| On a day like today in the 1870’s...
Justice in the Wild West was a far cry from justice in the civilized East - though not, perhaps, in the violent South. Men were lured to the last frontier by the hopes of riches; many, impatient with more conventional means, attempted to speed up the process by relieving others of their cattle, horses, gold, and even their lives. A violent society called for swift and violent justice. Sheriffs were appointed and courts convened, but jails were insecure and impartial juries often impossible to find. Most often guilt or innocence was decided by the classic “shootout” on Main Street. Indeed, many of the lawmen in the West were chosen because of their reputations - deserved or not - as gunslingers, their only credentials being the notches on their guns, which served as the most effective deterrent to crime in the cowtowns and mining camps.
Writers from the East roamed the West in search of material to thrill and entertain the audiences at home. They found what they sought in dubious “heroes” like James Butler, “Wild Bill” Hickok - gunslinger, buffalo hunter, army scout, professional gambler and occasional U.S. Marshal. The dime novelists of the last nineteenth century and the filmmaker of the twentieth glorified the exploits of men like “Wild Bill,” who, if they were on the right side of the law, appear to have been so by accident rather than by choice. Not so fortunate those individuals who, while also seeming to welcome the opportunity to reduce the number of “badmen,” did so for the rewards for their capture, “Dead or Alive.” Bounty hunting is a time-honored practice in American (the English paid the Indians for American scalps) but never quite respectable. To stand up to an outlaw in a duel, even to shoot him in the back - the rumored method of dispatch for “Wild Bill's” first victim - could be lauded, if the only gain was survival or glory. To shoot a criminal in cold blood, for money, could not. Thus, we have Bob Ford, an ex-follower of the legendary Jesse James, who forgot past loyalties in the face of future reward and show his former leader, becoming immortalized in a popular ballad as “that dirty little coward… [who] laid poor Jesse in his grave.”