It Ends Here: Missouri’s Last Vigilante, by Joe Johnston, Missouri History Museum Press, St. Louis, distributed by the University of Chicago Press, 2015, $24.95
The title “last vigilante” of Missouri native Joe Johnston’s new title is Edward O’Kelley, the man who shot the man who shot Jesse James. But as the author notes in his epilogue, “Maybe there will always be another someone willing to take up that sword.” So perhaps it doesn’t all end here. “While civilians are no longer interested in going nose to nose with hardened criminals,” Johnston adds, “they understand that the law needs their help.” In this, the third entry in the Missouri Vigilantes series (following Johnston’s The Mack Marsden Murder Mystery: Vigilantism or Justice? and Necessary Evil: Settling Missouri With a Rope and a Gun), the author relates a wealth of intriguing historical information in a lively fashion, although purists are likely to object to some of the methods Johnston employs to tell his tale.
O’Kelley is only part of the story. The book opens with reporter James P. “Red” Galvin of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch heading to the Missouri State Penitentiary to interview inmate Laura Bullion, girlfriend of Wild Bunch member Ben “The Tall Texan” Kilpatrick. The book ends in circular fashion with Wells Fargo messenger David A. Trousdale becoming a vigilante hero by shooting Kilpatrick during a failed train robbery, and the ever-romantic Laura then crying “until she could cry no more.” Laura and the Tall Texan are two interesting characters out of the real West, but what about this Red Galvin fellow? Although Johnson doesn’t explicitly state it in the book, Galvin is a composite of several newsmen from a time when reporters rarely got bylines. The author invented dialogue after gleaning through old newspapers for the “facts.” Most of the imaginary conversation comes when O’Kelley relates his incredible life story to Galvin. In short, O’Kelley was a fan of Missouri outlaw Jesse James who, while avenging Jesse’s “murder” by killing assassin Bob Ford, failed to escape drunken obscurity. It all makes for entertaining reading—like a fast-paced novel in parts—though some readers may prefer a more straight, if not as spirited, narrative. Composite reporter Red Galvin also relates anecdotes about real-life outlaws William “The Missouri Kid” Randolph and George Collins. “Red,” Johnson writes, “loved and hated those criminals whose names he had typed countless times, and he thought he saw them perhaps more clearly than anyone else.” Sounds like a bit of self-reflection on the author’s part.