Some Gave All review by Jon Guttman, Wild West Magazine – August, 2014 (published online May 29, 2014):
The American West has added a healthy helping of new mythology to that of other eras, much of it personifying the struggle between good and evil in the form of two men or more squaring off in a dusty street to determine whether law and order will prevail. Bad guys get their just desserts, good guys die martyrs’ deaths; a lucky handful of both are remembered by posterity and have their exploits replayed, usually in distorted form, on the large or small screen.
In Some Gave All J.R. Sanders focuses on lawmen who also fell martyr to their sense of civic duty but who never obtained national fame. Delving into the still-available newspapers and documentation of the times, he presents the lives and violent times of 10 peace officers and the equally diverse rogues gallery of lawbreakers who cut these lawmen’s careers short between 1879 and 1910. As Wild West Editor Gregory Lalire writes in the foreword, Sanders “tells these stories with flair, bringing out the drama in the lives and deaths of some of the countless Western lawmen worth knowing.”
Such is the comprehensive nature of Sanders’ storytelling that several chapters call to mind a Wild West version of the contemporary television show Law and Order. After the background and buildup leading to the crime, he pursues the aftermath—which, if the killer is taken alive, transfers the action into the courtroom, where one must read on to learn his ultimate fate—whether dangling at the end of a rope, getting away with murder or somewhere between these two extremes.
The lawmen profiled in this book were courageous but only human, each having to make decisions that didn’t always pan out. In 1885 U.S. Marshal Harrington Lee “Hal” Gosling let his sense of decency get the better of prudence when he accompanied convicted train robbers James B. Pitts and Charlie Yeager on their way from Austin, Texas, to the San Antonio Jail with some of their female relatives in tow—a decision that cost him his life and those of two others. More tragic was what occurred on July 19, 1898, when the law trapped a violently disturbed explosives worker named Quong Ng Chong in the powder magazine of the Western Fuse and Explosives Co., just outside of Oakland, and tried to talk him out. The outcome was felt beyond San Francisco, and the body count included four deputy sheriffs and a constable, still the greatest single loss of law enforcement lives in California history.
Sanders’ stories may not always have the neat symmetry of one’s favorite traditional Western, but they do illustrate the violent psyches that pervaded the West even as it was transitioning into the 20th century. The names here may not be as familiar or catchy as Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok or Bat Masterson, among the biggest names in Western mythology. But the true grit displayed by the protagonists in Some Gave All should provide enough real-life drama to interest any aficionado and prove that truth played straight can hold up alongside any fiction.
Some Gave All – Forgotten Old West Lawmen Who Died With Their Boots On, is a remarkable piece of research and writing by J.R. Sanders, who has previously penned two books, and many articles for WILD WEST magazine. His fascination with the wild west goes back to his youth, growing up in the once lawless cattle town of Newton, Kansas, and childhood vacation visits to Abilene, Dodge City, and the Dalton Gang’s hideout.
As a former Southern California Police Officer, he takes the subject of his newest book seriously and personally. He sifted through many possible lawmen to focus on, and selected ten to report on in depth. In all likelihood, not even one will be familiar to the reader. And that’s part of the point: plenty has been written about the Earps and the Mastersons, and these ten heroic men have been too quickly forgotten, some seemingly before their bodies had gone cold. The fate of some of their families is tragic.
Some of the histories are startling for what a different world they seem to take place in. Others are just as startling for how little has changed. On the one hand, a U.S. Marshall in Western District, Texas, died because, being a well-raised Victorian gentleman, he assumed a woman would not lie. On the other hand, a police officer in the mining town of Gold Hill, Nevada, died as a result of what is, to this day, the most dangerous situation for a lawman to get involved in: a domestic dispute. Some of the cases have unexpected elements that would never occur to a fiction writer, such as the pair of hold-up men who made their getaways on bicycles.
While many non-fiction books of the old west end their tale when the lawman dies, this is often just the midway point in Sanders’telling. He writes about the pursuit, capture, trial, and punishment of the killers, and the reader will likely be amazed at how little has changed. We think of the wild old days as a time when someone uttering, “Get a rope!” was time for the story to end. In fact, just like today, legal maneuverings often made these court battles go one for years. Lawyers endlessly debated points such as the difference between ‘stooped’ and ‘round-shouldered’ in the description of a suspect. And also like today, the longer it took to bring the miscreant to justice, the more frequently the press would start to admire and fawn over the killer, the victims quickly forgotten.
Some of the whims of justice would be laughable if they weren’t so infuriating. A convicted murderer and train-robber serving a life sentence turns artist, and sculpts a bust of the governor, who soon after paroles the killer!
Sanders’ subjects are meticulously researched with primary sources; his bibliography lists numerous newspapers, periodicals, census and other public records, court transcripts, and books. His style of story-telling is engaging and accessible, and never dumbed down: hooray for the writer with the courage to use ‘pettifogging’ when no other word will quite do.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about the every-day heroics of the lawmen of the old west.
For all but a few, the life of a lawman in the 19th Century American West was far from glamorous. Overworked and underpaid, often overlooked and usually under-respected, the men who wore badges risked their lives to wrestle order from chaos on the frontier. They had no formal training, no instant communication, and often no backup … but one thing they possessed in abundance was guts.
A handful became legends — Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Wild Bill Hickok — but for the vast majority, the job of sheriff, marshal, or policeman didn’t even pay a living wage. Many worked second jobs to support families.
When they died in the line of duty, most were given a hero’s funeral … and then quickly forgotten.
J.R. Sanders calls forth the ghosts of fourteen such men in Some Gave All: Forgotten Old West Lawmen Who Died With Their Boots On. Some of the real-life stories are touching, some sad, and some downright bizarre, but in every case the men behind the badges deserved better than to be consigned to historical footnotes.
Sanders does a good job of bringing the lawmen to life. In addition to illuminating the career leading up to each man’s death, he provides background on familial relationships and the other roles the subjects played in their communities. Then he does the unexpected: He follows the aftermath of each murder, revealing investigations and court proceedings by citing primary sources. In a surprising number of cases, the cop-killers escaped justice due to vagaries of the legal system. In an even more surprising number of cases, though local newspapers invariably eulogized the fallen officers as heroes, within a few years even they misremembered details or spelled the lawman’s name incorrectly. A hero’s glory, it seems, is fleeting.
Some Gave All is an educational read for anyone interested in law-enforcement history. Though non-fiction, each chapter brims with personality and wild-west action — shootouts, stabbings, and prisoner escapes. The subsequent courtroom shenanigans provide a great deal of evidence that miscarriages of justice and legal loopholes are nothing new.
This is not dry, “just the facts, ma’am,” reporting, thanks to Sanders’ lively voice and irrepressible editorializing. The book is worth a read.