Tag: Old West

Day 996: The Greatest Prank In The History Of History

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“That putz, Bolton. This will totally blow his mind.”

The above may have been uttered between the cool gusts of sharp giggles at a gathering of the Berkeley chapter of E Clampus Vitus, an organization designated either as a “historical drinking society” or a “drinking historical society”, depending on whom you ask. These are folks who are dedicated to the noble history of the American West, though they prefer to cozy up to their history with a frothy glass of smirk. Call them deviant scholars, outlaw students of the distant past and the eternal spirit of yeeha. Practical academics and impractical jokers.

The brass plate left by Sir Francis Drake near the bubbly Pacific coast is little more than a whopping banana peel, left on the ground to trip up one unfortunate mark but soon elevated into an established part of the natural vegetation. The so-called plaque that signifies the terminus of European exploration across our happy little continent is a hoax, a forgery, a one-off gag that exploded into accepted fact.

The lesson here is that history, for all her dates and names and oft-inexplicable motivations, can be a blast. Especially when iniquitous historians with a smirking sense of humor mess it up on purpose.

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Herbert Eugene Bolton was one of the most respected historians of American western expansion, the author of a now-commonplace theory that asserts that we should look at colonial expansion across all the Americas holistically, rather than piece by piece. He was a brilliant man, the fantastic mind who established the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley as the preeminent historical resource it is today. He was also a member of E Clampus Vitus. One would expect he’d have been on the lookout for shenanigans. Read more…

Day 985: The Greatest Show In The Wild Old West

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It was the kind of sun-whipped summer day that tended to cook the old west like a Thanksgiving turkey. The Central Pacific Railroad had just rolled into town, and a tall man with a face like sawed oak and fiery red hair leaned casually against a corral fence, watching the passengers disembark. Their faces scanned the local buildings for a place to eat. Few of them noticed the smarmy gentleman in the suit who was crossing the street. But the redhead saw him. He stepped away from the fence and shattered the dusty air.

“There ya are, ya low-down polecat!” he bellowed. The passers-by paused in their tracks. “Ah’m gonna kill ya b’cause of what ya did ta mah sister!” He paused, trying to collect himself. “Mah pore, pore little sister.”

The shorter man was frozen in panic. He didn’t react when the redhead pulled out his gun, cocked it, and fired. The shorter man fell to the street, writhed in pain for a moment, then died. The railway passengers sprinted back onto the train, some women fainted and had to be carried to safety as townsfolk wrestled the gun away from the redhead and dragged him off to jail. The dead man was unceremoniously dragged into the nearest saloon while the terrified passengers remained flat against the train’s floor, afraid to move. Thankfully, the train started rolling once again westward.

After the fervor had passed, the townsfolk relaxed with a hearty laugh. In one swift act of amateur theatre, they had just created the legendary old west.

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The town of Palisade, Nevada was founded by a man named Willy East, who was looking for a comfy place in which to settle freed slaves. He had been talking with San Francisco resident-of-note Joshua Norton (who had recently declared himself to be Emperor of the United States), who had directed him toward the vast expanse of available Nevada land. The convenient placement of the railroad, as well as the town’s functional toilet – a feature not yet found aboard rail travel – cranked up the local population of the young town to around 300 in the 1870’s.

It was a picturesque little burg, home to a trio of saloons and a well-placed café beside the railway tracks to provide sustenance to the travelers who were pursuing the American Dream out west. Scoundrels and scammers poked and prodded at passenger wallets, selling them useless salt mines and spinning adventurous (and bogus) tales. But where was the “wild west” they had heard so much about? Read more…

Day 923: The Moderately Bungled Legend Of The Dalton Gang

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Of course, we all know the stories of Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickok and Jesse James, but do we really know… wait, I can’t make that assumption anymore. There have been maybe three or four decent western movies released in the 22 years since The Unforgiven, so it’s a safer guess that our collective knowledge of old west outlaws is probably somewhat shallow, apart from basic name recognition.

So maybe most people only know Jesse James as that West Coast Choppers guy, and maybe there are some who believe Billy the Kid was the character Gene Wilder played in Blazing Saddles. A hundred years ago, anywhere from 10-20% of American movies were westerns; now the genre barely shows up as a blip on the map. But alas, I’m digressing off the dusty path.

If the biggest names of America’s frontier days have already drifted into pop-culture obscurity, then I’m sure the tale of the Dalton Gang is utterly recondite. This is a tale of outlawism, of high aspiration and of ludicrous ineptitude. It’s a story that truly deserves a modern re-telling (and perhaps a resurrection of one of film’s most delicious genres).

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It all begins here, with Frank Dalton. Frank was the eldest of 15 kids, a Deputy US Marshal and by all accounts, a hero. He was shot dead in the line of duty while trailing a horse thief through the Oklahoma Territory in 1887, and within three years his brothers (Grat, Bob and Emmett Dalton) had followed in Frank’s footsteps and joined the noble side of law enforcement. After a monetary dispute left the brothers feeling soured on their distinguished vocation, they hopped across the proverbial tracks and became bad guys.

