Saturday, February 26, 2011

"These long-tailed heroes of the revolver"

Deadly Dozen: Forgotten Gunfighters of the Old West, Vol. 3
By Robert K. DeArment (University of Oklahoma Press, 2010) Hardcover, 396 pp.

Robert K. DeArment has given us a third volume in his meticulously researched series on “forgotten” gunfighters of the old west, although some of his subjects – Charley Harrison and Ed Short, to name two – will be familiar to western history buffs. Others, such as Jewish gunman Jim Levy and the maniacal Hill Loftis, will offer new and wicked delights.

A foreword by historian Roger McGrath explains that DeArment himself has some experience with handling a gun, as a soldier during World War II. “He understands that there is nothing more dramatic than a man fighting for his life and nothing more courageous than a man hearing the snap and crack of bullets about his head yet cooly and deliberately returning fire.” This may help explain why DeArment isn’t given to the hyperbole and hero worship that has infected other nonfiction writers on the same subject. What we get from DeArment is the unadulterated truth, culled from an exhaustive sifting of the historical account, and presented in a logical and straightforward manner. With each of the dozen subjects, we get a brief family history (often, the second paragraph recounts their birth) followed by a detailed account of their gunfights and their immediate or eventual deaths. Of the dozen subjects, most met violent ends. Six died in gunfights, two were dead by suicide, and one was lynched by a mob. Only two died of natural causes, and the fate of another is uncertain.

In setting the scene for an early Nevada pistoleer named Farmer Peel, DeArment gives us a bit of Mark Twain in describing how gunmen were regarded in the silver camps: “The desperado stalked the streets with a swagger graded according to the number of homicides, and a nod of recognition from him was sufficient to make a humble admirer happy for the rest of the day… When he moved along the sidewalk in his excessively long frock-coat, shiny stump-toed boots, and with dainty little slouch hat tipped over left eye, the small fry of roughs made room for his majesty,” Twain recalled in Roughing It. “The best known names in the Territory of Nevada were those belonging to these long-tailed heroes of the revolver.”

Farmer Peel (who was given the nickname by his peers because he looked nothing like a farmer) died on in Montana in 1867, during a gunfight with gambling rival John Bull. Peel was walking arm-in-arm with his mistress when, according to one account, they were confronted by Bull with pistol drawn and murderous intent. But Peel could not jerk his gun hand loose from the frightened woman’s grasp quick enough to defend himself, and Bull ended the dispute with three bullets – the last fired into Peel’s head at point-blank range.

In recounting the life of gambler Charley Harrison, DeArment does a good job of portraying the rip-roaring days of early Denver and Harrison’s death, as a Confederate officer, after a running fight with a band of Osage on the Verdigris River in southeast Kansas. As for lawman Ed Short, the author gives us a sober account of his killing in a toe-to-toe shootout in a Rock Island mail car with a member of the Dalton Gang. But DeArment truly shines when he recounts the life of Jim Levy, the only known Jewish gunman in the west.

Levy, a professional gambler, gained fame for his drunken and deadly shooting matches in gambling halls from Deadwood to Tombstone. After an argument with a fellow sharp in Tucson, Levy – who was flat-broke and perhaps mentally unstable – agreed to end the quarrel with a duel across the border into Mexico, and a hat was passed to raise thirty dollars to pay for a wagon to convey the combatants and their entourages. But the law got wind of the fight and spoiled the fun. But that wasn’t the end of it; the other fighter and two of his friend ambushed Levy when he emerged from a Tucson hotel. Levy fell dead on the sidewalk, and a newspaper reporter on the scene claimed he was unarmed. Levy was forty, rather old for his line of work.

But the story of Hill Loftis is perhaps the most disturbing of DeArment’s dozen.

Loftis – who also went by the aliases Tom Ross and Charles Gannon – had a rap sheet that ran from the Old West to the eve of the Great Depression. He was part of the Red Buck Waightman Gang that attempted robbery and successfully pistol-whipped the owner at Waggoner’s Store in Oklahoma Territory on Christmas Eve, 1895, and later holed up in a dugout and fought it out in the bitter cold with a posse of lawmen. But Loftis escaped, and remained a fugitive for many years, spending some time in South American but eventually returning to the states. Loftis was apparently easy to spot, having a head shaped like a buffalo’s and chilling black eyes. One Texas Ranger who chased him even believed that perhaps the outlaw’s peculiarly elongated head “caused some pressure on the brain, and might account for his vicious tendencies.” Loftis was convicted of murder in Texas, but later broke prison. He remained on the run until 1929, when during a thirty degree below night in a Montana line camp he killed a range detective by the name of Ralph Hayward who had been sent to smoke him out. After shooting Hayward to death, Loftis ordered the other cowboys out into the cold, burned all personal papers, and wrote a suicide note – then put a pistol to his head and pulled the trigger.

With this volume, with its copious notes and thorough index, DeArment has once again added to the body of Old West scholarship. He has also provided solid entertainment for the casual reader looking for something fresh amid the stale and often-told tales from the outlaw trail.