Execution of George Ives

The execution of the notorious George Ives, who lacked the calculation of Plummer, but wielded a great influence with his kind, and, in the midst of danger, was a cool and dashing desperado, the just taking- off of this murderer and robber was the first decisive check suffered by the outlaws of Montana. He came of a highly respectable Wisconsin family, but when quite young was swallowed in the maelstrom of wild western life, and was about twenty-seven years of age when he appeared at Virginia City, or, as it was called for short, Virginia. His complexion and hair were light, his eyes blue, was without whiskers, height nearly six feet, and he wore a soldier's overcoat and a light felt hat. The carriage of this renowned desperado was sprightly and his coolness was imperturbable. Long practice in confronting danger had made him absolutely fearless. He would face death with an indifference that had become constitutional, and the spirit of reckless bravado with which he was animated made him the terror of the citizens. He would levy blackmail under the guise of a loan and as a matter of sport, and to show the training of his horse, he would back the animal into the windows of a store, and then ride off laughing.

"In looking at Ives," says Professor Dimsdale, "a man would, at first sight, be favorably impressed; but a closer examination by anyone skilled in physiognomy, would detect in the lines of the mouth and in the strange, fierce and sinister gleam of the eye, the quick spirit which made him not only the terror of the community, but the dread of the band of ruffians with whom he associated."

Two Murders by Ives

"Perhaps the most daring and cold-blooded of all his crimes was the murder which he committed near the Cold Spring Ranch. A man had been whipped for larceny near Nevada, and to escape the sting of the lash he offered to give information about the Road Agents. Ives heard of it and meeting him purposely between Virginia and Dempsey's, he deliberately fired at him with his double-barreled gun. The gun was so badly loaded and the man's coat so thickly padded that the buckshot did not take effect, upon which he coolly drew his revolver and, talking to him all the time, shot him dead. This deed was perpetrated in broad daylight on a highway, a very Bloomington road of the community and yet there, in plain view of Daley's and Cold Spring Ranch, with two or three other teams in sight, he assassinated his victim in a cool and businesslike manner, and when the murdered man had fallen from his horse he took the animal by the bridle and led it off among the hills.

"Ives then went to George Hilderman and told him he should like to stay at his wakiup for a few days, as he had killed a man near Cold Spring ranch and there might be some stir and excitement about it. In about half an hour after, some travelers arrived at the scene of murder. The body was still warm, but lifeless, and some of the neighbors from the surrounding ranches dug a lonely grave in the beautiful valley."

Cold-blooded though that murder was, the one for which he was executed was that of another man, an honest, inoffensive German. Nicholas Tbalt had sold a span of mules to his employers, Butschy & Clark, who paid him the money. Taking the gold with him, he went to Dempsey's ranch to bring up the animals. Not returning for some time, they concluded that he had run away with the mules, and were greatly grieved that a person they had trusted so implicitly should deceive them. They were, however, mistaken. Faithful to his trust, he had gone for the mules, and met his death at the hands of George Ives, who shot him, robbed him of his money and stole his mules.

Nicholas Tbalt was brought into Nevada on a wagon, after being missed for ten days. William Herren came to Virginia and informed Tom Baume, who at once went down to where the body lay. The head had been pierced by a ball, which had entered just over the left eye. The marks of a small lariat were on the dead man's wrist and neck. He had been dragged through the brush, while living, after being shot, and when found lay on his face, his right arm bent across his chest and his left grasping the willows above him.

When captured by a posse of twenty-five citizens, raised principally at Virginia City and Nevada, Ives protested his innocence of the dastardly crime, but evidence had been collected against him on the way, through one Long John who had the mules of the murdered man. On the way to Nevada, where Ives's trial was to be held, the defendant nearly escaped by inducing his captors to have a race with his horse, which was remarkably speedy. With Ives were arrested Long John (John Franck) and George Hilderman, who had discovered the body of the murdered man and kept the fact secret for several days.

The Trial and Execution

The forenoon of December 19, 1863, saw the swelling tide of miners, merchants and artizans wending their way to Nevada and the scene of the trial and all the morning was spent in private examinations of the prisoners, and private consultations as to the best method of procedure. Friends of the accused were found in all classes of society; many of them were assiduously at work to create a sentiment in his favor, while a large multitude were there, suspicious that the right man had been caught; and resolved, if such should prove to be the case, that no loophole of escape should be found for him, in any technical form of the law.

