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Good Guys & Co.

One rope ... two ends. Work of Montana vigilantes 1870.

The Wild West is mostly a location -. and those locations have not changed much today, except for a few roads. It's also about lawlessness, where good guys & Co. fight bad guys. When we talk about our Wild West, we talk about real men.

The task of enforcing the laws of the U.S. in the untamed nineteenth-century Western frontier was often left to the marshals and sheriffs of the respective areas. The word "marshal" was originally a corruption of the German "marah" and "calc," which together mean "horsekeeper," but the status for those who held the title of marshal gradually improved until by the Middle Ages the rank of marshal was for the commander of great armies.

In the U.S., the office of marshal, adopted from the earlier British model, was attached to each federal district court. The marshal was authorized to carry out all "lawful precepts," as determined by the federal bench. The president appointed the marshal with the consent of the Senate. They were originally compensated from an inadequate fee system, which was revised over time so that the marshal could charge a municipality a fee equal to that of a state office. The federal marshals who were sworn to uphold the law on the frontier faced many obstacles, notably Congress' failure to assess stiff penalties to those who resisted arrest. By the 1850s, federal marshals policed a vast stretch of territory, assisted by county sheriffs, city marshals, and precinct constables. They had "acquired the primary duty of enforcement within the territories" and were "the sole police power in pioneer communities."

The job of maintaining public order in the turbulent West of the 1880's was no easy one. Out of 200 men recruited by Judge Isaac "Hanging" Parker to police the Indian Territory of Oklahoma, which was then notorious as a white badman's refuge, some 65 were killed in the line of duty. As late as 1900 Bat Masterson declined a presidential appointment as U.S. marshal of the Indian Territwy. "If I took it," he explained, "inside of a year I'd have to kill some fool boy who wanted to get a reputation by killing me." Lawmen had to have a potent combination of guts, savvy, publicity, and friends. The men who "marshaled" for a living probably combined it with other jobs because they had to - a deputy marshal was not on salary but got $2 per arrest, six cents a mile for expenses when following a wanted man, and was therefore forced to pad expense accounts to recover funds advanced from his own pocket and to make a living.


The ultimate responsibility for maintaining order in the Old West belonged to men armed not with guns but gavels - the judges. At first, the brand of justice they dispensed was as makeshift as the towns that sprang up along the frontier's far edges. Many early judges were tradesmen on the side and had little or no lawbook learning. Lacking courthouses, they were often obliged to hold trials in stores or saloons; and even when they had a courtroom, formality was often absent. At the police court in Dodge City, a judge opened one session with the declaration: "Trot out the wicked and unfortunate, and let the cotillion commence."

But continuing violence forced communities to elect qualified judges and build facilities - places where justice could reign with the dignity and authority it deserved. Clearly, the crimes that were committed called for justice to be meted out, and from time to time one judge or another appeared on the scene to try to temper gun law with lawbook law. The difficulty of this task was discovered at considerable personal cost by the judicial troubleshooter who was sent to conduct the trail.

In the best of circumstances, with a conscientious jury and well-intentioned lawyers, a district judge still had his frustrations. Because many lawyers were abysmally ignorant of the law-only a relative few had been formally schooled in it before hanging out their shingles - a judge could expend a good deal of effort in prompting and guiding both prosecutor and defense. Nor was he himself necessarily versed in procedures and precedents. Though judges who presided over jury trials were expected to have some formal education in the law, those appointed to the Western bench often were men left over after others had picked off preferred judicial plums back East.

But for all the failings of the district court, it was there that the Western criminal first met the cutting edge of lawbook law, with a long prison term or a death sentence as a likely penalty if he was adjudged guilty.

At the local level the administration of justice was at best haphazard, sometimes bordering on the farcical. The justice of the peace or police court judge in charge often had nothing to recommend him for the post but his availability. His job was not complex or arduous; by territorial or state law he dealt only with minor offenses such as disorderly conduct or petty theft. About 90 per cent of the cases began with a plea of guilty and ended moments later with the imposition of a small fine.

Working conditions for local judges usually left much to be desired. In the new frontier towns, civic buildings were as scarce as honest gamblers. Overloaded dockets soon forced many towns to erect a courthouse, but it was no easy matter to keep the brand-new building intact. A favorite tactic of outlaws in Texas and Kansas was to burn the place down - either out of plain cussedness or to destroy damaging evidence in the judicial files.

