Terry C Treadwell, Lawmen of the Wild West (Pen & Sword, 2021)
There are few more stereotypical characters in American western movies than the local sheriff. He is often the hapless, fat old-timer, long past his usefulness and a ripe target for the desperado or gunman out to cause trouble. Or he is a coward afraid to enforce the law without a Cooper, Wayne, or Eastwood type to accompany him. Terry Treadwell’s tales of historical lawmen paint a very different picture; for better or worse, but always worth reading.
Treadwell sets out by noting that the history of law enforcement in the fledgling United States was, much of the time, a thankless job. Many of the office-holders were former criminals and there were no obvious standard practices, a situation that lingered in some of the West well into the 20th Century. Law was often the rule of the gun or lynching party’s rope, particularly away from the more settled towns and cities. Jails, like everything else, were often ad-hoc with no State prison system to speak of. Moreover, hunting criminals was often by posse, who might or might not be keen to help but always had to be paid.
With the broader history out of the way, Treadwell launches into a collection of 36 stories about famous, and not-so-famous, lawmen in the American west during its 19th Century heyday. He starts with the first US Marshal, Robert Forsyth, who was also the first to die in service, then Colonel Charles Lynch who gave his name to extra-judicial punishment. One of the most famous, and intimidating lawmen, was ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok who was far from the upstanding citizen of popular culture. The town of Tombstone features in a group of tales involving the various Earp brothers, including Wyatt, another who was far from being a paragon of virtue. Among these famous names, and others, including Pat Garrett and Bat Masterson, are lesser known lawmen, such as Tom Smith, William Breakenridge, former slaves Bass Reeves and Grant Johnson, and the wonderfully named John Slaughter, who also lived extraordinary lives. Treadwell concludes with the story of the Texas Rangers who, like many lawmen in this book, sometimes straddled the fine line between upstanding lawmen and out and out criminals.
This is a book full of incident, as you might expect in the Wild West, but while Treadwell folds many interesting aspects of life into his biographies, this is not a social history, which is just as well given Treadwell’s tactless conclusion on the ethnic nature of modern criminal gangs. Treadwell is a story-teller, and he links many of his tales to weave a thread through them, though the over-arching narrative is not quite there. Fans of the Wild West will enjoy this collection, which matches well with his similar styled book on outlaws, while more serious students will find many of the incidental aspects, particularly on race and ethnicity, thought-provoking.