Hello readers: I began to read The Lawbreakers, by Tom Rizzo, a few days ago and couldn’t stop, so I finished and bought The Law Keepers.
Real-life stories about the West’s lawmen and their opponents are like popcorn, once you start you don’t want to stop.
So, of course, my next move was to interview author Tom Rizzo and see what else I can find out.
Julia Robb: Why did you write these books?
Tom Rizzo: I wanted to provide an entertaining snapshot of at the good, the bad, and the ugly of the American West—characters and events that shaped our rich history.
Volume 1, The Unexpected, deals with some of the more bizarre stories of the frontier—ghosts, con men, a headless horseman, a phantom train. Stories, in many instances, that couldn’t be explained.
Volume 2, The Law Keepers, deals with those whose job was to keep the peace—to the extent it was possible on such expansive territories—unique individuals who wore badges, but who often walked both sides of law and order. Courageous and daring lawmen who were passionate about their responsibility to make their corner of the frontier a safe place to live and rear a family.
Volume 3, The LawBreakers, was the most fun. I confess that when I was a kid, I enjoyed playing the outlaw in our neighborhood street plays of Cowboys and Indians. But fun aside, many lawbreakers were mean-spirited, vicious, quick to kill, and committed to taking what wasn’t theirs.
Robb: Did you learn anything personally by researching the lawmen and the outlaws?
Tom Rizzo: I’m struck by the courage of the lawmen I encountered. These guys put their lives on the line to carry out a responsibility to keep the peace. Some went to extraordinary lengths to do so and many simply had no quit in them.
For example, a lawman by the name of Orlando “Rube” Robbins tracked an escaped prisoner across the Dakota Territory and into the Oregon Territory, finally captured him, and returned him to prison—a journey of over twelve hundred miles.
Grant County Sheriff Harvey Whitehill of Silver City, New Mexico, happened to be the first lawman every to arrest Billy the Kid—twice.
He let the Kid off with a warning the first time, but put him behind bars the second. He did escape, the first prisoner ever to do so from Whitehall’s jail.
Another effective lawman was U.S. Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves, a former slave, who became a skilled shootist with either hand. In his law career, he arrested 3,000 felons and killed 14 men.
As far as the lawbreakers, one of the cruelest was Bob Rogers who severely beat a deputy constable of the Cherokee Nation in a saloon brawl. Rogers left and waited in ambush, attacked the deputy and slashed his throat. He left but, for some reason, returned to the scene of the crime, disregarded several townspeople who sat by the body awaiting the sheriff.
Rogers rode through their campfire, leaped off the horse, and attacked the corpse. He stomped the body, ripped legal documents out of his pocket, and took the victim’s hat.
Another evil-to-the-core outlaw was Harry Tracy who escaped from Oregon State Pen in 1902, killing guards and civilians along the way. The escape triggered one of the most intensive manhunts of the last days of the Old West.
Tracy’s end came at a small farmhouse outside Creston, Washington, where he engaged in a gun battle with a posse.
Revealing cowardice rather than courage, Tracy—wounded and losing a lot of blood—crawled out of a wheat field, vowing never to be taken alive. He stuck a revolver under his right eye and pulled the trigger. Many of those who broke the law had no moral compass. Some were cruel beyond reason, willing to go to any extent to get what they want.
Robb: Some of the lawmen seemed to ride both sides of the trail, first as a lawman, then as a criminal. Do you have any insight about this?
Tom Rizzo: Everyone has a little good and bad in them, in most cases. These particular men were no different. Obviously, some pinned on a badge because it provided good cover and allowed them to operate with no scrutiny—an ideal position from which to launch a criminal career.
For others, it came down to pure economic reasons. Most lawmen didn’t make a lot of money but, at the same time, had to feed and clothe a family. Sometimes when discreet opportunities arose, they’d take advantage of them and cross to the dark side.
On example was Charlie Allison, a deputy sheriff in Colorado. Not satisfied with his low pay, Charlie decided to organize a gang of outlaws and rob stagecoaches.
Lon Chambers, on the other hand, spent most of his career riding the Texas Panhandle as a range detective in the late 1870s. He even rode a couple of years with Sheriff Pat Garrett trying to track down Billy the Kid. But suddenly decided to turn outlaw and form a gang. Not much is known about their crimes, but he did stand trial for robbing a Wells Fargo express car. Without hard evidence, though, he and the rest of the gang went free.
Robb: Many of the outlaws seemed to be homicidal maniacs. Do you believe there were more of those in the Old West, or more now? And what causes this?
Tom Rizzo: It’s difficult to compare the two eras. Back then, homicidal maniacs existed and most probably operated with more impunity. Law enforcement wasn’t as organized or dedicated. Lawmen patrolled hundreds of thousands of square miles of land, relying mostly on their own ingenuity and personal skills. Today, law enforcers are better organized and have the advantage of high-tech resources to identify, track, and hopefully apprehend such murderers.
But it just wasn’t the outlaws who displayed cruel streaks. Some lawmen crossed the line as well. Among them was Deputy U.S. Marshal Bob Olinger of New Mexico. Before he pinned on a badge, he joined a gang of rustlers. He also got involved in the Lincoln County War, siding with the Murphy-Dolan-Riley faction.
