The tin star
Further to the subject of law ‘n’ order in the West, we have already established that the law in the West, or in Westerns anyway, was rarely a formally constituted court with judge and jury. Even when those elements appeared, they were often either incompetent or corrupt, or both.
No, the word lawman was reserved for a sworn peace officer, usually a fellow packing a pistol and wearing a badge on his vest.
Early Western communities were unlikely to have a formal sworn or salaried peace officer. Some towns, therefore, and especially mining camps, tended to set up ‘vigilance committees’, to deal with malefactors. The word vigilance is rather positive, isn’t it? A vigilant person is watchful, careful, thoughtful. But a vigilante now, that’s quite another thing. Sometimes the vigilantes were seen as heroes and were supported by the law-abiding citizens, being regarded as a necessary stopgap until proper law arrived, but other times the vigilantes were brutal thugs, worse than the ‘criminals’ they were pursuing.
One of the first vigilante groups formed was known as the San Francisco Vigilantes, of 1851.
One of the most notorious bands, a little later, was the Montana Vigilantes, who in 1864 hanged Bannack Sheriff Henry Plummer, whom they accused of being a road agent.
When the Reno brothers started robbing trains in Indiana after the Civil War, locals formed the Southern Indiana Vigilance Committee and hanged Frank, William and Simeon Reno in 1868.
But none of these guys could properly be termed lawmen. They were often operating as far outside the law as the men they were after. In the absence of proper authorities, this was frontier law at its crudest.
Even in the 1870s and ‘80s, there were not in actual fact a great many policemen. Some communities elected a constable. Even the much-famed Wyatt Earp was first a constable, and was never, malgré Hollywood, marshal of a town – Wichita, Dodge, Tombstone, or anywhere else – though his brother Virgil was for a time marshal of Tombstone. Town marshals could be appointed by some county or state authority, often (in Western movies) by the mayor, but usually then faced election or re-election. These marshals had powers and duties similar to those of a police chief. But their jurisdiction generally ended at the border of the community. When town lawman John Cleese with a posse pursues the chaps who burned down his gallows in Silverado, he pulls up short at the limit of his authority and will go no farther. Mind, that’s partly because one of said chaps shoots his hat off.
Perhaps the most famous town marshal of them all was Wild Bill Hickok, marshal of Abilene. He never really got over accidentally shooting his own deputy, and found that his popularity suddenly waned. In fact Bill’s predecessor, Bear River Tom Smith, was unusual for a marshal in that he tried, Destry-like, to police Abilene with no gun. Unfortunately, he got semi-decapitated for his pains.
A sheriff (the word is derived from the old English shire-reeve) tended to be a county officer, and often a political appointee/nominee for election, and sheriffs’ tasks (varying from county to county) might include maintaining county jails, serving warrants and court papers, and tax collection (a proportion of the money collected helping to fill the sheriff’s pockets, office safes or bank accounts). Occasionally sheriffs became noted as law-enforcers. A shoot-out during the Pleasant Valley War made the name of Commodore Perry Owens, elected Apache County sheriff in 1886.
Other famous sheriffs were Seth Bullock, from Deadwood, also later a deputy US marshal; Frank Canton, Sheriff of Johnson County, Wyoming; Longhair Jim Courtright, in Fort Worth; King Fisher, Sheriff of Uvalde County, Texas; ex-Ranger Captain Jack Hays, first Sheriff of San Francisco; and John Slaughter, Sheriff of Cochise County. But there were many more. They weren’t all fine upstanding types, and they didn’t all die with their boots off. Courtright, for example, tried to shake down saloon owner Luke Short, the gambler-gunfighter, and Short shot him to death in a gunfight in 1887.
Sometimes, rarely, there was a state-wide police force. Most famous of these were the Texas Rangers but at different times other states, Arizona, for example, experimented with such an organization. However, state legislatures might be quick to set them up but were generally much less keen regularly to vote enough resources to maintain the force. Furthermore, rangers of this kind were not always paragons of virtue or exemplary providers of law and order, as Mexican objects of the Texas Rangers’ summary justice often found out. The Rangers had a paramilitary role as much as a law enforcement one, for example fighting the Comanche in Texas.
The only public federal police force that operated in the West was the corps of US Marshals. The marshals dated back to the First Congress and were “appointed in and for each district for a term of four years”. It was further ordained that the marshal “shall have the power to command all necessary assistance in the execution of his duty, and to appoint as shall be occasion, one or more deputies.” And indeed, deputy US marshals play a big role in Western movies, not only Cahill, US Marshal, though in reality marshals had many duties apart from bringin’ in outlaws, such as serving writs, paying the fees and expenses of the court clerks, US Attorneys, jurors, and witnesses, renting courtrooms and jail space, and even conducting the census. But those jobs weren’t very Western so are quietly ignored on the screen.
