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29 April 2011

Midnight cowboys: bounty hunters of the Old West




Bounty hunters go back to 1872, when the Supreme Court ruled they were part of the U.S. law enforcement system. Thus, the bounty hunter was pretty much a free agent; he was not held accountable to the rules of due process as sheriffs and marshals were. While this may have contributed to the general lawlessness of life in the Old West, it did ease the burden on local law officers, who in those days had trouble enough in their own back yards.

Pinkerton detective Charlie Siringo, for example, had a long and controversial career as a bounty hunter. Reputed to have “steely nerves” and the devil’s smarts, he tracked and brought back alive hundreds of robbers and murderers. (The incentive to bringing them back alive was that the bounty hunter’s fee was cut in half if the prisoner died.)

Charlie Siringo was unusual not only because of his spectacular success but because he used his real name, and that name was - contrary to common practice at the time - recorded. For most bounty hungers, anonymity was their protection.

Movies about the Old West have made the bounty hunger into a larger-than-life Good Guy, witness Richard Boone’s Paladin or Steve McQueen’s Josh Randall. But in reality high moral character was probably not the norm. Many town marshals and county sheriffs supplemented their incomes (and their reputations) with bounties, and their activities often straddled the fence between law-enforcing and law-breaking.

Charlie Siringo was unique. First of all, a photograph of the man shows a skinny guy with his shirt collar buttoned all the way to his neck, a definitely-not-10-gallon hat, a worn pair of jeans hitched up around his waist, and a single revolver hammed into a scruffy looking holster. Perhaps his nondescript appearance contributed to his success.

Born in 1855 in Matagorda County, Texas, Charles Angelo Siringo was the son of an Italian immigrant and an Irish mother. He had little schooling, worked as a cowboy in Texas, and rode as a trail driver for a herd of 2,500 longhorns over the Chisholm Trail from Austin to Kansas. During these years Siringo came to know Billy the Kid, and later he led a posse into New Mexico in pursuit of the outlaw and his gang.

In 1884, Charlie married Mamie Lloyd, left the Texas ranch where he worked, and set himself up as a merchant in Caldwell, Kansas. Then he wrote a book about his cowboy years: A Texas Cowboy: Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony, published in 1855.

That made Charlie famous as the first cowboy autobiographer, and in 1886 he moved to Chicago to work for Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency. For the next 22 years, he worked all over the west, tracking outlaws as far as Alaska and Mexico City, and became famous for not only his cleverness but his marksmanship. Most of his arrests were made without violence - probably because of Siringo’s reputation for sharp-shooting.

Charlie Siringo wrote other books about his experiences as a Pinkerton detective; unfortunately, the Pinkerton agency objected to his revelations and he was forced to re-title it as A Cowboy Detective (1912) and substitute fictitious names for real ones. Charlie returned to Santa Fe and in 1916 was appointed a New Mexico Ranger. He then published A Lone Star Cowboy (1919), followed by History of “Billy the Kid” (1920).

In 1927 Houghton Mifflin published Riata and Spurs, a composite of his first two autographies. Again, Pinkerton threatened a lawsuit, but the book was reissued with a revised subtitle and substituted material on outlaws to replace Siringo’s detective experiences.

Charlie Siringo’s life and experiences aided in romanticizing the West and helped promulgate the myth of the American cowboy, adding to a store of legends about the western expansion and enriching our cultural heritage Charlie Siringo died in Altadena, California, in 1928.

2 Comments:

Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Interesting post,Lynna. I just watched TRUE GRIT and as you point out, the bounty hunters of the old West definately walked on the far side of the law. Then again, they had to, given the treacherous behavior of the people they were after---shoot or be shot seemed to be the theme to live by (or die by, depending on how good of a marksman you were!).

8:43 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Neat post, Lynna. I love that Siringo's persona was so bland. Whether intentional or not I think it probably helped him blend in enough to sneak up on quite a few desperadoes. You find the most interesting characters in history!

12:38 PM  

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