Not every Wild West disagreement was settled with guns on a dusty street.
Even on the frontier, accused criminals were entitled to a fair trial. Author Johnny Boggs recreates and analyzes some of the wildest murder trials of the times including the trials of John Wesley Hardin, Jack McCall, Alfred Packer, and Bill Longley among others.
The author uses contemporary accounts, including actual transcripts when available, to illustrate the period and the people involved. Each case begins with background leading up to the murder and trial and ends with an epilogue of what happened after the verdict. Well documented with maps and photographs, Great Murder Trials of the Old West is a fascinating read for historians as well as casual buffs.
Excerpt from Great Murder Trials of the Old West:
The images of frontier justice are clear: A tall, strong lawman stepping off a Dodge City boardwalk onto a dusty street to face down some outlaw with a gun to make Kansas safe for folks like Miss Kitty and Doc Adams. ... Or a quiet ex-gunman forced to strap on his nickel-plated Colt one more time to rid a Wyoming valley of heartless, murdering robber barons and make the territory safe for folks like Van Heflin and Jean Arthur. Nice stories, certainly, but Matthew Dillon only walked the streets of a CBS back lot and other film sets, and the man called Shane was a figment of novelist Jack Schaefer's imagination, George Stevens's direction and Alan Ladd's acting.
Pure fiction. The frontier always seemed mythical, so it stands to reason that the vision we see is mostly bunk. That's what the historians tell us, and they should know. Mano-a-mano gunfights on empty streets rarely happened -- and who could shoot straight in a smoky saloon after several shots of red-eye? -- while only an idiot would give a murderous opponent the opportunity to draw first.
Think in terms of American history, though, and similar images, though certainly less Arthurian or Homeric than the Traditional Western scenes cited above, come to mind: Vigilantes upholding the law with a peculiar sense of justice and hemp rope in mining camps across the Rocky Mountain West. ... Wild Bill Hickok, Pat Garrett and the Earp Brothers wielding their own brand of law with revolvers, fists and badges. ... Or cattlemen taking matters into their own hands when it came to dealing with horse thieves, rustlers or, sometimes, smaller ranchers.
To paraphrase many a fictional character, where there ain't no law, you make your own. Yet, eventually, the law came to Dodge City, to Texas and Wyoming, to the entire West -- and it came rather quickly. Federal and civilian courts brought the scales of justice to Western territories and new states. Lawyers hung their shingles from Texas to Montana and Missouri to California. Judges read law books and settled cases and lawsuits. When an ominous range war threatened an honest rancher's livelihood, you can bet your boots that his or her first trip wasn't to see the closest and fastest hired gun, but rather to sit down with an attorney at law. Maybe the Nebraska pioneer never came face-to-face with Judge Judy or watched Court TV on cable, but there was law. Real law. Not just Judge Roy Bean and his Law West of the Pecos.
Hey, Judge Issac Parker did send seventy-nine convicted felons to the gallows in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and plenty of outlaws faced juries of their peers in legal proceedings. Yet whether we read fiction or nonfiction, frontier justice seldom conveys images of barristers and courtrooms.
The idea for this book began in the late 1990s while researching a trilogy of historical novels I planned on writing regarding murder trials in the West (my Gun and Gavel series with Signet-Dutton). The eight trials included here aren't part of that fictional series because in these cases, I guess, truth is stranger than fiction. What follows is a sampling of murder trials in the Wild West -- legal trials, civilian or military, not miner's courts or vigilante justice, although I do touch upon the miner's court in the Jack McCall case. Some of the defendants, such as John Wesley Hardin, and some victims, such as Wild Bill Hickok, are well-known even today. Many cases have been overlooked by history, but each case turned out to become, to varying degrees, a media sensation in its time.
So some things have not changed over the past hundred-plus years. The public and the press still love a good murder trial.
Copyright 2003 by Johnny D. Boggs