'V' for Vigilante
William Norman Grigg
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Pity on Goliath
Ada County Sheriff David Updyke had been investigating a secretive
group of armed extremists living at the periphery of his southwest
Idaho jurisdiction. When an informant provided him with a membership
list of the armed band, Updyke wasted no time. He obtained arrest
warrants, organized a large, heavily armed strike force, and made
a beeline for the Payette River Valley.
were a ruse. Updyke wasn't planning a mass arrest; he was plotting
a massacre. His quarry was a group of about two dozen law-abiding
citizens who had organized a private "Vigilance Committee" under
the leadership of an equable local farmer named William
Some of the
Vigilantes had welcomed Updyke's election as Ada County's first
sheriff in 1864, only to discover in short order that he was a predator,
rather than a peace officer. Historian Randy Stapilus summarizes
the matter quite tidily in his slender but fascinating book Outlaw
Tales of Idaho: Ada County's new sheriff "was moonlighting
as a stage robber."
Plummer, a New England native who carved out a criminal career
that spanned several states and ran up a fairly sizeable body count.
Swept into northern California just as the gold rush was waning,
Plummer – who was blessed with glibness and a certain facile charm
– was elected a town marshal.
down two men for no defensible reason, Plummer spent a few years
in San Quentin before being paroled and exiled from the state. News
of mining opportunities in northern Idaho sent Plummer to Lewiston,
which at the time was Idaho's territorial capital. He quickly fell
into the company of thieves and rustlers and did a pretty brisk
business in robbery until he was forced to flee to Bannack, Montana,
where he once again sought out the company of the local criminal
brief flirtation with local politics, Plummer found more honest
work as a pimp. His business partner was a prostitute posing as
his wife. This was a profitable arrangement until Plummer and his
"wife," while visiting a saloon, encountered a man named Cleveland
who knew of the ex-convict's dealings in California. Within a few
days Plummer had killed Cleveland and forced the sheriff to flee,
creating a vacancy he eagerly filled.
with dispatch to make the most of his new position. As sheriff he
was provided with detailed information about local ex-cons and criminal
suspects, whom he treated as potential recruits for his road agent
syndicate. He also was able to gather intelligence on potential
victims. He used those assets to great advantage in arranging the
October 1863 robbery-murder of Lewiston dry goods dealer Lloyd Magruder,
who was one of five members of a pack train slaughtered by a team
of Plummer's road agents at a camp in the Bitteroot Mountains.
had made the trek from Lewiston to Bannack in order to sell goods
to miners in Montana, made the fatal mistake of hiring some local
help for the return trip. Plummer, who was aware that Magruder was
headed back to Idaho with a large quantity of money, arranged for
several of his thugs to hire on with the merchant. The robbers made
off with an estimated $18,000 in gold dust.
A few months
later, a well-respected young rancher named Nicholas Thiebalt was
murdered during another robbery carried out by a road agent gang.
Puzzled and infuriated by the sheriff's apparent indifference to
the onslaught, local ranchers created a Vigilance Committee and
set out to find and punish the robbers. One of the perpetrators,
a man named Erastus Yeager, informed the Vigilantes that Sheriff
Plummer was actually the kingpin of the criminal syndicate.
1864 – seven months after the road agent gang had begun its depredations
– Sheriff Plummer was marched up the steps of a scaffold he had
built himself. Just before the noose was put around his neck, Plummer
reportedly made a desperate final offer to the Vigilantes: "Give
me two hours and a horse. I can bring back my weight in gold." He
wasn't given the opportunity.
history is worth reviewing, since it eerily prefigured the career
of Sheriff Updyke. While Plummer was busy organizing a criminal
syndicate in Montana, his former colleagues in Lewiston drifted
south. After it had oozed its way into Boise, Plummer's old gang
quickly congealed into a political elite.
as it was called, was a fair approximation of Mos Isley Spaceport.
