Anyone who loves to read about or research the American West appreciates The New Encyclopedia of the American West, edited by Howard R. Lamar, a Sterling Professor of History at Yale University, where he has taught since 1949 and was president in 1992-93. That book provides concise, interesting summaries of some of the greatest Westerners to ever come down the pike—and one of them is Charlie Siringo (1855- 1928), a Texas cowboy, Pinkerton detective and the author of seven books. As it turns out, Dr. Lamar has had a quarter-century-long fascination with Siringo, and his decision to write a full biography of that “representative cowboy” is one that will delight Western history aficionados.
Writing about Siringo was a labor of love for Lamar, who says in the preface of the 370- page Charlie Siringo’s West: An Interpretive Biography (2005, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, $29.95), “My hope is that the results will contribute to a fuller understanding of both Charles Siringo and the American West of his day that stretched from south Texas in 1855 to Hollywood in the 1920s.” Lamar admits that his greatest research asset was Siringo himself, whose 1885 work A Texas Cowboy: Or, Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony was the first autobiography of a cowboy to be published. In that first book, Siringo dealt with cattle ranching on the south coast of Texas and in the Texas Panhandle. But he had plenty of later adventures to write about as well, as he demonstrated in his 1912 work A Cowboy Detective: A True Story of Twenty-Two Years with a World-Famous Detective Agency.
The 1998 work The New Encyclopedia of the American West is a revised version of the 1977 book The Reader’s Encyclopedia of the American West, also edited by Lamar. His other books include Dakota Territory, 1861-1889: A Study of Frontier Politics; The Far Southwest, 1846-1912; and Texas Crossings: The Lone Star State and the Far West. Western history buffs, along with anyone else interested in a good read full of solidly researched nuggets, will enjoy Charlie Siringo’s West, which Lamar talked about in a recent interview for Wild West.
Wild West: Why was Charlie Siringo so enamored with Shanghai Pierce?
Lamar: Shanghai was the most prominent and successful early cattle rancher in south Texas. He was a fearless, determined man who spoke his mind. Pierce had a talent for spotting able men to work for him, and early on he identified Siringo as a bright, vigorous cowboy who, although only a teenager, showed great promise. Pierce and Siringo talked together easily. Later as a successful merchant in Caldwell, Kan., Siringo invited Pierce to his home for dinner. Siringo felt that he could talk and relate to this powerful man.
WW: Siringo worked for a number of outfits and individuals up until 1877. Which was his favorite?
Lamar: Siringo was very proud to work for Pierce on the Rancho Grande. Although he admired Pierce and his brother Jonathan, Siringo’s favorite was Wiley Martin Kuykendall, a Texas-born cowboy and rancher, who, like Siringo, was able and fearless. “Mr. Wiley,” as he was called, worked closely with all the cowboys, had a great sense of humor, and though he had married Pierce’s sister, was never intimidated by Shanghai. Siringo and the Kuykendalls remained friends all of Siringo’s life.
WW: You mention Siringo and Billy the Kid numerous times. What was their connection?
Lamar: When Billy the Kid and his pals (not a gang) visited the LX Ranch in the Panhandle where Siringo was a cowboy, these two teenagers liked one another and engaged in a shooting contest. Panhandle ranchers soon discovered the Kid was stealing cattle from them and organized a posse to track Billy down. Siringo was in the initial posse, but was excluded from the Pat Garrett posse. Siringo still admired the Kid, and I think he was glad he was left to reclaim stolen cattle only. Once the Kid had died, Siringo realized the Kid’s story could be a bestseller and set out to write about him, which he did in all of his later books, even to writing a brief Kid biography. In short, Siringo capitalized on the Billy the Kid saga all his life and especially in Hollywood.
WW: Would you agree that Siringo’s experience in the Texas Panhandle seems to have been his best and most stable?
Lamar: Yes. In the Panhandle, he was surrounded by so many able ranchers and cowboys, and knew David Beals, the LX Ranch owner whom he came to admire. Beals became a sort of father figure to Siringo and later helped Siringo succeed in Caldwell. They remained friends until Beals died many years later.
WW: Siringo was not very good with money was he?
Lamar: No. Siringo wasn’t good with money. He made a lot but spent it on friends and family and foolish investments. He was also naive about book contracts and royalties all of his life.
WW: Tell us about Siringo’s transformation from a cowboy to a businessman.
Lamar: Siringo discovered in Caldwell that he could be a salesman and that he loved people, and loved to tell them stories. He also realized he could write and befriended the local newspaper editor. He gained attention by being a champion rodeo rider.
WW: You mention the story of a blind phrenologist who came to Caldwell, rubbed Siringo’s head and told the audience, “Ladies and Gentlemen, here is a mule’s head.”
Lamar: Siringo recorded the phrenologist account in his book before he moved to Chicago in 1886, but he used it to suggest that the prediction led to his being a Pinkerton detective—really coincidence only.
WW: Chicago’s Haymarket Riot in 1886 seems to have had a big influence on him.
Lamar: The Haymarket bombing was a critical turning point for Siringo. From it he learned to hate all foreign “anarchists” all of his life, a view reinforced by his Denver boss, James McFarland. To Siringo, any person using a bomb was an anarchist.
WW: And the riot also influenced Siringo’s decision to join the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.
Lamar: Yes. While in Chicago, Siringo witnessed how the Pinkertons worked, using assumed names and occupations to get closer to criminals. These were techniques Siringo used brilliantly throughout his career as a detective.
WW: What was Siringo’s most important case as a Pinkerton? His least tasteful?
Lamar: Siringo’s most important case was his role in the Coeur D’Alene labor strike in Idaho in the early 1890s. It was also Siringo’s most dangerous. He had minor cases involving small-time rustlers or miners stealing ore from the mines. His least tasteful was his frustration in failing to convict the cattle rustler Pat Coghlan, who continued to escape justice despite so many court trials.
WW: You aren’t the first to recognize the significance of Charlie Siringo.
Lamar: I would argue that when the noted Texas scholars J. Evetts Haley and J. Frank Dobie praised Siringo’s cowboy accounts as significant, that needs stressing, for they gave Siringo recognition.
WW: What other projects do you have in the works?
Lamar: I have a long-overdue project to write a history of the southern overland trails to Gold Rush California via the Santa Fe and Texas routes.
Originally published in the June 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.