Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Jacquie Rogers: Bounty Hunters of the Old West

Bounty Hunters of the Old West
by Jacquie Rogers
Copyright © 2010-2011 Jacquie Rogers

The law was a bit sparse in the Old West, often not a lawman around for hundreds of miles. If a criminal knew how to live off the land and he owned a fast horse, he was pretty well guaranteed an escape. What’s a sheriff to do?

In 1872, the Supreme Court ruled that bounty hunters were a part of the U.S. law enforcement system with a decision in Taylor vs. Taintor:
“When the bail is given, the principal is regarded as delivered to the custody of his sureties. Their domain is a continuance of the original imprisonment. Whenever they choose to do so, they may seize him and deliver him up to his discharge; and if it cannot be done at once, they may imprison him until it can be done. They may exercise their rights in person or by agent. They may pursue him into another state; may arrest him on the Sabbath; and if necessary, may break and enter his house for that purpose. The seizure is not made by virtue of due process. None is needed. It is likened to the arrest by the Sheriff of an escaped prisoner.”

Charlie Siringo
 As you can see by this decision, bounty hunters didn’t have to adhere to the same rules of due process that lawmen did. (This is still true in some states.)

One of the greatest bounty hunters was Pinkerton Detective, Charlie Siringo. Siringo had a long and distinguished, if not controversial, career. He had steely nerves and his cleverness got him out of more than one jam. But he wrote a book, and the Pinkerton Agency wasn’t too keen about that, so he spent several years at the end of his life arguing with them. Could be that the Pinkertons were the only ones to ever best him.

Lots of town marshals and county sheriffs supplemented their meager incomes with bounties. Of course, they had to follow the rules of due process while a bounty hunter had no such restrictions. Then again, if there’s no one around for a couple hundred miles, who’s to know? This is part of how the West was tamed. Many lawmen straddled the fence between law-enforcing and law-breaking.

Charlene Sands, author of Bodine’s Bounty, blogged about bounty hunters on Pistols and Petticoats. Really good info at this site on lots of Old West topics. Anyway, she points out that in order for a bounty hunter to get his money in British Columbia, he had to bring the criminal in alive. The US had no such compunctions, but the bounty was half if the prisoner died before making it to jail. She also mentions that the bounty hunters didn’t receive payment until later, so when they brought in prisoners, they’d either have to wait, or have the money sent to a bank. (They’d probably wait, considering the state of banking at the time.) But the most important thing that Ms. Sands mentioned was that bounty hunters’ names were never, ever recorded, because their anonymity was their protection. This little item is what makes research difficult.

Steve McQueen
as Josh Randall
Much to movie and TV viewers’ delight, popular lore glorifies the Old West bounty hunter. The role of Josh Randall in Wanted: Dead or Alive in the 1950s made Steve McQueen a star. “Josh Randall (Steve McQueen) was a man of few words. A bounty hunter by trade, he tracked his prey all over the West. Randall carried an 1892 44/40 center fire Winchester carbine that he called “Mare’s Laig.” It handled like a revolver but had the punch of a rifle. Unlike other bounty hunters, Randall had scruples. He tried to bring the prisoner in alive and often found himself called upon to protect people in need.”

Richard Boone
as Paladin

Then there’s my personal favorite, Paladin, played by Richard Boone on “Have Gun-Will Travel.” (Okay, so he was more gunslinger than bounty hunter, but they go together well.)  A few years ago, there were rumors of a remake starring Eminem as Paladin, but I don't think anything has come of it.  I can't imagine anyone playing Paladin better than Boone, though.  Who else has the dark, rugged good looks?

And who can forget "The Man With No Name" played by Clint Eastwood in the Dollars Trilogy?  Talk about the strong, silent type.  This character demonstrated the "action is louder than words" concept.  He had a unique but strong sense of justice and was an accomplished marksman.  We never learn a thing about him, yet he's still a compelling character.

I actually don't have a bounty hunter in Much Ado About Marshals, but many lawmen of the Old West blurred the line between justice and vice, or sometimes downright villainy.  Bounty hunting was a legal way, if not entirely honorable, to make a living for poorly-paid city marshals and county sheriffs. 

It was also a temptation, and therefore an area rich for storytelling.  Some bounty hunters were merely killers for hire, a few were careful to bring their prey in alive.  The boundaries between good and evil and wide and fuzzy. 

So don't forget bounty hunters in your next Western.  Could be fun!
Jacquie Rogers
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17 comments:

  1. Soooo many good TV westerns, with or without a bounty hunter or marshal! Remember High Chaparral? And Bonanza, of course... I loved The Rifleman too. Movies like Butch and Sundance, the Duke's westerns, I can't get enough! ;-D

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  2. I have McQueen's Randall show up, kinda sorta, in a story I wrote called "Kid Eddie." http://www.thewesternonline.com/kideddie.html
    A few more such stories are here: http://www.amazon.com/Adventures-Laramie-Gideon-Miles-ebook/dp/B00558VIBC/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1307695936&sr=1-1

    Great blog you have. Cheers!

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  3. Now the Stephanie Plum novels make so much more sense to me. It's interesting learning the roots of bounty hunting. Glad I'm Canadian though. I'd rather be taken live.

    Alison Bruce, author of Under A Texas Star
    www.alisonbruce.ca

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  4. Meg, they had bounty hunters on Wagon Train every once in a while, too. They were usually bad guys trying to capture a family man for something that happened during the war.

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  5. Good, story, David--a character study with action and a dilemma. Thanks for posting it here.

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  6. Hi, Alison! I think I'd rather not have faced any of the bounty hunters, lawmen or not. You'd have to have a rather unique perspective on life if hunting humans was your livelihood. Best of luck with Under a Texas Star!

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  7. i love reading your blogs. i love HISTORY! lol i watch the history channel all the time, and i probaly know more about history and cowboys and indians than i do current events

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  8. Haven't read anything cowboy related in a while. It's about darn time!!! :-)
    sk_86(at)gmx(dot)de

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  9. Thanks looking forward to reading some really good stuff :) Gail

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  10. Hi Jacquie - You don't know me, Diane Davis White urged me to read your blog, and I'm very glad I did.
    Ah, you liked Paladin too. Same here.
    And Clint -- of course Clint.
    I don't know enough about cowboys to write about them, but i love reading their stories.

    katehofman@rogers.com

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  11. My favorite actor is Clint Eastwood so that makes him the sexiest cowboy in my book! Would love to read your book. Thanks a lot. pringpringles@yahoo.com

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  12. Ohmagosh, I got a bit lost and missed your blog first time around. Just wanted to say howdy and send you best wishes.

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  13. Hi Jacquie!
    I'd have to say Chuck Connors, I used to watch re-runs of Rifleman before school:)

    Dee:)
    dgentle@cfl.rr.com

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  14. Clint Eastwood.

    Definetely a man of action and no talk when required

    cg
    divavixenqueen@hotmail.com

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  15. HMMMMMMMMMMM A 3 WAY TIE ON CLINT, SAM, AND TOM! FORGET JOHN WAYNE!!

    linda_bass@sbcglobal.net

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  16. Clint Eastwood!

    Robin D
    robindpdx (at) yahoo (dot) com

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