In their book Gold
Rushes and Mining Camps of the Early American West, historians
Vardis Fisher and Opal Laurel Holmes describe the town as being
in thrall to "a splendid assortment of murderers, robbers and tinhorn
gamblers ... the offscourings of all the abandoned and worn-out
mining camps in the Territory...." In other words, it had all the
necessary ingredients to create the engine of misery called a "government."
pointed out long ago, a "government" is simply a gang that "acquires
territory, establishes a base, captures cities and subdues peoples,"
and then obtains supposed respectability "not by the renouncing
of aggression but by the attainment of impunity."
In 1864, Plummer's
old criminal syndicate followed that time-honored formula with admirable
fidelity by taking control of Boise's Democratic Party apparatus
and electing David Updyke to be Ada County's first Sheriff.
Prior to the
advent of state-imposed
"civilization" in southwestern Idaho, crimes against persons
and property were an occasional problem. The arrival of government
law enforcement resulted in a tsunami-magnitude crime wave.
operating out of Updyke's livery stable and under his protection,
preyed on stage coaches and plundered local farms. The syndicate
also defrauded local merchants and businessmen by passing bogus
gold dust – lead shavings covered with a thin layer of gold. This
racket was, in some ways, a frontier-era foreshadowing of the officially
sanctioned counterfeiting carried on today by the Federal Reserve
System: The gold dust fraud ring enjoyed the protection of the "legitimate"
government, which profited from its crimes.
was among those who initially welcomed the arrival of "legitimate"
law enforcement. His opinion changed abruptly after a horse that
was stolen from his materialized in Updyke's stable. McConnell was
forced to hire an attorney and spend two days in court to retrieve
his stolen property, spending more in legal fees than the market
value of his horse.
As a weary
and frustrated McConnell departed the courtroom, a gang of Updyke's
"Roughs" taunted the mild-mannered farmer. His patience finally
exhausted, McConnell confronted the gangsters and warned them that
the next time one of his horses went missing, he would track down
the thief and "there will be no lawsuit about it."
A few days
later, McConnell and two neighbors discovered that five horses and
four mules – livestock worth more than two thousand pre-Federal
Reserve dollars – were missing. McConnell and his neighbors took
off in pursuit of the rustlers, returning two weeks later with the
missing animals and a few honorably earned battle scars. This was,
for all intents and purposes, the Payette Vigilance Committee's
to abet armed robbery and shelter criminals. He refused to investigate
crimes plausibly suspected to be the work of his political confederates.
Practically the only attention law-abiding people received from
their local sheriff was when he or his deputies would pay a visit
to collect taxes – a form of "legal" theft used to underwrite the
local government's clandestine crimes.
As Albert Jay
Nock pointed out in his definitive work Our
Enemy, the State, government doesn't seek to abolish or
suppress crime, but rather "claims and exercises [a] monopoly of
crime .... [and] it makes this monopoly as strict as it can." In
principle, this means that the government must also claim a monopoly
on the use of force, and treat as criminals anyone who would undermine
that monopoly. This is why the most urgent priority for the Ada
County Sheriff's Department was to eliminate McConnell's Vigilance
Committee, once the identity of its leader became known.
was "to be conducted in legal form," observed Nathaniel P. Longford
in his 1890 account Vigilante
Days and Ways. However, "in making the arrest, Updyke and
his posse proposed to shoot the leaders of the Vigilantes and screen
themselves under the plea that they had resisted."
Thus it was
that Updyke gathered a posse composed of "fifteen of the worst men
in the Territory" and headed to Horseshoe Bend, where they were
to join with another group similar in size and identical in composition
before heading to the Payette River settlement.
plan may have succeeded were it not for two critical developments.
First, a Boise resident sympathetic to the Vigilantes learned of
the plot: While Updyke's posse took a longer route to join up with
reinforcements at Horseshoe Bend, the Vigilante sympathizer raced
ahead to warn McConnell. Secondly, Updyke's would-be allies in Horseshoe
Bend failed to materialize.
Thus when the
Sheriff and his gang arrived at Payette River, they had lost the
advantage of surprise and were outnumbered at least two-to-one.
The surprised and frustrated sheriff was forced to parley with McConnell,
and "was obliged to comply with all the terms prescribed by the
Vigilantes," records Longford.
his men agreed to travel to Boise to answer the warrants, but they
refused to surrender their weapons or be taken into Updyke's custody.
