Lawman: The Life and Times of Harry Morse, 1835-1912, by John Boessenecker, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1998, $29.95.
“Harry Morse was a gunfighter, manhunter, and sleuth whose career is without parallel in the history of the American frontier,” writes John Boessenecker in the introduction to this well-written, informative 366-page work. At first glance, those words might appear to be a reach, especially to those of us who have been overfed on tales of Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok. But anyone who reads this California lawman’s biography would be hard pressed to argue with the author’s statement.
Morse was the far-roaming sheriff of Alameda County from 1864 to 1878 and then, while based in Oakland/San Francisco, became the most famous private detective on the West Coast for at least 30 more years. However, by the 1920s, his true stories–if not his very name–had become largely forgotten. Certainly, his exploits have been overshadowed by the more dubious adventures of sometime lawmen Earp and Hickok. As a manhunter, Morse pursued such notorious bandidos as Juan Soto, Tiburcio Vasquez, Narato Ponce and Narciso Bojorques. Morse’s showdown with Soto has to rank as one of the most dramatic–though certainly not the most famous–gunfights in the Old West. Later, in San Francisco, Morse nabbed stagecoach robber extraordinaire Black Bart.
In telling Morse’s fascinating story, Boessenecker, a San Francisco-based attorney, often allows Morse to do the telling (Yes, Harry was far more prolific with a pen than either Wyatt or Wild Bill). You’ll also find plenty of solid insight into California’s battle for law and order after the gold rush. Morse was not perfect. When it came to one Bartolo Sepulveda, the sheriff, according to Bossenecker, “presented highly unreliable evidence that came close to sending an innocent man to the gallows.” But the overall picture is of a law enforcer who was remarkably honest and fair at a time when official corruption and racist attitudes flourished. From now on, when someone sings of a lawman being “brave, courageous and bold,” it just might make more sense to think of Harry instead of Wyatt.