Guest Post: What Type of Criminal Behaviour Best Epitomises the Wild West?

By Felix Debieux
Third Year History Student, University of Exeter.


‘Criminal’ is a contentious term, and I suppose that is why it intrigues me as a subject of historical interest. It is a term that very often depends on municipal, state and national legislation. It is, however, not solely dependent on ‘place’ but also on time. This means that what is considered ‘criminal’ often depends on the legislation of the era in question. It also means that we have to distinguish between past and present notions of legality, justice and fairness. This is particularly important to a study of the Wild West. Activities once considered ‘acceptable’ in the West have over time become illegal or are now perceived as immoral. Thus, ‘criminal’ is a term subject to geographical and historical variability. In other words it is not fixed. Our first example of ‘criminal’ behaviour in the Wild West, exploitation, clearly highlights this point. Exploitation took several forms in the West but many of these forms were not considered ‘criminal’ at the time. As we shall see what was considered ‘legal’ or ‘fair’ not only depended on the time and place but also on the victim’s ethnicity and gender. However, by today’s reckoning the various examples of exploitation can be deemed ‘criminal’. Our first example will be the exploitation of Chinese railroad labourers.

Chinese Workers building the Railroad
 The Central Pacific Railroad Company (CPRR) was responsible for one of the most significant examples of exploitation in the West – the exploitation of Chinese labourers. However, this example needs to be placed within an economic and social context. “With the California Gold Rush and the opening of the West came an increased interest in building a transcontinental railroad”. Congress therefore authorised CPRR to construct a railroad link between Utah and California in 1862. Over five-thousand workers were required but by 1864 there were only six-hundred on the Company’s payroll. Labour shortages therefore posed a serious problem and were exacerbated by the unreliability of the white labour force. It was often voiced by investors that whites would “stay until payday, get a little money, get drunk and clear out”. Chinese labour was therefore suggested to swell the unreliable workforce. However, most believed that the Chinese were physically too small to complete such a momentous task. They were eventually swayed, however, when the head of construction, Charles Crocker, remarked “well, they made the Great Wall didn’t they?”

In 1865 the Company began hiring Chinese labourers. They were required to perform extremely gruelling and dangerous tasks such as blasting tunnels with nitro-glycerine. The most dangerous work was performed during the winter of 1865-66 when the railroad reached the Sierra Nevada. Three-thousand Chinese labourers lived and worked in tunnels dug beneath forty-foot snow drifts, of which one-thousand two-hundred perished. Despite their life-threatening endeavourers they only received around twenty-six dollars a month for a work rate of twelve hours a day, six days a week. In comparison whites received around thirty-five dollars a month and were furnished with food and shelter. Historian Paul Ong looks at this difference between white and Chinese wages in detail. He confirms that the Company maximised profits at the expense of its mainly Chinese workforce. More specifically, he reveals that the difference between white and Chinese wages was approximately thirteen dollars per month. This highlights an ethnic dimension to exploitation. Thus, “Chinese workers not only risked their lives to build the transcontinental railroad, but they were also not paid the full share of the products of their labour”. Although not considered ‘criminal’ at the time, the sheer injustice of this exploitation easily qualifies it as such by today’s reckoning.

What I find surprising is that some prominent historians have completely neglected this aspect of the railroad’s development. For instance, Stephane Ambrose maintains that the labour was performed “generally without complaint, by free men who wanted to be there”. This statement does not withstand the evidence. In asserting that the Chinese laboured “without complaint” Ambrose ignores a very important worker’s strike in 1867. Six-thousand Chinese labourers went on strike because of poor pay and long hours. Thus, the CPRR cut off their wages and food in order to force them back to work. Ambrose also ignores California’s anti-Chinese legislation. Although he describes them as “free men” the Chinese were bared from appearing as witnesses in Court, prohibited from voting or becoming naturalised citizens. This legal framework made it near impossible for the Chinese to fight against their exploitation. Again, although this exploitation was not considered ‘criminal’ at the time our modern sense of justice would certainly regard it as such. 

One of the things I find particularly striking about the Old West is that the exploited often became the exploiters. This is particularly potent when we consider our next example of exploitation – the exploitation of Chinese women. During the 1870s-1880s, Chinese men outnumbered women in the U.S by around twenty to one. This was due to a vast influx of male emigrant workers. Historian Roger McGrath argues that prostitution was the “inevitable result of this imbalance” and became a “flourishing business in Chinatowns”. This is evident when we consider the extent of the operations involved in the prostitution business. In China young women were either kidnapped, sold into indentured servitude by impoverished parents, captured by pirates or raiders, or won as the spoils of war. When they reached the U.S they were either sold or contracted to Chinese brothel keepers. Once again we see that ethnic minorities could not depend on Western justice for protection.

There was often struggle to control the exploitation of prostitutes. This is evident when we consider what were known as the ‘Tongs’. Since the Chinese were denied citizenship Tongs became important societies that provided Western Chinatowns with governmental structure. Opium trafficking, gambling dens and prostitution provided their financial support and Tongs clashed, often violently, over the regulation of these activities. Clashes over prostitution reveal a strong desire to control the exploitation of Chinese women for profit. Profit, therefore, was a motive consistent with the exploitation of Chinese labourers and the exploitation of Chinese prostitutes.

