A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 266

Dodge City lawman Bat Masterson around 1911. Courtesy: The Library of Congress.

Monday, May 30

The violence of the Old West has been widely described—and magnified in countless Hollywood productions. But a look at the record of Wild West violence shows that it was nothing like as bloody and horrific as the current spate of AR-15 murders across the U.S.

A little background: In the immediate post-Civil War years, a number of “cattle towns” sprouted up across Kansas, encouraging great drives of the immense Texas longhorn herds to these railheads. Dodge City, Abilene, Wichita, Ellsworth, and Caldwell all came into being and flourished between 1867 and 1885. In 1867, a mere 35,000 head of Texas beef were driven to Abilene, with perhaps 20,000 being shipped from there via rail to points east. Wichita and Dodge City, each with links to the Santa Fe railroad, rose as important shipping points in the 1870s. In 1882, 200,000 head of cattle were sold in Dodge City alone; by 1910, 27 million cattle had made the trek from Texas to the Kansas towns.

But famously, when cattle drives ended, they unleashed upon the towns dozens of rowdy coyboys—suddenly flush with end-of-drive pay and eager to cut loose. Catering to their wants were legions of prostitutes, gambling halls, and 24-hour saloons. Brawls of every sort resulted: During Abilene’s third cattle season, 1869, one cowboy rode his horse into a saloon, pulled a gun on the bartenders, and upon exiting, engaged in a shootout with numerous other “desperate characters.” The towns were thus compelled to effect a variety of peace-keeping mechanisms—one of the most common being hiring a crew of former gunfighters as a police force.

All the same, in the words of historian Robert R. Dykstra’s 1970 work The Cattle Towns, there were relatively few fatalities. “Many legendary desperadoes and gunfighters sojourned in the cattle towns at one time or another, but few participated in slayings,” he writes. These notable badmen included Doc Holliday, Clay Allison, and the teen-aged gunman John Wesley Hardin. Nor did badge-wearing gunslingers contribute much to fatality stats: “Wild Bill” Hickok killed only two men during his one term as Abilene city marshal; Dodge City’s Wyatt Earp, only one; and “Bat” Masterson, also of Dodge, killed none at all.

According to Dykstra, between 1870 and 1885, total homicides in the five cattle towns amounted to only 45.

Many of the wanton cowpokes were likely no older, and probably no less unhappy, than the Uvalde, Texas killer, Salvador Ramos. But a six-shooter bears no comparison to the AR-15 that in only a few minutes fired off over 100 rounds in Uvalde—or to the other AR-15s used in every recent U.S. mass killing from Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue to the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut to the Buffalo, N.Y.  supermarket.

It’s no wonder the Uvalde police were afraid to face the shooter.

Dinner: the chickpea stew pasta e ceci, corn muffins, and a green salad.

Entertainment: concluding episodes of the Scandi thriller “The Bridge”

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