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How Wild Was the West?

For a time, society on the frontier was lawless, violent and full of vice. But the wicked times couldn’t last. Soon enough, the lawmen rode into town…
BROTHERS IN ARMS Frank (left) and Jesse James at the start of their murderous careers, c1865

Hollywood has done an excellent job of painting the Wild West as a lawless landscape, where sheriffs were lucky to last a day and outlaws were the real heroes. But, while there is some truth in that image, the bigger picture is far more complex.

The normal mechanics of law and order were notoriously absent from the Wild West, where authorities struggled to keep pace with a restless and ever-expanding frontier. Boomtowns and border settlements had transient populations, massively dominated by single males – many armed and accustomed to violence from involvement in the multiple conflicts that scarred the era.

The Californian gold rush attracted thousands of men from all around the world, and created a social situation where the only recreational outlets were brothels, saloons and gaming houses. Mexican laws no longer applied in the embryonic state, and American rules were more conceptual than concrete.

People on the move were vulnerable to Native American raids, banditry and opportunistic crime. Settlers, immigrants and prospectors travelled with all their possessions, money and, occasionally, gold. They made easy targets for desperados such as Jack Powers, an Irish highwayman who terrorised the El Camino Real – a Californian highway – and dominated the city of Santa Barbara in the early 1850s, until he was chased out of town by a posse of vigilantes.

Organised outlaws included ‘ The Five Joaquins’, a Mexican gang led by Joaquin Murrieta and his right-hand man, Three-Fingered Jack, who hounded settlers, ranchers and miners in the Mother Lode area of California’s Sierra Nevada in 1850-53. After they’d stolen $100,000 in gold, rustled over 100 horses and killed 22 people, including three lawmen, the Governor of California established the California State Rangers, who were paid $150 a month to hunt down Murrieta. An additional bounty was handed over when the rangers presented Murrieta’s severed head and a hand cut from the corpse of Three-Fingered Jack.

Loose-knit frontier communities lived by ad-hoc, self-administered codes, based on a mixture of ethics and expediency. When warned that gangs of outlaws were nearby, settlers would sometimes raise a posse to drive them away. Theft within the community was punished harshly. Vigilantism and lynchings were commonplace.

As California’s population rose, rampant crime – combined with low levels of official law enforcement – led to the creation of the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance in 1851. This 700-strong citizen mob dealt with alleged indiscretions immediately, passing judgment on suspected criminals without trial and dishing out instant justice – including death by hanging and shooting. Such committees existed in Texas and also elsewhere, and many were active for decades – sometimes creating more crime than they prevented. In 1868, in Jackson County, Indiana, the local Vigilance Committee (aka, the Scarlet Mask Society) broke into a jail to lynch three of the Reno brothers, who’d already been tried and imprisoned for robbery.

ROUGH JUSTICE BELOW: A vigilante committee assembles in San Francisco

632 The reported number of victims of lynching and vigilantism during the Wild West era.

Billy the Kid, who may not have been the villain he is remembered as
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June 2015 issue of History Revealed