Myths and Legends of our Own Land, by Charles M. Skinner, , at sacred-texts.com
There was rough justice in the West in the old days. It had to be dealt severely and quickly, for it was administered to a kind of men that became dangerous if they saw any advantage or any superiority in their strength or numbers over the decent people with whom they were cast. They were uncivilized foreigners and native renegades, for the most part, who had drifted to the frontier in the hope of making a living without work more easily than in the cities. As there were no lawyers or courts and few recognized laws, the whole people constituted themselves a jury, and if a man were known to be guilty it was foolishness for any one to waste logic on his case. And there is almost no record of an innocent man being hanged by lynchers in the West. For minor offences the penalty was to be marched out of camp, with a warning to be very cautious about coming that way again, but for graver ones it was death.
In 1840 a number of desperate fellows had settled along Cedar River, near its confluence with the Iowa, who subsisted by means of theft from the frugal and industrious. Some of these men applied themselves especially to horse-stealing, and in thinly settled countries, where a man has often to go twenty or thirty miles for supplies, or his mail, or medical attendance, it is thought to be a calamity to be without a horse.
At last the people organized themselves into a vigilance committee and ran down the thieves. As the latter were a conscienceless gang of rascals, it was resolved that the only effectual way of reforming them would be by hanging. One man of the nine, it is true, was supposed before his arrest to be a respectable citizen, but his evil communications closed the ears of his neighbors to his appeals, and it was resolved that he, too, should hang.
Not far away stood an oak with nine stout branches, and to this natural gallows the rogues were taken. As a squall was coming up the ceremonies were short, and presently every limb was weighted with the form of a captive. The formerly respectable citizen was the last one to be drawn up, and hardly had his halter been secured before the storm burst and a bolt of lightning ripped off the limb on which he hung. During the delay caused by this accident the unhappy man pleaded so earnestly for a rehearing that it was decided to give it to him, and when he had secured it he conclusively proved his innocence and was set free. The tree is still standing. To the ruffians it was a warning and they went away. Even the providential saving of one man did not detract from the value of the lesson to avoid bad company.