While working my way through traffic snarls on the freeways of Los Angeles I listened intently to a radio talk show, when a caller urged that all citizens should go about armed, the program host exclaimed, “My God, that would be like the Old West. We can’t go back to that.” The host obviously thought that by invoking the image of the Old West he had made a damning argument against gun-toting. It was the umpteenth time I had heard such a response to a proponent of an armed citizenry. Yet the facts of frontier life suggest that the Old West had far less crime and far fewer innocent victims than America has today, and that the young, the old, and the female—those most vulnerable—were far safer in the most wild and woolly frontier towns than they are in any American city today. We could do worse than return to the standards and values of the Old West.
Two frontier towns with widespread reputations for violence were the mining camps of Aurora, Nevada, and Bodie, California. In their heydays, 1861-1865 for Aurora and 1878-1882 for Bodie, they each boasted populations that exceeded 5,000, were alive 24 hours a day, contained dozens of saloons and brothels, and produced gold and silver bullion worth a billion in today’s dollars. The economies were boom and bust, with new veins being discovered and old ones being pinched out. The populations were transient, half were foreign born, and men outnumbered women ten to one. The people were adventurous, entrepreneurial, brave, young, unmarried, intemperate, and armed. A few had struck it rich, but most had not. All the ingredients were there for an epidemic of crime, but none occurred. An examination of robbery, burglary, theft, rape, and homicide in Aurora and Bodie reveals not how far we have come but how far we have sunk.
While robbery occurs with alarming frequency in American cities today, only rarely was a resident of Aurora or Bodie robbed. During the boom years there were fewer than 20 robberies of individual citizens in the towns. The stagecoach was targeted more often, suffering a couple dozen robberies. When highwaymen stopped a stage, they nearly always took only the express box and left the passengers untouched. Passengers frequently remarked that they had been treated courteously by road agents. Only twice were passengers robbed. In the first instance, the highwaymen later apologized for their conduct; in the second, the robbers were drunk. Highwaymen understood that they could take the express box and not arouse the general populace, but if they insulted or robbed passengers they would precipitate a vigilante reaction.
If the passengers were not the target of highwaymen, neither were stagecoaches carrying the great bullion shipments. With shipments worth millions in today’s dollars, they would seem inviting targets. Yet not one was ever attacked. Unlike the regular stages, the bullion coaches were guarded by two, and often three or four, rifle- and shotgun-wielding marksmen. Road agents preferred to prey on the unguarded coaches, take whatever was in the express box, and escape with their health intact. Only once did highwaymen and guards exchange gunfire, and on that occasion the road agents had not expected to encounter any guards. The miscalculation cost one of the highwaymen his life. For similar reasons none of the several banks that operated in Aurora or Bodie ever experienced a robbery. Bankers went about armed, as did their employees, and robbers evidently had no desire to tangle with armed men.
Robberies of individual citizens followed a clear pattern: the victim had spent the evening in a gambling den, saloon, or brothel; he had revealed in some way that he had a goodly sum of money on his person; and he was drunk, staggering home late at night when the attack occurred. More robberies might have occurred had not Aurorans and Bodieites gone about armed and ready to defend themselves. Unless thoroughly inebriated, they were simply too dangerous to rob. A case in point was the attempted robbery of Bodie miner C.F. Reid. When a robber told Reid to throw up his hands, Reid said “all right” and began raising them. As he did so, he suddenly drew a foot-long bowie knife from an inside pocket and drove the steel blade into the robber’s shoulder. The robber screamed with pain and took off running “like a deer.” Reid gave chase but soon lost sight of the man. Reid was satisfied, though, feeling certain that he had “cut the man to the bone.”
Such actions were applauded by the citizenry and the local newspapers. Unlike a stage holdup, a robbery of an individual citizen was considered dastardly and provoked talk of vigilantism. “This business of garroting,” as the Bodie Standard termed mugging and robbery, “is getting a little too common. The parties engaged in it may wake up one of these fine mornings and find themselves hanging to the top of a liberty pole.” Another Bodie newspaper, the Daily Free Press, later called for the formation of a committee of vigilance, saying that one or two examples of vigilante justice were usually “sufficient to purify” a mining camp.
Nonetheless, Bodie and Aurora actually suffered rarely from robbery. A statistical comparison of these rowdy mining camps with modern American cities demonstrates that today’s cities, such as Detroit, New York, and Miami, have 20 times as much robbery per capita. The United States as a whole averages three times as much robbery per capita as Bodie and Aurora.
