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Lynching kicked off scary vigilante era in Prineville

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By Finn J.D. John
November 25, 2012

IT WAS THE Ides of March — March 15, 1882. A.H. Crooks and Stephen Jory were blazing the boundary lines of some land — cutting big marks in trees to mark what they claimed was the property line — near the ranch of a man named Lucius Langdon, near Prineville.

The two of them broke for lunch, and when they returned, Langdon was waiting for them — with a shotgun.

They may have started out talking, shouting at each other about who was trespassing on whose land, or maybe someone went for a gun right away. Nobody who was there lived long enough to tell the full story. But a few noisy, smoky seconds later, Crooks and Jory were dead. And their killing marked the start of a two-year period of rule by masked gunmen and lynch mobs in the Prineville area that sounds, today, like the plot of a Louis L’Amour novel, or maybe Zane Grey — the story of the Crook County Vigilantes.

The November 1950 issue of Masked Rider Western, a pulp- fiction magazine, features cover art that, by sheer happenstance, is remarkably close to what actually happened to W.H. Harrison at the hands of the masked Vigilantes who lynched him.

“When a band of men went outside the law … to revenge the killings, they also hanged an innocent man, and started a rule by gun and rope that is one of the blackest chapters in Oregon’s history,” local rancher and future sheriff James Blakely told a Morning Oregonian reporter, many years later.

Vigilantes and Moonshiners

Blakely himself was no unbiased observer of the Vigilante phenomenon. He would, two years later, be the leader of the community group formed to oppose them. Blakely’s anti-Vigilante group called itself the Moonshiners, because they kept watch when the moon was out, looking for masked riders. (Remember, this was decades before Prohibition, when the name “moonshiner” would come to mean something entirely different.)

Another issue of Masked Rider Western also shows a scene close to the Vigilante story — in particular, the early-morning lynch-mob raid that took Harrison and Langdon from the deputy sheriff's custody.

Blakely’s chief opponent was a frontier character named Colonel William “Bud” Thompson, a hard-fisted rancher, gunfighter and sometime newspaperman. Although Colonel Thompson denied involvement with the Vigilantes, he wrote an eloquent defense of their methods, along with a noticeably Vigilante-friendly version of the whole story, in his book 30 years later.

(It's also worth noting that Thompson was an extraordinarily violent man, even for his day. Ten years earlier, while he was editor of a Roseburg newspaper, he reacted to a critical editorial in a competing paper by starting a gunfight with its editor. When he left Prineville, he went to Alturas, California, and vigilante activity broke out there as well. He denied involvement with that, too.)

It is chiefly from the reminiscences of these two men — Blakely and Thompson — that we have the story of the Vigilante era, and their stories diverge wildly in places.

The posse rides out

According to Blakely’s account, he (Blakely) was in town with Langdon’s hired hand, W.H. Harrison, when he heard the news that Langdon had gunned down Crooks and Jory. Both Blakeley and Harrison hurried to join a posse that was coming together to go out to Langdon’s ranch and bring him in. Another posse went to Langdon’s brother’s place, in case he’d gone there, but the killer was found at his own ranch and arrested.

Colonel Thompson’s account is a bit different. In it, he says Harrison, the hired hand, wasn’t with Blakely and didn't ride with the posse; instead, he was hiding out with Langdon at the brother’s place.

Thompson also claims that they found 10 men who were completely unknown to them in Langdon's brother's house. It’s this story that most convinces me that Thompson’s is an unreliable account, for in it these 10 armed men are not arrested and nothing is ever heard from them again, as if they were minor characters in a Western pulp-magazine story. It’s almost certain that he made them up in order to claim the Langdons were the leaders of a gang of outlaws (a gang conveniently made up entirely of strangers from out of town) and to justify what was about to happen to Harrison, the hired hand ... more on that in a minute.

