Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Law Enforcement in the Old West

          In the Old West, the law was enforced by marshals and sheriffs, but their employers, jurisdictions and duties differed. Novels and TV shows often use the terms interchangeably. This is incorrect.
          U. S. Marshals have been appointed by the U.S. Marshals Service since 1789, and are not elected. As federal employees, their jurisdiction extends beyond county lines. Their authority covers everything within their assigned territory. They generally disburse and account for monies used in running the courts. In 1896 they were put on an annual salary. Before that, they worked on a fee system, collecting set amounts for performing certain tasks. Between 1790 and 1870, they were responsible for taking the census every ten years. Until 1861, when Congress created the Department of Justice, they reported directly to the Secretary of State. They appointed deputy U. S. marshals as well as field deputy U. S. marshals when needed. Until around 1970, there were no official headquarters for U. S. Marshals.

Wyatt Earp
          Sheriffs date back to medieval Europe, and continued into Colonial America. Social misfits of all sorts, some evading the law or unwanted families, were drawn to the western frontiers. The potentially violent and lawless West, with its heterogeneous population, required powerful and unique personalities to deal with the complex issues of turbulence and crime. This resulted in colorful and dramatic personalities who assumed the roles of law enforcers--characters like "Wild Bill" Hickok, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Pat Garrett, William “Bill” Tilghman, William Brenkenridge, Commodore Perry Owens and John Slaughter. Sheriffs were elected officials. Their jurisdiction was limited to the county in which they served, their primary duties being to keep the peace, uphold the law, and maintain the jail. They acted in conjunction with U. S. Marshals but with limited authority.
          Sheriffs hired deputies, formed posses when needed, and served as county tax collectors. The privileges awarded sheriffs by the States varied widely. Wyoming allowed sheriffs to use a residence for law enforcement purposes at county expense. New Mexico extended jurisdictional limits of the sheriff to permit him or his deputies to enter all counties in the state to affect an arrest and to have concurrent rights to form posses. While the duties of sheriffs and their deputies were multitudinous, the primary law enforcement functions were virtually identical throughout the early West. Often the sheriff carried out death sentences, usually by hanging. They erected gallows or simply threw a rope over a stout tree limb.
          Town marshals might be either elected or appointed and worked strictly within town limits. Often they functioned almost as arms of the county sheriff in carrying out duties such as collecting taxes and maintaining jails. In Arizona, cities, towns, and villages decide whether to appoint or elect a Marshal, or have the board/council/city manager hire a Chief of Police as the top criminal law enforcement for their jurisdiction (like in the Town of Tombstone). Marshals are elected by the trustees to serve a fixed term, and chiefs of police can be fired at will by whoever hired them just like any other employee.
          Texas and Arizona Rangers still perform untold services in their respective states. Some of their duties include protecting life and property, handling special criminal investigations, quelling disturbances, serving as officers of the court at a judge's request, and suppressing criminal activity in any area where local officials are unable or unwilling to maintain law and order. Their authority extends through their entire state and is not curtailed by city or county boundaries. Directly under the governor, they sometimes act as an army, while at others, more like a police force. The Texas Rangers were organized in 1823 by Stephen Austin and a group of men eager to see the frontier protected. Each ranger furnished his own horse and firearm. For $1.25 a day they handled the toughest of assignments, often in conflicts where they were severely outnumbered. The Arizona Rangers were formed in 1882 under the territorial governor, an exact counterpart to the Texas Rangers. The Arizona State Congress abolished them in 1909, but they were reformed years later.
          Bounty hunters were often considered more as bad guys than good ones, probably because of a few rogues known for killing men wanted dead or alive to collect the bounties on them. But they began as law enforcers. Many served as deputy U. S. marshals. Others worked with sheriffs in apprehending criminals, freeing the marshal or sheriff to focus on normal duties. Nowadays they track down bail jumpers.
         Pinkerton Agents were detectives who worked for Allen Pinkerton in his agency formed in 1850. They operated nationwide, working for railroad and stage companies. Their logo was the image of an eye, their motto, "We Never Sleep," which is where the term "private eye" originated. Pinkertons performed some of the work now handled by the FBI, CIA, and Secret Service. In 1861, while investigating a railroad case, the agency uncovered and foiled a plot to kill Abraham Lincoln. They sometimes used heavy-handed methods, such as when quelling mining strikes, which sullied their reputation, but the agency continued as a family-owned operation until 1967.

          Vigilance vs. vigilantism. Citizens did not always rely on lawmen but took the initiative themselves, banding together in the form of vigilance committees. Too often these vigilantes are confused with lynch mobs. The two were very distinct and separate entities, and the lynch mob was actually rare in the Old West. Lynch mobs represented wild outbursts of passion--emotion trumping reason--that were expended in a matter of hours. Where Lynch mobs were unruly and unorganized, vigilance committees displayed military-style organization, including a chain of command, and preceded in a quiet, orderly, and deliberate fashion.
            Most committees were supported by a majority of the residents of the local community, including the leading citizens. Well regulated, they dealt quickly and effectively with criminal problems, leaving towns in more stable and orderly condition. Moreover, vigilance committees were organized not because there was no established law enforcement, but because that law enforcement could not always be relied upon to pursue, apprehend, and punish the guilty. Long-range pursuits were time consuming, expensive, and often in vain. Vigilantes were members of a vigilance committee formed to enforce law and order before a regularly constituted government could be established or have real authority. They provided towns with a relatively just method of dealing with criminals in a time and place where little other organized justice existed.
          Do any of you know of an actual lynching in or near your home town?

Charlene Raddon's first serious writing attempt came in 1980 when she awoke one morning from an unusually vivid and compelling dream. Deciding that dream needed to be made into a book, she dug out an old portable typewriter and went to work. That book never sold, but her second one, Tender Touch, became a Golden Heart finalist. Soon afterward, she signed a three book contract with Kensington Books. Five of Charlene's western historical romances were published between 1994 and 1999: Taming Jenna, Tender Touch (1994 Golden Heart Finalist under the title Brianna), Forever Mine (1996 Romantic Times Magazine Reviewer's Choice Award Nominee and Affaire de Coeur Reader/Writer Poll finalist), To Have and To Hold Affaire de Coeur Reader/Writer Poll finalist); and The Scent of Roses. Her books are now being published as eBooks by Tirgearr Publishing. 



Kemberlee said...

Is there anything you don't know about the Old West? I think not! Another awesome article :-)

Unknown said...

Loved the post. Very informative and most helpful.

Ellen O'Connell said...

Hey, Charlene, great info. Do you know of any source of good info about bounty hunters in the Old West? I'm particularly curious about what happened when they captured a Texas criminal in Montana. I'm assuming they had to drag the guy back to Texas, but don't know. And how did they get paid back in the day? Have another book to write before I get to the one that needs that info, but I'm starting to think about it now.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Kem. You're such a boost to my ego.

Anonymous said...

Ellen, I haven't really run onto much research on bounty hunters, but I'm quite sure they would have had to take a man wanted in Texas back there (or his body) to collect their bounty. As for how they would have been paid, I imagine it was either cash or a bank check. If I run onto more information I'll let you know. Thanks for stopping by.

Lyn Horner said...

Great info, Charlene. Thanks for sharing your research with us.

Jacquie Rogers said...

A lot of old west towns had a police department headed by the chief of police. This was the case where I set Much Ado About Marshals, but I thought Much Ado about Chiefs of Police sounded a bit awkward. LOL