With the help of legal counsel the Vigilantes were able to get the
criminal complaints dismissed, leaving Updyke humiliated and vulnerable.
A few months
after the debacle in Payette River, a stagecoach bound from Montana
to Utah was ambushed by a gang of "road agents" in southeast Idaho's
Portneuf Canyon. Five passengers were murdered, and $86,000 in gold
was taken from the coach. Stage driver Charlie Parks and a passenger
who survived the attack made their way to Boise, where they another
positively identified Updyke and a "Rough" named Brockie Jack as
two of the robbers. Neither was ever prosecuted for the crime, and
the gold – which was marked and numbered – was never found.
heist was Updyke's swan song as a career criminal. The same County
Commission that had appointed Updyke moved to expel him. While they
were motivated, at least in part, by a desire to placate an infuriated
public, the commissioners – who belonged to the same criminal band
– were probably more enraged that Updyke had been skimming from
their take by keeping roughly $11,000 in tax revenues for himself.
found himself behind bars, in the custody of the newly elected sheriff,
John Duvall. After Updyke bailed himself out, allies on the County
Commission arranged for one of his criminal cronies, a deputy named
William West, to be appointed interim sheriff until the end of the
1866, a conflict with local Indian tribes presented Updyke with
another career opportunity: His old road agent network re-constituted
itself as a "militia" and elected Updyke its "captain." Backed by
the "full faith and credit" of the local government, Updyke's militia
purchased horses and supplies on credit. By April, the crisis had
passed without this valiant band of heroes seeing action.
ran its course, and, like all expeditions of the kind, was barren
of any marked results," reports Langford's history. Just as he had
been reticent to remit the taxes he had collected as Ada County
Sheriff, Updyke wasn't eager to return the supplies he had requisitioned
for his militia; accordingly, he "cached a large portion of the
stores on the Snake River for future use of his road agent band."
One of the
men who had sold horses to Updyke sued him for non-payment. During
the trial, one of Updyke's lieutenants, a young man named Ruben
Raymond, admitted under oath that the "militia" was simply a front
for Updyke's criminal band. Within a few hours Raymond was murdered
by one of Updyke's loyal henchmen, a man named John Clark.
for Updyke, the sheriff's office was no longer occupied by his erstwhile
comrade William West: John Duvall had begun his term a few weeks
earlier, and since he owed no loyalty to the Updyke gang he couldn't
see any reason not to keep Clark behind bars until he could be tried
for murder. Things were going very badly for Updyke, who couldn't
resist making matters just a bit worse by openly threatening to
go on a murderous rampage if Clark wasn't released.
being freed, Clark – or what was left of him – was soon seen dangling
from a gibbet constructed on the future site of the Idaho State
Capitol Building. Worried about what Clark might have disclosed
to Sheriff Duvall before being dispatched to eternity, Updyke fled
Boise in the company of an ally named Jake Dixon.
weeks Updyke and Dixon were pursued by the Payette Vigilantes, who
eventually overtook them in a cabin near Syrup Creek on the western
slope of the Sawtooth Mountains. The following day their bodies
were found swinging from a makeshift gallows.
A notice pinned
to Updyke's clothing announced that the Vigilance Committee had
tried the former sheriff and found him guilty of being an accessory
and accomplice to numerous murders and robberies (including the
Portneuf stage robbery) and of "aiding and assisting" murderers
and other criminals while serving as Ada County Sheriff.
Unlike a government
agency, the Vigilance Committee didn't seek out new rationales for
its continued existence. Updyke's demise had a chastening effect
on the criminal oligarchy that had propelled him into office. Once
government-sponsored crime abated, the Vigilantes disbanded. After
Idaho became a state in 1890, McConnell was chosen to represent
the Gem State in the U.S. Senate. He was later elected the state's
third governor. In 1895, McConnell's daughter Mamie married future
senator William Borah.
For those who
understand the moral superiority of society's non-coercive sector,
McConnell's political career is a bittersweet coda. His most valuable
public service came as a nominal outlaw who employed defensive violence
in order to protect life, liberty, and property from the criminal
onslaught of the territory's "legitimate" government.