Because there were so few officers with authority to cross county and state lines, a private national police force, the Pinkertons, was much employed, as we have seen (click the link for that). Sometime Pinkerton men such as Charlie Siringo and Tom Horn occasionally featured in Westerns. In other movies actors played members of euphemistic outfits such as the ‘Pleasanton Detective Agency’, the real Pinkertons still going at the time the movies were made and thus a tweaked name being a safer bet, according to studio lawyers.
There was definitely an overlap at local level between jurisdictions and it didn’t always work well, especially if the county sheriff was based in a town with a local marshal. Sometimes it was OK, as, for example, when Bat Masterson was Ford County Sheriff, based in Dodge, KS when the town marshal there happened to be his brother Ed (until he was shot to death in a saloon). Other times, though, the cohabitation was less cozy. In Tombstone, AZ, County Sheriff Johnny Behan on the one hand and the Earp party on the other were pretty well enemies, certainly political opponents, aligned to different factions and far from amicable collaborators with a shared law ‘n’ order aim.
Virgil, Wyatt, Morgan and Warren Earp were all appointed deputy US marshals for brief periods, so that gave them a higher authority at those moments. At the time of the so-called Earp Vendetta, when Wyatt sought rough justice on the assailants of his brothers, there was the absurd situation of two rival posses, both with sworn and badge-wearing officers, riding the country at odds with each other.
There seems to have been some confusion in Western movies. In 1941 Roy Rogers was Sheriff of Tombstone, appointed by Mayor Addison Richards, which was odd. County sheriffs might in fact have deputies installed in local communities, so you could have a ‘sheriff’ with local law-enforcement duties. That happened when Richard Widmark pinned on the badge in Warlock. Presumably this was also the case in Support Your Local Sheriff! Whether such lawmen as The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (Kenneth Moore) or the Sheriff of Sage Valley (Buster Crabbe) were duly appointed sheriffs or locally elected constables or marshals is not always crystal clear. Some blurring of the lines was going on there. Never mind.
Buster was Billy the Kid in the Sage Valley flick. Billy is usually shown as gunning down Sheriff Brady in the street in Lincoln, NM in a one-on-one duel (in reality he probably participated in an ambush of Brady with other men) and it was finally new County Sheriff Pat Garrett who got Billy, down in Fort Sumner.
Sometimes, because of local disorder like the Lincoln County War in New Mexico or the later Johnson County War up in Wyoming, martial law was threatened. Under martial law, which the governor has the power to impose within the borders of the state, the military could take a hand, having authority over local lawmen. In fact, though, while martial law was often talked about, it was very rarely imposed. It happened after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 and the Coeur d’Alene strikes in Idaho in 1892, but not in ‘Wild West’ range wars or feuds or homesteader vs. cattle baron conflicts. Phew.
Sheriff Brady in Lincoln was of course in the pocket of the local hoodlums, in the movies anyway, and Westerns delighted in crooked marshals and sheriffs, who often featured. Think of the townswoman upbraiding the bought-and-paid-for Sheriff Poole (James Russo) in Open Range. “You’re a disgrace!” she yells at him. At least he had the grace to reply, “I know it.”
However, just as dubious judges were often portrayed in a jocular way as amusing rascals, so too crooked lawmen could receive the same treatment. The most famous rascal-judge was Edgar Buchanan, as we know, but he had a nice sideline in rascally peace officers too. Look at his roguish and cowardly Sheriff Bravo Trimble in Abilene Town (contrasted with noble Marshal Randolph Scott). Edgar wore the star, usually somewhat diffidently, in Coroner Creek, The Big Trees, Dawn at Socorro and more.
I liked Brian Dennehy as crooked Marshal Cobb in Silverado. The best crooked lawman, though, I think, was Ray Teal. Need a crooked sheriff? Ray is your man. The Kid from Texas, Rage at Dawn, The Secret of Convict Lake, plenty more. In fact in Rage at Dawn Ray’s crooked sheriff was in cahoots with crooked Judge Edgar Buchanan. Great! In Ride Clear of Diablo, Paul Birch impersonates Ray Teal as crooked sheriff, even looking like him, though in the Ray Teal Lookalike Contest Paul comes second.
Still, they weren’t all bad eggs, these lawmen.
In fact the stories of countless Westerns depended on sheriffs and marshals as good guys. The clean-up-the-town plot was one of the mainstays of the genre. You have a brave, gritty lawman standing up to those lowdown elements who have treed the town, or who want to. Probably the most famous was Marshal Gary Cooper, facing down Frank Miller and his henchmen in High Noon.
