Vigilante Days and Ways.  In the last installment we were introduced to Boone Helm, “one of those hideous monsters of depravity” who escaped justice after his brother “Tex” bought off witnesses and spirited him away from Florence. We also learned the fate of notorious outlaw Charley Harper – “the meanest scoundrel of their gang” – who met his demise at the end of rope after beating a barmaid, chased, caught and hung by indignant bystanders. And finally, Langford related the instance of a couple of Florence vigilantes, hearing about the return of a gang member named Fat Jack, shooting through the door of a citizen who had given him shelter from a storm, killing both men inside before disappearing into the night, never to be caught. The reputation of the newly formed Vigilante Committee of Florence is tarnished. In this long and wonderfully detailed chapter, Langford uses the stories of two men, gamblers with opposing views about the Civil War taking advantage of the lawlessness of the mining towns, to illustrate the reasons citizens felt compelled to seek their own justice. The legal systems – including the sheriff and juries – were often corrupt and ineffectual.

Old West saloon, Carson City, NV, 1900. Saloon owners sometimes diluted their good liquor by adding ingredients such as turpentine and ammonia and giving the new mix names such as Tarantula Juice and Coffin Varnish.

Chapter XV: Pinkham and Patterson  No two men filled a broader space in the early history of the Florence mines than Pinkham and Patterson. Their personal characteristics gave them a wide-spread notoriety, and a sort of local popularity, which each enjoyed in his separate sphere.

…They were both gamblers, and lived the free and easy life of that pursuit; a pursuit which, in a new mining camp, next to that of absolute ruffianism, enabled its votaries to exercise a power as unlimited as it is generally lawless and insurrectionary. Indeed, there, it is the master vice, which gives life and support to all the other vices, and that surrounds and hedges them in.

…Pinkham was a native of Maine, and physically a fine type of the stalwart New Englander. In stature he was more than six feet, and in weight upwards of two hundred pounds. To the agility of a mountain cat he added the quick, sharp eye of an Indian and the strength of a giant. Trained by years of frontier exposure, he was skilled in the ready use of all defensive weapons. When aroused, the habitual frown upon his brow gathered into a fierce scowl, and the steely gray eyes fairly blazed in their sockets. At such times he was dangerous, because it was his custom to settle all disputes with a word and a blow, and the blow almost always came first. The intensity of his nature could not brook alterca

The Slave of Gold, illustration depicting the life of a miner, 1882. Library of Congress.

Pinkham had been an adventurer ever since the discovery of gold in California. He was among the first of that great army of fortune-seekers which braved the perils of an overland trip to that distant El Dorado in 1849. …Pinkham’s pursuits in California were those of the professional gambler. At one time he kept a common dance-house in Marysville. It is fair, in the absence of facts, to presume that his life in the Golden State was a preparatory fore ground for the one which followed in the mountains of Washington Territory. He was among the first, in 1862, who were lured to that Territory by the reports of extensive gold discoveries. Among the desperate, reckless, and motley crowd that assembled at Florence immediately after the discovery of the mines, was Pinkham, with his faro boards and monte cards, “giving the boys a chance for a tussle with the tiger and the leopard.” It was not long until he became a central figure in the camp. The wild, undisciplined, pleasure-seeking population, attracted by the outspoken boldness and self-assertion of the man, quietly submitted to the influence which such characteristics always command. And no man better understood his power over his followers, or exercised it more warily, than Pinkham. The reputation which he enjoyed, of being a bold, chivalric, fearless man, ready for any emergency, however desperate, gained for him the favor of every reckless adventurer who shared in his general views of the race.

Unlike most of the gamblers and roughs, who for the most part sympathized with the Confederates, Pinkham was an intense Union man. He never lost an opportunity to proclaim his attachment for the Union cause, and denounced as traitors all who opposed it. No fear of personal injury restrained him in the utterance of his patriotic sentiments, and as he always avowed a readiness to fight for them, his opponents were careful to afford him no opportunity.

