December 2015 Readers' Letters | HistoryNet MENU

December 2015 Readers’ Letters

By HistoryNet Staff
10/2/2015 • Wild West Magazine

Pinkerton Bomb
Concerning the article “Allan Pinkerton: ‘They Must Die’” [August 2015 Wild West]: Author Ron Soodalter has perpetuated the fictional account given by the Pinkertons that the device thrown in the James’ house was solely an incendiary device. In fact it was a bomb meant to explode after burning. This was revealed in an October 1992 True West article “The ‘Greek Fire’ Bomb,” by Fred R. Egloff, and later included in the book Frank and Jesse James: The Story Behind the Legend, by Ted P. Yeatman (2000). Incidentally, the book was a Western Writers of America Spur Award finalist for best western biography. Half the bomb was made of wrought iron and the other half of cast iron, so it would land right. It was held together by an iron band and had explosive powder in the center. So the explosion was no accident.

Tom S. Coke
Belle Plaine, Kan.

Ron Soodalter responds: As with many, if not most, historical events, the details may never be known. The device thrown into the Samuel cabin by the Pinkertons has been a subject of conjecture since that January night. As my article indicates, I tend to align with the opinion of T.J. Stiles as written in his excellent book Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War: “It was certainly meant to light up the interior of the house.…It was probably meant to set the building on fire as well; but it was definitely not intended to do what it did next.” I’ve put forth an alternative and plausible account of what the device was and what it was meant to do. I do find it illogical, however, that Pinkerton would stoop to blowing up a house in which an old woman was living, knowing the maelstrom of bad press it would—and ultimately did—engender. Please note, by the way, that Greek fire was not designed to explode but rather to burn when exposed to oxygen. It failed more often than it succeeded, especially if improperly mixed, and was used to minimal effect in the 1864 Confederate plot to burn New York City and the raid on St. Albans, Vt., that same year.

Pinkerton Image
I eagerly await the arrival of each new issue of your wonderful publication. (Congratulations on the new look!) I carefully read, cover to cover, and note interesting points for discussion. I then pass it along to my uncle in Minnesota, who is another Wild West enthusiast, so we can discuss those points. We both enjoyed articles about Billy the Kid and the confirmation of its “mirror image” and his not being left-handed. That being said, while reading the feature by Ron Soodalter about Allan Pinkerton in the August 2015 issue, I was curious about the image of William A. Pinkerton and two associates on P. 48. This also appears to be a mirror image. At first I thought it unusual that all three appeared to be left-handed. Then I noticed the telltale loading gate on the Winchester rifle. Hmmm.

Donald Bryson
Eagle Pass, Texas

Ron Soodalter responds: Good eye! It’s safe to say the image is indeed reversed, as evinced by the loading gate of Pinkerton’s Winchester, which—although seemingly on the left side in the image—was always manufactured on the right side of the receiver. Just as in the “Billy” tintype (which sold at auction for $2.3 million), the Winchester is the dead giveaway. Also, the buttonholes on Pat Connell’s coat seem to be on the right side—the wrong side for a man’s garment. Given such details, all three men look to be right-handed.

The Tall Target
I am very happy that the Reviews section of your August 2015 issue mentions the 1951 film The Tall Target. Made by director Anthony Mann before he made a name for himself with top-notch Westerns, this movie is a film noir classic about the efforts to prevent President Abraham Lincoln from being assassinated on a night train bound for Washington, D.C. The hero of the film is “John Kennedy,” played by Dick Powell. Kennedy trying to save Lincoln is just one more item on the odd list of coincidences between the two assassinated presidents. Great film and one of my favorites.

Mike Coppock
Enid, Okla.

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