, according to his “Obituary”* in the Post was Wilbur F. Sanders, another active Mason, who was also the Vigilante prosecutor.
But Was Dimsdale a Vigilante?
Just because Dimsdale wrote the article and was a Mason, we can’t assume he was a Vigilante himself.
As a Mason, he was close to the core group of Vigilantes. Sanders was his best friend. He was visiting his sick friend when Dimsdale had a coughing fit. Sanders lifted him up to ease his breathing, and Dimsdale breathed his last. He was just 35 years old. The Masons may have trusted him as a brother Mason enough to answer truthfully most of the questions he had. On the other hand, they knew how to keep their secrets, and may have been as close-mouthed with him as with anyone when it came to letting him know some details of their activities.
Dimsdale, being a Mason, knew how to keep some information to himself. We have the list, but not its history or its eventual fate.
Myself, I think he had access no other writer would have had until Lew L. Callaway learned to know James Williams. (See Montana’s Righteous Hangmen.)
By the time he published the first installment of The Vigilantes of Montana, it must have been safe to tell what they did, but not who did it. A year after the fact, he did not reveal any names of the participants, except for the letter X. Some people knew then that X stood for Xavier, John X. Beidler’s middle name. Also his nickname.
Given all this, I don’t believe Dimsdale was a Vigilante. Sympathetic to them, yes. However, in more than 20 years of researching and reading about them, I have not found Dimsdale’s name among any of the various lists.
Why Dimsdale Was Not a Vigilante
When he came to Alder Gulch in 1864, he had already contracted tuberculosis. He did not have the strength or endurance to have ridden after the outlaws during the deep winter of 1863-1864, through snowstorms and temperatures that froze the mercury in the thermometers. (Mercury freezes at -40 degrees F.)
He could ride a horse, but he could not fire a revolver until friends gave him a presentation revolver because they had liked his account of the Vigilantes. He eventually learned to shoot it well enough to hit a large tin can at ten steps once in ten times.**
Who Was Josiah T. Dimsdale?
He was born in 1831 to a very wealthy family in the north of England. Never a robust person, he called himself “the runt of the litter.” Because of his sickly constitution, he was destined for a career in the Church of England, rather than in the Army or the Navy, the other two choices for a man of his wealth and position. He was sent to one of the Oxford University colleges for his education. During his second year, his family lost everything in an unwise investment, and he had to leave the university. As many penniless young Englishmen did, he emigrated to Canada determined to make his own living. While there, he heard of the gold discoveries at Alder Gulch and joined one of the wagon trains heading to the place. He was not strong enough to break rock, so he turned his education to good use by founding a school.
While teaching and working as editor of The Montana Post, he wrote The Vigilantes of Montana in the moments between his teaching and editorial duties. Mary Ronan, as a schoolgirl named Mollie Sheehan, remembered him sitting at his table “writing, writing, writing.” (Girl From the Gulches, ed. Margaret Ronan and Ellen Baumler, Sept. 1, 2003.)
Vigilante History Begins with Dimsdale
Validating Dimsdale is important because Montana’s Vigilante history begins with his account. All subsequent retellings of the Vigilante story have to come at it first through his book. If he had not written the book, we would be forced to conjecture what happened mostly from accounts by people who were not there at the time, including Nathaniel Pitt Langford, author of Vigilante Days and Ways (1890). Langford went home for the winter of 1863-1864, and returned after everything was all over.)
To deny the truth of Dimsdale’s book is to turn Montana’s Vigilante history on its head. That does not, however, mean believing that these men were all angels, or that everyone’s motives were pure.
What do you think? Did Yeager’s List exist? How much credibility would you give Dimsdale?
(You can find the Montana Post at chroniclingamerica.loc.gov, the website for Historic American Newspapers, or at montananewspapers.org. Click here for the link for this specific issue.)
Sources specifically for this article: Goligowski, Robert John, “Thomas Dimsdale: Montana’s First Newspaper Editor, (1965) Theses, dissertations, Professional Papers. Paper 3800, University of Montana.