Like its counterparts
in Montana and elsewhere, the Payette Vigilance Committee was representative
of the private "protective agencies" created by settlers, miners,
and ranchers during the westward expansion to protect property rights
and settle disputes.
vigilante action, like any kind of applied violence, is problematic.
As Dr. Thomas DiLorenzo points out in a recent essay for The
Independent Review, one advantage of private protective
agencies is that, unlike government entities, they don't claim "a
legal monopoly on keeping order." Most frontier-era groups of this
kind – McConnell's Payette Vigilantes among them – were created
to confront criminal gangs who had been granted a limited franchise
within that government monopoly.
"One of the
most pejorative terms one can use in reference to law and self-defense
is 'vigilante'," notes
Dr. William L. Anderson, who teaches economics at Maryland's
Frostburg State University. "Indeed, if one is called a vigilante,
it is tantamount to being declared a criminal. Public officials,
newscasters, and those in law enforcement solemnly tell us 'there
is no room in this country for vigilante justice.' Instead, we must
wait for the 'justice system' to work, and if it doesn't, well,
that is simply a price we pay for having a free society."
Dr. Anderson, "the so-called threat from vigilante justice is like
the threat we face from private companies delivering the mail or
from home schooling: it undermines an established government monopoly."
danger posed by vigilantism is the temptation to dispense with the
non-aggression principle and engage in "preemptive" action. This
is why some Vigilante groups – among them elements of Montana's
Vigilance Committee – ended up being assimilated into the state's
apparatus of official coercion.
1879 murder of Helena shopkeeper John Denn inspired the creation
of a subterranean Vigilante group. Its identifying sign was the
cryptic inscription "3-7-77," which began to appear on fences and
walls around the city.
Vigilantes of 1864, those who organized in 1879 didn't focus on
redressing officially sanctioned crimes; instead, they harassed
and intimidated people suspected of being "bad elements," often
using their enigmatic signature as a notice of banishment.
this latter vigilante group was little more than a gang of sanctimonious,
opportunistic bullies, it's entirely appropriate that the legend
"3-7-77" has been incorporated into the insignia of the Montana
peaceful men like William McConnell were driven to vigilante action
by the besetting corruption and criminal aggression of the government
that presumed to rule them. Henry Plummer and David Updyke each
ruled over a criminal fiefdom that was in many ways a microcosm
of the malignant Robber State afflicting us today.
To cite merely
the most obvious example: The "road agents" employed by those "rogue
sheriffs" are unmistakably the ancestors of the paramilitary "forfeiture
gangs" employed by police agencies to plunder motorists and
property owners today.
case of Jose and Jesus Martinez of Aurora, Illinois, who were recently
victimized by road agents in the employ of the local government.
Members of a criminal syndicate called the North Central Narcotics
Task Force "forfeited" – that is, stole under the supposed
authority of "law" – a total of $190,000 from the Martinez brothers
on the pretext of a criminal investigation. Neither Jose nor Jesus
has a criminal record of any kind, and there is no evidence that
they were involved in drug trafficking or possession.
took place when Jesus, during a traffic stop, made the mistake of
consenting to a search of his vehicle. No drugs were found, and
neither Jesus nor his passenger was arrested – but the police seized
the cash and gave Jesus a worthless receipt. Within hours the stolen
money had been turned over to the task force, which in turn delivered
it into the hands of the Cheka (aka the Department of Homeland Security).
the money in this fashion allowed the Aurora Police – which will
get a large cut, thanks to the
federal "equitable sharing" racket – to defy a court order demanding
that it be returned to its owners.
claim that the money was family savings earned from a remodeling
business – but that detail is inconsequential: This was a literal,
undisguised act of highway robbery that differs not one whit from
the crimes committed by frontier-era road agent gangs.
This is just
one of countless incidents illustrating the fact that the State's
of wealth extraction are dispensing
with any pretense that they are involved in protecting and serving
the public. Modern analogues of Henry Plummer and David Updyke abound.
It's not difficult to imagine circumstances in which the heirs of
William McConnell would make their presence known as well.
Norman Grigg [send him mail]
publishes the Pro
Libertate blog and hosts the Pro
Libertate radio program.
© 2010 William Norman Grigg
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