…With all his rough and desperate characteristics, Pinkham had no sympathy for the robbers and murderers and thieves which swarmed around him; and when Idaho was organized the governor of the Territory appointed him sheriff of Boise County. Soon afterwards he received the appointment of United States marshal, an office which made him and his friends in some measure the representatives of law and order. By promptly discharging the duties of these offices, he was held in great fear by the criminal population of the Territory, and won the respect of the best citizens for his efficiency and fidelity.

Patterson was a native of Tennessee, from whence, in boyhood, he went with his parents to Texas, and grew to manhood among the desperate and bloody men of that border State. His character, tastes, and pursuits were formed by early association with them. He was a gambler by profession, but of a nature too impulsive to depend upon it as a means of livelihood. When he came to California, he turned his attention to mining, alternating that pursuit with gambling, as the inclination seized him. Like Pinkham, he was a man of striking presence, –in stature six feet, and of weight to correspond, with a fair complexion, light hair streaked with gray, sandy whiskers, and, when unaffected by liquor or passion, a sad, reflective countenance, lit up by calm but expressive blue eyes. His habitual manner was that of quiet, gentlemanly repose; –and to one unacquainted with his characteristics, he would never have been suspect of a fondness for any kind of excitement. …His kindness and thoughtfulness for the comfort of any of his party in the event of sickness, and the resources with which he overcame obstacles in the numerous expeditions of one kind and another in which he participated, made him a great favorite with all who knew him, and gave him a commanding power over the society in which he moved. He was naturally a leader of those with whom he associated. Had these been his only characteristics, Patterson would have been one of the most useful men in the mining regions, — but whiskey always transformed him into a demon. Patterson was not a steady drinker, but gave himself up to occasional seasons of indulgence. He was one of that large class of drinkers who cannot indulge their appetites at all without going through all the stages of excitement, to complete exhaustion. From the moment he entered upon one of these excesses to its close, he was dangerous. The whole man was changed. His calm, blue eye looked like a heated furnace and was suggestive of a thirst for blood. His quiet and gentlemanly manner disappeared. His breath was labored, and his nostrils dilated like those of an enraged buffalo. He remembered, on these occasions, every person who had ever offended him, and sought the one nearest to him to engage him in quarrel. His whole bearing was aggressive and belligerent, and his best friends always avoided him until he became sober.

Masked outlaw Bill Brazen after his death in 1878.

…The original expression “he will die with his boots on some day,” uttered many years ago as the prediction of some comical miner that a murderer would be hanged or come to his death by violence, has grown into a fatalistic belief among the reckless and bloodthirsty ruffians of the Pacific coast. Patterson, who shared in this faith, intended, by having his boots taken off, to signify to those around him that he had never been guilty of murder. When we consider that of the great number of those who in the early history of the mining regions were guilty of murder, nineteen at least of every twenty have expiated their crimes upon the scaffold or in bloody affrays, the faith in this frontier axiom seems not to be greatly misplaced.

…Patterson came to Idaho with the first discovery of gold in that section. His fellow-gamblers, who ever failed to take advantage of his unskillful playing, with one hand, were always ready to contribute to his necessities with the other. If he wanted money to stock a faro bank they furnished it. If a saloon keeper needed a man who united popularity and strength to arrest the encroachments of the roughs, he was ever ready to share a liberal portion of his profits with Patterson for such services. The difference between Pinkham and Patterson was that, while the friends of the former looked to him for aid in their embarrassments, those of the latter afforded him the means of existence.

About a year before the occurrence of the bloody affray between these men, Patterson and some of his friends, during a period of drunken excitement, took unlawful possession of a brewery in Idaho City, and engaged in the manufacture of beer. Pinkham was the only person in the city brave enough to undertake their arrest. When he entered the building for the purpose, he informed Patterson of his object and was met with violent resistance. In the struggle Pinkham was successful, and Patterson was arrested and taken away. The citizens, knowing the character of Patterson, and expecting nothing less than a shooting affray as the consequence of the arrest, were surprised at his submission. It was soon understood, however, that the bad blood provoked by the incident had severed all friendly relations between the champions, and that Patterson would avail himself of the first opportunity to avenge himself. Months passed away without any collision. The subject, if not forgotten, was lost sight of as other occurrences more or less exciting transpired.