Burglary and theft were also of infrequent occurrence in the mining towns. Most American cities today average 30 or 40 times as much burglary and theft per capita as Bodie and Aurora. The national rate is ten times higher. Again, an obvious factor in discouraging burglary and theft were the armed homeowner and armed merchant. When two burglars attempted to enter J.H. Vincent’s house, Vincent grabbed a gun and sent them running. The Bodie Morning News urged other homeowners to follow Vincent’s example, saying, “Our people must be on their guard for this class of gentry, and if possible, when they call, treat them to a good dose of lead.” On another occasion, when some firewood was stolen, the Morning News suggested that any thief caught in such an act should be made “the recipient of a few shares in a lead mine.” Other newspapers echoed such sentiments. Following the theft of some blankets, the Daily Free Press hoped that “some night a load of buckshot will be deposited where it will do the most good.” Citizens willingly followed this advice. One miner shot at a thief stealing a sack of flour. The round missed but sent the thief running “over the ground like a three-minute horse,” according to the Free Press.
Clearly the weapons carried by the residents of Aurora and Bodie acted as a deterrent to robbery, burglary, and theft. Nearly every resident went about armed. Sam Clemens, who did his first professional writing for Aurora’s Esmeralda Star, said that while in Aurora he had always worn a revolver, not because he planned to kill anybody but “in deference to popular sentiment, and in order that I might not, by its absence, be offensively conspicuous, and a subject of remark.” Not only were the people armed, but they often had formal training and experience in the use of pistols and rifles. Many Aurorans had fought in the Mexican War and a good number of Bodieites in the Civil War. The people had arms, knew how to use them, and were willing to fight with deadly force to protect their persons or property.
Women, often the target of criminals today, suffered only rarely from violence in Aurora and Bodie. Prostitutes bore the brunt of the little violence that did occur. Most incidents involved a drunken patron of a brothel slapping or punching one of the women. Even in those cases, women often evened the odds by quickly grabbing a gun. Daisy, “a soiled dove,” frightened off an attacker with a shot from her revolver and sent the man running down the street. Another prostitute chased a customer out of a brothel and emptied her revolver at him. According to the Bodie Standard, the man’s “hair stood on end, as he expected any second to be reduced to a state of perfect inutility.” A brothel madam stopped an unruly, drunken customer from smashing furniture with a single warning shot from her revolver and then held him until police arrived.
Prostitutes were not the only women to use guns in the defense of themselves or their property. When a dispute arose between a man and a woman over the ownership of a city lot, the woman, believing herself the rightful owner, ordered the man off the property. However, as the Bodie Standard said, since “he was a large man and she was a small lady, he concluded to tarry yet a while.” But not for long. The small lady pulled out a six-shooter, took dead aim at the man, and again ordered him to leave. Now, with an inspired sense of urgency, he did.
There were no reported cases of rape in either Aurora or Bodie. Rape, of course, might have occurred but gone unreported. Even today victims are sometimes reluctant to report an attack. However, in Bodie there were two reports of attempted rape (in neither case was the allegation substantiated), possibly indicating that had rape occurred it would have been reported. Moreover, there is no evidence of any sort that rape occurred but escaped the attention of the authorities. Absolutely no suggestion of it surfaces in any letters, diaries, newspapers, or public records from the period.
On the other hand, there is a large body of evidence indicating that women, other than prostitutes, experienced almost no crime at all and were treated with the utmost respect. Women enjoyed an elevated status in the Old West, partly because of 19th-century Victorian morality and partly because they were a rarity on the frontier, especially in mining camps. In Aurora and Bodie men were fined, and sentenced to a month in jail, merely for swearing in the presence of women.
Anyone insulting a respectable woman risked being shot. As a former resident of Bodie later recalled: “One of the remarkable things about Bodie, in fact, one of the striking features of all mining camps in the West, was the respect shown even by the worst characters to the decent women. . . . I do not recall ever hearing of a respectable woman or girl in any manner insulted or even accosted by the hundreds of dissolute characters that were everywhere. In part, this was due to the respect that depravity pays to decency; in part, to the knowledge that sudden death would follow any other course.” One of the most famous women of the mining frontier, Nellie Cashman, who spent time in nearly every camp (including Bodie) from Mexico to Alaska, was asked shortly before she died if she had ever feared for her virtue while trekking from one strike to another and living in nearly all-male camps. She replied: “Bless your soul, no! I never have had a word said to me out of the way. The ‘boys’ would sure see to it that anyone who ever offered to insult me could never be able to repeat the offense.”
Today, a rape occurs every five minutes. There are more than 100,000 rapes a year. More than 4,100 of them occur in Los Angeles County alone. The New York and Detroit metropolitan areas add another 3,100 each; Houston, 1,900; Dallas, 1,800; Philadelphia, 1,700; and Atlanta, 1,600. The rape rate in the United States per 100,000 inhabitants is 42. The town where we all sent our box tops when we were kids. Battle Creek, Michigan, has a rate of 140. Nonetheless, it pales in comparison with Benton Harbor, Michigan, which has a rate of 415!
