Settlers in places where lawmen were few and far between often enforced their own rules of justice.
Justice was often a matter of self-help for settlers in the Old West. Take this small mid-1880s happening out in No Man’s Land, the hardscrabble country that would later become the Oklahoma Panhandle. When local badman Bill Williams and his worthless companion “Big Jim” rode by Ira Norton’s humble soddy and began to shoot it up, the man inside knew he had to defend his property. Norton still had some powder for his shotgun, but no shot. So he loaded the powder, then smashed up a cast-iron teapot and crammed pieces of it down the barrels. The settler then let loose both barrels of teapot, causing Williams to fall and Big Jim to high-tail it out of that lawless land.
Self-defense by teapot was a little unusual, even for No Man’s Land, but fending for oneself was certainly not. No Man’s Land got its name because quite literally no law existed out there; the area was a political vacuum created by a gaping geographical hole between the borders of Texas and Kansas. The citizens did the best they could, down to making their pest-killing look as legal as they could. After the extermination of two badmen a few years later, the locals convened a sort of extralegal coroner’s jury, which solemnly considered the circumstances of the criminals’ extinction. The jury found that “they came to their death from gunshot wounds received at the hands of many law-abiding citizens, there inflicting, as nearly as possible, the extreme penalty of the law as it should be in such cases…their untimely end is but the result of their many wrongs.”
Elsewhere in the West, where laws of some kind existed, peace officers were too few and law breakers too common for most settlers to rest easy in their modest homes or on the dusty streets of their communities. Frontier violence was real, and settlers sometimes had no choice but to mete out their own justice considering the wide-open spaces, the scattered population, the poor communication, the high number of desperate men with get-rich-quick mindsets and the few badge wearers on duty. Another problem for law-abiding citizens was that along with its tough, dedicated officers—state, federal, territorial, Indian and local—the West had its share of lawmen who were inept, lazy or downright crooked.
Law enforcers in small frontier communities often only worked part time and were not accustomed to handling major crimes. That was the case in quiet Coffeyville, Kan., in October 1892 when Grat, Bob and Emmett Dalton and their gang came to town to rob the citizens’ two banks. The town marshal was not only unarmed that day, he was by trade a school principal, marshaling part-time. The Coffeyville raid was a disaster for the Dalton Gang (four of the five participants were killed), because more than a few citizens risked their lives to defend their town against the outlaws. “What this country needs is a multiplication of Coffeyvilles,” The Washington Post suggested shortly after the citizens’ victory. “Towns of that caliber should be distributed freely all over this glorious and happy land. Wherever robbers, murderers, incendiaries and bandits congregate, some new Coffeyville should spring up in the night.”
Even in areas with full-time law officers, citizens couldn’t always rely on the badge wearers to keep the criminal element at bay. On the county level, a sheriff was paid to maintain the peace but usually supplemented his small salary by various fees. More often he would be collecting taxes or doing paperwork than using a weapon or his fists. He was usually in charge of a large area and depended on deputies for the day-to-day duties. One of the West’s most famous sheriffs, Pat Garrett of Lincoln County, New Mexico Territory, was collecting taxes on the day Billy the Kid killed two of his deputies. Garrett later assured himself of everlasting fame by killing the Kid in 1881. In Arizona Territory six years later, Apache County Sheriff Commodore Perry Owens killed three men and wounded another while firing but five shots in a celebrated fight. But most sheriffs became little known outside their own counties.
On the town level, marshals and deputies were hired to enforce ordinances in their limited jurisdictions. Most of their arrests involved drunks rather than hardened criminals. In railroad towns and cow towns, these peace officers permitted a certain amount of rowdiness, because hard-drinking cattlemen and railroad men were good for business. Sometimes men who were skilled with firearms—such as Wild Bill Hickok and Wyatt Earp—were brought in to tame a town, but once a semblance of peace was established, the leading citizens no longer retained such potentially dangerous men.
All too often it was hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Lawmen such as Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok are known for doing daring deeds, but they all seemed to prefer gambling to keeping the peace. Wyatt and his brothers were also known for their associations with ladies of the evening, so much so that some of their detractors called them “the Fighting Pimps.” Even when they seemed to stand up for the law, as in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, during the famous October 1881 street fight with the Clanton and McLaury brothers, not everyone agreed the Earps were being “just.” In fact the sheriff based in Tombstone, Johnny Behan, sided with the Earps’ enemies, the Cowboys. Hickok gained fame as an Old West lawman because of the work he did in several Kansas cow towns and his skills with a six-shooter. He was the city marshal in Abilene, Kan., in 1871 when he not only killed his foe Phil Coe but also shot down his friend Mike Williams by mistake. That accident might have convinced Hickok to give up the badge for good. When he was shot down in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, on August 2, 1876, he was seated at a poker table.
