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Showdown! Lionhearted Lawmen of Old California

by William B. Secrest, Craven Street Books, Fresno, Calif., 2010, $15.95.

The dependable Bill Secrest focuses on the lives and times of six lawmen who tamed California between the Gold Rush and the turn of the century—John J. Bogard, Lafayette Choisser, William J. Howard, Hiram L. Rapelje, Emil Harris and David F. Douglass, likely none of whom is instantly familiar to the average Wild West reader. He succeeds with a dense array of documented events.

When Harris, a Jewish Prussian immigrant, accepted a Los Angeles lawman’s job in 1870, he did so knowing that the previous city marshal, Jack Whalen, had been stabbed to death in December 1853, that Sheriff James R. Barton and two of his posse had been shot dead by bandits in 1857, and that Sheriff Billy Getman had been gunned down in the street the following year. Harris managed to survive and brought in a number of bad guys, including Tiburcio Vásquez. By the time of his death in 1921 at the ripe old age of 82, he had acquired a reputation as one of the West’s most successful detectives.

Fans of the Los Angeles–based cable TV cop drama The Shield might find a precursor to the line-crossing Vic Mackey in Rapelje, a tough gunfighter whose many successful apprehensions included that of train robber and murderer John Sontag, famously photographed in front of the posse that shot him in 1893, with Rapelje standing second from left. In 1894, however, Fresno was reducing its force, and anticipating losing his deputy position, Rapelje accepted a job as a watchman in Fresno’s Chinatown. As Secrest explains, Chinese companies hired Caucasian watchmen to keep order, collect mail, represent them in court, pay fines and generally look out for their interests in the white man’s world. Such a position was ripe for all sorts of lucrative under-the-table benefits, but as Rapelje eventually learned, it involved a marked step into the dark side of his profession.

The central appeal of Showdown! lies in all the new characters on either side of the law—and sometimes both at the same time—who appear and sometimes reappear like bad pennies throughout the six entries.The book is loaded with thrills.


Originally published in the December 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here