Idaho History

In 19th century, lynchings were often debated in Idaho’s newspapers

Gov. James H. Hawley believed that vigilante was necessary.
Gov. James H. Hawley believed that vigilante was necessary. Provided by Arthur Hart

Lynching was one of the more hideous crimes committed in 19th century Idaho and across the nation. Hideous, because those dragged from their beds in the middle of the night and strung up to the nearest tree were given no trial and no chance to defend themselves. Their guilt had been decided by those who lynched them.

That the gold rush in Idaho attracted some of the worst criminals in the West is beyond doubt, and robbery and murder were common occurrences. That many victims of lynch mobs were guilty of the crimes of which they were accused is also true, but that robbery or burglary called for death by hanging is doubtful. And further, nobody knows how many innocent men were lynched for their political views or because of personal dislike.

Former Gov. James H. Hawley, who came to Idaho in 1862 when it was still part of Washington Territory and later became an outstanding prosecutor and defense attorney, believed to his dying day that vigilante law had been necessary. In a 1914 History of Idaho, he wrote: “Mob law is to be deplored, but those who are familiar with the conditions prevalent in the early mining camps of California, Idaho, Montana and Nevada are almost unanimous in the opinion that the measures adopted were necessary. No doubt mistakes were sometimes made and the system in certain instances was converted to a wrong use, but on the whole, the organization of the vigilantes seems to have been the only means by which citizens could safeguard themselves and effectively strike terror in the heart of the evil doer.”

Politics played such a part in the way vigilante activities were reported that it is always important to consider the sources of our information. The Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman was a radical Republican paper that supported the vigilantes. The Idaho World of Idaho City was a Democratic paper that supported locally elected law officers, all of them Democrats. The World repeatedly accused Statesman Publisher James S. Reynolds of being “a strangler.” On April 14, 1866, in the year that saw the greatest number of lynchings in Idaho history, the World accused the Statesman of “running with the vigilantes … they suit its style. Hang everyone who differs from you, and do it before the moon is up. What is law and order to one who has systematically scoffed at all laws, human and divine, during the past three years?”

On April 2, 1866, the World reported that that the body of David Updyke, “late sheriff of Ada County, and late Captain of the Ada County Volunteers, was found hanging to a tree on the Rocky Bar road … a paper was attached to the person of Updyke accusing him of being cognizant of the Port Neuf robbery, of bogus gold dust operations, horse stealing, etc., asserting also that he had confessed his crimes and given the names of his accomplices. … ”

The World concluded its emotional attack on the vigilantes with this: “It is an easy matter to strangle the best man in the community and pin a paper on the dead body accusing him of the worst crimes. Dead men tell no tales.”

Was Updyke guilty? Some modern scholars doubt it, but without a trial and the formal presentation of evidence before a jury of his peers, we shall never know. We shall also never know whether torture was used to force Updyke to confess.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email