Monday, February 10, 2020

Hollywood's Sad Version of the Old West

Last Saturday, I attended my first ever speaking engagement at The John Coffee Hays Club. My subject was "Vigilantes In The Old West." Since this was my first speaking engagement, I have to admit that I was sort of nervous at first -- and I did lose track of time. The overall message of my speech was simply "We are the law."

Since I was asked to talk about vigilantes in the Old West, and it is a group in honor of the great pioneer Texas Ranger and First San Francisco County Sheriff John Coffee Hays, I wanted to focus on vigilantes in California. I really believe that California cornered the market when it came to the number of active vigilante groups in the Old West.

From what I can tell, there were more vigilante groups in California than any other place during that period of time. In fact, it's not a stretch to say that California had more such groups than all of the other area West of the Mississippi during the period from 1851 and into the beginning of the 20th Century.

Part of my speech had to do with "Fake History." The false information we've all gotten. I specifically brought up how we are mislead by Hollywood's version of the Old West -- especially in regards to vigilantes and the citizens' role in the security of a town. During my speech, I used the Western film High Noon as an example of how Hollywood gets it wrong.

I've read that the movie High Noon is "about facing very tough odds alone." I've read how that film is a lesson telling us that we can't depend on our friends and neighbors when the chips are down. It is a lesson telling us that those closest to us will avoid helping us, or desert us when the going gets tough. I've also read that the film High Noon is "a metaphor movie about the Hollywood climate in the 1950s" when the government was attacking Communists in the movie industry. The sad part about that film is that to depict "the best in a single, anxious, far-from-perfect man," is that it uses the people of the Old West to depict the very worst in people.

Because it was filmed as a Western, those of us watching it have a certain amount of hope that it will be close to historically accurate. But other than wardrobe and scenery, High Noon doesn't do that. Instead, the film makers decided to use the movie High Noon to depict a town's residents as cowards. All of which turn down their town marshal's request for help. The marshal played by Gary Cooper can't find help anywhere, including after asking for help from the local bummers, the loafers and bar flies at a saloon. The cowardice of the citizenry is all out of a supposed fear of four outlaws returning to town.

This fiction is a sad story about a sad town filled with cowardly American pioneers who won't stand with its marshal. And sadly, because Hollywood made such a sad story into a Western, there are people who believed that's what the real West was like.

Of course, the fact that citizens back then were tougher than nails doesn't matter to the movie makers. The fact that they were hardened by toil and pain, or that they were resolute in their beliefs because of their journey West fighting the elements, Indians, bandits, starvation, and more, also didn't matter to the film makers. Yes, really no different than today's Hollywood.

People who think four outlaws would have frightened those folks, really don't understand a people who have weathered a lot more than such a small threat as four outlaws returning to town. I believe the people of that town would have shot Frank Miller down as he stepped off the train, and hanged the other three as a message to others. That's what really took place in the real West.

As for other film makers who didn't like High Noon, there was one who didn't like the film but also got history completely wrong. That was famed director Howard Hawks who is quoted as saying, "I didn’t think a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head off asking for help, and finally his Quaker wife had to save him."

Howard Hawks' rebuttal to High Noon was to make the Western film Rio Bravo. In his version of the Old West, the town "sheriff" is being threatened by gunmen brought in by crooked cattle baron. Typical Hollywood, in Rio Bravo, the sheriff's only allies are his elderly crippled sidekick, an alcoholic deputy, and a young "fast gun". In Rio Bravo, unlike in High Noon, the local law doesn’t solicit help. The director of Rio Bravo makes the point that "it's not the job of married men with families to face hired guns." In fact, in the movie Rio Bravo, John Wayne's character turns down help that was offered to him because "they're amateurs."

This fictional tale is a misleading story about a sheriff who refuses to use the assets provided to him by way of the manpower ready willing and able to come to the aid of their community. It was a very common practice for lawmen to go to the citizenry for assistance in the Old West. This movie is very blunt in it's efforts to re-write history by saying that lawmen didn't do that. And sadly, as with the movie High Noon, there are people who believe that the movie Rio Bravo depicts what really happened in the Old West. To bad both versions are not correct. 

As much as I love the performances of film legends Gary Cooper and John Wayne, and actually like these movies for their entertainment value, both films are not even close to being historically accurate in their depiction of what the citizens or a lawman would have done in those situations. Fact is, in both scenarios, that's simply not what took place in the Old West.

Life in the Old West was not easy by today's standards. In fact, it wasn't easy by Eastern standards of the time. Prior to the Civil War, Americans were already coming West. After the Civil War, those numbers grew while more and more Americans came West attempting to seek better opportunities and escape the ravages of war.