Olinger was a big man and a big bully. When Billy the Kid was captured by Pat Garrett in late 1880, he was convicted of murdering Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady and transported to Lincoln and placed under 24 hour guard.
One of the guards was Olinger who used every opportunity possible to harass Billy. But it all ended badly when The Kid got the drop on Olinger with the lawman’s own shotgun and killed him.
Robb: Several of the men you wrote about in The Lawbreakers seemed to have more problems then just an urge to kill. I think of Clay Allison who also seemed to need to mutilate his victims. Were you surprised to discover stories like this?
Tom Rizzo: Surprised, yes. But, mostly shocked by their capacity for cruelty. You mentioned Clay Allison, an excellent example. But I recently wrote a story about Bob Rogers who savagely beat a deputy constable of the Cherokee Nation in a barroom brawl.
Later, he waited in ambush and slashed this constable’s throat. If that wasn’t enough, Rogers returned a short time later and actually attacked the dead man’s corpse. I’m sure there are examples much worse, but I haven’t run into them yet.
Robb: There seemed to be a lot of juries who acquitted men of murder when it was clear they were guilty. Why was this?
Tom Rizzo: That did happen a lot, Julia. And it was a bit of a mystery to me. I’m not sure about specifics but, in many instances, I believe the jury simply bought into whatever story the accused created and didn’t spend a lot of time zeroing in on the truth.
At the same time, witnesses died or disappeared. Specific laws weren’t in place or were unclear as to how to deal with some crimes.
Robb: What do you think about the lynch mobs who seemed to keep busy? Do you expect innocent men were hanged?
Tom Rizzo: I have no doubt innocent men—and women—were hanged. Vigilante justice came about because of the lack of, or ineffective, law enforcement.
Some communities had no formal law officer, so it was up to the citizens to keep the peace and punish the guilty. But it was brutal and violent way to enforce law, with little regard for guilt or innocence.
Robb: What story intrigued you most, both in The Law Keepers and The Lawbreakers??
Tom: So many stories in The LawBreakers intrigued me that it’s difficult to pick one. Society tends to romanticize or humanize some of the more popular outlaws. Men like Jesse and Frank James, Bob and Cole Younger, Billy the Kid, and more. Keep in mind, these men were stone-cold killers. If you crossed them, they wouldn’t hesitate to kill.
As far as a law keeper, I have to go hands-down with Elfego Baca, a man who personified the word Courage. A young, self-appointed deputy who single-handedly withstood an angry force of 80 Texas cowboys in New Mexico Territory who supposedly fired more than four-thousand rounds of ammunition, trying to flush him out of a jacal.
Not only did he emerge unscathed, Baca went on to become a lawyer, Deputy U.S. Marshal, school superintendent, as well as the mayor and sheriff of Socorro County, New Mexico.
Robb: Did you believe James McIntire’s story about talking with Christ?
Tom: Let’s say I believe McIntire believed it. I would have enjoyed hearing some specifics his conversation with Christ. McIntire, I’m sure, embraced a flair for the dramatic and was known to embellish.
In a book he wrote, McIntire told a story about the time he served as deputy sheriff of Mobeetie, Texas. He claims Wyatt Earp and Dangerous Dave Mather came to town with phony gold bricks and tried to sell them but ran the two gunmen out of town. I can’t quite get my head around that one.
Robb: What men did you learn to admire most?
Tom: There were many. But some who come to mind include Frank Dalton
—one of the Dalton Brothers who rode as a law keeper and not a lawbreaker like his brothers. He was killed at 28 while trying to carry out an arrest.
Sheriff Harry Morse of California’s Sausalito Valley staged a relentless manhunt for bandit Juan Soto. When he cornered him inside an adobe hunt, Morse and a deputy went in to get him and found themselves surrounded by several of Soto’s men. The deputy, worried and frightened, ran off leaving Morse to fend for himself.
Despite the odds, Morse prevailed and ended up in a gunfight with Soto whom he ended up killing.
I had great admiration for Jeff Milton, a former lawman who worked as an express messenger for Wells Fargo and foiled a robbery at Fairbank, Arizona, planned by former deputy sheriffs. In an exchange of gunfire, Milton went down with a bullet wounded to the arm.
Bleeding badly and losing consciousness, Milton managed to close the express car door, crawl to the desk and take the key to the strongbox out and hurl it behind luggage.
He then pretended to be dead when the outlaws gained entry. When they were unable to find a way to access the express box, the gang left.
Milton lost the use of his arm but continued his law enforcement career in several capacities throughout the years.
Robb: What man appalled you most?
Tom: There are so many to pick from. But my top three include:
Bob Rogers of Oklahoma Territory, who attacked a corpse, as I mentioned earlier in the interview.
Second place goes to Deacon Jim, a church-going man who became a killer-for-hire and advertised his services at the rate of $150 per kill.
Third place belongs to Bill Posey, an outlaw who hanged Matt Wallace, his own brother-in-law. Posey lynched Wallace in front of Wallace’s wife, Sarah, and two-year-old daughter.