Inspired by a recent TV re-run of John Wayne’s The Shootist, which was set in the year 1901.
In that movie, Wayne plays old-time gunfighter J.B. Books, who is terminally ill and has settled into a boarding house in Carson City, Nevada. By this time, there are a few automobiles on the streets and electric trolley cars running through the town, which shows how much the West Books once knew has changed.
Now, I don’t know how common gunfights EVER were in the Old West (surely they were much rarer in real life than in movies or dime novels), but it strikes me they had to be extremely rare, or even non-existent by 1901. Still, in the movie, there are some other gunfighters in town who are hoping for a chance to draw against the legendary Books. Books finally decides to die quickly in a gun battle rather than die slowly of cancer.
My question is, in 1901, would the sheriff have ALLOWED a gun battle, even between willing participants? Was gunfighting still a “thing” in 1901?
When was the last time men in the West were allowed to take part in lethal gunfights, of their own free will?
For that matter, when was the last time men in the USA were legally allowed to take part in duels with pistols?
To the best of my knowledge, gunfights were never allowed even in the Old West. A sheriff’s job was generally to prevent them.
Dueling was largely outlawed in the US beginning in the late 18th Century. By 1804, when Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, dueling was illegal in both New York (where it was a capital crime) and New Jersey (where the duel took place).
Of course, most gunfights weren’t what we’d think of as a duel, either. They were more like the shootings that we still have today in bad neighborhoods: One criminal gets the jump on another criminal who’s offended the first in some way, and the bullets start flying without warning.
You might find this article interesting. Guns were common in the Old West because they were necessary tools on the frontier but most of the most famous or infamous ‘Wild West’ towns like Deadwood and Dodge City had strict forms of gun control. Open carry was generally not allowed (like it is today) let alone shooting someone.
There were some gunfights in the Old West but they were also much, much rarer than your average Western would have you believe and they were always illegal. There are a number of scholarly articles on the web about it but this Cracked.com article sums it up nicely.
*"How many murders do you suppose these old western towns saw a year? Let’s say the bloodiest, gun-slingingest of the famous cattle towns with the cowboys doing quick-draws at high noon every other day. A hundred? More?
How about five? That was the most murders any old-west town saw in any one year. Ever. Most towns averaged about 1.5 murders a year, and not all of those were shooting. You were way more likely to be murdered in Baltimore in 2008 than you were in Tombstone in 1881, the year of the famous gunfight at the OK Corral (body count: three) and the town’s most violent year ever."*
Murder is a legal term and may not be the best metric.
The San Francisco Bulletin summed up the situation: “The Bad Man from Bodie is a sort of a generic term for all the bad men in the State.” An offended Bodie newspaperman recoiled at the insult. “Bodie is one of the quietest, most law-abiding mining districts” in both California and Nevada, he bragged, asserting that no one had been convicted of murder there in more than a year and a half. Although factual, his boast concealed a disturbing truth. Twenty or so homicides had been tried in court during that time, without a single guilty verdict. Accused killers consistently won acquittals by merely blaming the deceased for starting the trouble. Mono County juries, the columnist revealed, “have in every instance found the killing was done in self defense.” http://www.bodiehistory.com/badman.htm
That is no different than today. There are multiple terms for killing a person that is threatening someone ranging from 2nd degree murder to manslaughter to defensive killing without any penalty. The main point is that the ‘Old West’ wasn’t especially violent in terms of shootings (fistfights may have been common just like they were for mill workers and others in the East but shootouts were not) and the whole trope of shootouts was largely invented by the popular Western genre of early TV and movies.
The stereotypical “shootout at high noon” was not nearly as common in the frontier west as movies and novels would have you believe, but it did happen occasionally. More commonly some people gained reputations as gunslingers, shootists, or whatever. And some of them were around well into the 20th century. Jeff Milton died at age 85 in 1947. Wyatt Earp of OK corral fame lived until 1929, Charlie Siringo who died in 1928 was a long-time lawman and bodyguard to the corrupt Pinkerton agent James McParland as late as 1905 (during the Stunenbergtrial. He later wrote a tell-all book about his service with the Pinkertons which the agency went to great lengths to supress publication of. On the outlaw side, Butch Cassidy was around 'till at least 1908, and may have survived into the 1930’s.