Although on the eve of "Forefathers' Day," there was in the atmosphere the mildness and the serenity of October. There was no snow, and but little ice along the edges of sluggish streams; but the sun, bright and genial, warmed the clear air, and even thawed out the congealed mud in the middle of the streets. Little boys were at play in the streets, and 1,500 men stood in them, impatient for action, but waiting without murmur, in order that everything might be done decently and in order.

Messrs. Smith, Richie, Thurmond and Colonel Wood were Ives's lawyers, with whom was associated Mr. Alex. Davis, then a comparative stranger in Montana.

Col. W. F. Sanders, at that time residing at Bannack City, but temporarily sojourning at Virginia, was sent for to conduct the prosecution, and Hon. Charles S. Bagg was appointed his colleague, at the request of Judge Wilson, Mr. Bagg being a miner, and then, little known. in settling upon the mode of trial, much difference of opinion was developed; but the miners finally determined that it should be held in presence of the whole body of citizens, and reserved to themselves the ultimate decision of all questions; but lest something should escape their attention, and injustice thereby be done to the public, or to the prisoner, a delegation composed of twelve men from each district (Nevada and Junction) was appointed to hear the proof, and to act as an advisory jury.

W. H. Patton, of Nevada, and W. Y. Pemberton, of Virginia, were appointed amanuenses. An attempt to get on the jury twelve men from Virginia was defeated, and late in the afternoon, the trial began and continued till nightfall. The three prisoners were chained with lightest logging chain that could be found, this was wound round their legs, and the links were secured with padlocks.

In introducing testimony for the people, on the morning of the 21st, the miners informed all concerned that the trial must close at three P. M. The announcement was received with great satisfaction.

It is unnecessary to describe the trial, or to recapitulate the evidence. Suffice it to say that two alibis, based on the testimony of George Brown, guide for Colonel Marshall in the Indian Campaign 1862, and honest Whiskey Joe, failed altogether. Among the lawyers, there was, doubtless, the usual amount of brow-beating and technical insolence, intermingled with display of eloquence and learning; but not the rhetoric of Blair, the learning of Coke, the metaphysics of Alexander, the wit of Jerrold, or the ardor of Oberlin, could dull the perceptions of those hardy mountaineers, or mislead them from the stern and righteous purpose of all this labor, which was to secure immunity to the persons and property of the community, and to guarantee a like protection to those who should cast their lot in Montana in time to come.

The evidence was not confined to the charge of murder; but showed, also, that Ives had been acting in the character of a robber, as well as that of a murderer; and it may well be doubted whether he would have been convicted at all if developments damaging to the reputations and dangerous to the existence of some of his friends had not been made during the trial, on which they absented themselves mysteriously, and have never been seen since. There was an instinctive and unerring conviction that the worst man in the community was on trial; but it was hard work, after all the proof and all this feeling, to convict him.

"The crowd which gathered around that fire in front of the court, is vividly before our eyes," reads Dimsdale's narrative. "We see the wagon containing the judge, and an advocate pleading with all his earnestness and eloquence for the dauntless robber, on whose unmoved features no shade of despondency can be traced by the fitful glare of the blazing wood, which lights up, at the same time, the stern and impassive features of the guard, who, in every kind of habiliments, stand in various attitudes, in a circle surrounding the scene of justice. The attentive faces and compressed lips of the jurors show their sense of the vast responsibility that rests upon them, and of their firm resolve to do their duty. Ever and anon a brighter flash than ordinary reveals the expectant crowd of miners, thoughtfully and steadily gazing on the scene, and listening intently to the trial. Beyond this close phalanx, fretting and shifting around its outer edge, sways with quick and uncertain motion, the wavering line of desperadoes and sympathizers with the criminal; their haggard, wild and alarmed countenances showing too plainly that they tremble at the issue which is, when decided, to drive them in exile from Montana, or to proclaim them as associate criminals, whose fate could neither be delayed nor dubious. A sight like this will ne'er be seen again in Montana. It was the crisis of the fate of the territory.