The armed state of the people and their willingness to enforce certain moral codes clearly protected women. The presence of armed citizens also made robbery, burglary, and theft infrequent events. However, because of the weapons they carried, when men fought men the results were often deadly. During their boom years, there were some 50 homicides in Aurora and Bodie, and most of these occurred in fights. Most importantly, nearly all those killed were not innocent victims but willing combatants. Some were professional gunmen, but most were miners, teamsters, bartenders, carpenters, gamblers, and the like. They were usually young and single, and always brave. These ingredients, often laced with alcohol, frequently led to fights over who was the better man, real or imagined insults, and challenges to pecking order in the saloon.
Typical was the fight in the Shamrock Saloon between Alex Nixon, the powerfully built president of the Bodie Miners’ Union, and Tom McDonald. When a dispute arose over who would pay for the next round of drinks, Nixon unleashed a vicious blow that caught McDonald in the eye and sent him to the floor. As McDonald rose to his feet the Shamrock’s burly bartender tried to separate the men and cool their tempers, but McDonald drew a gun and asked the bigger Nixon if he would give him “even chances.” “Yes, by God,” answered Nixon while drawing his own gun. Both men opened fire. Nixon’s first shot missed McDonald by inches, but McDonald’s hit Nixon in the side, and the big miner staggered backward and fell to the floor. With blood freely flowing from the wound, he lifted his gun and fired two more rounds that narrowly missed McDonald. McDonald returned the fire. The rounds tore holes in the wooden planks of the Shamrock’s floor but left Nixon untouched. It hardly mattered. Less than two hours later Nixon died from the effects of McDonald’s first shot.
Such shootings troubled few in Aurora or Bodie. The men involved were both young, healthy, armed, and willing. Most residents thought that the fight could have been avoided: one did not need to spend the late hours of the evening armed, standing at the bar, drinking, and issuing challenges to others. If one chose to do so, one should be ready to fight and ready to suffer the consequences. Although McDonald was arrested, he was released on bail, and the grand jury later failed to indict him. It was clearly a case of justifiable homicide. Dozens of killings in the towns followed a similar pattern.
When an innocent victim was shot down in cold blood, only once in Aurora and once in Bodie, then the response of the citizenry was immediate and took the form of vigilantism. In Aurora, vigilantes hanged four men; in Bodie, one. The vigilance committees were organized not because there were no established institutions of law enforcement and justice, but because those institutions could not be relied upon to punish the guilty. That was not greatly troubling when the homicide victim was a rough or a bad man, or a man who had chosen to fight, but was unacceptable when the victim was an innocent party. Contrary to the popular image of vigilantes as an angry, unruly mob, the vigilantes displayed military-like organization and discipline and proceeded in a quiet, orderly, and deliberate fashion. In both towns the vigilantes waited until the coroner’s jury had rendered a verdict before they acted. They did what they thought they had a right to do, defend their community. Again and again the vigilantes of Aurora and Bodie, as well as those of other communities throughout the West, argued that they had a “right to self-preservation.”
In retrospect the Old West does not look too bad. Yes, men (and some women) went about armed and male combatants killed each other, mostly in fights where there were somewhat “even chances.” On the other hand, the young, the old, the female, and those who chose not to drink in saloons and display reckless bravado were rarely the victims of crime or violence. Moreover, dirty, low-down scoundrels got their just deserts. “We can’t go back to that.” Why not?
I grew up in a Los Angeles that had very little crime. Wc locked the door to our house with a skeleton key, when we remembered. I often think of the contrast with today when listening to rebroadcasts of the Dragnet radio series that originally aired in the early 1950’s. It was one of my favorites then and still beats TV now. Jack Webb stuck close to real cases and was a stickler for detail. As Sergeant Joe Friday, he went after murderers and robbers, to be sure, but much of the time he was tracking such public enemies as shoplifters, bicycle thieves, check forgers, drag racers, teenage rowdies, and the like. Call the LAPD today and report that your bicycle has been stolen! Cars are stolen so often (nearly 200 a day) that the LAPD does nothing more than list the vehicle on a “hot sheet” and wish the victim good luck. Korean merchants complain that customers brazenly walk out of their stores without paying for merchandise because they know that the police will not respond to a call for help. The police are simply overwhelmed by the volume of crime and are kept more than fully occupied by murder, armed robbery, and rape.
