Homicide, Race, and Justice in the American West, 1880-1920
University of Arizona Press, 1997 - 206
In a chilling scene in the film Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood as the gunman stands over a wounded Gene Hackman, the sheriff, aiming a rifle at his head. "I don't deserve this, to die like this," says Hackman. Eastwood replies, "Deserve's got nothing to do with it," cocks his rifle, and fires point blank at his helpless victim. This scenario dramatically brings home to the viewer what historians have long debated and hundreds of other films and books suggest: the turn-of-the-century West was a violent time and place. Ranchers, miners, deputy sheriffs, teenagers and old men, occasionally even housewives and mothers found themselves at the business end of a shotgun or a .38 revolver. Yet, since western historians tend to portray violence as essentially episodic--frontier gunfights, range wars, vigilante movements, and the like--solid data has been hard to come by. As a beginning point for actually measuring lethal violence and assessing the administration of justice, here at last is a detailed and well-documented study of homicide in the American West. Comparing data from representative areas--Douglas County, Nebraska; Las Animas County, Colorado; and Gila County, Arizona--this book reveals a level of violence far greater than many historians have believed, even surpassing eastern cities like New York and Boston. Clashing cultures and transient populations, a boomtown mentality, easy availability of alcohol and firearms: these and many other factors come under scrutiny as catalysts in the violence that permeated the region. By comparing homicide data, including coroner's inquests, indictments, plea bargains, and sentences across both racial and regional lines, the book also offers persuasive evidence that criminal justice systems of the Old West were weighted heavily in favor of defendants who were white and against those who were African American, Native American, or Mexican. Packed with information, this is a book for students and scholars of western history, social history, criminology, and justice studies. Western history buffs will be captivated by colorful anecdotes about the real West, where guns could and did blaze over anything from love trysts to vendettas to too much foam on the beer. From whatever perspective, all readers are sure to find here a well-constructed framework for understanding the West as it was and for interpreting the region as it moves into the future.
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