Home -> Miscellaneous Books -> Reminiscences of a Pioneer -> Chapter 19 - Reign of the Vigilantes

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Chapter XIX.

Reign of the Vigilantes.

Every newly settled country has had to deal, to a greater or less extent, with lawless characters. Generally these outlaws have been brought into subjection and destroyed under the operation of law. Occasionally, however, this, from one cause or another, has been impossible. It is then that citizens, unable longer to bear the outrages committed by desperate criminals, take the law into their own hands and administer justice according to their own ideas of right, and without the forms of law. Such occasions are always to be deplored. They arise from two causes, the maladministration of justice and bloodness of criminals whose long immunity from punishment renders them reckless and defiant of both law and the citizens.

Such conditions existed in the late 70's and early 80's in that portion of Eastern Oregon now embraced in the county of Crook. During several years desperate characters had congregated in that section. From petty crimes, such as the stealing of cattle and horses, they resorted to bolder acts, embracing brutal and diabolical murder. For a time the citizens appeared helpless. Men were arrested for crime and the forms of law gone through with. Their associates in crime would go into court, swear them out and then boast of the act. On one occasion I went to one of the best and most substantial citizens of the country, Wayne Claypool, and asked him about an act of larceny of which he had been a witness. He had seen the crime committed from concealment. I asked him if he was going to have the men arrested. He replied that he was not. Then, said I, if you do not I will. "Mr. Thompson," he replied, "rather than appear against them I will abandon all I have and leave the country. For if they did not kill me they would destroy all I have." Under these circumstances I was forced to let the matter drop, and content myself with writing an article for the local paper. No names were mentioned and nothing at which an honest man could take offense. Instead of publishing the article as a communication, it was published as an editorial. But scarcely had the paper appeared on the street, than three men, all known to be thieves and desperate characters, caught the editor, knocked him down, pulled out his beard, and would probably have done him greater bodily harm had not Til Glaze interfered and stopped them. While the editor was being beaten he hallowed pitifully, "I didn't do it, Thompson did it." This embittered the whole gang against both Glaze and myself. But they appeared satisfied with threats about what they were going to do, and for the time being made no attempt to carry out their threats against either of us.

This was in the fall of the year. On the 15th of March, 1882, a man dashed into town and riding up to me asked where he would find the Coroner. He was greatly excited and his horse was covered with foam. I told him the nearest officer was at The Dalles, 125 miles away, but that a Justice of the Peace could act in his absence. I then asked him what was the matter? He replied that Langdon and Harrison had killed old man Crook and his son-in-law, Mr. Jorey. I then told him to go to Mr. Powers, the Justice of the Peace. Presently the Deputy Sheriff for that section of Wasco County came to me and asked me to go with him to assist in the arrest of the murderers. There had been some dispute between the murderers and the murdered men, resulting a law suit. It was at best a trivial matter and no further trouble was apprehended. But immunity from punishment had emboldened the gang and they believed they could do as before, simply defy the law. I declined to go with the Deputy, making as an excuse that I did not feel well. He then summoned me as a posse. I told him to "summons and be d-d," I would not go. That it was a long ride and that the men had been seen "going towards The Dalles, saying they were going to give themselves up." The officer was furious and went away threatening me with the law. But I had other ideas regarding the whereabouts of the murderers. An old gentleman living on Mill Creek, east of Prineville and about thirty miles from the scene of the murders, had told me of the finding of a cabin concealed in a fir thicket and that it contained both provisions and horsefeed and had the appearance of having been much used. but that there was no trail leading to it. As soon as I learned of the murders I made up my mind that the murderers would go to that cabin. I did not, for reasons of my own, mainly that he talked too much, tell the Deputy of my plans. I went to four men - men of unquestioned courage and discretion - and told them of my plans. These men were Til Glaze, Sam Richardson, G. W. Barns and Charley Long. They all agreed to go with me. It was arranged that we were to slip out of town singly and meet a few miles up the Ochoco Creek, at a designated place. We deemed this essential to success, as we knew that the men had confederates in town who would beat us to the cabin and give the alarm. Meantime the angry Deputy got a posse together and started on his fruitless errand. We loitered about town until about 8 o'clock, taking particular pains to let ourselves be seen, especially about the saloons. We did not talk together, nor did we permit any of the gang to see us in company. We then dropped off saying we were going home, that it was bed time.

But instead of going to bed we mounted our horses and taking back streets slipped out of town. The night was dark and stormy, but all five reached the rendezvous on time and we then proceeded to the ranch of Mr. Johnson whom we requested to pilot us to the secret cabin. The vicinity of the cabin was reached about two o'clock in the morning, and after securing our horses we cautiously approached it. A light was soon discovered and with still greater caution we attempted to surround the cabin. The barking of a dog, however, gave the alarm and both murderers seized their rifles, blankets and some provisions and made their escape. Jumping over a log behind the cabin they stopped to listen and finally thinking it a false alarm, laid down their guns, etc., and walked around to the corner of the cabin. The snow was a foot deep and so dark was the night that they did not see us until we were within a few feet of them. They then started to run when Richardson, Glaze and Barns opened on them with their revolvers. Long and I were within a few feet of the front door and did not catch even a glimpse of the fleeing murderers. They were chased so closely that they had no time to get either their horses, guns or blankets, but made their escape in the darkness. When the shooting began the door flew open and a crowd of eleven men made a rush. Long and I were armed with double barrel shot guns, and leveling them on the crowd we ordered them back or we would kill every man of them. You may be sure they lost no time in getting back and closing the door. I then stepped to the side of the door and told them we were after Langdon and Harrison, and did not wish to harm any one else, but that if one of them stuck his head out of the cabin he would get it blown off.