Some men with badges worked both sides of the law. Sheriff Henry Plummer in Bannack, in what would become Montana, allegedly command- ed an organized gang of road agents until a band of vigilantes led by John Xavier Beidler (known as “X”) caught up with him and strung him up in the gold boom town in January 1864. Billy Brooks, the first town marshal of Newton, Kan., later served the burgeoning populations of Ellsworth and Dodge City until he took to acquiring horses and mules without paying for them. Billy was lynched with some other ne’er-do-wells in July 1874.
Henry Brown met a similar fate. In June 1882 Brown, a former associate of Billy the Kid, was appointed assistant marshal of Caldwell, the wildest cow town in Kansas. He did such a good job of taming the town that six months later he was named marshal. But he had a troublesome sideline: bank robbery. When he and three confederates robbed the bank of little Medicine Lodge, Kan., in April 1884, they murdered the unarmed cashier, and a band of angry citizens gave chase and caught them. That evening a mob broke into the jail and Brown caught both barrels from a shotgun and an assortment of rifle bullets as he tried to escape. He was marginally luckier than his men, all three of whom were summarily lynched.
Many other Kansas lawmen operated on both sides during the county seat wars. Today, the location of a county seat may seem a small matter, but as the West settled it was critical to the survival of a town. The county seat was the center of local government, including the courts, and therefore automatically was assured of a share of the county’s commerce. Moreover, status as a county seat vastly increased the chances of the town being included as a stop on the essential railroad line, the lifeblood of Western towns. Men were willing to fight for county seat status, and local lawmen were in the thick of it. Villainy in Kansas ranged from stuffing ballot boxes and falsifying the census to downright murder.
A contest between the Kansas towns of Leoti and Coronado in 1887 left three staunch citizens dead and more wounded. It got worse the next year in Stephens County, where a battle between Hugoton and Woodsdale ended in a good deal of blood, and local lawmen were leading actors. Dubious warrants were issued, and during one confrontation, Hugoton Marshal Sam Robinson slugged an undersheriff who was a Woodsdale supporter with his pistol barrel. Woodsdale Marshal Ed Short took up the cudgels for his town and traded gunfire with his counterpart. The climax came when posses from both towns were riding about down below the Kansas border in No Man’s Land, with Short carrying the same warrant he had failed to serve up in Kansas. Robinson ended up murdering the Stephens County sheriff and several other Woodsdale men, and after that, everybody armed to the teeth. Ultimately the Kansas governor sent in still another arm of Western law and order, one with a lot of muscle—eight militia companies complete with regimental band and battery of Gatling guns. No doubt the bitterness lingered on, but the conflict was over.
When the so-called peacekeepers were not available, or were in league with criminal elements or were simply unwilling to act, citizens were often ready to step in to the void. Take the case of Jim Miller, perhaps the most efficient killer-for-hire anyplace in the West. Known as “Deacon Jim” or “Killin’ Jim,” Miller liked to dress in funeral black and professed to be a Christian man—that is, when he wasn’t out killing people for money. And kill he did—at least 13 men and perhaps as many as 50 or more. One of his victims, near Las Cruces in 1908, might have been Pat Garrett, although the identity of the famed lawman’s killer continues to be debated.
Miller’s last job was the murder of a local man in Ada, Okla., in February 1909. Apprehended and resident in the local jail with the men who had hired him, Deacon Jim lived high on the hog, ordering steak from the local restaurant, and hired the fabled defense attorney Moman Pruiett, who had gotten more than 300 villains off the hook. The good citizens of Ada feared justice would not be done once Pruiett had worked his magic with a jury. So they removed Deacon Jim and his confederates from their cells on April 19 and summarily hanged them from the rafters of a local stable. The local paper expressed a general disapproval of lynching, but opined that this time the deed was approved by “God and man.” While it was presumptuous to invoke the almighty, the newspaper’s comment reflected a widely shared view in Ada that Miller got what he deserved.