So far I have only focused on the Chinese population of the Old West. However, I do not intend to give the impression that it was only they who were involved in exploitation – either as the exploited or as the exploiters. Certainly the Chinese were not the only ethnic group exploited through prostitution. Nor were Tongs the only exploiters of women. Indeed, the Californian town of Bodie shows that prostitution was made up of a diverse range of ethnicities including whites and Mexicans. However despite their ethnic differences the lives of prostitutes were “invariably tragic”. This is evident in the life of Ellen Fair, a citizen of Bodie. Abandoned by her husband she had no choice but to sell her body in order to feed her children. This adds another dimension to the exploitation of women – desperation. Women were desperate to earn a living but the West offered them few career opportunities. Consequently, prostitution was all too often the only way to make money and this desperation was exploited by those men who paid for sex.

Gullibility was pervasive in these early years of America. The ‘Rags to Riches’ stories of such authors as Horatio Alger Jr. were widespread, providing the poor with the hope of achieving wealth and fame. However, investing in this belief all too often gave rise to gullibility, a trait ruthlessly exploited by the cunning. Belief that such wealth was attainable is therefore vital to understanding criminality in the Wild West.  A major example of this occurred in the 1870s-1880s. During this period there were over thirty mining properties on the San Francisco stock exchange. Stock figures were telegraphed to Bodie daily leading many to speculate in the market. One Bodie resident remarked that after “let’s get a drink” the most popular expression was “how are the stocks today?”

Value of mining stock fluctuated dramatically. For instance in the summer of 1878 a share in the mining company ‘the Standard and Bodie’ rose in value from fifty cents to over fifty dollars. Such inconsistency created an unpredictable economy in which it was easy to swindle. For example, principle stockholders of the ‘Mono’ mining company hatched a plot that tricked people out of thousands of dollars. The stockholders spread rumours that the Mono had “struck the vein in Bodie”. A former Bodie resident recalled that “hundreds of people”, “who thought they alone had received this ‘inside information’, eagerly bought stock”. As soon as the ‘the insiders’ unloaded all the stock they could on the public the value of shares fell drastically. Some dropped from twelve dollars to practically nothing literally overnight. Eventually, Bodie’s residents realised that their speculation in stocks had done nothing but to enrich wealthy stock manipulators in San Francisco. Those people who believed that they could make their fortune had their gullibility ruthlessly exploited. Although it is impossible to maintain that this was a uniquely Western phenomenon, it was certainly endemic in a society with a hunger for precious metals.

Edgar Allan Poe once remarked that “man is an animal that diddles, and there is no animal that diddles but man”. “Diddling, rightly considered, is a compound, of which the ingredients are minuteness, interest, perseverance, ingenuity, audacity, non-chalance, originality [and] impertinence”. These traits are particularly evident when we consider some of the most infamous Western conmen. Our first example is Soapy Smith. As a con artist and gangster Smith significantly influenced organised crime in Colorado and is best known for his soap scandal. This involved pretending to conceal money within soap cakes, tricking people into buying them. The profits from this scandal, combing with other swindles, ensured that Smith could bribe police, politicians and judges. This enabled him to build a criminal empire across Colorado. This was not only dependent on gullibility but also on mobility and legal loopholes. For example, when Denver began to implement anti-gambling and saloon reforms Smith simply relocated his activities to Creede. Thus, Smith not only exploited gullibility but he also exploited the embryonic legal system. The extent, intelligence and, as Poe puts it, “ingenuity” of this scheme reinforces the notion that exploitation epitomised the West.

Are there other forms of criminal behaviour that could also epitomise the Wild West? Outlaws are very often associated with the West but, as we shall see, their endeavourers have been hugely distorted. According to Wyatt Earp, a famous gunfighter and law enforcer, “outlaws are made, not born”. This is supported by historian Richard White who outlines the ways in which outlaws are, and have been, perceived. Firstly, there is a notion that outlaws are forced into a life of crime because they themselves have been the victims of injustice. Secondly, there is the idea that outlaws are considered to be ‘honourable’ in some way by their communities. And thirdly outlaws have been perceived as individuals who serve a higher justice, whose morality often conflicts with the law. Perhaps examples can shed some light on this outlaw image.

In media, television and cinema criminality in the Wild West is exemplified by the audacity and daring of such characters as Jesse James and Billy the Kid. However, their endeavourers have little grounding in reality. Sam Bass is a clear example that reveals how little outlaw mythology corresponds to reality. Born in 1851 Bass worked as a farmhand and a cowboy. After a failed mining venture in the Black Hills he got involved in horse theft and stagecoach robbery. Eventually he added train robbery to his résumé. Although he apparently never killed anyone Bass became associated with the cult of the gunfighter. As historian Frank Prassel points out “virtually all noted outlaws of the period seemed to acquire unusual skill with firearms”. This is particularly true of Bass. For example, many absurdly believed that he could shoot his initials at full speed into a tree. Bass also became known as a “jovial, horse-loving, generous, friendly, and brave young man”. Perhaps this fiction has something to do with the approximately two-hundred biographies written on Bass since 1965. As Prassel argues, these have very likely played a significant role in distorting both the man and his activities. Bass has therefore become a “figure of note, far exceeding the significance of his actual exploits”.

John Wesley Hardin, another famed ‘gunfighter’, reveals the lack of consensus surrounding the personal histories of outlaws. For instance, the number of kills attributed to Hardin depends entirely on the source. Whilst Paul Trachtman claims he slew forty-four men Carl Sifakis suggests a maximum of thirty-five. Hardin’s case shows the difficulty in extracting any truth from the lives of outlaws. However, if anything is clear it is that the individual histories of outlaws have been heavily distorted. Thus, despite becoming almost synonymous with Western, indeed, American criminality, the lives of outlaws inevitably contain many uncertainties. As such, their behaviours cannot accurately epitomise Western criminality in the way that the various examples of exploitation can.