Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes

Since I’ll be putting up a review soon of another book touching on the American West, I thought I’d go back in the archives and put up material on some related topics.
McGrath has written a very detailed and entertaining look at violence in two trans-Sierrian mining camps, Aurora and Bodie. The stories are intriguing, exciting, and often funny given vernacular and sentiment of the time. McGrath challenges some of the myths of the popular West by looking at history as documented in the newspapers of these two camps.
His study reveals no rape, bank robberies, racial violence, gunfights at high noon, or lynch mobs.  He shows a West of little property crime, little violence against women (except prostitutes), opium addicts, high suicide amongst women, and at least token law enforcement and adjudication by courts.
McGrath does verify one conception of the West, though. It did have an extraordinary rate of homicide, most of it provoked by challenges to honor and manhood (a great many other homicides were averted by intervening friends, bad shooting, misfiring guns, and luck — some remarkable recoveries were made from gunshot wounds). The public attitude towards this usually took into account the circumstances of the shooting and the character of the victim.

A fair fight — often in a saloon after massive alcohol consumption — usually resulted in a verdict of justifiable homicide or self-defense verdict by a jury. If a “rough” died no one much cared who shot him or why. As the blurb on the back of the book states, the members of these two camps had no problems with violence between “consenting adults”. It was even ok to kill a man if he just threatened you. The perpetrators of these acts were almost never convicted of murder. (An insane man who beat his prostitute consort to death got convicted of manslaughter, but he was the only man convicted in a slaying.)
Defense attorneys then, as now, would disqualify jurors, create reasonable doubt in juries, cite insufficient evidence. They also used what, for then, was an effective tactic of trial delay so the ever transient witnesses would move on. Often the defendants were apprehended by law enforcement officials or voluntarily surrendered.
Much violence today is perpetrated against what the Old West would term innocents: the elderly, children, women. These the West demanded swift justice for and brooked no sympathy. Since the justice system virtually never convicted criminals, vigilante action was sometimes resorted to in these cases for justice and not the appeasement of a legalistic ritual. The vigilante committees were not unruly mobs easily dissuaded by a firm stand from a sheriff (law enforcement agents never stood up to them) or diverted into senseless violence. They were organized along military lines for specific ends and, when those ends were achieved, they disbanded.
Public sentiment was not easily raised in support of vigilante action, but, when it was, it was backed by a definite majority.  The towns did respect legal forms but felt, that if appointed bodies of law could not guarantee justice and self-preservation, than extra-legal means must be employed.
McGrath also chides the many scholars who unquestioningly accept the notion of a violent West and that that violence gave rise to what America is today. He points out the West was violent — more in fact than America today or the contemporary American East then — but only in specific ways:  homocide and suicide rates for women. The other types of violence plaguing us today occured rarely in the West and may have been deterred by the presence of a large armed citizenry willing to fight and a judicial system willing to permit it.  It is, for me, a compelling argument.
More reviews of non-fiction books on the the Old West are in the review index.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.