Sunday, July 04, 2010
Tree The Town And Other Old West Myths From Hollywood
I do not know why I can hear and understand old movies and television but not new stuff. I can understand old Gunsmokes but not NCIS. Same with movies. It's something to do with modern sound tracks. Still, I'm seeing a lot of old westerns and western movies.
A few things that annoy me are some of the really silly myths that Hollywood has put out about the old west. One of the recurrent things about Hollywood westerns is a group of baddies taking over the town and working their nefarious way, either in a short robbery or a long term sort of thing. Bear in mind, the time we are discussing is from the end of the Civil War until the end of the Indian Wars, from 1865 to 1900, give or take.
The reality is different. While there were some towns that had a less than sterling reputation for being law abiding, the regular towns in the West were pretty tough places. Face it, after the Civil War the cities and towns were full of veterans. Add the Buffalo hunters, the Indian fighters and the all around tough guys (and women). Very few households were without guns. Those folks were ready to use them, too. Ask the James-Younger Gang. Seems they got the idea to go up to the peaceful farming town of Northfield, Minnesota and rob the bank.
There were the two James brothers, Frank and Jesse, the three Younger brothers, Cole, Bob and Jim, Charlie Pitts, Clell Miller and William Stiles. Stiles and Miller died in the streets of Northfield. Pitts was killed in the gunfight where all three Younger brothers were captured, only Frank and Jesse escaped. Some say there was a ninth member of the gang there, if so, no one ever discovered his name. Given the rather rough forms of questioning prisoners back in 1876, I do not believe there was a ninth gang member there. The town was not treed. It may have been the most fun those farmers and merchants had since the end of the Sioux Wars up there and coming home from The War of Northern Aggression.
Consider another famous bunch of western outlaws, the Dalton Gang. The Dalton brothers started out as lawmen. Frank, a Deputy US Marshall out of Fort Smith, home of Judge Parker, the "hangin' judge", was killed in a gun battle, trying to bring in the Smith-Dixon Gang. The lawing business wasn't for the other brothers, Grat and Bob were Deputy Marshalls, as well as having other law enforcement jobs while Emmett mostly worked as a cowboy.
They eventually went to the other side of the law, unless they were crooked from the beginning. That line of work has an unfortunate history of this. Anyhow, after some time of train robbing and other nefarious deeds, they got the bright idea of going to Coffeeville, Kansas and robbing two banks at once. It was October 5, 1892 when Bob, Grat and Emmett, joined by Bill Power and Dick Broadwell rode into town and tried to rob the two banks that were pretty much accross the street from each other.
Emmett survived his wounds and went to prison, later pardoned, he spent his remaining years in California. The other four? That's their picture at the top. I suspect if more criminals had their dead bodies put on display like that, our society would be a more peaceable place.
There is simply no record of a town being held by outlaws. Well, except modern Chicago and some other places run by Democrats, that is another story, though.
Another myth is the high murder rate in the old west. How many times have we heard "Dodge City" if someone mentioned that it might be a good idea to allow citizens to exercise their Second Amendment rights? If only. Dodge City had fifteen homicides between 1876 and 1885. These were almost entirely among the criminal types. Then, as now, stay away from criminals and avoid bars and you have a very good chance of dying of old age.
In the movies we always see everyone carrying big ol' Colt Single Action Armies in the big calibers. Truth is, there were not all that many people going about their business wearing a big revolver. To begin with, such guns are heavy. Before the development of X-Rays and antibiotics, most folks didn't need a big cartridge, anyhow. Face it, back then a .32 or .38 S&W in the boiler room was fatal, it just took time. Then, as now, most defensive use of a firearm involved pulling and pointing, not shooting.
The Army and lawmen liked the old thumb buster. Primarily because if one had to shoot at a horseman one aimed at the biggest target, the horse. Plus, western lawmen did not often carry nightsticks, instead "buffaloing" the bad guy, whopping 'em upside the head with the revolver. At any rate, to cause a horse wreck with a handgun, one needed deep penetration, that the .45 colt and .44-40 had in spades. The civilian? Not so much. One of the more popular guns was the Remington .41 Rimfire, a two shot derringer, note the double "r". The original deringer was a one shot muzzle loading gun, John Wilkes booth used one of those to end the political career of Abe Lincoln.
British Bulldog revolvers were also popular but, really, the most popular arms in the west were rifles and carbines. Almost every home had at least one, often more. Many homes had a Winchester '73, mostly in .44 WCF as well as a single shot "buffler gun". These, mostly in cartridges between the Sharps .44 to the "Big 50" were handy because a good way to commit suicide back than was trying to kill a Bison with a .44 WCF. Right up until the smokeless powder era, cap and ball rifles and handguns stayed fairly popular, too.
The last myth of this post is those short barreled shotguns we see in the movies. Not so, back then. The shotgun guards of the Wells Fargo Stage mostly carried Winchester carbines. Those who carried shotguns mostly carried thirty to thirty-two inch barrels. The eighteen and twenty inch (and shorter) barrels didn't really happen until the smokeless era. There were a very few short barrels. This has much to do with the burning properties of large amounts of black powder. There were no shotguns with the butts cut off to make a handgun, to the best of my knowledge. I shoot black powder in a twenty inch barrel, with a full butt. I have loaded full charge buckshot loads with black. I do not even want to think about trying that with a stockless shotgun.
Oh, one final myth, John Wayne as a cavalryman. The maximum weight allowed for a horse soldier back then was one hundred and forty-five pounds. The Duke wouldn't have qualified for the Cavalry past about when he was twelve years old. He would have been Artillery, big enough to help manhandle those big guns.
Happy Birthday America! I'm a lucky guy who won life's real lottery, born in the United States of America.