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.

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Reading Bitter Bierce: Life After the Civil War

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After mustering out of the Union Army in 1865, Ambrose Bierce took a job as a US Treasury Agent charged with collecting “captured and abandoned property”.

He wrote about the experience in his autobiographical essay “‘Way Down in Alabam'”. I found this a very entertaining essay partly because I’ve done some time in the tax collecting business myself, though never with as much danger as Bierce faced, and partly because it fleshes out that time covered under the generic heading “Reconstruction” in American history books. Continue reading