Still, local justice suffered more from the ill-equipped men who administered it than from a dearth of facilities. Many of them could barely read or write. And because the post had no minimal standards of performance, it attracted a disproportionate number of bumblers, drunkards and flamboyant eccentrics like Roy Bean of Vinegaroon, Texas.

Yet these were relatively acceptable flaws in the judicial character. A man who pared his toenails while hearing a case, or who called a recess so that he and the participants could slake their thirst at the nearest saloon, could be tolerated by an indulgent community. But too many justices took or solicited bribes, or used their authority to impose and pocket exorbitant fines. One Texas justice disguised his venality with a disarming foible. He kept a mail-order catalogue on his bench and, opening it at random, would quote the price of some article listed in it as the fine to be paid by the defendant before him. When one defendant protested the odd fine of $4.88 for some trifling misdemeanor, his lawyer quietly advised: "Be thankful he opened it at pants instead of at pianos."

Honest justices who did not yield to temptation, impartial justices who did not penalize strangers harshly and excuse the transgressions of friends, even learned justices - such men did exist. Probably there were more of them than eyewitness accounts suggest. Even so, the West was patently lucky that its lower courts had only a limited say over the lives of its citizens.


Every defendant had a right to trial by jury, but rounding up enough citizens to form a jury was difficult in thinly settled areas. The results were not always encouraging; Mark Twain recalled one Virginia City juror who "thought that incest and arson were the same thing." Even when frontier jurors were of a higher caliber, there was no guarantee that the merits of a case would guide their deliberations. Often, when the defendant was known locally, they would find for him simply to express their distaste for outside authority. In several districts where the payment of jury fees was exasperatingly slow, jurors refused to reveal their findings until they got cash on the barrelhead.

Cripple Creek, CO
Citizens gather at the tent-roofed office of a lawyer who also served as justice of the peace. Many frontier judges lacked legal training and tried to rely on common sense instead.


Frontier lawyers traveled constantly, consulting with clients, attending court in one small town or another and carrying the tools of their trade with them as they went. Travel on the frontier was difficult. He had to carry not only his diary, pens, ink, papers, a change or two of linen, and perhaps a law book (many frontier lawyers carried Blackstone wherever they went), while keeping them all dry.

Before about 1830 the profession had experienced increasing prestige and exclusiveness. After 1830 the profession was characterized by greater openness, with fewer barriers to entry. In the latter years of the nineteenth century the pendulum swung back and the profession became again more exclusive, partly because of attempts to exclude poorly-trained shysters, though the result was also the exclusion of lower-class, female, and non-Anglo-American practitioners.

What many lawyers were seeking was honor. The concept of honor has its origins in the feudal past: an elite class of warriors with a monopoly on violence allied themselves in service to a monarch, who, in turn, dispensed lands and honorific titles. With the decline of this aristocratic warrior class, honor became the domain of gentlemen, who, by definition, were independent and leisured; they lived on the income from land inherited (or purchased) from the descendants of one of these warrior-knights of old. Membership in a profession, as a lawyer, clergyman, or doctor, was an acceptable activity for these gentlemen; since a professional man was not hired for wages and thus retained his cherished independence while serving his community in a professional role. A professional gentleman's relationship to his clients, parishioners, or patients was a superior one. He acted as advisor and occasionally told his clients what was best for them, not what they wanted to hear. In America, genuine aristocrats were few and many a bright young man reversed the original process, entering the profession in order to become a gentleman rather than starting out as a gentleman and entering the profession in service to his community.

Despite the deficiencies in many lawyers' training, the American legal profession was nevertheless important during the first years of the new nation. Lawyers' participation in the leadership of the Revolution contributed to an increase in their status during the Revolutionary era and the early republic, occupying important roles in the government of the new nation. American lawyers were also subject to criticism, accused of fomenting trouble in order to enrich themselves. Displaying an obvious public commitment to the common good was one way that lawyers sought to avert this sort of criticism. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that the rich did not lead Americans, as the rich "have no common link in uniting them." He declared that "it is at the bar or the bench that the American aristocracy is found." Historians have supported Tocqueville's conclusion. More than one observer has noted that the common criticism of lawyers as the venal shysters who profit from the unhappiness of others should not be taken too seriously, since such criticism often existed at the same time that lawyers occupied a vast array of public roles in their communities. In fact, despite the criticism, which has been constant in varying degrees throughout American history, lawyers have dominated much of American public life. The criticism of lawyers did not necessarily limit their prominence, but was perhaps instead a reflection of that status.

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