Monday, November 25, 2013

Lawyers in early frontier fiction

William Nelson Cromwell, attorney, 1904
A law degree was not always a guarantee of employment in the Old West as we find it in the pages of early frontier fiction. Before widespread settlement, vigilance committees dispense with malefactors, and lawyers are regarded as superfluous if not troublemakers themselves. 

But as the need grows to administer property rights and establish ownership of land and mining claims, lawyers begin to find a niche for themselves. An influx of other business interests then calls for the orderly settlement of conflicts, and we see the introduction of due process—generally referred to as “the coming of the law.” And the lawyer becomes a fixture of the frontier landscape.

The reputation of fictional frontier lawyers is pretty much the same as it is today. In novels set during the period, they’re either fighting bravely for justice or they’re in league with the villains. Here is a sample of lawyers of both kinds, as writers portrayed them at the turn of the last century.

In Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s The Squatter and the Don (1885) squatters enlist the services of a shady lawyer, Roper, to force a Californio ranchero off his land. Contemptuous of both fair play and legality itself, he’s in league with a crooked judge, aptly named Lacklaw, who hands down rulings favoring Roper. The state Supreme Court routinely overturns his decisions.

In Mollie E. Davis’s The Wire Cutters (1899) a gang of young men is jailed after a deputy is shot trying to stop them from cutting barbwire fences. Though they have scorned a local rancher, Roy Hilliard, for refusing to join their nighttime raids, he magnanimously comes to their defense, using his legal training to act as their attorney at their trial. After an impassioned plea, he gets a not-guilty decision from the jury.

Clifford G. Roe, 1911
Frank Fields, a high life-loving lawyer in Elizabeth Higgins’s Out of the West (1902), is banished by his father to a small town in Nebraska, where he gets into state politics. Riding a wave of populist sentiment against the railroads he eventually makes his way to Congress. There he is sorely tempted to cash in his principles for a return to the high life.

Pauline Bradford Mackie casts a lawyer in a love triangle in The Voice in the Desert (1903). Jarvis Trent finds the woman he once loved, Adele Lispenard, in a desert settlement in Arizona where she lives a spartan life married to a clergyman. Lawyering has made him a wealthy man, and he’s only partly successful in winning her away from her husband. She takes his money and heads back East with her two young sons—but without Trent.

A young lawyer, David Kent, takes a job as corporate attorney for the western division of a railway in Francis Lynde’s The Grafters (1904). A gang of corrupt politicians takes the governor’s office and engineers legislation calling for state regulation of the industry. Then, with the help of a pliable judge, they get Kent’s railroad thrown into receivership. The rest of the novel recounts Kent’s attempts to recover the railroad and put a stop to the “grafters” of the title.

Emerson Hough was himself trained as a lawyer and lived for a short time in White Oaks, New Mexico, a mining and cow town much like the one in his Heart’s Desire (1905). Dan Anderson is one of two lawyers in the sleepy settlement, for whom there is hardly work for one. They and their bachelor friends amuse themselves with pastimes like croquet and yearn for the love of a good woman.

Edwin W. Sims, 1910
One of the stories in Willa Cather’s The Troll Garden (1905) concerns a small town lawyer, Jim Laird. Serving the greedy ends of his unprincipled clients, he feels that his life has been wasted. He praises the achievements of a local young man who fled to the city and pursued his talents as an artist.

A lawyer, Eugene Winslow, is cast as an adversary of Clement Vaughan, the town’s minister in A. B. Ward’s The Sage Brush Parson (1906). Winslow uses the local debate club to maneuver Vaughan into taking stands in public that will embarrass him and undermine the loyalty of his following. Learning that Winslow is taking liberties with a trusting servant girl, Vaughan confronts him with knowledge of his misbehavior. Winslow is angered and defensive enough to pull a gun on him—inside the church.

John Campbell, a young lawyer fresh out of law school, is the “pilgrim” in John C. Bell’s The Pilgrim and the Pioneer (1906). Arriving in Colorado, he is coached by an older man, Joshua Wickham, who shows him the ropes of lawyering in a mining town. A man of principle, Wickham decries the corrupting influence of money on the judicial system. Because money buys the best lawyers, he argues, fairness has already been compromised before judge and jury hear a case. This is illustrated when the two men witness a divorce case in which a wealthy older man mercilessly rids himself of an unwanted wife who can afford only an inexperienced attorney.

The coming of the law to subdue the lawless element in a Dakota community is the subject of Kate and Virgil D. Boyles’s Langford of the Three Bars (1907). In that novel a young lawyer, Dick Gordon, has tried for years to bring justice to the county of Kemah, but jury after jury has declined to convict. He is despondent from repeated failure and self-doubt. With only a handful of friends he can count on, he soldiers on, fighting the good fight.

Henry S. Boutell, c1910
Westcott, a lawyer, is the villain of Adeline Knapp’s The Well in the Desert (1908). Crooked and heartless, he has taken $1,500 in gold dust from a man to build a defense for him in his murder trial and spent it instead on himself, losing much of it playing faro. The man, Gabriel Gard, has escaped from prison and is betrayed by Westcott once again. The rest of the novel is a pursuit of Westcott, even as he courts the woman Gard has fallen in love with.

Arthur Latimer is the idealistic lawyer in Alice Harriman’s A Man of Two Countries (1910). Defying corruption in Montana state politics, he is a model of integrity, rising in a few short years to the bench of the state Supreme Court. With the help of his friend Phillip Danvers, he is able to prevent the novel’s villain from buying an office as state senator. Though incorruptible, Latimer is not shielded from personal tragedies. He marries a woman who never loves him, and his young son dies. Of fragile health himself, he is finally shattered by discovery of his wife with someone he’d long taken for a loyal friend.

That’s a sample from 25 years of novels. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Not mentioned are the unseen corporate lawyers who figure in the background of several plots, working in the interest of Big Railroads and Big Mining. They represent an aspect of frontier life seldom found in traditional westerns, where justice is typically found at the end of a gun.

Further reading:
Reviews of other lawyer novels

Image credits:
Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Ride Lonesome (1959)


  1. I wonder if they were looked up as harshly as today.

    1. On the basis of fiction from the period, generally not. Unless, of course, the lawyer was the protagonist.

  2. So, even then lawyers get the guilty off. And, that is justice?

    1. It may not be justice, but it's the judicial system.

  3. How lawyering works:
    There was a lawyer who went out West and settled in a small town. He was the only lawyer for miles around. He could get no work and was about to give up in despair when another lawyer arrived.
    Now they're both doing very well.

  4. Fiction or fact people are still people.In 1890 or 1990 there were (and are) sociopaths and psychopaths along with the moral, caring and productive.Some of the tools have changed but the change in people has been slow. A big help for the fiction writer who wants to portray the late 19th century.

  5. Ron, this is a very interesting post. I don't recall reading westerns with official lawyer characters. The ones I have read had the town's most powerful man, usually a shady gambler, the mayor, the big saloon owner or rich rancher playing judge, prosecutor, and defence counsel. I think this was before the due process of law came into frontier fiction.

  6. Fascinating post, Ron! I didn't know there were so many lawyers as protagonists in early Western fiction. For myself, I chose a lawyer as a protagonist when I read an archival account of the Vigilantes of Montana that mentioned Wilbur F Sanders as the Counsel and prosecutor of the Vigilance Committee. What's a lawyer doing as a Vigilante? I asked myself, never dreaming that question would lead to a series of historical novels about them, with the main character a lawyer.