The Rule of Law Through Lawlessness:
Vigilante Activity in 1860s Walla Walla County
By Rob Spencer
“Vigilantism and the Press:
the Treatment of Vigilante Activity in the Walla Walla Statesman”
Americans have heard tales from the “wild west” since they were young. Gunfighters, Indians, Cowboys, and wide open spaces have made the myth of the west a world of lawlessness and adventure. In reality, law was important to maintain order in the west, and the United States government was careful to ensure that “due process of law” was accessible to the citizens of the western territories. Yet, with every myth there must contain some element of truth or the myth would not survive. One such system that existed in the territories was vigilantism. Ironically, vigilantism in the west sought to establish the rule of law through lawlessness. In Washington Territory, the Walla Walla Statesman gives the modern reader a glimpse into vigilantism of the 1860s.
The first mention of vigilante activity in the Statesman appears in December 1864. It is a small blip on the radar, only commenting that 100 members of the Virginia City Vigilance Committee were in Idaho in search of criminals who had fled Montana. Yet, just a little over a month later, in January 1865, the Statesman reports that “the citizens of Payette county have formed themselves into a Vigilance committee” in order to rid their county of some undesirables. These men had been counterfeiting gold dust by melting it down and mixing it with “spelter, crucibles, and other counterfeiting materials”. Disputes over gold dust receive press space many times in the newspaper. The Statesman ends the article by pointing out that because much bogus gold was in circulation in the area, it was “pretty good evidence” that the counterfeiters were in the region. Gold tampering and stealing was not the only crime deemed worthy of vigilante justice. Common crimes that resulted in vigilante action included horse stealing, cattle stealing, being caught transporting stolen cattle, and aiding known criminals in their efforts.
It appears from the Statesman that some of these vigilante groups adopted a “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude to their actions. An April 7, 1865 story gives the account of the attempted hanging of “Dutch Lewie” by a vigilante group. It reports that Lewie was awakened at midnight and dragged out of his bed where he was hung until he was “nearly dead, dead, dead!” And all of this because, says Lewie, “he didn’t know something they wanted him to tell them.” Five men were eventually tried for the attempted murder, which appears to be unusual as most vigilante groups succeeded in evading the legitimate legal process. Four of these men were released and one man was charged to answer for “assault with the intent to do bodily injury.” Interestingly, the Statesman does not sympathize with Lewie much. It reports that “there are two sides to every story” and points out that the rumor is that Lewie does in fact work with thieves and helps them in their efforts.
On the 21 of April, 1865, the Statesman reported the discovery of four individuals that had been hung by the vigilance committee in Walla Walla. One man by the name of MacKenzie was found hanging outside of town. It was alleged that he had stolen cattle from a Mr. Jeffries and that the missing cattle had been discovered in his possession. Two other men were found hanging somewhere else. They were identified as being Isaac Reed and William Mills. These men were accused of being horse thieves and supposedly confessed to that fact as well as confessed belonging to a gang of horse thieves shortly before being hung. These three men were all approximately twenty-four years old. The fourth victim was a black man named “Slim Jim” who was known in Walla Walla as being a thief. He was also accused of assisting a couple of criminals to escape from jail. Cards were sometimes placed on the bodies of the victims telling the person’s name and the crime that they allegedly committed.
Despite the illegal nature of vigilantism’s circumvention of the law, not everyone was upset about it. It would seem that many individuals felt that justice was served in this way as well as going through the courts. When the Idaho World condemned the vigilante activities of the region as being unjust because there was no semblance of complying with preserving the rights of the accused to be tried by jury, the Statesman wrote, “"The Idaho 'World' condemns the course of the vigilantes in the severest terms, whilst the 'Statesman' just as decidedly approves of all that has been done." It goes on to say, somewhat matter-of-factly, "In the moral as well as in the natural world, storms are sometimes necessary to purify the atmosphere..." The support of the Statesman to vigilantism was not lost on the vigilantes themselves. On 15 June 1866, the Statesman published a public notice written to the people of Walla Walla. In this letter, the Vigilance Committee declares “…they have made some amendments to their former plan of organization, which enables them to act more expeditiously and with greater certainty in ferreting out the perpetrators of the crime.” They continue stating that they make no distinction between people, but that “all are subjects for our action in the way of crime, and will receive equal justice at our hand.”
Though vigilante activity began to slow down at the end of the decade, it did not disappear entirely. Yet the Walla Walla Statesman paints an interesting picture for the modern reader. In it, the reader is allowed to see the instability of the region and the risk of being targeted and murdered by vigilante violence if one was suspected of a crime. Thus, the myth of the ‘wild west’ is promulgated by the existence of vigilante activity in the 1860s.