Forming the West…

Every now and then you come across a piece of writing that hits you square between the eyes with its clarity and truth. Happened to me yesterday when I was rereading Craig Johnson’s excellent Longmire mystery, “The Dark Horse.” How I missed lighting on this particular passage the first time I read the book I don’t know, but this time around it stopped me dead in my tracks:

“I thought about how we tilled and cultivated the land, planted trees on it, fenced it, built houses on it, and did everything we could to hold off the eternity of distance – anything to give the landscape some sort of human scale. No matter what we did to try and form the West, however, the West inevitably formed us instead.”

Seems to me this 60-word paragraph encapsulates the theme of pretty much every Western novel ever written. And I imagine that last sentence describes perfectly the journey of every Western writer. I know it does mine, anyway.

My hat’s off to you, Craig. Thanks.


The Rio Virgin, Southern Utah – Thomas Moran (1913)

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

February 21, 1885…

Kindness is an admirable trait in a lawman, but it must be tempered with a healthy dose of suspicion. It was a lesson U.S. Marshal Hal Gosling learned too late. His good nature led to his death, setting events in motion that would break up of one of the worst outlaw gangs to plague south Texas in the 1880s.

You can read about Marshal Gosling’s sad demise, and the end of the Helotes Gang, in my article from the December 2013 issue of Wild West Magazine, now online at HistoryNet.

For a fuller account, see Chapter 3 of Some Gave All.

Slippery Shenanigans at the Faro Table

“In the 1993 film Tombstone, Doc Holliday asks his pal Wyatt Earp, ‘Since when is faro a business?’ Holliday follows up with the wry observation, ‘Only suckers buck the tiger; the odds are all on the house.’ Catchy dialogue, but historically it would seem to miss the mark—a thing the real John Henry Holliday rarely did. Dentistry never got Doc much beyond a nickname, but for him and many contemporaries, faro, mainstay of saloons and gambling houses across the Wild West, was indeed a business—generally lucrative and often respectable, if rarely honest…”

Wild West Magazine, recently put my August 2008 article on the shady dealings of the faro table online. See it here.

 

Grave Robbers and Anti Grave Robbers…

In time for a little Halloween ghoulishness, the December issue of Wild West magazine (available in October) has my story “Grave Business.” Read about the 19th-century “resurrection men” who robbed graves and sold bodies for profit, and the inventors who developed wild – sometimes deadly – ways to thwart them.

And be sure not to miss Kellen Cutsforth’s excellent piece, in the same issue, on the cremation rites of the Mojave Indians.

Wild West Magazine

118 years ago today…

On August 20, 1900, Sheriff John Henry Dillingham of Platte County, Missouri, was summoned to the sleepy little town of Farley over a case of multiple murder. A local physician named Sterling Price “Sturley” Harrington had gone on a day-long, drug and alcohol fueled killing spree. Taking his ten-year-old daughter along on his bloody errands, the doctor shot and killed his mother-in-law in cold blood, then calmly drove to the home of his wife’s uncle and killed him as well. He drove across the state line into Leavenworth, Kansas, where – apparently with further killing in mind – he resupplied with ammunition and more weapons before returning to Farley.
 
In what was likely part of an addle-brained plan to escape, Harrington tried to rob the town’s general store, and engaged in a point-blank shootout with the store’s clerk. About this time Sheriff Dillingham arrived with a trio of deputies, one of whom was his son, Henry. As the lawmen approached the store, Harrington met the sheriff at the entrance, the two men exchanged shots, and Sheriff Dillingham was killed instantly. As the murderous doctor fled toward his wagon, Henry Dillingham fired three times and Harrington fell dead in the street.
 
Twenty-two year old Henry Dillingham was appointed to finish out his father’s term as sheriff. Thirty years later he would also serve as the United States Marshal for the Western District of Missouri
 
Sheriff John Dillingham’s eventful career and the tragic events leading up to his death are detailed in Chapter 8 of Some Gave All.

Santa Fe Stampede

A none-too-flattering contemporary review of the 1938 Three Mesquiteers film, “Santa Fe Stampede,” published in the April 26, 1939 issue of the New York Times:

“Don’t go expecting to see a lot of cattle in ‘Santa Fe Stampede,’ at the Rialto, because there aren’t any cattle: not one scrawny maverick, not a single unbranded heifer, not a sign of a little dogie. Aside from this curious fact, and the unaccountable absence of guitars, it seems to be a Western picture, all right; there are three fellows dressed up in cowboy suits, and drawls, and a villainous claim jumper who nearly gets John Wayne lynched in a typical Republic mob scene—that is, a mob scene filmed in close-up, for economy’s sake. And oh, yes—in case you don’t remember—Mr. Wayne seems to be the D’Artagnan of a curious trio known as the Three Mesquiteers, whose success up to now is probably due to the fact that nobody has thought of ambushing them with a Flit gun.”

The most curious thing about the review is who wrote it – Frank Nugent, the journalist/film reviewer who in his second career as a screenwriter would script some of Duke Wayne’s best films, including Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers, and The Quiet Man.

Skin and Bones

Buffalo hide hunting was big business in the 1870s. Even after the great slaughter of the herds, folks found a cash crop in the sun-bleached bones. Want to know more? Check out my February 2009 Wild West Magazine article about the dual trades of buffalo hunting and bone picking, now online here.