The Springs resort outside Idaho City today, the Warm Springs referred to by Langford.

On the day he was killed, Pinkham, with an acquaintance, rode out to the Warm Springs, a favorite bathing resort two miles distant from Idaho City. Meeting there with several friends, he drank more freely than usual and became quite hilarious.

Patterson returned early the same day from Rocky Bar, fifty miles distant. Half-crazed from the effects of protracted indulgence in drinking and a severe personal encounter, his friends, to aid his return to sobriety, took him to the springs for a bath. …When they arrived, Pinkham and his friends were singing the popular refrain of “John Brown,” and had just completed the line – “We’ll hang Jeff David on a sour apple tree,” as Patterson and his party stepped upon the porch.

Despite efforts by friends and a saloon owner to keep the men apart, they clashed outside the saloon.

…Patterson stepped from the saloon upon the porch. Turning to the right, he stood face to face with Pinkham. The fearful glare of his bloody eyes was met by the deepening scowl of his antagonist. Hurling at him a degrading epithet, he exclaimed,

“Draw, will you?”

“Yes,” replied Pinkham with an oath, “I will,” and drawing his revolver, poised it in his left hand to facilitate the speed of cocking it.

Patterson, with the rapidity of lightning, drew his, cocking it in the act, and firing as he raised it. The bullet lodged under Pinkham’s shoulder-blade. Pinkham received a severe nervous shock from the wound, and delivered his shot too soon, the bullet passing over the head of Patterson, into the roof. At Patterson’s second fire the cap failed to explode, but before Pinkham, who was disabled by his wound, could cock his pistol for another shot, Patterson fired a third time, striking Pinkham near the heart. He reeled down the steps of the porch, and fell forward upon his face, trying with his expiring strength to cock his revolver.

In less than an hour after the tragedy, Robbins, an old friend and former deputy of Pinkham, armed with a double-barreled shotgun and revolvers, mounted his horse, and left town alone, in swift pursuit of Patterson. He was noted for bravery, and had been the hero of several bloody encounters. At a little wayside inn, seventeen miles from the city, he overtook the fugitive, who had stopped for supper.

Patterson submitted to arrest and was taken to the county jail, where he was given comfortable quarters in the jailer’s room and access to the prison yard. Friends brought him whiskey, visited him daily.

Old West vigilantes, and a dog.

Pinkham’s friends, enraged at the course pursued by the officers of justice, began to talk of taking Patterson’s case into their own hands. The example of the Montana Vigilantes excited their emulation. When they finally effected an organization, several of Patterson’s friends gained admission to it by professing friendship for its object. They imparted its designs and progress to others. Patterson was informed of every movement, and counselled his adherents what measures to oppose to the conspiracy against his life.

Patterson, with consent of the sheriff, armed himself and left the jail one night with six armed friends to observe a meeting of the vigilantes in a nearby ravine. Hidden from view, Patterson watched and listened as some 300 people gathered there.

When the gathering was complete and had settled into that grim composure which seemed to await an opportunity for a hundred voices to be raised, the chairman called upon a Methodist clergyman present to open their proceedings with a prayer. This request, at such a time, must appear strange to the minds of many of my readers.  And yet, why should it? It bore testimony to some sincerity and some solemnity in the hearts of the people, even though they had assembled for an unlawful, perhaps some of them for a revengeful, purpose. They felt, doubtless, that the law did not and would not protect them, and if they had known  that the person whose doom they were there to decide, at that very moment stood near, armed, a secret observer of their proceedings, with friends within the call of his voice to aid him or obey his orders, they might very properly have concluded that the law exposed them to outrage and murder. Prayer had no mockery in it in such an exigency. Patterson afterwards jocosely remarked that it was the first prayer he had listened to for twenty years.