Let’s do a quick sweep of the Dalton Gang that formed in 1890:

–       There were the brothers: Gratton (Grat), the eldest brother who had idolized Frank; Bob, the wild man who murdered a romantic rival while he was still a deputy; and Emmett, the youngest of the bunch. Another brother, Bill, was also an outlaw, but he spent most of his years out in California on his own. Read more…

Day 870: The Cruel Capture & Cunning Calculation Of Fanny Kelly

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Classic tales of the old west are filled with men who are forced by circumstance to be MEN. By the code of the west, a guy’s holster must be overflowing with the gooey, musky froth of machismo. Whether it’s Marshal Will Kane awaiting a fleet of vengeful gunmen at high noon or Ethan Edwards roaming the desert for years in search of a niece, a man’s got to do what societal norms dictate that a man’s got to do.

But what about the women? Sure, there were a few gun-toting types like Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane, but for the most part women were relegated to the supporting roles, both in history and in cinema. They were the wives, the mothers, the schoolmarms and the whores. When placed out of context, in a position of survival, their best course of action is to stay put and await the manly arms of rescue.

This is where the movies diverge from reality. Apart from a few notable exceptions, cinematic women of the old west might have had some spunk and chutzpah, but they were rarely enabled with the gifts to get stuff done. In reality, the women who hoofed it across the frontier had the potential for every bit the badassery of their male counterparts. As an example I present the typical 1850’s housewife – a lady by the name of Fanny Kelly.

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Fanny married Josiah S. Kelly, a guy whose health problems were not well suited to the arid Kansas climate. It was 1864 and the bulk of Americans on the move were headed north and west, far away from the meat-splatter of the Civil War and into the last untamed swath of the continent. They set their sights toward the area we now call Idaho and/or Montana, bringing along Mary Hurley, Fanny’s seven-year-old niece whom the couple had adopted. The trio were joined by Franklin and Andy, two “colored servants”, and a Methodist clergyman named Mr. Sharp.

Shortly afterwards, William and Sarah Larimer hooked up with the convoy, towing their eight-year-old son Frank. Two more men, Gardner Wakefield and Noah Taylor rode with them. They were a party of nine adults and two kids. Enough bodies to ward off lone bandits, with enough provisions to get across the country in relative comfort. Of course the real threat along the trail wasn’t so much pesky robbers or indulgent eating binges. Read more…

Day 804: The Dance Sensation That Swept The First Nations

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As a fiercely devout skeptic I have little patience for incorporating any spiritual routine into my life apart from my daily dose of Otis Redding and/or Etta James, both of whom possessed vocal talents that by their very nature taunted non-believers with their otherworldly oomph. Religious rituals, from Cree to Christianity and all points in between, hold little appeal for me. But as a professional anthropologist (and by ‘professional’ I mean the exact opposite of that), I possess a healthy curiosity for the spiritual to-do list of all my fellow humans.

I have been to a couple Native American round dances, and while I can’t speak with any praise to the music – there’s no backbeat, no groove, no emphasis on the ‘1’ – I admire the grace and harmonious tranquility in the process. It really jounces my think-meat to learn that this same dance directly led to an unthinkable slaughter.

I suppose it’s the old cliché of fearing what one doesn’t understand. Perhaps one can attribute the Wounded Knee debacle to abject stupidity or the tense national atmosphere due to the wretched economy under that spend-heavy rascal president, Benjamin Harrison. Mostly I think the massacre came about due to that tragic chemical collision between two of the most devious elements in the universe: ignorance and assholery.

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By 1889, the bulk of the hostile skirmishes between Natives and Americans had subsided. The “old west” was beginning to peter out, and the new president was stubbornly set on filling in all that ‘territory’ space in the nation’s abdomen with legitimate states. On that list was South Dakota, which at the time was loaded with Sioux who had been “cordially assigned” chunks of land there by the US government. The government’s plan was to integrate the Native Americans by whatever means necessary. Read more…

Day 770: The Summerless Summer

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This year the news has been splattered by alarming weather reports like a silent film soundstage wall after take thirteen of an epic pie fight. Much of the western world has been grappling with weather that we in Edmonton call ‘regular winter’. I’m not trying to minimize the unusual meteorological hip-check nature has bestowed upon my more southernly friends – after all, up here we’re well stocked with snow tires, city plows and vehicle block heaters. The folks in Texas, not so much.

Perhaps the most common and least valuable platitude here is “it could be worse.” The bone-scraping cold and soul-squishing wind are brutal, but at least they’re unleashing their fury during the vacuum of the winter months. When the silver light of spring shows up, nature’s insipid polar fart will be nothing more than a series of old photos, buried deep in the tomb of distant newsfeeds.

