Vigilante Days and Ways. Miners keep stampeding to the next, more promising placer, always seeking the mother lode. Towns rise and fall in the wake of stampedes. In the last installment we learned how Cherokee Bob died trying to avenge the reputation of his girlfriend, Cynthia, a fallen woman who then falls even deeper into a life of ill repute with no man to protect her. Next, Langford introduces us to a truly dangerous man, Boone Helm.
Chapter XIII: Boone Helm Some men are villains by nature, others become so by circumstances….The wretch I am now about to introduce to the reader was one of those hideous monsters of depravity whom neither precept nor example could have saved from a life of crime. Boone Helm was a native of Kentucky. His parents emigrated to one of the newest settlements in Missouri while he was a boy. The rough pursuits of border-life were congenial to his tastes. He excelled in feats of physical strength, and delighted in nothing more than a quarrel which brought his prowess into full display. He was an inordinate drinker, and when excited by liquor gave way to all the evil passions of his nature….In the year 1848 he married a respectable girl, but neither her affection nor the infant daughter born to him a year later could prevail with him to abandon his vicious and profligate habits. His wife sought security from his ill-treatment in divorce, which was readily granted.
Langford goes into some detail about a murder committed by Helm, his subsequent flight from justice, falling on hard times in his travels, eating first horses then the flesh of a comrade (who had committed suicide) to survive. Helm was suspected of other murders and horse thefts. In June of 1862 Helm appears in Florence.
A man of that mixed character which united the qualities of a gambler, a skillful pugilist, and an honest, straightforward miner in his single person, known only as “Dutch Fred,” at this time enjoyed a local notoriety in Florence which had won for him among his comrades the appellation of “Chief.” He was neither rowdy nor desperado, and in ordinary deal, honest and generous; but he gambled, drank, and when roused, was a perfect Hercules in a fight. Helm having been plied with liquor, at the request of an enemy of Fred’s sought him out for the purpose of provoking a fight. Entering the saloon where Fred was seated at a faro table, Helm, with many oaths and epithets and flourishes of his revolver, challenged Fred to an immediate deadly combat. Fred sprung up, drew his knife, and was advancing to close with the drunken braggart, when the bystanders interfered and deprived both of their weapons, which they entrusted to the keeping of the saloon-keeper, and Fred returned quietly to his game.
Helm apologized, and expressed regret for his conduct, and left the saloon. A few hours afterwards he returned, Fred was still there. Stepping up to the saloon-keeper, Helm asked for his revolver, promising that he would immediately depart and make no disturbance. No sooner was it returned to him than he turned toward Fred, and uttering a diabolical oath, fired at him while seated at the table. The ball missed, and before the second fire, Fred, unarmed, with his arms folded across his breast, stood before his antagonist, who, with deadlier aim, pierced his heart. He fell dead upon the spot. Helm cocked his pistol, and looking toward the stupefied crowd, explained, —
“Maybe some more of you want some of this!”
As no one deigned a reply, he walked coolly away.
Helm again runs, eventually captured on the Frazier River in British Columbia in the fall of 1862. Again, Helm admits to cannibalism during a harsh spell of fatigue and hunger. Facing a trial for his nefarious deeds, Helms appeals to a brother, known as “Tex,” for help.
It was to this brother that Boone Helm, when he found all hope of escape at an end, applied for assistance. Ture to the fraternal instinct, “Tex” promptly responded, and soon made his appearance in Florence, with a heavy purse. He soon satisfied himself that unless the testimony could be suppressed, the trail must result in conviction; and to this object he immediately addressed himself. Some of the witnesses had left the country. “Tex” succeeded in buying up all that remained, except one. He wanted an extravagant sum. “Tex” finally agreed to pay it, if he would at once leave the country and never return. The extortionist accepted the conditions. Fixing his cold, gray eye on him, “Tex,” as he handed him the money, said: “Now, remember, if you do not fulfil the last condition of the bargain, you will have me to meet.”