Generally I would say that gunfighting was strongly frowned upon after the official death of the frontier in 1890, but gunfighters (those that survived) were around a lot longer.
That may be so.
But the Cracked article offered as evidence only speaks to murder.
The evidence of few murders is not the same as evidence of few killings or few gun fights.
Also, the Bodie number of 20+ over a year and a half is also out of line with the 5/yr max provided by Cracked.
“Duel” and “shootout” weren’t quite synonymous. A duel with guns involved two men with hard-to-aim flintlocks, alternating. If you shoot first and miss, you’re obliged to stand still while your opponent takes his turn. Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon shows this in excruciating detail. Maybe the rules changed when revolvers became commonplace?
Tombstone is probably not the best example of the lawless Old West, since it did have a functioning government, and the struggle between the Earps and the Cowboys was at some level a political struggle.
A better example might be the mining camps of Montana Territory, where courts and government didn’t really function. Wikipediatells us “more than 100 persons were killed in “road agent” robberies in the fall of 1863,” followed by a couple of dozen of vigilante killings, supposedly of the bandits, the next year. Perhaps California mining camps like Bodie were similar.
In the 1880s and 90s disputes open range and cattle rustling led to a number of informal killings. The Johnson County War is the best known, but there were an number of other cases, like Stuart’s Stranglers up in the Musselshell country. Again, this sort of violence ended with the introduction of actual law enforcement.
In any case, though, the number of quick-draw duels, though, as shown in Western movies, were vanishingly small. Who would want a fair fight when death is on the line? If someone “needs killing,” better to get a drop on him and then get your friends to claim it was self-defense.
In addition to this it’s probably worth noting that a high percentage of shootings in the Wild West did not take place in towns, but outside of towns, on roads and ranches and such.
ISTM that articles like Cracked’s are historical revisionism, accomplished with statistical sleights-of-hand. You can read accounts of the frontier from people who lived it (e.g. Mark Twain) and they read more like the movie version than the Cracked version, in addition to reliable historical accounts of various notable figures from that era.
Thanks for all the responses. The Cracked piece WAS very interesting.
Before posting here, I looked at a Wikipedia article on gunfights in the Old West, but the gunfights they listed all seemed to involve shootouts between lawmen and bandits, or posses and criminal gangs, or two rival criminal gangs. That kind of gunfight still goes on today.
But in The Shootist, John Wayne was playing the stereotypical Old West gunslinger. The kind of guy who would meet a rival in the town square at High Noon, and then draw (whoever was quicker and/or a better shot would live and the other guy would die). I figured THAT kind of gunfighter was ALWAYS pretty rare in real life. In a real Western town with any kind of real government or law enforcement, I have a hard time believing two hombres would be allowed to have a shootout in the street, even if both of them WANTED to! That always seemed like the stuff of movies and pulp novels.
As others have noted, dueling with pistols was already very rare in Alexander Hamilton’s day. Certainly, it wouldn’t have been allowed in Weehauken, New Jersey in 1901. I’d be very surprised if it was allowed in Carson City in 1901, either.
I toured Tombstone AZ 30 years ago and I think most of the shootings happened in the gold mine. The mine owners stationed guards on ledges over looking the workers and if they tried to steal gold, bang, one more miner for Boot Hill. The tour guide said his research found about 50 such deaths.
Novelist Louis L’amour once on “60 Minutes” that many civilians in the West were Civil War veterans and could handle a gun. The Dalton gang got the hell shot out of them in the Coffeyville, Kansas raid of 1892 and the same to the James-Younger gang in Northfield, MN in 1876.
Bat Masterson probably used his gun against people (excluding Indian fights) six times and ended up as a sports writer/ columnist in New York City
History written without a basic understanding of history.
Those statistics are easy to find because someone digitized them. Actually understanding the historical context requires a lot of reading, which isn’t really in the average Cracked freelancer’s budget.
The mythological “Old West” was largely created by fiction writers (like Zane Grey). later, films like “Heaven’s Gate” were made, that were total fabrications (the Johnson County War killed three people. Writers made most of their stuff up, in order to make a (relatively) boring era interesting.