Readers, our society pays attention to a few Old West Lawmen while the majority, who acted heroically, are unknown and generally unsung.
J.R. Sanders recently published Some Gave All: Forgotten Old West Lawmen Who Died With Their Boots On, and now you too can find out about these good men.
Sanders–who now lives in California–said his interest in the Old West began when he and his family visited the Dalton Gang hideout, Abilene, and Dodge City, Kansas.
Those famous Wild West hangouts were not a long trip, since the Sanders’ family lived in Newton, Kansas, one of the original “Wild and Woolly” cowtowns.
Sanders later became a police officer and served for fifteen years, but these days he writes, contributes to Wild West magazine, and is a member of the Western Writers of America and the Wild West History Association.
Q. Hi J.R., thanks for talking to us. I’m assuming you were interested in writing this book because you were a policeman. Is this correct?
A. Partly, I guess, although I’ve always been interested in Old West lawmen. I did hope, through the book, to give readers a little different perspective on law enforcement, and its practitioners, in the West.
There’s a great old quote by Elmer Kelton: “I can’t write about heroes seven feet tall and invincible. I write about people five foot eight and nervous.” Too often Western “law dogs” are portrayed as larger-than-life, near-invincible Terminators of the West.
I wanted to show that they were in reality normal flesh and blood folks, with the same concerns and failings we all have. I also wanted to tell some stories that hadn’t really been told before.
Q. How long did the research take, and the writing?
A. The book was about five years in the making. Research and writing were intertwined pretty much from the start, but if I were to separate them out I’d say it was four years of research and a year of writing, give or take.
Q. Did you learn anything about Western violence or law enforcement that you didn’t previously know?
A. Although I knew this in general, the one thing that jumped out at me as I studied these cases, and that was constantly reinforced, was that the justice system of that time functioned – some would say malfunctioned – pretty much as it does today.
We tend to have an image of Old West justice, fed by a century-plus of novels, films and television shows, as ever swift and sure. The gavel comes down, the judge pronounces sentence in somber tones, and the guilty party’s marched out back to the gallows.
But that’s hardly the case. Of the ten incidents I cover in the book, only one resulted in the lawman’s killer paying the ultimate price for his crime, and that was a year and a half later, after a mistrial, a failed insanity plea and an appeal.
Q. Who became your favorite historical character, and why?
A. I picked up a few new favorites. But if there’s one guy I could have spent a lot more time on, and may at some point write a lot more about, it would be Johnny Manning. He was on the train with Hal Gosling and shot it out toe-to-toe with two escaping prisoners.
His revolver’s ejector jammed up when he was reloading, and he couldn’t use it to knock out the empty casings. He squatted down while still taking fire from not more than ten or twelve feet away, used a pencil to punch the empties out so he could reload, then came back shooting. That’s some cool nerve. That’s a fellow I’d like to know more about.
Q. Many writers have attacked the Earp Brothers and their friends, accusing them of everything from assassinating their opponents (at what was later referred to as the Gunfight at the OK Corral) to being pimps and criminals. Do you agree with this assessment? (I do not and you can read my take at my website, at juliarobb.com/blog/truth-tombstone/).
A. I have to be careful when I discuss the Earps. Whatever you say about them you’re bound to tick someone off, and my views – on Wyatt, at least – tend to be outside the mainstream. But you’ve asked the question in good faith, so I’ll try and answer it without getting on too much of a rant.
I have to preface, though, with the opinion that most often gets me in hot water – that there’s no more overrated figure in all of Western history – lawman history, anyway – than Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp. That said, I think a lot of what’s said to damn him is as partisan as much of what’s said to praise him.
Whatever we think of the Earp party’s actions in O.K. Corral fracas, the evidence supports that if all the players on the other side weren’t armed, the Earps had reason to believe they were, so no one was assassinated.
As for the pimps and criminals thing, Wyatt was involved in some pretty questionable dealings both before and after the Tombstone days (including an arrest in L.A., when he was in his 60s, for defrauding a faro bank).
On the whole, I think he was probably no better or worse than any Westerner whose income came largely from gambling.
Q. What fascinated you when doing the research?
A. It was all fascinating; I’m a research hound, anyway, so I had a ball. One of the most interesting and rewarding things that came out of it, though, was the opportunity to connect with several relatives and descendants of the lawmen I was writing about.
Not only were they a big help with pictures and information – though family lore and history don’t always mesh – but it was rewarding to meet people for whom the incidents I was writing about were not just stories, but a personal and cherished part of their families histories.
Q. Did you find anything that surprised you, when doing the research?
A. There were surprises with every new bit of information that I found. But my favorite surprise came after the book was released. I’d been in touch with a great-grandson of John Dillingham, the Missouri sheriff whose story I tell in Chapter 8.
I got an email from him just a couple of weeks ago and he’d learned by pure chance that Sheriff Dillingham’s Colt revolver and gunbelt, along with his handcuffs and pocket watch, had been sold at auction back in November.
They’d been in the hands of a gun collector in Florida and were sold to another collector in Ohio. So now I have a new Dillingham story to research; we’re hoping to backtrace those items from the collectors to the family, and to the sheriff himself.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. I’m working on something that’s new for me – my first novel. It’s a sort of half 1930s private eye story, half Western. It takes place in Hollywood, in the world of the B-movie cowboys, but has a sort of traditional Western backstory/subplot.
It’s in final edits now and due to be released later this year by High Hill Press. The title is Cowboy Moon.
Q. Why haven’t you published on kindle?
A. I have, actually. My 2010 children’s book, The Littlest Wrangler, is available as a Kindle title. Some Gave All is not yet (published on Kindle), due to some technical issues I don’t fully understand (there’s a lot about e-books/e-readers I don’t get). The book’s pretty heavily illustrated with historical photos and other images, and apparently those present some tricky formatting issues. The publisher’s working on it.
As a confirmed Luddite who’s also a writer with a living to make, I’ll admit I’m pretty ambivalent about the whole e-book trend. That’s probably enough said.
Q. Was writing the book difficult?
A. There were challenges, as there are with any writing project. Research was a big one here. It’s a book about mostly unknown or forgotten figures, so for many of these fellows it took me a considerable amount of sleuthing to find reliable information about them.
A lot of what had been written about these incidents in the past – which was pretty limited, anyway – amounted to romanticized, dime-novelish accounts that didn’t quite match up with the known facts. On some, there was plenty of primary source material, but on others very little. In some cases, there was more data available on the killers than the lawmen.
Also, since each man’s story ended much the same – they were each killed in the line of duty, after all – it was a challenge to try and give each chapter a little different feel.