Q&A: Justice Mark Dillon

, New York Law Journal


Justice Mark Dillon and the cover of his book,
Justice Mark Dillon and the cover of his book, "Montana Vigilantes"

With an outdoors-oriented vacation to Montana winding down, Justice Mark Dillon, his wife and four children were looking for something else to do. On the last day, they stumbled on a ghost town, starting the 54-year-old New York appellate judge on the road to a chronicle of the Wild Wild West's vigilante movement.

Dillon, a Second Department justice from the far less rugged lands of Westchester County, had not been a western history buff before his trip to Montana. But he was intrigued by monuments and exhibits he saw related to the vigilante movement of the nineteenth century in the lawless frontier territory. His interest eventually led to a book—his first—about vigilantism, told from a legal perspective.

"The Montana Vigilantes: 1863-1870: Gold, Guns, and Gallows" (University Press of Colorado/Utah State University Press) was published in December. "It has been wonderfully successful," said Michael Spooner, the director of the scholarly imprint that brought out the book.

According to Spooner, the book quickly sold out a printing of 1,000 and is in its second; if demand holds up, he anticipates a paperback edition within a year. These may seem to be puny figures in the world of commercial New York publishing, but Spooner said they are respectable for an academic press, where it is not uncommon to sell 350 to 500 copies of a book over its entire life.

"Montana Vigilantes" also has been nominated for the "Reading the West" annual book awards of the Mountains & Plains Independent Book Sellers Association. Spooner said its scholarship is "very solid," validated in a referee process. But he said that the book also had "crossover appeal" among Westerners who liked to read about their region.

A 1984 graduate of Fordham Law, Dillon has served as a town justice, county court judge and Supreme Court justice. He was re-elected to the Appellate Division in November.

Q: What conditions in 1860s Montana fostered the growth of vigilantism?

A: Gold was discovered in significant quantities in Montana in 1863. The federal government formed the Montana Territory in 1863 to obtain legal jurisdiction over the gold, which was needed by President Lincoln to help finance the costs of the Civil War. Prospectors went to the territory to find the gold and a criminal element followed them to rob and kill for it. Lincoln was so preoccupied with the Civil War that he initially failed to appoint judges, U.S. attorneys, and U.S. marshals to the territory, which contributed to the lawlessness of the society. Transporting gold by horseback and stage coach over remote mountain trails made easy targets for the criminals. The rate of robbery and murder became so high that a vigilante committee was formed to hunt down the criminals and hang them in response. Cruel methods of interrogation were used to obtain information from suspects. Many criminals received trials that were as little as five minutes and sometimes a few hours, but many suspects received no trials at all. The sheriff of Bannack was the titular head of the criminal organization in the region until he and two deputy sheriffs were caught and hanged. The heroes of the book are the lawyers and judges who eventually established a system of criminal justice that was credible enough that it displaced vigilantism by the end of 1870. The book chronicles the conditions that led to vigilantism and the vigilante "trials" that followed from 1863 to 1870, with an analysis of the sufficiency, credibility, and admissibility of the evidence in each, and a description of the hangings that typically followed the trials.

Q: What kinds of men joined the vigilantes?

A: Men that were tough as nails, just like the criminals they hanged. It was a very different society. And yes, vigilantism was purely male-on-male.

What's being said

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    I have a first-hand account of vigilante justice in Benton during the period written by my great, great grandfather. Will try to reach Mark Dillon through Jeff Storey. I Just finished typing the manuscript. Looking forward to reading your book.

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