Patterson returned unobserved to the jail at a late hour, fully possessed of the designs of the committee.

Patterson and thirty of his friends – “armed to the teeth” – waited in the jail yard, watching as a hundred Vigilantes gathered. A signal was given to the sheriff, who arrived with 150 armed men to confront the Vigilantes. Spectators crowded hills and housetops, expecting a battle. The sheriff, though, knew several hundred more had signed on to become Vigilantes, and so preferred to avoid a conflict with the group. The standoff ended peacefully with assurances that Patterson would stand trial.

The counsel on both sides prepared for trial with considerable energy. The evidence was all reduced to writing. The character of each juryman, the place of his nativity, and his political predilections were ascertained and reported to the defendant’s counsel. The judge and sheriff were required, by the Idaho law, to prepare the list of talesmen* when the regular panel of jurors was exhausted. In the performance of this duty in Patterson’s case, the judge selected Republicans, and the sheriff Democrats. When the list was completed, and the venire issued, a copy of it was furnished to Patterson’s friends, who caused to be summoned as talesmen such persons named in it as were suspected of enmity to the accused, in order that they might be rejected as jurors. …After such a jury was sworn, such was its general composition, that both the friends and enemies of the prisoner predicted an acquittal. Nor were they disappointed. When his freedom was announced from the bench, his friends flocked around him to tender their congratulations. But Patterson was not deceived. He felt that he was surrounded by enemies. Sullen eyes were fixed upon him as he walked the streets. Little gatherings of the friends of Pinkham stood on every other corner in anxious consultation. He very soon concluded that his only safety was in departure. …Finally, two weeks after his trial, he left Idaho City for Walla Walla.

One day the following spring, Patterson entered a barber’s shop for the purpose of getting shaved. Removing his coat, he seated himself in the barber’s chair. A man by the name of Donahue arose from a chair opposite, and, advancing toward him, said: —

“Ferd, you and I can’t both live in this community. You have threatened me.” As Patterson spring to his feet, Donahue shot him. Staggering to the street, he started towards the saloon where he had left his pistol, and was followed by Donahue, who continued to fire at him, and he fell dead across the threshold of the saloon, thus verifying in his own case the fatalistic belief of his class, “He died with his boots on.”

Donahue escaped from prison while awaiting trial and fled to California; that state refused to extradite him back to Walla Walla, determining that the constitutional provision requiring one state to deliver fugitives to another did not apply to the territories.

…To certain of my readers, some explanation for detailing at such length the life of a ruffian and murderer may be necessary. Not so, however, to those familiar with mountain history. They would understand that both Patterson and Pinkham were noted and important members of frontier society, representative men, so to speak, of the classes to which they belonged. Their followers regarded them with a hero-worship which magnified their faults into virtues, and their acts into deeds of more than chivalric daring. Their pursuits, low, criminal, and degrading as they are esteemed in old settled communities, were among the leading occupations of life among the miners. Said one who had been for many years a resident of the Pacific slope, after spending a few weeks in the Atlantic states: “I can’t stand this society. It is too strict. I must return to the land where every gambler is called a gentleman.”

*A talesman is a person added to a jury, usually from among bystanders, to make up a deficiency in the available number of jurors.

Catch up on earlier installments of Vigilante Days and Ways: Introduction; Second Installment, Third Installment, Fourth Installment, Fifth Installment, Sixth Installment, and Seventh Installment.

About the author

Rebecca Wallick

Rebecca is a freelance writer and publisher living near McCall, Idaho. A Seattle native and recovering attorney, she much prefers the quiet, slow pace, and distinct seasons of the West Central Mountains, enjoying the skiing, hiking and running opportunities provided by the nearby Payette National Forest. Rebecca is a Contributing Editor with Bark magazine, and the author of Growing Up Boeing: The Early Jet Age Through the Eyes of a Test Pilot’s Daughter (Feb 2014).

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