"Nor was the position of prosecutor, guard, juror, or judge, one that any but a brave and law-abiding citizen would chose, or even accept. Marked for slaughter by desperadoes, these men staked their lives for the welfare of society. A mortal strife between Colonel Sanders and one of the opposing lawyers was only prevented by the prompt action of wise men, who corralled the combatants on their way to fight. The hero of that hour of trial was avowedly W. F. Sanders. Not a desperado present but would have felt honored by becoming his murderer, and yet, fearless as a lion, he stood there confronting and defying the malice of his armed adversaries. The citizens of Montana, many of them his bitter political opponents, recollect his actions with gratitude and kindly feeling. Charles S. Bagg is also remembered as having been at his post when the storm blew loudest.

"The argument of the case having terminated, the issue was, in the first place, left to the decision of the twenty-four who had been selected for that purpose, and they thereupon retired to consult.

"Judge Byam, who shouldered the responsibility of the whole proceeding, will never be forgotten by those in whose behalf he courted certain, deadly peril, and probable death.

"The jury were absent, deliberating on their verdict, but little less than an hour, and on their return, twenty-three made a report that Ives was proven guilty; but one member, Henry Spivey, declined to give in any find, for unknown reasons.

"The crisis of the affair had now arrived. A motion was made 'That the report of the committee be received, and it discharged from further consideration of that case, which Mr. Thurmond opposed; but upon explanation, deferred pressing his objections until the motion should be made to adopt the report, and to accept the verdict of the committee as the judgment of the people there assembled; and thus the first formal motion passed without opposition.

"Before this, some of the crowd were clamorous for an adjournment, and now Ives' friends renewed the attempt; but it met with signal failure. "Another motion: 'That the assembly adopt as their verdict the report of the committee,' was made, and called forth the irrepressible and indefatigable Thurmond and Col. J. M. Wood; but it carried, there being probably not more than one hundred votes against it.

"Here it was supposed by many that the proceedings would end for the present, and that the court would adjourn until the morrow, as it was already dark. Col. Sanders, however, mounted the wagon, and having recited that Ives had been declared a murderer and a robber by the people there assembled, moved, 'That George Ives be forthwith hung by the neck until he is dead' a bold and businesslike movement which excited feeble opposition, was carried before the defendant seemed to realize the situation ; but a friend or two and some old acquaintances having gained admission to the circle within which Ives was guarded, to bid him farewell, awakened him to a sense of the condition in which he was placed, and culprit and counsel sought to defer the execution. Some of his ardent counsel shed tears, of which lachrymose effusions it is well to say no more than that they were copious. The vision of a long and scaly creature, inhabiting the Nile, rises before us in connection with this aqueous sympathy for an assassin. Quite a number of his old chums were, as Petroleum V. Nasby says: 'Weeping profusely.' Then came moving efforts to have the matter postponed until the coming morning, Ives giving assurances, upon his honor, that no attempt at rescue or escape would be made; but already, Davis and Hereford were seeking a favorable spot for the execution.

"An unfinished house, having only the side-walls up, was chosen as the best place, near at hand, for carrying into effect the sentence of death. The preparations, though entirely sufficient, were both simple and brief. The butt of a forty-foot pole was planted inside the house, at the foot of one of the walls, and the stick leaned over a cross beam. Near the point, was tied the fatal cord, with the open noose dangling fearfully at its lower end. A large goods box was the platform. The night had closed in, with a bright, full moon, and around that altar of vengeance, the stern and resolute faces of the guard were visible, under all circumstances of light and shade conceivable. Unmistakable determination was expressed in every line of their bronzed and weather-beaten countenances.

"George Ives was led to the scaffold in fifty-eight minutes from the time that his doom was fixed. A perfect babble of voices saluted the movement.

Every roof was covered, and cries of ''Hang him!' 'Don't hang him!' 'Banish him!' I'll shoot!' 'Let's hang Long John!' were heard all around. The revolvers could be seen flashing in the moonlight. The guard stood like a rock. They had heard the muttered threats of a rescue from the crowd, and with grim firmness, the characteristic of the miners when they mean 'business' they stood ready to beat them back. Woe to the mob that should surge against that living bulwark. They would have fallen as grass before the scythe.

