Villain or Hero?
For my new book, I’ve immersed myself in the old west. I never really had an interest in the old west beyond ghost towns (because who doesn’t love a creepy ol’ ghost town?). But then my husband made me watch Lonesome Dove and all that changed. I loved the epic style of storytelling, the characters, the long journey through dangerous lands and dangerous pasts. Since then we’ve watched a couple more westerns, and soon the idea for a book took root. One of my favorite parts about writing this new book (as yet untitled) is the enigmatic characters. The one I thought was the good guy is not that good; the one I thought was the villain is not that bad. Which is how we all are, isn’t it?
Henry Plummer: Prospector, Lawman, Outlaw
Henry Plummer was not unlike the characters in my work-in-progress because even during his lifetime it seemed like no one could pin him down. Was he a good man or a ruthless killer? Did he kill in self defense? Was he an outlaw gang leader? Or simply a lawman who was really bad at his job?
Originally from Maine, Plummer traveled west on the wave of the gold rush, and did quite well for himself. It was during his tenure as city marshal in Nevada City, California, that he first took a man’s life. He was sent to prison for two years before he was released on good behavior.
Plummer returned to his work as a lawman but soon ran out of money. He took up with a group of bandits robbing stagecoaches. After several skirmishes he decided to go back home to Maine to escape the law. Along the way, he ran into a man looking for protection against the Native Americans at the man’s mission in Montana. Plummer took the job, which he soon abandoned to once again follow the gold, this time to Bannack, Montana. In Bannack Plummer killed Jack Cleveland, a known gold thief. Cleveland was small pennies compared to the rampant violence and lawlessness plaguing Bannack at the time. The town advertised for a new sheriff and after murdering his competition “in self defense,” Plummer took the job.
But crime grew worse. Back in California, Plummer had purportedly formed a group of outlaws known as the Innocents. They roamed the Montana countryside robbing travelers of their gold and valuables. During his time as sheriff, they “helped” him round up and hang suspected criminals, but as the crime rate soared, citizens of Bannack had enough. With no formal law or justice system in place, they formed their own gang, the Montana Vigilantes.
The Montana Vigilantes sent warnings to known gang members and posted signs with the skull and crossbones printed on them along with the numbers 3-7-77. To this day, Montana Highway Patrolmen and women have this emblem embroidered on their shoulders. It was still unknown, however, if Henry Plummer was a member of the gang. Whether or not he was, suspicion was enough. The vigilantes went after him. They hanged him on the gallows which he himself had built during his tenure as sheriff.
But Was He?
Was Plummer responsible for everything they said he was? Were his killings truly done in self defense rather than out of a cold blooded desire to kill? History is told by the winners, and some people postulate that the vigilantes themselves were responsible for the lawlessness that plagued Montana. Many of the accounts were recorded by the Virginia City newspaper, whose editor was a known member of the vigilantes. Further doubt is cast when one considers that there was no evidence of Plummer’s involvement in any of the crimes. Nor did the criminal activity truly stop after the vigilante justice was handed down and Plummer was hanged.
Was Plummer innocent? Or did he play both sides of the law as skillfully as the best villains in literature? My own characters may not be as truly enigmatic but they will keep you guessing where they fall on the hero or villain spectrum.
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