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In Hangtown, California, during the lawless Gold Rush of 1850, a committee of five decides who will die by the rope. Each has come to the Gold Rush trailed by their own transgressions and failures. Into this scene comes a Midwest farm-boy, around whom people tend to die, though never directly by his hand.

Hangtown is a novel of linked stories, the boy's, along with each of the committee:

--Honest John Nagengast, mayor and lifelong failure.
--Sheriff Barsuglia, former outlaw.
--Miss Scylla, madam and saloon owner, who feels guilt over her own secret murders.
--Charley Crocker, escaping the pressure of his family's disappointment. (Later founded the Central Pacific Railroad)
--Heinrich Schliemann, the gold broker amassing a fortune in order to fulfill his dream, finding the lost city of Troy. (Schliemann later succeeded in finding Troy)

Each story merges at the climax during Lucky Joe German's "trial."

While Hangtown is set in the old west, it is not of the Western genre. Rather, it is a psychological mainstream novel in the mode of E. L. Doctorow's Welcome to Hard Times.