We had got the horses, blankets and rifles of the murderers, and now began the watch that was to last until daylight. The wind was fierce, even in the shelter of the timber, and a cold snow drifted over us. We had not only to guard the house, but the shed in which the horses were tied as well. Besides, we did not know what would happen when daylight came and they should discover that our party numbered five, instead of twenty, as they supposed. When daylight finally came I went to the door and told those inside to come out and to come out unarmed. They obeyed at once, and eleven men filed out of the cabin. Of the number, there was but one that any of us had ever seen before, or to my knowledge ever saw again. The one was a brother of Langdon, and we at once placed him under arrest that he might not render his brother assistance.

We had agreed on our plans during the night, and taking young Langdon, Long and I started back to town, while the others began to circle for tracks of the fugitives in the snow. I should have stated that when the shooting began the night before, Mr. Johnson mounted his horse and rode home at top speed. Arriving there, he sent one of his sons to Prineville and the other up the Ochoco, telling them that we had the murderers surrounded and were fighting as long as he was in hearing, and were in need of help. Going up the mountain I discovered the tracks of the fugitives in the snow, and as we reached the summit we met 75 or 80 men coming out to help us. I turned them all back, saying the murderers had escaped, and that the rest of our party were coming a short distance behind. I had directed Long to keep by the side of young Langdon and that if he attempted to escape to kill him. I then called out four young men whom I could trust and told them to drop behind and watch for the trail of the fugitives when they should leave the road. We then all returned to Prineville and I turned the young man over to the Deputy Sheriff, telling him to lock him up.

The four young men struck the trail at the foot of the Mill Creek mountain, and following it until convinced the fugitives were endeavoring to reach home to get horses, abandoned it and struck out through the mountains the nearest route to the Langdon place. They reached the ranch just as the men had got horses and some food and were coming through the gate. Five - even one minute and they would have been too late. But leveling their shot guns on the murderers they surrendered. They were then brought to town, and instead of awakening the officers, they came to my house and asked me to get up and take charge of the prisoners. This circumstance enabled my enemies, especially the outlaw gang, to accuse me of being the head of the vigilantes. The prisoners were held at the livery stable, and as soon as I arrived I sent for the Deputy Sheriff and City Marshal, and on their arrival moved the prisoners to the bar room of the hotel. The Deputy asked me to remain and assist in guarding the prisoners. At the hotel the Deputy and Marshal guarded the street door, while I kept watch on the back door. Langdon was shackled and laid down on a lounge and fell asleep. Harrison was sitting near me and had started in to tell me all about the murder. I was sitting sidewise to the street door, and hearing it open, turned my head just as four men sprang upon the two officers and bore them to the floor. At the same instant two men rushed across the room and leveled their revolvers at me. The whole proceedings did not occupy five seconds, so sudden was the rush. All were masked, even their hands being covered with gloves, with the fingers cut off.

In another instant the room was filled with the uncanny figures. Apparently every man had a place assigned him, and in less time than one could think, every entrance to the hotel bar room was guarded by armed men. As the two men leveled their guns at me I put up my hands, and I want to say I stood at "attention." At the same time two men ran around the bar room stove, and as Langdon sprang to his feet one of them struck him with his pistol. The weapon was discharged and they then emptied their revolvers into his body. While this was going on other men placed a rope around the neck of Harrison and as he was rushed past me he wailed, "For God's sake save my life and I will tell it all." But I saw no more of him until next morning, when he was hanging under the bridge that spanned Crooked River.

Twelve men were left in the room after the main mob had gone. Not a word was spoken until I asked permission to go to the body of Langdon and straighten it out. Both men bowed, but followed me closely, at no time taking either their eyes or revolvers off me. They were, however, very cool, and I felt little danger of an accidental discharge of their weapons. After about twenty minutes one of the figures gave a signal and in an instant all were gone, passing out through two doors.

It was now nearly daylight and a great crowd gathered about the hotel. There was a great deal of suppressed excitement, but I cautioned all to be prudent and not add to it by unguarded language. The mob appeared to be thoroughly organized, every man having and occupying his assigned place. This fact gave Harvey Scott an opportunity to declare in the Oregonian that I "was the chief of the vigilantes, and could have any man in three counties hanged" that I should order.

Matters now quieted down for a time and it was hoped that no more such disgraceful scenes would darken the fair name of our citizens. As time wore on the gang again became more bold and many acts of outlawry were committed. Some time in December a stock association was organized, with a constitution and by-laws. It was agreed that no one should ride the range without notifying the association. Copies of the by-laws were sent to every stock owner in the county and all were asked to join. Along in January, about the 10th, as I remember, a crowd of the rustlers came to town, and after filling up with bad whisky rode up and down the streets, pistols in hand, and declared they could take the town and burn it, and would do so "if there was any monkey business." Little attention was paid to them, people going about their business, apparently unconcerned. But that night there was "monkey business." Three of the gang were hung to a juniper two miles above town, while another was shot and killed in town. The next morning notices were found posted, with skull and cross-bones attached, telling all hard characters to leave the county. There was then such a higera as has seldom been witnessed. Men not before suspicioned skipped the country. They stood not upon the order of their going, but went - and went in a hurry. Among the number was an ex-Justice of the Peace.

Again things quieted down. The county was divided, courts organized and justice administered without let or hindrance. The reign of the vigilantes was over, and citizens everywhere looked to the law for protection.

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