The day of trial came, no witnesses appeared, the case was dismissed, and the red-handed murderer and cannibal was again at liberty to prowl for fresh victims. The true-hearted brother who had purchased his life, as soon as he was free, took him kindly by the hand, and in a voice choked with emotion, said to him, —
“Now, Boone, if you want to work and make an honest living go down to Boise with me. I have plenty of mining ground, and you can do well for yourself: –but if you must fight, and nothing else will do you, I will give you an outfit to go to Texas, where you can join the Confederate armies, and do something for your country.”
Boone accompanied his brother to Boise, and for a while engaged in mining but it was not a congenial occupation. He soon signified his desire to go to Texas, and “Old Tex,” true to his promise, furnished him clothing, a horse, and a well-filled purse. He set out in quest of new adventures, but, as we shall see hereafter, did not go to Texas.
Chapter XIV: Charley Harper We now return to Charley Harper, whom we left at Colville on the Upper Columbia, a fugitive from the Vigilantes of Florence. Fear had exercised a healthful restraining upon his conduct, and during the brief period that had elapsed since his flight, though by no means a model citizen, he had been guilty of no offences of an aggravated character. He was, however, known to be a favorite with the roughs, a gambler, a drunkard, and a man of desperate resources. Good men shunned and watched him. Had there been a Vigilante organization in existence then, he would have received its closest observation. But in a condition of society where all classes intermingled, he contrived to slip along without molestation.
New Years Day brought with it the customary ball, to which all were invited. The preparations were on a scale commensurate with the wishes and means of the miners, who generally, upon such occasions, spare no expense while their money holds out. Everybody in the town was in attendance, Charley Harper among the number. Attracted at an early hour of the evening by the sparkling eyes and voluptuous person of a half-breed woman, he devoted to her his entire attention, dancing with her often, and bestowing upon her many unmistaken civilities. As the evening wore on, Charley became boisterous, swaggering, and noisy. His inamorata declined his further attentions, and refused his hand for a dance. Incensed to madness by this act, crazy with liquor, he knocked her down, and beat and kicked her in a most inhuman manner after she had been prostrated. This roused the indignation of the by-standers, and Charley, seeing vengeance in their demonstrations, fled in terror before them. They pursued him through the streets, he retreating and firing upon them until he had emptied his revolver. The pursuit ended in his capture, a rope was procured, and in a few moments afterward the lifeless form of the wretched desperado was swinging in the cold night wind from the limb of the tree nearest the place of his arrest. Thus ended the life of one who, among his own associates, bore the name of being the meanest scoundrel of their gang.
Langford next describes how, after the death of Cherokee Bob, the Vigilantes of Florence met and decided to warn away those they determined to be criminal. One such person, “Fat Jack,” fled but returned to Florence two months later, only to be told once again to leave. Heading out into a storm, seeking shelter but turned away by many, he finally finds refuge – dinner and a bed – with “a worthy man” and his hired hand some four miles from town. In the middle of the night, two men arrive and demand Fat Jack. His host refuses, the two men shot two double-barreled shotguns through the door, killing both the host and Fat Jack before running off. Langford – a member of a vigilante group himself – feels compelled to explain and defend vigilantes in the face of terrible deeds attributed to their members.
None of the citizens of Florence were more indignant when told of this cruel assassination than the Vigilantes themselves. A meeting was held denouncing the perpetrators, and pledging the citizens to the adoption of every possible means for their early detection and punishment. Alas, the criminals remain to this day undiscovered. They belonged, doubtless, to that class of officious individuals, of whom there are many in the mining camps, who in point of moral character and actual integrity are but a single remove from the criminals themselves, — men who live a cheating, gambling, dissipated life, and seek a cover for their own iniquities by the energy and vindictiveness with which they pursue others accused of actual guilt. If the various protective societies which at one time and another have sprung up in the mining regions to preserve peace and good order are liable to any charge of wrong, it was their neglect to punish those men who used the organization to promote their own selfish purposes, and in the name of Vigilante justice committed crimes which on any principle of ethics were wholly indefensible. The fact that in some instances wrongs of this kind of occurred, only adds to the proof, that in all forms of society, whether governed by permanent or temporary laws, there are always a few who are adroit and cunning enough to escape merited punishment.
Cover photo: Napoleon Hart’s Saloon, CA, around 1900. So much trouble started in saloons.