Article and Photos by Tiffany Sweeney
The year was 1862. A handsome young man appeared in Montana in the booming city of Bannack. His background was questionable, with a potential criminal record of theft, stagecoach robbery, murder, and time spent in prison; yet, he was well-liked enough that the community elected him Sheriff of Bannack in May of 1863. Soon after the election, he traveled across the state to marry his wife, Electa, and bring her home to a quaint little log cabin. Appearances seemed to suggest that Henry Plummer was a man wanting to settle down, run his town, and do the right thing.
However, appearances were about to change drastically. Three months after being welcomed to her new home, Electa would leave and never see Plummer again. Crime would escalate to include robbery and murder, with no one punished for the bad deeds. The guilty party was known as the Innocents Gang, and evidence pointed to Henry Plummer as the leader.
Residents of Bannack feared for their lives, and a group of individuals decided that they had had enough. Estimates indicate that more than 100 people were killed by the Innocents, some buried and others never discovered. It was time for justice to be done. A group of five men from Virginia City and four from Bannack convened to form the Vigilance Committee, later to be known as the Montana Vigilantes. The men suspected of crimes were visited in the middle of the night, left with the symbol of a skull and crossbones and the numbers 3-7-77. A warning had been issued.
The true meaning behind this warning remains a mystery today. Some say that it meant that these men had three days, seven hours, and seventy-seven minutes to leave town. Others say that it is the dimensions of a grave: three feet by seven feet, seventy-seven inches deep. Whatever the meaning, the intent was made clear when the hangings began. In all, more than twenty men were hanged as the Vigilantes brought their justice, including Henry Plummer himself. Ironically, he would hang from the gallows that he built as Sheriff just up the hill from Bannack.
Over the years, questions have arisen about the guilt of Henry Plummer. Did a man in the midst of his own hanging provide Plummer’s name to try to save his own life? Or, did Plummer, a man that was known for his crime-ridden past truly abuse his power as Sheriff? The evidence pointing to the latter was provided by a man that served on the Vigilance Committee. Electa, his wife of mere months, swore to his innocence. We may never know the real role Plummer played in the colorful history of our state, but the tale still lives strong in our communities today.
More than seventy years after the rise of the Vigilantes, the Montana Highway Patrol was formed. There is no known connection between these two groups, but those infamous numbers 3-7-77 live on, found on the badges of the officers’ uniforms and on their patrol cars. Officers in training learn about the numbers and the history behind them, but that is where the connection is severed. Just as we will never truly know the role of Plummer, we may also never truly know why those legendary numbers live on through the Montana Highway Patrol. What we do know is that those officers vow to be vigilant in keeping our roads safe. Maybe that is all the connection we need.