Those coming West were a mixed bag of settlers, ranchers, businessmen, freed slaves, war weary soldiers, and others. Among those others were Americans tired of working for others and living in the squalor and poverty of the East, men and woman wanting more out of life. Of course, there were the criminals who were the parasites on society. Those looking to make a fast and easy dollar -- even if that meant cheating and stealing it.

For the outlaw, they saw the West as ripe for the pickings. Since most of the West was full of towns that had no organized law, no courts, and little to no government, criminals saw the West as wide open to anything they wanted to get away with. While many escaped punishment coming West, they saw the lack of law as an opportunity to take advantage of the situation. They and their seedier associates saw the law as something to laugh at. Saloons and dance halls, brothels and gambling houses went up across the West in small boom-towns and big, all to fleece others they saw as suckers.

As for the honest Americans moving West, they initially dealt with the noise and the ruckus by trying to live with it. But soon, the lawlessness got out of hand. Soon enough, citizens did what they had done for a few hundred years in America, they organized citizen watch groups, citizen committees, what we know as vigilante groups. Vigilantism is what citizens used when there was no law, long before "official" law enforcement came along. And frankly, it was vigilantism that citizens depended on when the law was crooked, inept and ineffective in dealing with crime, and when the courts were helpless in acting due to restraints.

Unlike what Hollywood depicts, honest lawmen didn't go into the saloons looking for people to join a posse. He didn't use the transients, the cutthroats, the tin-horn gamblers, pimps, con artists, or other dredges of society -- most who were there to fleece whoever they could -- as posse members. That's especially true when we understand that many of the bummers, what they called loafers in that period, were probably associates of those who were probably committing most of the local crime.

Citizens were an asset used by honest lawmen looking for help for any number of reasons. While that is true, citizens were a threat to dishonest lawmen who say the citizenry as a hindrance to their criminal activity. In most cases, dishonest law enforcement wanted the citizenry disarmed. In all cases, the citizens would have never turned down a lawman's request for help when there was an eminent threat to him or the town.

Before someone writes to say that that can't be completely true, think of this: Would you want your business to suffer, family to be shun, you to live in a town where your friends and family saw you as a coward? What might be hard for some to understand today is the sense of responsibility and self-interest citizens had in the Old West. Their name was important to them. Shame was a real thing. Frontier towns had certain expectations from it's citizens. Whether it was requiring them to be part of the fire brigade, the bucket brigade, or a posse when needed, people were expected to serve and not shirk their responsibility as citizens.

When needing help, a lawman went to the citizens and they eagerly volunteered. Of course, besides shame, there was another reason for their eagerness to do so. It was a matter of self-interest. Yes, self-interest. Citizens in the Old West knew they had a vested interest in making sure that a payroll was returned, that a bank robber was caught, that a killer was brought to justice, that they stayed safe, that the local marshal was helped, that the county sheriff was supported, that the lawmen were not killed, all so that they could go on with their lives.

People had a vested interest in their communities and would risk their lives to protect them. And let's keep in mind that the same people who were the militia were also on the citizens committee. They were the same folks on the fire brigade, the same friends who sat next to you in church, those who helped you deliver a foal, marched in the 4th of July parade, and helped raise your barn, who were part of the choir, who ran the mercantile, the telegraph, the livery, and so on. All were also on the local citizens committee, also known as the vigilance committee. And if we are to talk about how the West was won -- citizens won the West.

Lawmen wanted and got the same men who were the local militia -- especially since the militia was already armed, they wanted those who were part of the fire brigade, and yes those on the vigilante committee. They looked to the citizenry. And when they did, merchants, bankers, clerks, bakers, cooks, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, tradesmen of all different sorts, and more, stopped what they were doing to take up arms to help.

Using the Posse Comitatus law, Old West lawmen saw citizens as an asset. Fact is, whether forming a large posse or simply deputizing a couple of citizens on the spot, a lawman would use the Common Law of Posse Comitatus to call on all males over the age of fifteen for assistance in preventing any type of civil disorder and maintaining order.

A posse is defined as a group of civilians called upon by a Sheriff or other law enforcement officials to assist temporarily in preserving the peace, pursuing and arresting a fugitive, or giving assistance to that officer when called upon. It’s a group of citizens summoned by a Sheriff to help in maintaining law and order.
Yes, posse members turning tail and skedaddling did happen in some situations when bullets started to fly. In most of those cases, I’ve read where those members of the community actually picked up and relocated to another town out of shame. Since being a posse member was a duty and looked upon as something everyone in the community better be ready to do if asked, communities were known to shun those who refused or showed cowardice. But really, those instances are few. 

Citizens were always at the ready. Whether it was to man a fire brigade, or a set out after outlaws, American townsfolk didn't shirk their responsibilities. The farce about the movie High Noon is that it portrays Americans in the Old West as wimps and shirkers. The folks back then had a higher moral standard of taking care of their community. While that was certainly the case, they also had a self-interest in safe-guarding their communities. And frankly, they did so to bloody consequences for outlaws.