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Artist’s rendering of Lucius Langdon shooting neighbors A.H. Crooks and Stephen Jory on March 15, 1882 — the killing that touched off two years of D.I.Y. law enforcement in the Prineville area by the masked riders and lynch mobs who called themselves The Vigilantes. Although this art makes it look like Langdon shot the two men from ambush, it is more likely the shootings were the result of a verbal dispute that escalated when one of the parties drew a gun; none of the men involved lived long enough to say. (Image: Ralph Lee/ Portland Morning Oregonian)

In any case, the posse brought Langdon back under arrest, with Harrison riding with them as a posse member. Langdon was entrusted to Deputy Sheriff John Luckey, and everyone went to bed.

An early-morning lynching

Very early the next morning, though, as Deputy Luckey was sitting by the stove, the Vigilantes made their first move.

“The door was suddenly opened and I was caught and thrown backward on the floor and firmly held, while my eyes were blinded and immediately a pistol was fired rapidly 5 or 6 times. I heard someone groan about the time the firing ceased,” Deputy Luckey wrote in a subsequent report to his boss. “I went to Langdon and found him dead. I looked around and a masked man stood at each door, warning by ominous signs for no one to undertake to leave the room.”

The Vigilantes then grabbed Harrison — it’s not clear whether he was in the room with Langdon when the masked riders burst in, or whether he came later, attracted by the activity. Ignoring his panic-stricken pleas, the masked men put a rope around his neck and used a horse to drag him through the streets of Prineville to the bridge, where they strung his by-now-lifeless body from a banister.

Vigilante rule

It was the beginning of the Vigilantes’ reign of their own special kind of law and order in Prineville country — enforced by masked riders with drawn guns and ready ropes.

“The ‘Vigilantes’ who banded together that night to shoot Langdon and lynch the innocent Harrison stuck together for two years, getting bolder and bolder,” Blakely told the Oregonian.

The group took to sending death threats, with skull-and-crossbones emblems, to various people around town — some of whom, certainly, were rustlers and criminals, but others of whom were simply fellow ranchers opposed to their methods.

Colonel Thompson claims the escalation in Vigilante activity was in response to a bold increase in crime, apparently by the unknown gang of 10 outlaws first encountered in Langdon’s brother’s house.

Public opinion starts to turn

Public opinion appears to have been on the Vigilantes’ side at first, which gives some credence to Colonel Thompson’s claim that the group formed out of frustration with ineffective local law enforcement. But it didn’t stay on their side for long. In fact, it seems to have turned on them later that year, in December, when the Vigilantes lynched a horse jockey named Charles Luster. The Vigilantes claimed Luster had been about to steal some horses, but most folks in town happened to know that Luster had just refused to throw a horse race at the behest of some prominent Vigilantes who’d bet against him; the sudden declaration that Luster was a horse thief seemed disturbingly convenient.

Moreover, in the process of getting even with Luster, the Vigilantes also killed another young man, a friend of Luster’s who was with him that night; the two of them ended up hanging from a juniper tree together with the rancher they’d been having dinner with, and the rancher they’d been working for was shot through a window at a Prineville saloon the same night. Colonel Thompson later tried to claim the four of them had been part of a gang that had ridden through Prineville earlier in the day shooting into the air and threatening to burn the town down, but his is the only account that mentions anything of this kind; again, it seems likely that he was just making up a story to justify the Vigilantes as they trumped up accusations of crimes as cover stories for the murder of inconvenient men.

After this incident, the residents of Prineville definitively turned against the Vigilantes. But law enforcement was still extraordinarily light and ineffective throughout the Prineville area. Sure, the Vigilantes were throwing their weight around, but could anything be done about them? And would a Crook County without the Vigilantes be even worse?

More innocent people were going to have to die before the town would commit to doing something about it. We’ll talk about how that played out in next week’s column.

(Sources: Lundy, Herbert. “When the Juniper Trees Bore Fruit,” Portland Morning Oregonian, 3-12-1939; Thompson, William. Reminiscences of a Pioneer. San Francisco: Alturas Plaindealer, 1912; Brogan, Phil. East of the Cascades. Portland: Binford, 1977; correspondence with Karen Graney)