Note: A slightly different version of this article was published in the Shoshone News-Press on 10/27/18 (link).
Earlier this week, Wednesday, October 24th marked another anniversary, the 155th, of Hill Beachey’s departure from Lewiston in search of the coldblooded murderers of Lloyd Magruder and Magruder’s packing crew.
Beachey departed from Lewiston on Saturday, October 24th, 1863, accompanied by Thomas Ferrell. Roughly six weeks would pass before the brave Mr. Beachey arrived back, in early December, now with his three prisoners in tow. Readers of this writer’s past commentaries on Beachey (e.g., link) will know that I regard him as Idaho’s first authentic hero and worthy of an annual statewide holiday named in his honor, every October 24th.
Yet accounts of Hill Beachey’s heroic journey and achievement are fraught with myth and misinformation. Early chroniclers often valued accelerating book sales over historical fidelity, and embellished the story wherever they saw fit. Sometimes authors interpolated parts of Beachey’s story where few or no credible sources existed. Sometimes, too, a later author uncritically retold or repackaged elements of the story as offered by an earlier author.
Over time the ratio of credible history to iffy embellishments may tilt perilously toward the latter.
An interesting case in point concerns Ladd Hamilton’s narrative’s handling of Beachey’s return to Lewiston with his prisoners. Hamilton, who died in 2012 at the age of 90, was the longtime editor of the Lewiston Tribune and a student of Idaho’s colorful history. In 1994, he published This Bloody Deed: The Magruder Incident, a book offering a semi-fictional account of the Magruder murders and Beachey’s memorable role. Hamilton devoted more than a little ink (from page 168 to 175) to detailing Beachey’s return to Lewiston. According to Hamilton, Beachey faced an angry mob set on lynching the three killers on the spot. Beachey, in Hamilton’s account, talked the mob out of its violent intention. It was, if you will, one more feather in Hill Beachey’s historical cap.
But did such a mob actually greet Beachey’s arrival?
Thomas J. Dimsdale’s The Vigilantes of Montana: Or, Popular Justice in the Rocky Mountains (1866, see p. 112), the earliest recounting of the story of the Magruder murders, made no mention of an angry mob at Lewiston. Neither did Lewiston Sheriff J.H. Fisk’s account, written in 1910. Fisk would have been particularly likely to have mentioned any unpleasantness at the Lewiston arrival, as he claims the prisoners were turned over to his custody on their arrival.
On the other hand, Nathanial Pitt Langford’s book, Vigilante Days and Ways, published in 1890, offered a glowing account of the manner in which Beachey dissuaded an angry mob. “A large assemblage had gathered upon the wharf,” wrote Langford (p. 344) “intending to conduct the prisoners from the boat to the scaffold.” John Hailey’s History of Idaho (1910, p. 71) provided a similarly fulsome description. Other sources, probably drawing on Langford’s or Hailey’s earlier accounts, made briefer mentions of Beachey’s angry reception at Lewiston, including An Illustrated History of North Idaho (1903, p. 38) and even Julia Conway Welch’s ordinarily very sober The Magruder Murders, published in 1991 (p. 56).
At least one author — the celebrated historian of the American West, Hubert Howe Bancroft — had it both ways, with and without a bloodthirsty mob’s greeting. In Bancroft’s 1887 book, Popular Tribunals, the author noted that Lewiston’s citizenry had grown weary of vigilantism. “On this occasion, as if by common consent,” wrote Bancroft (p. 663), “it was let the law do the work.” Yet, the same author’s History of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, published three years later in 1890, described a vigilance committee meeting “…the prisoners and their guard on their arrival, and demanded the surrender of the murderers,” only to be dissuaded by Beachey.
By December of 1863 – the month of Beachey’s heroic return – Lewiston had its own newspaper. The Golden Age, said to be Idaho’s first newspaper, had commenced publication the year before. This paper’s contemporary report of Beachey’s return made no mention of a malevolent mob. On the contrary, its story praised the community for the civility and law-abidingness that characterized the event. Hamilton’s narrative – which, remember, waxed poetically about the mob’s anger and Beachey’s quelling words – discounted The Golden Age’s report. Hamilton argued both that (a) most historians held that Beachey faced a lynch mob (p. 238) and that (b) The Golden Age’s report was more likely an exercise in protecting Lewiston’s “civic image” than accurate history.
Of course, the mob scene also enlivened Hamilton’s narrative and fit nicely with another scene in Hamilton’s tale as well. In an earlier, fictionalized encounter between Hill Beachey and California’s Governor Leland Stanford, Hamilton described Beachey allaying Stanford’s concerns about vigilante justice in Idaho Territory by promising the prisoners would get a fair trial.
On December 25th, 1863, the Sacramento Union published an excerpt from a letter from one J.W. Brewer to one G.K. Godfrey. Brewer told of the prisoners’ arrival, but included no mention of an angry mob; instead, wrote Brewer, there were “…three cheers for Beachey.” Brewer’s letter, it might be inferred, would probably lack the inclination to protect a civic image that Hamilton had imputed to The Golden Age’s account. My own sense, therefore, is that the mob and Beachey’s quelling speech in Hamilton’s book and other histories constitute the sort of accreted myth and misinformation that readers should be wary of. The true story, shorn of all the embellishments, is altogether fine enough on its own.
— Ron Roizen