In Joe Friday’s day the city of Los Angeles had a population of some two million. Today it has three and a half million. Everything else being equal, crime should have increased by 75 percent. Instead, crime has increased by 350 percent for rape, 1100 percent for auto theft, 1350 percent for murder, and 1540 percent for robbery. The raw numbers are shocking. In the early 1950’s the city of Los Angeles averaged about 70 murders a year. Today the city averages more than 90 murders a month. In 1952 there were 81 murders. In 1992 there were 1,092 murders. The month of August alone had 119. In 1952 there were 572 rapes reported to the LAPD. In 1992 there were 2,030 reported. During the same years robbery increased from a reported total of 2,566 to 39,508, and auto theft from 6,241 to 68,783.
The LAPD (as well as the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department) used to solve more than 90 percent of the murders. Today the figure is barely over 60 percent. Detectives complain that the case load is too great to conduct the kind of thorough investigations that were commonplace in the past. With the exception of a few elite units, such as SWAT and Metro, morale has badly deteriorated on the LAPD. A changed political climate has transformed the once vaunted, highly disciplined, and aggressive force into a reactive body. There was an old saying on the force that two cops could handle any problem and make all needed decisions on the spot. Now, as 21-year veteran and senior detective Kevin Rogers says, “Decision making takes a committee.” John Mead, a Metro sergeant with 25 years on the force, notes that the department is now so afraid of doing the wrong thing, or the politically incorrect thing, that at times it “has been immobilized.” Police on the street suffer from the lack of firm and forceful leadership and clear and unequivocal department policy. The riots of 1992 certainly demonstrated the paralysis. For several days it seemed that the only ones defending the city were Korean merchants and their sons, perched on the rooftops of their businesses and doing what everyone else should have been doing: shooting looters on sight. Such a practice had a salutary effect and saved those few well-defended businesses. The rest of south-central L.A. was pillaged with impunity, and dozens of innocent citizens were killed or savagely beaten.
The message in all this is clear: it is up to individual citizens to defend themselves. For generations Americans did just that, and they were highly effective. Today, we talk a lot about the right to self-defense, and politicians certainly make all the right gestures to such a sacrosanct notion, but then we make it virtually impossible to obtain a concealed weapons permit and prohibit carrying a loaded gun in the car. Bucking the trend, Florida in 1987 passed a concealed-carry law. Since then the state’s homicide rate has fallen by 17 percent while the national rate has risen by 18 percent. Has this made headlines? Instead, we hear about tourists being gunned down. But that is just the point. Florida’s criminals can count on tourists being unarmed. Tourists are soft targets.
“Carjacking” has become quite commonplace in Los Angeles because the perpetrators of the crime know that California drivers cannot legally carry loaded firearms and will nearly always be unarmed. Occasionally, carjackers make poor choices. Three such carjackers followed a friend’s son as he drove home. Little did they know that the youthful lad, Jason, was a reserve police officer who was well armed and an expert marksman. When he pulled into the family driveway and got out of his ear, one of the carjackers also exited his vehicle and, approaching from behind with gun in hand, told Jason, “Freeze, you motherf–!” Jason, having anticipated just such a scenario, spun about and emptied the contents of his .45 into the carjacker. The carjacker’s partners sped away as fast as their car would take them, leaving their partner very dead on my friend’s front lawn.
Not too long afterwards an off-duty police officer in plainclothes stopped on his way home to make a phone call. While he stood talking on an outdoor public phone, two muggers rushed up to him. One of them brandished a gun and demanded his wallet. Instead, the officer drew a gun and sent the armed mugger to the morgue.
The Los Angeles Times usually describes such incidents along the lines of: “That’s one robber who certainly picked on the wrong person.” Why shouldn’t every person be the wrong person? Ironically, the same Los Angeles Times regularly editorializes against an armed citizenry and has never seen an anti-gun piece of legislation that it didn’t like. Somehow the paper believes that disarming peaceable, law-abiding citizens will affect criminal behavior.
I have often wondered what an Auroran or Bodieite would think of America today, if he or she were suddenly transported to the late 20th century. I think he would be shocked to learn that sometime and somewhere between then and now we lost our way and our will as a nation and a people. It would boggle an Auroran’s or a Bodieite’s mind to be forced to abandon his weapon of choice and then to be told by the authorities that when confronted by a robber he should meekly surrender his poke of dust or that he should feign sleep while a burglar pillages his home. It would be incomprehensible for a Nixon or a McDonald to abandon, without a fight, his home in the city and flee to a suburban hamlet or to stand idly by while women are ravaged. What malaise, what weakening of the personal and national will has caused America to come to this, he might ask. We do not seem to be able to summon the courage to defend our persons, our homes, our culture, our borders, our language. While today we hand the barbarians the keys to the gates, an American in the Old West would have drawn a deep breath, aimed carefully, taken up the slack on the trigger, squeezed, and treated them to a good dose of lead.
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