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Smith, Robert Barr. Tough towns; true tales from the gritty streets of the old West.

SMITH, Robert Barr. Tough towns; true tales from the gritty streets of the old West. Globe Pequot. 242p. illus. maps. bibliog. index. c2007. 0-7627-4004-3. $12.95. JSA

There is no doubt that the level of violence in the towns and nascent cities of the Old Southwest was high, although certainly not as high as in today's cities. Most folks were law-abiding, then as now, and whenever a colorful crime did take place, the story became enshrined in the town's history for decades to come. The difference is that the criminals tended to come from outside the community, and locals seldom feared to help bring them to justice.

Exactly how tough were some of these towns? Well, mobs breaking into the local jail to expedite the execution of miscreants were common enough, and jailkeeps seldom put up much of a fight to protect them. Many ordinary citizens enthusiastically joined an ad hoc posse, quickly abandoning store counter or anvil to help run down the wrongdoers. Multiple posses were frequent in these towns: following a hot trail in successive waves, or fanning out in groups to block likely escape routes. Captive robbers were not always returned safely to the sheriff, instead meeting their final justice under a convenient tree. This was especially likely if someone popular had been killed in the gunplay, but the haste with which two killers were hanged simultaneously from the same short length of rope was later judged to be a little extreme. Afterwards, volunteers often indulged in gristly souvenir taking. Even the task of propping up the deceased for his final camera pose drew many volunteers, one of them going so far as to lend his hat to a well-worn corpus.

Smith's examples make for lively reading, but offer thoughtful insights as well. One is struck by how many criminals were brought to justice (of one kind or another) because someone knew them, or recognized them from a simple written description. Western communities were small, and posted notices probably brought in more miscreants than all of the posses that ever pounded down a trail. Raymond Puffer, Ph.D., Historian, Edwards AFB, CA

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Author:Puffer, Raymond
Date:May 1, 2007
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