"As the prisoner stepped on the fatal platform, the noise ceased, and the stillness became painful. The rope was adjusted, and the usual request was made as to whether he had anything to say. With a firm voice he replied, T am innocent of this crime; Aleck Carter killed the Dutchman.'

"The strong emphasis on the word 'this' convinced all around, that he meant his words to convey the impression that he was guilty of other crimes. Up to this moment he had always accused Long John of the murder.

"Ives expressed a wish to see Long John, and the crowd of sympathizers yelled in approbation; but the request was denied, for an attempt at a rescue was expected.

"All being ready, the word was given to the guard, 'Men do your duty.' The click of the locks rang sharply and the pieces flashed in the moonlight, as they came to the 'Aim' the box flew from under the murderer's feet, with a crash, and George Ives swung in the night breeze, facing the pale moon that lighted up the scene of retributive justice.

"As the vengeful click! click! of the locks sounded their note of deadly warning to the intended rescuers, the crowd stampeded in wild affright, rolling over one another in heaps, shrieking and howling with terror. "When the drop fell, the judge, who was standing close beside Ives, called out, 'His neck is broken; he is dead.' This announcement, and the certainty of its truth, for the prisoner never moved a limb, convinced the few resolute desperadoes who knew not fear, that the case was hopeless, and they retired with grinding teeth, and with muttered curses issuing from their lips.'

Colonel Sanders on the Trial and Execution

The trial in detail is described by Col. W. F. Sanders, who states that Ives was tried by twenty-four miners as jurors and Hon. Don D. Byam as presiding judge. Before the proceedings commenced about a thousand armed miners had gathered from the gulches for several miles around Nevada and Virginia to see 'T fair play." Two sheriffs were also on hand. The courtroom was on the east side of the main street in Nevada, "where a big Schuttler wagon had been drawn up in front of a two-story building, some seats arranged for the court, counsel and prisoners in the same, and a fire had been built on the ground near the wagon from cord wood which some unlucky woodman had the misfortune to have placed there. William Y. Pemberton, Esq., then a genial young lawyer living at Virginia City, was appointed amanuensis, and a table was provided for him near the lire. A semi-circle of benches from an adjacent hurdy-gurdy house had been placed around the fire for the accommodation of the twenty-four jurors and behind that semi-circle a place was reserved for a cordon of guards, who, with their shotguns or rifles, as the case might be, marched hour by hour. Although Ives was charged with a number of crimes and testimony introduced to sustain the charges, the verdict of guilty voted by twenty-three of the twenty-four jurors was founded on the murder of Tbalt. He was defended by able counsel.

When the verdict was announced, Colonel Sanders, as chief prosecutor, made a motion that it be made the verdict of the miners' meeting there assembled, and supplemented it by another, that Ives be hung, both of which were put by Judge Byam and carried with a rush.

Ives endeavored to secure delay for the purpose of writing to his mother and sisters, but X. Beidler, who was in the background watching, shouted, "Sanders, ask him how long a time he gave the Dutchman!" He was allowed to write a letter then and there, but not on the following day, as he requested. He was interrupted by his friends, who were allowed to bid him good-bye, some of them weeping bitterly; for although he was a scoundrel and a murderer he had the faculty of binding closely to him men of his type.

Toward the last of his account of the trial and execution, Colonel Sanders says: "It has been generally stated that Ives pulled off his boots, saying that he had sworn that he would not die with his boots on. I do not remember this and only think it probable because it was told shortly thereafter, and I cannot say that I ever contradicted it, which I think I should have done had it not been true. However, I have not written the details of this prosecution, nor have I attempted to speak of it in detail ; now, for the first time, putting down with pen the events as I remember them, without consultation with any other authorities whatever. In fact, the written authorities of Langford and Dinsdale are hearsay, neither one of these gentlemen having been present, but their information was gathered from actors in this stirring tragedy and I consider them reliable."

Montana Days of Outlaws | Organization of Vigilantes

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Source: Montana its Story and Biography, by Tom Strout, Volume 1, The American Historical Society, 1921

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