160 years ago today, Montana Vigilantes began their ‘righteous hangings’
(Daily Montanan) The sun was down on a December day in 1863 when George Ives was sentenced to die. The only thing left to decide was when.
A tall, suave, clean-shaven and remarkably cold-blooded killer from Wisconsin, Ives committed a final fatal act by murdering Nicholas Tbalt and stealing his mules. Tbalt, a young German orphan, was fetching the animals for his employer at Ives’ “day camp” below Alder Gulch in the valley of the Passamari, which was also known as “Stinkingwater,” or today’s Ruby River.
A trial that stretched to three days on the main street of Nevada City, Idaho Territory, came to a close with conviction recommended by a 24-man jury. It was seconded by the majority of more than 1,000 miners, merchants, teamsters and hangers-around. Ives’ friends menaced violence on the fringes. Many of them were destined to die themselves within the next month or so.
A bonfire in the street that had blazed throughout the trial kept warm the jury, witnesses and an impressively passive Ives. It was Dec. 21, in the mountains of what the following May would become Montana, but a mild enough solstice to render the miners impatient to get back to their digs. Two high freight wagons stationed front-to-front near a main street building were the perches of judges and attorneys, including the lead prosecutor, 33-year-old Wilbur Fisk Sanders, for whom a western Montana county was later named.
Once Ives’ conviction was decided, Sanders wasted no time making the motion that Ives “be now forthwith hung by the neck until he was dead,” according to Sanders’ own account years later. Two men were dispatched to find a gallows. Armed pickets were stationed around Ives and the jury when the condemned man rose to his feet and climbed onto the wagon where Sanders was standing. As the mob watched mesmerized, Ives took Sanders by the hand.
They were both gentlemen, he told the judge. As such he believed Sanders would grant him a favor.
“I have been pretty wild away from home and I have a mother and sisters in the States, and I want you to get this execution put off till tomorrow morning,” Ives said.
He gave Sanders his word and “honor as a gentleman” that he wouldn’t try to escape or allow his friends to arrange the same.
Enter John X. Beidler, all 5-foot-3 of him, a man known simply as “X.” His vantage point was a rooftop across the street, where he stood propping up a shotgun that was taller than he was.
“Sanders,” he called, “ask him how long he gave the Dutchman!”
As Sanders remembered it, a ripple of laughter went through the crowd.
How many of us as parents, teachers, clergy, judges or peace officers don’t face similar decisions – though of less dire consequences – each and every day? There exist no guidelines, in or out of the legal system, that prescribe a response to pleas for mercy over justice.
Beidler was aware that not many weeks before Ives had arranged to have a letter written to his family in Wisconsin to inform them he’d been killed by Indians, in order to cut all ties to his home and kin. The state’s key witness, “Long John” Frank, was with Ives on the day of Tbalt’s murder. In his testimony Frank said Ives boasted that when he told Tbalt he was going to kill him, the young man asked for time to pray. Ives instructed his victim to kneel and as Tbalt commenced his prayer, “I shot him through the head.”
Sanders claimed later he had no thought of granting Ives’ request to delay execution. The attorney was reflecting how to frame such a reply when Beidler uttered his timeless line from across the street.
“I have to confess that (Beidler’s) remark lifted a considerable load from my mind,” he wrote.
Sanders instructed Ives to start on his letter home immediately. Without a word the condemned man jumped down from the wagon. He was supplied with paper and pencil and commenced to write, but Sanders said that in the hubbub he never finished. The fragment Ives did get down informed his mother in Wisconsin he was surrounded by a mob that was going to hang him and he was “seizing the few moments which remained of his life to write her,” Sanders reported.
They hung George Ives from a 40-foot pine wedged over the front wall of an unfinished building nearby. His last words: “I am innocent of this crime. Alex Carter killed the Dutchman.”
The execution was the third in what became Montana as a result of a miner’s court, according to Tom Donovan in the 2007 book “Hanging Around Montana: The Unofficial Guide to Lynching, Strangling and Legal Hangings of Montana.” Horse thief C.W. Spillman was hanged at Gold Creek in the Deer Lodge Valley in August 1862. John “Peter” Horan died by noose near Bannack in August 1863 for killing his mining partner John Keeley.
The gallows on which Horan was strung up were built by Sheriff Henry Plummer, the suspected and probable leader of the road agents who terrorized the gold-laden shipments out of the territory in 1863. Ives was a prominent member of the group. Plummer and two lieutenants were hanged from the same gallows on Jan. 10, 1864, by rampaging vigilantes, of whom Beidler was a prominent member.
That posse was empowered by a Vigilance Committee established two nights after the execution of George Ives. Its seeds, however, were sown after the second evening of the Ives trial on Dec. 20. Five men met in a back room of the Nye and Kenna dry goods store in Virginia City, just up the road from Nevada.
One of them was Sanders, who maintained a prominent role in Montana government into the 20th century as a radical Republican who locked horns with the likes of Democratic acting territorial governor Thomas Francis Meagher and even those in his own party. Sanders became one of Montana’s first U.S. senators after statehood in 1890. He died at his home in Helena in 1905.
Beidler was appointed Deputy U.S. Marshal in 1865.
“A better man for the berth cannot be found in the Territory,” opined Thomas Dimsdale of the Montana Post. “Kind and obliging, but cool and intrepid. Any one that digs for it will find the bed-rock in a hurry.”
Beidler continued his vigilante activities in Helena even as he served in his government post. He died in January 1890 in Helena, leaving behind a conflicted legacy. The eulogy was delivered by Col. Wilbur Fisk Sanders.
George Ives lived again in Technicolor in a 1952 B Western. “Montana Territory” had its world premiere at the Liberty Theater in Great Falls. Ives’ role as Sheriff Henry Plummer’s deputy was played by Clayton Moore, who was on hiatus from his signature television portrayal of another legend of the West, the Lone Ranger.