The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1985, Volume 31, Number 2
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Reviews

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

Gunfighters, Highwaymen, & Vigilantes: Violence on the Frontier. By Roger D. McGrath. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. Bibliography. Photographs. Index. Maps. 291 Pages. $16.95

Reviewed by Richard W. Crawford, Assistant Archivist, Research Archives, San Diego Historical Society.

Crime has become an increasingly popular topic for readers and researchers alike, so the appearance of Roger McGrath’s study of crime in Aurora and Bodie, two nineteenth century trans-Sierra mining camps, is welcome news. During brief, spectacular boom periods, each town reached a population of 5,000 and together they produced gold and silver valued at over 35 million dollars. Both towns established reputations as violent, lawless communities. McGrath attempts to answer the questions: how violent and lawless was the American West, and to what extent is modern violence attributable to our frontier heritage?

McGrath’s investigation, based largely on a thorough reading of local newspaper accounts, results in a lively, social narrative of stagecoach highwaymen, claim-jumpers, gamblers, prostitutes, opium addicts, vigilantes, and badmen. These “typical” frontier towns were indeed violent, but only in certain categories. Western lore staples such as bank robbery, cattle rustling, and horse theft were missing in Bodie and Aurora. Modern problems of burglary, theft, rape, juvenile crime, and racial violence also were rare. Thus McGrath refutes the notion that present-day lawlessness stems from our frontier experience.

Both towns suffered from an inordinate amount of inter-personal violence. Fistfights and shootouts were “fairly regular events.” If, as McGrath suggests, the prevalence of guns deterred felonies such as robbery, it also insured high homicide rates. Armed with a Colt Lightning, carried in the pocket or waistband, the “Bodie Badmen” contributed 29 homicides. Most shootings were the result of “reckless bravado,” which McGrath defines as the “willingness to exchange gunfire over a careless remark, an insult, or a challenge to fighting ability.” Bravado was frequently abetted by the “prodigious quantities of whiskey” consumed in scores of saloons (Bodie had nearly fifty saloons on its main street-one for every hundred men). Since most shooting victims were town toughs or badmen and were willing combatants, local citizens were not troubled by the fearsome toll. On the rare occasion when an innocent victim was killed-vigilantism resulted. Unlike the popular image of an unruly mob, vigilantes were well-organized, disciplined, and effective, and they only acted after the established legal system had failed.

This is a well-crafted book. A few minor criticisms, however, need to be noted. McGrath’s brief stab at quantitative analysis is shallow and unoriginal. Comparing Bodie homicide rates with modern eastern cities is tenuous. Contemporary comparisons with other western regions would be enlightening. For example, his Bodie homicide rate of 116 per 100,000 com-pares favorably with the 117 rate for San Diego County in the 1870s. Murder frequency in the rough world of mining camps was hardly unique. McGrath’s sparing use of public records, particularly court case files, is also frustrating. Accepting the author’s statement that he “exhausted every available source” (court records are cited, but inclusive dates are not indicated) one can only conclude that much of this material is no longer extant. As an appendix, McGrath adds a useful historiographical essay on frontier violence.

This fine work should stand as a notable example in the field that only recently has begun to attract the scholarly attention that it deserves.