Lots of Western self-help of this sort was ad hoc, informal and not administered by any organized body. But the cleansing of early San Francisco was the work of the Vigilance Committee, a large group of leading citizens tired of the rampant crime all around them. The worst of the lot of parasites in the city was trash that had washed in from Australia, known locally as the “Sydney Ducks.” Indeed, the worst part of the city was called Sydney Town; its streets were described as “hot beds of drunkenness and the scenes of unnumbered crimes.” Another gang, called the “Hounds,” competed with the Ducks in infamy.
Among other things, the city had been swept by repeated fires that did immense damage. One such conflagration destroyed a large part of the city. Local opinion inclined to the belief that some of the fires were arson, and suspicion naturally fell on the criminal element. Like citizens elsewhere, San Franciscans were first moved to act because they could not wait for a venal, corrupt city administration to step in. Twice in the 1850s—during the violent gold rush period—the citizenry took charge of law enforcement in an otherwise lawless city.
On the second convening of the vigilantes, a formal public meeting attracted a large crowd of law-abiding people. The Vigilance Committee issued an angry proclamation, occupied a building called Fort Gunnybags that had an alarm bell and was well stocked with arms (including a cannon) and set out to arrest or drive away the evildoers. The long reign of crime in the city was systematically stamped out. Most of the Ducks and Hounds had the good sense to disappear quickly from San Francisco. One Hound who stayed too long got himself hanged, expiring during a curious sort of tug-of-war between his friends and the vigilantes with his neck in the middle.
For the worst of the criminal element, the committee held a formal trial, solemnly conducted, before a jury of responsible men. Two especially odious male- factors, local political hoodlums James Casey and Charles Cora, were tried and hung in 1856 on a gibbet before a large crowd in front of the committee’s cannon-equipped headquarters. The lesson was not lost upon the rest of the criminal fraternity, and another exodus of the lawless followed.
Vigilance committees also popped up on other mining frontiers and elsewhere in the West. Montana Territory had its first vigilante movement in the 1860s to punish road agents, and another vigilante committee formed in 1884 to deal with cattle rustlers. A committee appeared in Dodge City and did good work for a while, until in 1873 a wanton killing by one of its members brought in the Army and put an end to it. In response to a rash of murders in Taney County, Mo., a vigilante group known as the Bald Knobbers terrorized the unlawful in the 1880s until members of this law-and-order league drifted into crime themselves. Another committee formed in gold-crazy Skagway, Alaska, in 1898 to rid the world of Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith, a perennial cheat.
Various groups gave themselves innocuous, legal-sounding names to present at least a minimal showing of legality. Back in the early 1840s, for instance, so-called Regular and Moderator organizations sprang up in Shelby County in east Texas. The original intent was to rid the area of corrupt officials and public nuisances, but criminals surfaced in both vigilante groups. Bushwhacking became the order of the day, and at least 18 men were murdered in four years. During the Lincoln County War in New Mexico Territory in the late 1870s, a group of Regulators formed, one of whom was named Billy the Kid, to deal with the “corrupt” law in Lincoln. The immediate result was even greater lawlessness.
Although some historians deny it, the Wild West truly was wild and in desperate need of law and order. California attorney and historian John Boessenecker makes a good case in his book rates were far higher in Gold Rush California Gold Dust & Gunsmoke that homicide and Reconstruction-era Texas than in modern times. “In 1851, a Los Angeles resident was thirty-seven times more likely to be murdered than in 1997,” Boessenecker writes. “It seems clear that our society, as apprehensive as it is about crime, is much safer and far less violent than that of the Gold Rush. Boomtowns and frontier regions of the American west continued to experience excessively high rates of homicide after the Gold Rush.” One reason for the violence is that frontier mining towns, cattle towns and railroad towns had relatively few females, and the men brought a bachelor culture of violent masculinity, personal honor, private vengeance and rough-and-ready justice. As Boessenecker reminds us, “In any society, most violent crime is committed by young, single males.”
Whether they wore a badge or not, men who reacted to violence on the frontier by shooting back or hanging the criminals were often seen as heroic or at least justified in their day. The notion that “a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do” really did hold sway on the 19th-century frontier. Establishing and maintaining order was not easy and could be unpleasant, but justice had to be served, even if a man had to dish it out himself.
Frequent contributor Robert Barr Smith teaches law at the University of Oklahoma and is the author of Tough Towns: True Tales From the Gritty Streets of the Old West and other books.
Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.