The American West stirs up grand images from movies: daring escapades, shootouts at high noon, tough sheriffs and marshals keeping the peace, and the cavalry riding in to save the day. The history of the Wild West is full of myths and stereotypes, but the truth about justice in the West is often more complicated - and more unsettling.
Violence plagued the American West. Settlers faced rising numbers of illegal acts as people poured into the frontier searching for new lives, and communities had to handle justice on their own. Because of the limited resources and extreme isolation of the West, justice usually required creative and unconventional tactics - far from the noble law and order portrayed in Western movies. The accused often faced justice that was harsh, biased, unsanctioned, and corrupt.
Homicide rates in the West were high, rivaled only by the violence of the American South during the Civil War and Reconstruction. An adult living in Dodge City, KS, from 1876 to 1885 stood a 1 in 61 chance of not surviving.
A resident of San Francisco, CA, from 1850 to 1865 had a 1 in 203 chance of a similarly rough end, while residents of some other counties in California had a 1 in 72 chance.
Oregon from 1850 to 1865 had the lowest homicide rate in the West: 1 in 208.
When a story attracted public anger, some settlers in the West were quick to take the law into their own hands. These vigilantes were idealized in popular contemporary accounts, but the justice they exacted was often brutal.
Not content with apprehension and execution, some vigilantes physically abused the accused. Some even took trophies - in 1891, the skin of a hanged bandit was tanned and made into souvenirs. Vigilantes justified their acts by pointing to the terrible acts the accused had allegedly committed.
The life expectancy of someone who broke the law in the Wild West often decreased dramatically after conviction, especially for those accused of taking another person's life. Whether offenders received an official trial or one carried out by unsanctioned vigilantes, Western justice demanded blood.
In California, offenders were convicted in quick trials and hanged at the county courthouse. Execution usually came shortly after the conviction, as appeals and stays of execution were uncommon. If an expected execution did not happen or did not occur quickly enough for the crowd, vigilantes might take matters into their own hands.
In one 1851 case, vigilantes convicted a man of stealing gold dust and gave him a mere three hours to get his affairs in order before his hanging.
The Wild West saw the rise of the Pinkerton detectives, a private agency commonly hired as bounty hunters for the most troublesome offenders. The Pinkertons infiltrated the Reno crew after their infamous train heist and worked to bring down Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch.
Despite the detectives' reputation, the outlaw Jesse James continued to elude them. In their pursuit of James, the Pinkertons lost the good will of the public when it became clear they would use whatever means necessary to get their man.
During a raid on James's mother's house in 1875, one of the Pinkertons threw an explosive through the window. It proved fatal to James's 8-year-old half brother and caused his mother to lose part of her arm. James wasn't at the house, as he had already fled after being tipped off.
With public opinion against them, the Pinkertons were forced to call off their pursuit.