Let me repeat myself as I have a habit of doing. We're talking about pioneers who weathered all sorts of hardships to come West. They fought the elements, lack of food, disease, bandits, Indians, while most walked the Oregon and California trails. They came around the Horn, survived ship wrecks, starvation, and fought sea voyages that would just about kill a person today.

So really, think about it, getting those tougher than nails citizens together to kill four outlaws coming into one's town, as was the case in the film High Noon, would have been relatively easy in the Old West. Besides, we should also keep in mind that this was a time period when a verbal threat was enough to constitute killing a person in self-defense. And no, they did not have the sensitivities of folks in the East or many have today.

And as for "amateurs" defending a town from outlaws and "professional gunman" which John Wayne's character is against in the film Rio Bravo? Too bad the makers of that film didn't think about the fact that it was a time when there really was no such thing as "professional" law enforcement yet. But more importantly, those film makers should have understood that it was not lawmen and in fact were just ordinary citizens who took up arms to shoot the hell out of the professional gunman who made up the James Gang in Northfield, Minnesota, who wiped out the killers known as the Dalton Gang in Coffeyville, Kansas, and it was everyday citizens who killed a couple of bank robbers in Lewistown, Montana.

As for citizens, the local vigilantes, taking action out of a sense of duty even when their town marshal had been shot dead, there's a great example of this in what took place in Independence, California, in Fedruary of 1878. It is a great example about a lawmen going it alone when he shouldn't have. Inyo County Sheriff Thomas Passmore learned that you never go into a fight alone if there's help available. Too bad he learned that lesson the hard way. He should have gotten help from the citizens who were there. The town of Independence is the county seat for Inyo County. It was there that the official law was murdered. And there being no official law, the citizens rose up to take action.

It's said that Inyo County Sheriff Thomas Passmore knew the risk of the job when he took it. He is said to have been a brave and savvy man, not naive to the dangers posed by the outlaw sorts who hung out at a saloon in the town of Independence. Like most towns, saloons were places for the dredges of society. Sheriff Thomas Passmore was on the job for three years when on a Sunday, February 10th, 1878, he was shot and killed. But frankly, it was more like an assassination and the people there knew it.

His murder took place while attempting to arrest a killer who killed another man earlier that evening. The killer had gone to a saloon that was well known to be the hangout for outlaws and gamblers, pimps, bummers, cutthroats, the lowest of society there. When the sheriff arrived at the saloon, he stood outside and ordered the killer to come out and surrender. Sheriff Passmore knew he'd be smart to stay outside because he'd be completely outnumbered inside the saloon. Because he banked on his ability to take the killer alone if he ever came outside, he didn't ask for help from the citizenry.

It's said that when the killer refused to come out, Sheriff Passmore had no other choice but to go in after him. Against better judgement, he did just that and walked into what was really den of thieves and bandits, gamblers, con artists, prostitutes, bushwhackers, and at least one known killer. What he probably didn't know was that in essence he was walking into a trap.

It's said that as the Sheriff walked up to the saloon doors, that it was then that a couple of toughs moved in to block his way into the saloon. It was there at the door while being held in place that a single shot rang out from inside the saloon. Sheriff Passmore was struck in the chest with a single round. He was shot before even entering the saloon through the door. Some say he was killed instantly. Others say they could see him die. 

While the lowlifes inside the saloon might have thought that a good move on their part, they quickly learned how horrible a mistake they made. It really would have benefited them to have turned on that known killer and turn him over to the sheriff, because what happened next lead to their regretting that they didn't.

It's said that Sheriff Passmore was not cold yet when outraged townsfolk put out the hue and cry. Soon, the local vigilantes, the citizenry took up arms. Almost as fast as the call went out, the town's armed citizens gathered and surrounded the saloon. Then once in place, instead of calling for the killer to come out, the citizens opened fire on the saloon. In fact, they are said to have fired hundreds of rounds into the building wounding many inside. The walls and window didn't stop the hail of gunfire aimed at those inside. Thin wall construction didn't stop the amount of firepower poured on that building. 

At one point, the citizens saw the saloon owner trying to make a run for it. His attempt to escape out the back door of the saloon was cut off by a small group of men. He was immediately shot to death by the citizens. The killer that Sheriff Passmore was after also tried to make an escape, he too was shot to death by over a dozen citizens. It's said the residents there wiped out the criminal element simply because they didn't see the justice system as being able to do what they saw was needed to right things.

Imagine the scene for a moment, dozens of ordinary citizens open fire on the building. Citizens killed the saloon owner as he made a run for it. And they cornered and shot Sheriff Passmore's killer when he tried to do the same. Thus was the real Old West.

Tom Correa 

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