Often the lawman concerned was Wyatt Earp, whether that be Randolph Scott in Tombstone in Frontier Marshal, Joel McCrea in Wichita, Burt Lancaster in Dodge and Tombstone in Gunfight at the OK Corral, or any of the many others.
Sometimes, though, it was Bat Masterson – McCrea again, this time in Gunfight at Dodge City, or George Montgomery, in Masterson of Kansas, or, on TV, Gene Barry in the Bat Masterson series. Other lawmen featured, though more rarely. Bill Tilghman, in his time at least as famous as any Earp, if not more so, did occasionally pop up, for example in the shape of Rod Steiger in Cattle Annie and Little Britches or Sam Elliott in You Know My Name, and he even got a whole movie about him, Bill Tilghman and the Outlaws, with Ken Arnold as Bill. Some great lawmen, such as US Marshal Heck Thomas, instrumental in the downfall of the Dalton and Doolin gangs, or Bass Reeves, the first black deputy marshal west of the Mississippi, hardly even get a mention in movies.
Often the lawmen on the big screen or small were fictional, like Matt Dillon in Dodge in Gunsmoke, but clearly modeled on the (mythical) Wyatt Earp. Brave and dependable marshal brings law ‘n’ order to wild frontier town. Pictures such as Law and Order in 1932 didn’t star Wyatt Earp by name but were clearly versions of Stuart Lake’s hagiographical Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal.
Occasionally the lawman was a steely, even ruthless kind, determined to do his duty come what may. One thinks of tough guy Kirk Douglas in Last Train from Gun Hill or Burt Lancaster in Lawman. Unsympathetic types in many ways, these hard-bitten marshals, though when you see what the arrestee did to Kirk’s wife you get the reason why.
Some of these lawmen operated on both sides of a blurry line between lawbreaker and law enforcer. One thinks of Tom Horn, Frank Canton, Milton Yarberry, JJ Webb, Mysterious Dave Mather, Dirty Dave Rudabaugh and Dutch Henry Brown, among others. Maybe they were ex-gunmen who pinned on a badge and reformed, but maybe they backslid: Brown was an ex-gunman who was appointed a marshal in Caldwell, Kansas but was later caught robbing a bank. They didn’t all end well. Horn was hanged for murder, Brown was shot to death by a lynch mob, Rudabaugh was decapitated with a machete and his head placed on a pole in Parral, Mexico. Not nice.
Top row, l to r: Tom Horn, Frank Canton, Milton Yarberry, John Joshua Webb, Dave Rudabaugh
Front row, l to r: Dave Mather (in his Assistant Marshal’s hat), Henry Brown
But mostly, lawmen in Westerns were good guys. The whole notion of lawman as lead goes right back. Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle was The Sheriff in 1918 (which he also wrote and directed). It would be impossible (if satisfying) to list all the Western movies and TV shows that featured a lawman as hero.
I say lawman. Actually, on very rare occasions we got a lawwoman. In Gunslinger, Rose Hood (Beverley Garland) gets the mayor to pin the marshal’s badge on her comely bosom while her late husband, who had been wearing it, is being interred. In fact, during the funeral service she casually shoots to death one of the attendees at the graveside, who was one of the murderers, she claims. No one seems to mind a bit. In reality I don’t know if there ever was a woman peace officer in them days. There was a Catherine Jones, who served as a deputy sheriff in Cave Creek, Arizona, and was apparently a pistol-packin’ lady, but that was in the 1920s, and it was Prohibition-era bootleggers she was shootin’ at.
Badges were important. Marshall Trimble on True West magazine says, “Peace officers, then and now, can design their own badges. In frontier towns, they often made badges out of materials at hand that ranged from silver coins to lids off tin cans, hence ‘tin star’. Although the five-pointed star is the most common of these designs, some agencies had six-, seven-, eight- or nine-point stars for badges. Historically, a five-pointed star supposedly imparted magical powers that deflected evil. A soldier wore one around his neck, believing it would protect him from enemy arrows. Of course, that didn’t always work.”
At any rate, pinning on the badge (or throwing it in the dust) was a highly symbolic act, which Western movies loved – to the point where you couldn’t be a lawman without one. Texas Rangers didn’t generally have badges, not in the Old West, but you wouldn’t know it from the movies.
Well, well. Sheriffs, marshals, badge-wearers of all stripes, they were key elements of our beloved genre. You will doubtless have favorites whom I have unaccountably omitted to mention. But as I said, it would be impossible to cite them all.
One thing is certain, dudes: without that tin star Westerns would be much the poorer.