“The Vultures of Wahpeton” is perhaps the best of Robert E. Howard’s Westerns. It’s a hard-boiled, two-fisted tale of bad men in a bad town doing bad things, very much unlike the sentimentalized version of the west so often seen in fiction. For that matter, it was a bit out of the ordinary for Howard, who wrote far more comedic tall-tale Westerns about knuckle-headed giants, outlandish misunderstandings, and slapstick fisticuffs. That may not have been simply a matter of inclinations, Howard was a canny pro who knew his markets. He took an unusual gambit with “Vultures,” submitting two endings to the story to editor Clifford Campbell of Smashing Novels, a conventional “happy” ending and a grimmer, more violent ending. Campbell must have concurred with Howard on some level, for he ran both endings, letting the readers choose which they preferred.
“Vultures” touched on some subjects that were recurring interests of Howard: the “good” bad-man, corrupt lawmen, and the thin veneer of civilization over society’s boiling abyss of barbaric violence.
The tale revolves around a Texas gunman, Corcoran, who is recruited as a deputy by Sheriff Middleton of Wahpeton. Corcoran is to replace Deputy Jim Grimes and help clean up the town. A vigilante group is forming, but holding back because they believe Middleton to be a sincere lawman. Corcoran soon discovers that he is being used as a patsy, like Grimes. Middleton is actually the boss of a gold-rush Mafia, engaged in looting stage coaches and travelers. Corcoran cuts himself in on the deal, while courting dance-hall girl Glory Bland. Alliances are formed, enemies made, consciences are stretched to the limit, and blood flows.
As with many of Howard’s best-regarded tales, there is a great deal of interest in Howard’s sources of inspiration for “Vultures.” The principal inspiration was Howard’s imagination of course, coupled with the willpower to hammer away at the keyboard, until the last sentence is wrought like a keenly balanced blade, and The End gleams with razor sharpness.
But if one must know, then even Howard admitted he drew on sources from history to whet his appetite. Keith Taylor has studied Howard’s interest in Hendry Brown, the inspiration for Corcoran. Brown was at one time an outlaw associate of Billy the Kid. Later Brown took on the role of marshal of cowtown Caldwell, Kansas, while keeping up his outlaw activities by robbing banks in neighboring towns, a sideline that eventually led to a bloody death in a hail of lead.
But what of Sheriff Middleton? For that matter, what of Wahpeton? For role models that Howard drew on, we may look to Sheriff Henry Plummer of Bannack, Montana. Like Middleton, Plummer was a lawman who worked both sides of the law, being a secret ally of thieves and killers. His jurisdiction was the gold rush town of Bannack, named after a local Indian tribe, much like Wahpeton (the Wahpetons are a sub-group among the Sioux). Howard was certainly familiar with Sheriff Plummer, he mentioned Plummer in at least two letters to H.P. Lovecraft. In a letter dated September 22, 1932, Howard numbered Plummer among melodramatic, but deadly gunmen such as Ben Thompson, Bob Ollinger, and Bat Masterson. In the same letter he mentioned Boone Helm’s connection to Plummer’s gang in Bannack. In another letter from September 1934, Howard describes Plummer as an example of a sheriff using his office to loot the territory. That Plummer and Bannack served as models for Middleton and Wahpeton is a likely conjecture.
But who was Henry Plummer, and what sort of place could a crooked sheriff make such a dramatic rise and fall in? A study of his life and times reveals a story at least if not more bizarre than fiction.
Henry Plummer has been much debated, both before and since he met his end swinging from a vigilante noose on January 10, 1864. To the early historians of the era, men like Nathaniel Langford and Thomas Dimsdale who had participated in the vigilante movement of Montana Territory and meant to justify the vigilantes’ actions, Plummer was little better than the devil incarnate. To them, Plummer was a murderer and robber, who used the color of office to support other murderers and robbers. Ruth Mather and her co-author F.E. Boswell produced a revisionist history of the vigilantes, Hanging the Sheriff (University of Utah Press, 1987). To Mather and Boswell Plummer was a man who instinctively kept order in a lawless country, protected women, and paid with his life for his courage. Frederick Allen’s A Decent Orderly Lynching (University of Oklahoma Press, 2004) offers the most balanced view. Two facts stand out from Allen’s biography of Plummer, 1) Plummer had terrible judgement, 2) Plummer was a very dangerous man.
Henry Plummer arrived in California in 1852 at the age of twenty. Plummer was an enterprising youth who became part owner of a bakery and later a saloon in Nevada City, California, a booming gold rush town. In 1856 Plummer was elected city marshal, partly on the strength of his business connections which included the saloon-owners, gamblers, and brothel-keepers of the town. He was as much an aspiring politician as lawman.
Plummer displayed his knack for disastrous misjudgment early. One night in June, Plummer was making his rounds with George Jordan, a drunk and belligerent character who had just been bailed out of jail after breaking a man’s jaw with a piece of lumber. When Plummer intervened in a bar fight, Jordan provoked a gunfight with the saloonkeeper that left Jordan dead and a bystander wounded. Plummer avoided official blame, but taking armed drunks on police business was hardly the way to keep the peace.
