Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Cowboys in the news, 1882, cont.

Saloon, Charleston, Arizona, 1885
Cowboys were “trending” in 1882 as reports of their frontier mayhem flooded the news. The Chicago Tribune printed a brief story from Omaha on January 19. The town of Long Pine in north-central Nebraska had been taken over by a gang of cowboys who kept the town up all night with their partying.

According to the reporter, “They shot out the lamps in the saloons, riddled the windows, fixtures, and walls,” and were said to have fired an estimated 1,000 rounds. Some of them departed on a train still firing away from the back platform. There were no reported casualties.

Writing from Wichita in the aftermath of the Talbot Raid in Caldwell, Kansas, a correspondent for the Tribune on February 18 had this to say about the general state of affairs on the frontier:

After a new town has got a good fair start and begins to boom, it only needs a cowboy raid to open out a first-class and well-stocked graveyard. The cowboy has no hopes of heaven or fear of hell.

The writer recounts the exploits of Wild Bill, who brought order to Abilene, Kansas, by once killing six cowboys in one night. Alas, the item goes on to say, “Wild Bill was at last murdered by a cowboy, who got the drop on him.”

Tip Top, Arizona, 1888
Down in Tombstone, an “indignation meeting” was held to protest official efforts to permit the U.S. Army to help clean up the territory. A resolution denouncing recent public statements by President Arthur and the territorial governor was introduced. While nay votes were outnumbered six to one, the resolution was declared carried. So reports The Chicago Tribune on May 12.

Shortly thereafter, the Tribune carried an item from the Philadelphia Times, describing the Arizona cowboy as “habitually vicious.” And not only that but

lazy, foul-mouthed, desperate, intemperate, full of swagger and bravado, and careless as well of his own life and property as those of others.

Cowboys, the writer informs us, range in age from 18-30. If a genuine cowboy is still alive after 30, he “generally abandons the trade and takes to train and stage robbing as a profession.”

The item concludes with an account of recent incidents involving Arizona cowboys. One of this breed had bought a can of corned beef and was sitting on a keg in the road, when he forcibly invited a reluctant passerby to share his meal. Another cowboy terrorized a customer in a hotel dining room, calling him a tenderfoot and throwing dishes onto the floor. When the customer objected, the cowboy shot him. Such events, says the writer, “are of daily occurrence in Arizona.”

Total Wreck, Arizona, 1885
A Chicago Tribune story from Tombstone on October 18 features a detailed report of a carry-on at a saloon in a nearby settlement called California City. Hardly more than a village, it is described as having “three stores, a greater number of saloons, and some honest and respectable citizens” among its population of “several hundred.”

Setting the scene, the writer relates how a gang of “cutthroats” led by “Curly Bill” (William Brocius) likes to take over a saloon in town for a night of revelry. Eight or ten of the cowboys get liquored up and find a fiddler to play for a “stag dance.” There would thus begin an alcohol-fueled cutting of the rug:

Each fellow would select a partner from among the crowd, the musician would start up the “Arkansas Traveler” or some other familiar tune, and the leader would call out “Forward four,” and the dance commenced.

At a point in the dance, individuals would break out to do some fancy clog-dance steps. Revolvers would then be produced, as attempts were made to shoot the heels off one another’s boots. This, the writer notes, is a “common recreation” among these cowboys.

On the night in question, a new member of the gang by the name of Joe Palmer, missed his aim and shot another cowboy in the foot. A kangaroo court was immediately held and the cowboy found guilty of a felony by a jury of his “peers.”

Charleston, Arizona, 1885
Curly Bill, acting as judge, pronounced sentence – execution between daybreak and sunup of the following day. He is reported to have said later that “a man who could not shoot the heel off a fellow’s boot while he danced” did not deserve to associate with the residents of the community.

The news item goes on to report that the man found guilty had been suspected of being an informer, and the “trial” was dreamed up for the “amusement” of the gang. Law-abiding citizens dared raise no objection out of fear for their own lives and property. The writer concludes by noting that the death of Joe Palmer was only one of several who have been “assassinated” in recent times.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Kate and Virgil Boyles, Langford of the Three Bars


  1. The media hasn't changed a whole lot, has it?

  2. Drinks are 12 1/2 cents. Hot damn!

  3. That's what ya git, when them eastern tenderfeet gits to writin' the news, a mite 'zaggerated, said the old cowboy.

  4. Richard, there was a time when the news was probably less biased, but we're way past that now.

    David, first round's on me...

    Oscar, I'm guessing news reporters were fair game for an old cowboy who cared to stretch the truth a little hisself.

  5. It seems the southern cowboys were more violent than the northern ones, except when it came to range wars of course. I wonder just how much of what you read of history is accurate.

  6. Susan, Texas cowboys had a particular reputation for violence. Given its turbulent history, maybe this shouldn't be too surprising.