Artists rendering of the Montana Vigilante hanging of Cyrus Skinner
On August 18, 1853, Cyrus Skinner, who would later be hanged by the Montana vigilantes, ends his first stay in the California state prison at San Quentin. Skinner was typical of the thieves and killers who terrorized the gold fields of Montana in the early 1860s. Born in Ohio in 1829, Skinner began robbing people as a teenager. He immigrated to California in 1850 and was promptly arrested for burglary. He served two years in San Quentin prison before being released on this day in 1853.
Within six months, he was again arrested, this time for burglarizing a business in Yuba County, California. He was sentenced to three years in San Quentin, but he escaped and committed five more robberies before being recaptured and sentenced to 15 years.
In early 1859, an old friend joined Skinner at San Quentin, a desperado named Henry Plummer. Plummer, serving time for a minor robbery, was released after a few months. In May 1860, Skinner escaped from San Quentin for the third and final time. He fled north to the isolated gold camps of Idaho, where Plummer had organized a dangerous band of road agents that preyed on gold miners and travelers. When the people of Idaho began to grow suspicious of him, Skinner moved east over the mountains to the new Montana gold fields, establishing saloons at Bannack and Virginia City. Plummer and others from the gang soon joined him, and they began to rob and murder Montanans. Skinner was one of the most brutal of Plummer's gang, occasionally killing his victims seemingly just for the fun of it. By early 1864, Plummer, Skinner, and the other outlaws had killed at least 100 people.
Determined to stop the murderous robberies, the citizens of Bannack and Virginia City formed a vigilante group and began tracking down and hanging the criminals. On January 10, 1864, the vigilantes arrested Plummer and hanged him along with two of his partners. Skinner wisely left town but the determined vigilantes tracked him down at Hellgate, Montana, in late January 1864. Faced with an agonizing death from hanging, Skinner broke away and ran, hoping the vigilantes would shoot him down instead. They denied the brutal killer even this small mercy. The vigilantes recaptured Skinner and hanged him, one of the last of the 24 bandits executed by the group.
Michael Thomas Barry is the author of Murder & Mayhem 52 Crimes that Shocked Early California 1849-1949. The book can be purchased from Amazon through the following link: