September 27, 1869: I Sought the Sheriff

From their spurs that jingle, jangle, jingled all the way up to their ten-gallon hats, the good folk of Ellis County, Kansas, had had it with ruffians, belligerents, and liquored-up Jesse James wanna-be’s shooting up the saloon every Saturday night.   Late that summer in 1869,  they decided to get themselves a real sheriff.

     Out of the west and through the tumbling tumbleweeds he rode – a cowpokian legend who promised law and order as well as a chicken in every spittoon. He was tall, steely-eyed with shoulder length hair. He could stare a lawbreaker down or put a bullet through a beer can in mid-air with either hand.

     And after his arrival, law and order did prevail in Ellis County – but at what price? Shortly after midnight on September 27, the sheriff broke up a brawl at the saloon between a crowd of buffalo hunters. One of the men turned and glared at the sheriff as though he would refuse to stand down. Without a single word of Miranda, the sheriff shot him between the eyes. Just a few weeks earlier, the sheriff had shot an angry soldier protesting a parking citation And on top of that, rumor had it that the sheriff had threatened a ten-year old truant with a horsewhipping.

     The sheriff had to go. And go he did. Defeated in an election by his own deputy after only three months on the job, the unemployed sheriff, Wild Bill Hickok, rode off into the Kansas sunset. To be forgotten?

A few noted lawmen:

Sheriff Wild Bill Hickok
Sheriff Wild Bill Hickok
Sheriff Pat Garrett
Sheriff Pat Garrett
Marshal Will Kane
Marshal Will Kane
Sheriff Andy Taylor
Sheriff Andy Taylor
Sheriff Bart
Sheriff Bart

Hey, where the white women at? — Sheriff Bart


August 6, 1874: The Ears of Texas Are Upon You

Western justice once more prevailed when law officers killed one Jim Reed, a black hat of minimal notoriety who would probably have passed quietly into desperado oblivion had he not married Myra Maybelle Shirley. starrMyra Maybelle came from a once prosperous family whose business in Carthage, Missouri, had been wiped out by the Civil War. The family moved to Texas when she was 16 years old, and it was there that she fell in love with Jim Reed, a family acquaintance from Missouri who had served as a Confederate mercenary. They were married in 1866.

Reed was a lousy husband, more into horse racing and gambling than farming. He gravitated toward a nasty Cherokee named Tom Starr, who led a brutal gang of thieves. Starr (who wore a string tie fashioned from the ears of the men he had killed) mentored Reed in the art of rustling and running whiskey (and possibly a murder here and there).

Myra Maybelle, or Belle as she was now called, was the mother of two children. Nevertheless, she began to take part in her husband’s career, attending several robberies as though they were fancy dress balls, wearing velvet skirts and plumed hats. As fame and the law began to dog them, the Reeds went back to farming in Texas where they could give their children a more respectable upbringing. Too respectable for Reed evidently, for he soon grew antsy and returned to crime, holding up a stagecoach.  And once again they had the long arm of the law all over them.

With a hefty reward offered for Reed’s capture – dead or alive – bounty hunters joined the hunt. Reed was able to elude them for a bit, but on August 6, 1874, one of his fellow gang members killed him for the reward money. Two years later, Belle married Sam Starr, the son of Reed’s Cherokee partner, and became famous as the Bandit Queen, Belle Starr. Sam Starr died in a gun battle, and three years later Belle too cashed in her ill-gotten gains, bushwhacked by hombres unknown.


Did you know that five out of three people have trouble with fractions. ~Calvin Trillin

July 25, 1853: And My Other Brother Joaquin

He was an infamous cutthroat bandit. Or he was a 19th century Robin Hood. One thing was certain, Joaquin Murrieta was a notorious figure in California during the California Gold Rush of head1the 1850s, and he was well outside the law. Maybe he was twins, the good twin who was driven by Anglos from a rich mining claim, his wife raped, his half-brother lynched, and Murrieta himself horse-whipped (they knocked him down, stepped on his face, slandered his name all over the place).  Or the evil twin, an occasional horse thief and a bandit who attacked settlers and wagon trains in California, killing over 40 people in the process.

By 1853, California authorities had had enough of him. In a bill passed in May 1853, the legislature authorized hiring 20 California Rangers, veterans of the Mexican-American War, to hunt down the so-called five Joaquins — Joaquin Botellier, Joaquin Carrillo, Joaquin Ocomorenia, Joaquin Valenzuela and Murrieta.

Early on the morning of July 25, 1853, the rangers attacked Murrieta’s outlaw camp. Caught by surprise and badly outnumbered, eight of the bandits were killed, including Murrieta and his right hand man, Three-Fingered Jack (presumably his three fingers were on his left hand). To prove they had indeed killed Murrieta, the rangers cut off his head along with Jack’s three-fingered hand, preserving them in whiskey until they could exhibit them to the authorities.

The rangers received a $6,000 reward, and made some nice residual profits by taking Murrieta’s head on tour throughout California, charging a buck to see it (it’s uncertain if they charged extra for Jack’s three fingers).

Eventually, the head ended up in San Francisco Museum, where it was destroyed in the great earthquake of 1906. Today all that remains is a plaque near the intersection of State Routes 33 and 198 marking the spot where the outlaw lost his head.

“The executioner’s argument was that you couldn’t cut off something’s head unless there was a trunk to sever it from. He’d never done anything like that in his time of life, and wasn’t going to start now.

The King’s argument was that anything that had a head, could be beheaded, and you weren’t to talk nonsense.

The Queen’s argument was that if something wasn’t done about it in less than no time, she’d have everyone beheaded all round.

It was this last argument that had everyone looking so nervous and uncomfortable.”

― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

July 21, 1865: All Hat and No Cattle

We all know from movies, pulp fiction and other pop culture that the streets of the Old West were littered with the remnant losers of showdowns that took place practically on the hour. gunslingTwo steel-jawed gunslingers coolly staring at each other, contemplating who would draw first and, more importantly, who would draw fastest. Conspiracy theorists are quick to point out that most gun battles took place between drunks who only managed to hit their adversaries because they were standing a foot away — or it they were at a distance, were most likely hiding behind a handy horse or schoolmarm and aiming at somebody’s back.

True, but there was a sort of Code of the West based on the gentlemanly European tradition of dueling in which opponents behaved with good breeding before attempting to kill one another. The Code of the West required that a person resort to a six-gun on the city streets only in matters of major import such as the defense of one’s honor or life, and only if the opponent was also armed. If the Code were followed, a gunslinger could pretty much kill another gunslinger without fear of punishment.

On July 21, 1865, Springfield, Missouri, saw just such a classic showdown. Wild Bill Hickok had a reputation as a real hotshot with a gun, so it is a bit surprising that a former Union soldier agreed to a showdown after an argument with Wild Bill over a card game or the upcoming Presidential election or something.

Armed with sodas and popcorn, a huge crowd of onlookers watched as the two men approached each other from the far ends of the long street. When the two men were still way beyond field goal territory, the challenger drew and fired wildly in Hickok’s direction. Ever cool, Hickok, drew his own revolver, took careful aim, and put a bullet through his opponent’s chest.

Having been true to the Code, Hickok remained a free man. Unfortunately, several years later, Wild Bill was done in by someone not so fastidious about playing by the rules. A young gunslinger with absolutely no sense of gallantry shot him in the back of the head while he played cards.

When my time comes, just skin me and put me up there on Trigger, just as though nothing had ever changed. — Roy Rogers

June 5, 1850, 1878, 1895: Thrice Upon a Time in the West

When the sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico, resigned in 1880, the county appointed Pat Garrett, a former bartender known as something of a gunman to replace him.  Garrett was immediately given the task of apprehending a friend from his saloon keeping days, jail escapee Henry McCarty, aka Henry Antrim, aka William Harrison Bonney, but more widely known as Billy the Kid.

The Kid had supposedly killed 21 men, one for every year of his life, but no one could actually name more than nine.

Later that year, Garrett captured the Kid and his companions at the posh New Mexico spa, Stinking Springs, but the Kid escaped from the Lincoln County Jail, killing his two guards. Garrett learned that the Kid was hiding out at the house of a mutual friend, Pete Maxwell. Late one night, Garrett went to Maxwell’s house while the Kid was sleeping.  Accounts differ as to what happened next. Either the Kid woke up and entered Maxwell’s bedroom, where Garrett, standing in the shadows, shot him as he asked “Who is it?” (“It is I” or even “It’s me,” being the more gentlemanly response). Or Garrett went into Maxwell’s wife’s room and tied her up, and when the Kid walked into her room (for what purpose, we can only guess), Garrett blasted him with a single rifle shot. Either account pretty much tarnished Garrett’s reputation as a straight shooter.

Conspiracy theorists maintain that Billy the Kid was not killed at all and that Garrett staged it all so the Kid could escape. They also insist that Garrett was born (on June 5, 1850) in Kenya.

At about the same time (1878, to be exact) Pancho Villa was born on this same day a bit farther south in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. During the early 20th century, he pretty much ran the state.  He and his supporters played Robin Hood, seizing haciendas and land for distribution to peasants and soldiers. They robbed and commandeered trains, and printed their own money to pay for the 1910-20 revolution.

After Villa’s rather infamous incursion into New Mexico in 1916, U.S. Army General John J. Pershing pursued Villa for nine months unsuccessfully (probably because he refused to ambush him in a lady’s bedroom) before turning his attention to World War I. Villa retired in 1920 on a large estate where he could have spent a gracious hero’s retirement, sipping Margaritas in comfort, had he not decided to get back into politics, whereupon he was assassinated.

A few years later, back in the US, William Boyd (born June 5, 1895), was making a name for himself as a straight shooting, white-hatted good guy, that name being Hopalong Cassidy.  Hoppy, as his friends called him, eschewed the role of  a hard-drinking, rough-living wrangler, opting instead to be the very model of a cowboy hero, one who did not smoke, drink or swear and who always let the bad guy strike the first blow (and never ever ambushed a bad guy in a lady’s bedroom).

Conspiracy theorists maintain that Boyd was not a real cowboy, that Hoppy was a fictional character. They point to the 66 Hopalong Cassidy films and the memorabilia such as watches, comic books, dishes, Topps trading cards, and cowboy outfits as proof.  Next they’ll say he was born in Kenya.

“There’s always a man faster on the draw than you are, and the more you use a gun, the sooner you’re gonna run into that man.” — Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

January 3, 1929: Ciao, Pardner

Born in Rome on January 3, 1929, Sergio Leone is an Italian film director, producer, and writer whose name has become synonymous with thatfistful-of-dollars-1 peculiar sub-genre of movies known as Spaghetti Westerns. His trio of films released during the sixties, known as the Dollars Trilogy, were not the first of the type but certainly defined it: A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly are the top of the heap of the more than 600 Spaghetti Westerns and are consistently listed among the best rated Westerns in general.
The term Spaghetti Western was coined by critics, particularly in the U.S., unable to accept the fact that the Old West had been co-opted by a bunch of pesky Italians, even though Americans had grown bored with its depiction. Although directed by Italians, the films were actually rather international; the actors and technical staff came from throughout Europe and the U.S. Although originally released in Italian, everything was dubbed since the actors spoke in a variety of languages and the whole enterprise had the sound of a food fight at the United Nations. A Hollywood has-been usually headed the cast, or in the case of the Dollars Trilogy, a yet to be recognized upstart such as Clint Eastwood.
Some argue that the first Spaghetti Western appeared way back in 1910 — Giacomo Puccini’s 1910 opera La fanciulla del West; the first Italian Western movie was La Vampira Indiana in 1913, a Western vampire flick, directed by Sergio Leone’s father. Throughout the following years, several movies fit the category, but it was Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars that established the Spaghetti Western standard for cinematic style, acting and evocative music. In it, an unlikely hero (bounty hunter is the favored occupation) enters a town ruled by two outlaw gangs, where ordinary social norms are non-existent. He cleverly plays the gangs against one another to fleece them of that titular fistful of dollars. His treachery is eventually exposed and he is beaten severely about the head, but he wins out in the end through his cunning and wit.
During the following years, the genre evolved (as genres will), and the Spaghetti Western legacy was transformed almost beyond recognition, giving way to overwrought action and low-brow comedy, a genre that might more appropriately be called Spaghetti-o Western.


victor borgeDanish comedian, pianist and conductor Victor Borge was born on January 3, 1909 (died in 2000):

I only know two pieces; one is ‘Claire de Lune’ and the other one isn’t.

The difference between a violin and a viola is that a viola burns longer.

Laughter is the closest distance between two people.



September 1, 1836: To Live and Die in Walla Walla

WhitmanNPShortly after the wedding of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, Marcus dropped the little bombshell on Narcissa that they wouldn’t be making their home in New York but would be heading west — way west — to Walla Walla, Washington west. Except that it wasn’t Walla Walla yet, since it was 1836 and there weren’t any towns or cities, just a few forts and missions.

The Whitmans were accompanied on their outing by close friends Eliza and Henry Spalding. It took them a half year of travel by canal barge, river sternwheeler, sleigh, wagon, horseback and foot. When they crossed the Continental Divide during the summer, Narcissa and Eliza became the first Anglo-American women to travel west of the Rocky Mountains. Shortly afterward, the two couples split up; the Spaldings remaining in Idaho, the Whitmans pushing on to the Oregon Territory. They arrived at Fort Walla Walla on September 1, 1836.

This long journey was not just an extended honeymoon for the Whitmans. No, they were there to convert the “benighted ones living in the thick darkness of heathenism to Christianity.” The “benighted ones” were, of course Native Americans — the Cayuse and Nez Perce, to be exact — who found this white woman somewhat of a novelty and a bit of a pain in the ass.

Nevertheless, the Whitmans’ missionary work went reasonably well for 11 years, and they did succeed in converting many of the Cayuse to Christianity. But then in 1847, a nasty measles epidemic swept through the area, killing mostly the Cayuse, who had no immunity to the disease, while leaving most of the white people unharmed. The Cayuse became convinced that the missionaries had connived with their god to curse them with this plague. So the Cayuse did what folks often do when cursed by evil missionaries and their gods: they attacked the mission and killed anyone who didn’t have measles, including Marcus and Narcissa.

So in addition to becoming the first white woman to live in the Far West, Narcissa became the first white woman to die there.

September 1, 1850

Jenny Lind (50-kronorssedel)

Just a few years later, another woman embarked on a journey throughout the country, thanks to that wild and crazy entrepreneur, P.T. Barnum. Known for bringing audiences such high-brow entertainers as Tom Thumb, the Feejee Mermaid, and Zip the Pinhead, Barnum went all respectable with the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind. Without even hearing her sing, Barnum booked her for an American tour at an amazing $1,000 per performance for 150 performances.

Crazy like a fox. Her tour was such a rousing success that, after just a handful of performances, Barnum renegotiated her contract, paying her even more, and he still cleared close to a half million dollars himself. Jenny Lind’s performances also established opera as a lasting form of entertainment in the U.S.