In 1816, there was no such relief. The winter was winter, but spring and summer were slaughtered like calves en route to becoming veal marsala, cut down in the prime of youth. Historically they call it the Year Without A Summer. Its effects were cruel but the wonky residue may have given birth to the Old West, the Model T, the Book of Mormon and the Depression-era fad of spooky horror flicks. That’s a hell of a weather pattern.

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It all began with the massive eruption of Mount Tambora, located on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia. This was one of only two VEI-7 eruptions in the past millennium – and that scale only goes up to 8. This occurred on April 15, 1815, and while the 100 cubic kilometers of solid earth the volcano blasted into neighboring communities caused a virtual apocalypse for locals, the ash and toxins pumped into the atmosphere would sneak up and bitch-slap the rest of the planet several months later. Read more…

Day 761: Deconstructing The King Of The Con Men

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We live in the age of the celebrated antihero. A villainous protagonist like Tony Soprano or Walter White may vanquish our moral resistance, but those are fictional lawbreakers; in reality we want our deviants either behind bars or tucked snugly into the niche of the Robin Hood villain, should such a notion actually exist. Perhaps our Edward Snowdens and Julian Assanges are the closest we’ll get to a genuine, for-the-folks criminal.

Often a criminal’s edification as a philanthropic scofflaw arises through a population’s selective posthumous memory of the crook, or an outright misinterpretation of the truth. In the case of Jefferson “Soapy” Smith, both factors appear to have been in play.

Soapy Smith was a con man, a swindler, and the closest thing to a mob boss as could be found in the post-Civil War frontier lands of the mountainous west. He didn’t so much terrorize Denver (among other places) as he came to possess them. And like any titan of the underworld, he started small.

He started with soap.

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The scam was downright elegant. Smith would set up a display on a busy street corner, visibly wrapping numerous bars of soap in dollar bills, ranging from one dollar to $100. Each bar was then wrapped in plain paper and tossed into a pile with some soap without a prize. Smith then sold the soap bars lottery-style to eager passers-by for $1 apiece. Of course Soapy knew where the money-laced bars were, and with deft sleight-of-hand, he sold only the prizeless bars to the slack-jawed masses. His shills, fellow gang members dressed as ordinary citizens, would end up “buying” the prize bars, and would react with an appropriate jubilance. Read more…

Day 553: When Thrills Are Quelled

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Neither of my voyages to the magnificent city of New York have brought me to Brooklyn. This is a matter of personal irk, as Brooklyn is where my great-grandfather hung his funky old 1910’s-era fedora after shuffling through the lineups at Ellis Island, planting the Schwartz flag on North American turf. And apart from this soil of my familial roots, I have always wanted to ride the historic Cyclone at Coney Island. Honestly, what was Coney Island before there was a Cyclone?

Well, it was a great place for rabbit hunting, but that’s going way back to the 1600’s when New York was New Amsterdam. In the opening days of the 20th century, Coney Island was relegated to fun and amusement, even before its most famous attraction went up. Before Astroland there was Dreamland – a very different breed of amusement park.

Dreamland is where we’ll set our wheels into motion, combing through some of the parks that once were and are no more.

Dreamland

Speckled with one million electric light bulbs – quite a feat in 1904 – Dreamland opened with ambitions of being a slightly higher-class fun park. There was an imitation Swiss alpine landscape through which you could ride a train, a replica of Venetian canals through which you could drift on a gondola, and a Lilliputian Village featuring 300 dwarf inhabitants through which you could walk and… I don’t know, feel tall. There was a one-armed lion tamer with a handlebar mustache, a display of incubators and premature babies, and of course a number of sideshows for folks to ogle at the self-proclaimed freaks. Read more…

Day 517: Six-Gun With A Skirt

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I love a good story from the Old West, I did even before last fall when I was required to love good stories from the Old West in order to pass a film class on the westerns genre. More than anything, I love finding quirky stories that have slipped through the cultural cracks.

One aspect of the frontier that received almost no attention in the myriad of films we screened is the presence of women on the shady side of the law. Sure, women in those movies were frequently prostitutes, but from what I can gather that hardly counted as criminal activity in those days. No, I’m talking about the women who stuck to the shadows and said hello with a smoking rod. The dames and skirts who weren’t gonna be the fall guy (or fall gal) for some lunk-headed goon looking to get out of a trip to Sing-Sing.

Sorry, I may have mixed up my westerns class with the film noir class I took last year. But my point remains valid – there were some bad-ass broads ripping up the old west. Women like Pearl Hart.

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Born somewhere around 1871 in the town of Lindsay, Ontario, Pearl Taylor had every reason to stay legit. Her parents were rich, she had access to the finest schools, and she was Canadian. I’d like to say this means she was predisposed to being polite, but I know better – I drive the same streets as Canadian motorists every day, and believe me, that stereotype is crap when there’s traffic. Read more…