Despite the setback, Plummer soon displayed a talent for law work, and gained a reputation for arresting wanted men (a profitable line, as wages for lawmen were low and fees for executing warrants, rewards, and bounties were the way for a lawman to prosper). That reputation took a beating when a joint effort by Marshal Plummer and the local sheriff to bring in a wanted man ended in disaster when a civilian posse gunned down the sheriff and a deputy, mistaking them for the wanted outlaws.
In 1857 Plummer made his worst decision. He got personally involved in the marriage of his tenants George and Lucy Vedder. The Vedders rented a house from Plummer. George was a card dealer and Lucy was raising their child. When their marriage began to fail, George displayed a violent side and began to threaten Lucy. In turn Lucy appealed to Plummer for protection. Plummer took a personal interest in Lucy’s troubles and began spending time with her. While Plummer’s deputy also kept watch over Lucy Vedder, gossip spread. George Vedder now began to threaten Plummer’s life. Matters came to a head when Vedder showed up armed at Lucy’s hotel room and Plummer gunned him down. Vedder never got a shot off. By 21st century standards, it would have been a clear act of self-defense, but “no duty to retreat” and the “castle doctrine” were not so well established. Plummer was put on trial. In a shocking turn, Lucy Vedder testified against him, claiming that Plummer’s solicitude for her safety was a pretext to turn her out as a prostitute. It was a damning indictment, though it may have been a lie, wrung from her by Vedder’s father who was threatening to take her child. True or not, it sunk Plummer and despite getting a second trail he was sentenced to ten years hard labor.
Life in San Quentin took a toll on Plummer’s health. His friends on the outside petitioned for an early release on the grounds that his death was imminent. Plummer walked out of San Quentin in 1859. In a questionable move, he returned to Nevada City. He briefly served as constable until his political patron lost office. Plummer seems to have become a bouncer in a brothel, as if confirming the worst opinions of him.
As a bouncer, Plummer was a deadly one. A man named Muldoon died after Plummer pistol-whipped him, but charges were not filed. In October 1861 Plummer became involved in a fatal altercation with a hard case named William Riley. There are varying accounts of the cause. Plummer may have recognized Riley as an escapee from San Quentin and attempted a citizen’s arrest, as one does in a brothel at 2 A.M. The other version of the story is that Riley and Plummer got in an argument about the Civil War, which could certainly happen to anybody. Riley carved on Plummer’s scalp with a bowie knife, while Plummer ventilated Riley with a six-shooter.
Nevada City’s patience with Plummer was gone. He had three deaths to his credit. He was jailed but managed to escape with the assistance of one of the girls from the brothel. Nobody seemed to regret his departure. Even a one-time ally said that Plummer wasn’t worth jailing if he’d just run off and never come back.
Plummer took refuge with Billy Mayfield, a gambler over in Carson City. While hiding out with Mayfield, Sheriff John Blackburn came looking for Plummer. The gambler and the lawman tangled in a gunfight that left Blackburn dead. So much for laying low.
Mayfield and Plummer headed for the gold rush town of Florence in the northern reaches of Idaho territory. While there Plummer was involved in yet another senseless killing. Plummer was with a gang of gold-field “roughs” who were breaking up a saloon. Plummer and his pals were ejected, but as they were preparing to ride out the saloonkeeper, Pat Ford came out. According to some accounts, Ford opened fire without provocation and was gunned down by return fire from Plummer and his pals. For obvious reasons, we do not have Ford’s version of events.
From being a lawman and would-be politician, Plummer was now an associate of the thugs and desperadoes. While Plummer had been associated with the saloon crowd—gamblers and pimps—in California, this was to a certain extent to be expected. They were after all the very group lawmen were expected to police, a group that was to be tolerated but kept in check. Moreover, they had money and thus a degree of political influence.
The “roughs” were a different class. The gold rushes drew many who adapted to the lawlessness of the frontier by crude bullying. The saloon crowd offered alcohol, games, or women for money. The roughs relied on thuggery to take what they wanted, intimidating store-keepers for food or clothing, saloon-keepers for drinks, and often threatening honest citizens for sheer amusement. Some of the roughs might become gunmen for hire, or footpads, as muggers were called then, or take up highway robbery. Mostly they were simply parasites, a rabble that drifted on the tides of the gold rushes, leaving whenever society got organized enough to produce vigilantes or lawmen, and commonly meeting their end by means of knife, bullet, or noose.
Not too long after the Ford killing, Mayfield and his friends shot up Florence. Plummer was reputed to have taken part, but that was untrue. Instead, Plummer was in Fort Benton, having crossed the Rockies with a traveling companion, Jack Cleveland, another ex-con that knew Plummer in San Quentin. The pair found work as handy-men at a farm run by a missionary, James Vail. In an even more unlikely turn of events, Plummer wooed Vail’s sister-in-law, Electa Bryan. All accounts agree that Plummer could be charming when he wanted to, though one wonders if he simply looked better in comparison to guys like Jack Cleveland.
Plummer and Cleveland moved on to the booming gold-rush town of Bannack. The town was wild and wooly. Indians of both the Sioux and Shoshoni tribes were increasingly involved in skirmishes with travelers, which would lead to years of bloody warfare from the Rockies to the plains. Law enforcement was more of a notion than a fact. By custom informal “miners’ courts” gave rough justice, but there was no town marshal or county sheriff. The federal government was too busy fighting the Confederacy to worry about problems in a place that no one in Washington D.C. had heard of.
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