Whispering Smith: His Life and Misadventures
by Allen P. Bristow, Sunstone Press, Santa Fe, N.M., 2007, $24.95 paperback.
A book of 173 pages might not sound very long, but it’s quite an accomplishment when the subject matter is a man named Smith who whispered (or didn’t say anything) a lot, tended to be secretive and had few friends and no family. Furthermore, the name Whispering Smith is usually associated with fictional adventures portrayed in books or seen on the big or little screens. It all began with Frank H. Spearman’s best-selling novel of 1906 with the catchy name Whispering Smith. The railroad detective of that book has appeared (usually more dramatically and heroically) in at least half a dozen motion pictures (including a 1948 version starring Alan “Shane” Ladd) and in a 1961 television series. But there was a real Union Pacific Railway detective who came to be known as Whispering Smith; his true name was James L. Smith.
Apparently the real Smith never personally used the nickname “Whispering,” and one estimation that he killed 30 men is no doubt way too high (though he was definitely involved in several killings and probably in at least one lynching). Allen Bristow, who had a career in law enforcement and has written many articles for Wild West Magazine and other publications, deals with the “Hollywood Versus History” issue in his first chapter. The author’s objective in exploring this subject was in fact to see if the mild-mannered, honest, moral, courageous Hollywood Smith matched the real-life Smith, who was credited with having been the only peace officer to ever penetrate the Hole-in-the-Wall (outlaw hangout in Wyoming) and with having once run Bat Masterson out of Denver. In the end, the real Whispering Smith, in part because of excessive drinking, was not the man he once was. But neither was the actor Alan Ladd. Bristow closes with some intriguing parallels between the two men.
Originally published in the February 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.