New book examines Montana vigilantes through legal lens

2014-02-02T00:15:00Z New book examines Montana vigilantes through legal lensBy DARRELL EHRLICK dehrlick@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Montana history may just have proven that justice delayed does not necessarily mean justice is denied.

Vigilantes in Montana may have stepped in when the courts could not or did not exist, according to a new book written by a man who knows something about courts.

Mark Dillon is an associate justice in the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court. His book, “The Montana Vigilantes 1863-1870: Gold, Guns, and Gallows,” contrasts the vigilante movement in the Bannack and the Virginia City area with the vigilantism in Helena. He concludes the difference in the two — one group of vigilantes which was active for just about a year, and the other which was active for five years — was a function of how well the courts were able to dispense justice.

Dillon had known virtually nothing about the Montana vigilantes until biking through the state on vacation. When he came to Virginia City and Bannack, he was taken by the story of citizens who meted out justice — even to the sheriff they believed was crooked.

“I wanted to approach this not just from a historic point of view, but overlay it with a legal analysis and put it in that context,” Dillon said. “There’s been so much on this written that I didn’t want to just collect it. I wanted to add something new.

“There hasn’t been a lot written about this through the legal perspective.”

Dillon takes the two vigilante movements and contrasts them to form the basis of his book. In Virginia City’s case, once a court system is established through the appointment of a judge to the Montana Territory, order is quickly established through Judge Hezekiah Hosmer. Meanwhile, Dillon argues that vigilantism continues for five years in Helena due largely due to an ineffective judge, Lyman Munson.

“Munson never commanded the respect of the common folk,” Dillon said.

Even though Montana vigilantism was not novel — San Francisco and other mining camps had dealt with it, the Treasure State’s contrast provides interesting perspectives.

Dillon said the slow response of then-President Abraham Lincoln to appoint judges to the far-flung territory demonstrated the need for government to be responsive to newly developing areas.

“The federal government was quick to create jurisdiction to get the gold, but Lincoln failed to pay much more attention to other matters — and one can understand why. He had a lot of other things on his mind in 1863,” Dillon said.

Also, the contrast between the two judges says much about why vigilantism was short-lived in one area, and longer in the other.

Still, Dillon is quick to point out there aren’t many modern day lessons that can be gleaned from a study of Montana’s primitive justice system in its early territorial days.

“I have avoided any parallels about what is happening now,” Dillon said.

Vigilantes and the lack of any court system make a comparison difficult.

“The only conclusion to draw to today is that when you look at the two, you can be very grateful for the system we have today,” Dillon said. “This isn’t a law book. It’s a history book that happens to intersect with the law.”

Keith Edgerton, chairman of the history department at Montana State University Billings, has written extensively on the state’s history and vigilantes.

After reviewing a copy of Dillon’s book, he praised the judge for the analysis of the vigilante situation.

“It’s definitely got academic weight,” Edgerton said.

He said Dillon’s analysis of the legal system in Montana and the vigilantes squares with many Montana historians who point to the lack of federal support for the new territory as giving rise to vigilantes.

“These stories have drama and spectacle,” Edgerton said. “You have gold mining, bad guys, citizens standing up. There’s just something about these topics which continue to draw readers.”

And the next generation of writers — from such distant places as the New York appellate court.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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