Chronicles of Tombstone's TurbulEnt Years
Tombstone History Archives
CHARLIE SIRINGO, LETTER WRITER
Little-known letters written by Charlie Siringo newly discovered at the Yale University Archives
By Mark Dworkin
WOLA Journal, Winter 2003, Vol. XI, No. 4, page 16-18
In a search for some unrelated material in the Western Americana Collection of Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, I recently came upon an archive of eighteen unpublished letters written by legendary cowboy, rancher, detective, and prolific autobiographer Charles A. Siringo (1855-1928). These fascinating letters were written from 1912 to 1926, and had been in Yale’s archive, uncatalogued, since their purchase by Yale in 1956. Most of the letters were addressed to William E. Hawks, an 1880s Yale Business College alumnus, whom Siringo had likely met some time during the 1890s when the former had ranched on Idaho’s Snake River. Around the turn of the century Hawks had moved to Bennington, Vermont where lived during the duration of his correspondence with Siringo. Here, while accumulating a noted collection of western songs, two of which were sent by Siringo, poems, and histories, he wrote newspaper and magazine articles bemoaning and debunking what he considered overly romantic tales about the Old West.
It was not until the latter years of the 1990s that the Siringo letters were finally catalogued. It is apparent that researchers, including the late Ben E. Pingenot, whose 1989 biography Siringo remains the standard work, were unaware of the letters. Unless Pingenot or someone else would have inquired specifically about the letters, or about uncatalogued material related to Siringo, they would not have discovered their existence. Pingenot was clearly aware of some Siringo-Hawks correspondence, and included three other Siringo to Hawks letters in his bibliography, one dated May 20, 1915, from his own private collection, another from April 17, 1928, and possibly Siringo’s final letter of October 10, 1928, the latter two owned at that time by an Austin, Texas rare book dealer, his book makes no mention of the Yale archive Siringo letters.
In addition to sixteen letters addressed to Hawks, who he called “Historian of the Plains,” and about whom he wrote in his book Lone Star Cowboy, the collection contains one letter from Gifford Pinchot to Siringo. Pinchot was the first chief of the U. S. Forest Service from 1898-1910, and president of the National Conservation Association at the time of his letter. Dated December 28, 1912, the letter contains his endorsement of Siringo’s A Cowboy Detective, and his congratulations on its publication. There is also one letter from Siringo to George Horace Lorimer, then editor of The Saturday Evening Post, dated June 16, 1926. A reasonable speculation is that these two letters somehow came into the hands of Hawks. These eighteen Siringo letters were purchased in 1956 for Yale from Charles and Lindley Eberstadt, as Yale’s library information site puts it, on the William Robertson Coe Fund.
Some of Siringo’s letters run over ten longhand, pencil-written pages. The aging frontiersman writes authentically about “old timer cowboys,” relating yarns about cowboy life, and writing out in their entirety, two cowboy songs for song collector Hawks. Much of the correspondence, not unexpectedly, deals with the controversy surrounding the publication of Siringo’s expose of the Pinkertons, Two Evil Isms. Beginning in 1912, Siringo wrote a series of autobiographical books that many readers of this journal will be familiar with, including A Texas Cowboy, A Cowboy Detective, Two Evil Isms, Lone Star Cowboy, and his final work, Riata and Spurs. The Pinkertons had obtained an injunction to suppress the publication of Two Evil Isms, charging Siringo with libel. As a result, the court seized all known copies and had them destroyed, only a few copies escaping this fate. Siringo fled from Chicago to New Mexico where he was safe, as the governor refused extradition to Illinois.
The Lorimer letter, a TLS, an archivist acronym meaning typed-letter, signed, turned out to be one of the more enlightening letters in the collection as to what it tells us about outlaw-lawman history in the west. Siringo included with the letter that follows, the accompanying Los Angeles Examiner article of June 16 as shown on the opposite page, in the envelope to Lorimer.
6057 Eleanor Avenue,
June 16, 1926
Mr. George Horace Lorimer,
Editor Saturday Evening Post
Dear Mr. Lorimer:
I feel that I ought to correct a mistake I made in a former letter. Yesterday Wyatt Earp, the noted Marshal of Dodge City, Kansas and officer of Tombstone, Arizona, put me right. He was City Marshal of Dodge City, Kansas, in July 1877 the first time I met Bat Masterson. I had formed the mistaken idea that Bat was night bar-keeper at the Lone Star dance hall because he wore a white apron and was behind the bar waiting on customers. Earp says he owned the place and always helped the bar keepers during rush hours, at night. That at this time Bat was Sheriff, and his brother Ed. was his deputy up to the time he was shot and killed by Walker and Wagnor (sic), both of whom were later killed by Bat.
Wyatt Earp says Bat Masterson only killed three men during his life time, the first one being Sergeant King of Fort Elliott, Texas. The killing took place in Sweetwater near the Fort. In the fight, King accidentally killed a woman, the same bullet wounding Bat in the groin. When able to travel Masterson went to Dodge City, Kansas, was put onto the city force by him, Earp.
Very truly yours,
There are several interesting items in this short letter that ever so slightly help to bring history into better focus. Siringo and Earp were both well known and even celebrated figures by the 1920s. Earp, as the newspaper article Siringo included with the letter shows, was ‘famed’ despite his detestation of fame and his view that “notoriety had been the bane of my life.” Siringo had become renowned as a romantic chronicler of cowboy life, and an early version of an American popular figure, the “private eye,” chasing Billy the Kid and The Wild Bunch for the Pinkerton Agency across several states, protecting Big Bill Haywood and Clarence Darrow from a lynch mob, and writing books about his adventures. Earp and Siringo apparently, from this letter, had a personal relationship during their final years, years of celebrity for both. While this is not entirely surprising, as both knew and were admired by legendary silent screen cowboy actor William S. Hart during their years in Southern California, such a relationship has not been demonstrated before. Did they watch the filming of early westerns together while they talked about the old days in Dodge, perhaps remembering Clay Allison’s officer hunting invasion of Dodge about which Siringo wrote that he had witnessed in his 1919 book, A Lone Star Cowboy, and again in 1927 in Riata and Spurs, and the details of Wyatt Earp’s role in it that many historians have vigorously debated? Did they discuss Jim McIntire’s contention in his 1902 autobiography that Earp and Mysterious Dave Mather operated a gold brick scheme in Mobeetie, Texas, and Siringo’s portrayal of McIntire in Riata and Spurs as “an opium fiend when he wrote it?” Or did they discuss the travails of being famous…?
Siringo’s observations on Bat Masterson’s ownership of Dodge City’s Lone Star dance hall, with Masterson’s donning of an apron and tending bar, is not the conventional picture of young Bat (although Masterson was reputed to have worn a lavender corduroy suit later in Creede, Colorado!), but it adds another dimension to our understanding of him. Siringo doesn’t mention in the letter what he wrote about in Riata and Spurs, that a brawl between what he called “long-haired buffalo hunters and wild and woolly cowboys” in the Lone Star wrote almost cost him his life. Perhaps more importantly, Siringo appears to verify the details of Masterson’s shooting of Sgt. King, and the way in which Molly Brennan died in what historians call the Sweetwater shootout.
From the text of the letter, it appears that Wyatt Earp claimed to Siringo that he put Bat Masterson on the Dodge City force. What makes this notable is that he made this claim to a fellow Dodge City frontiersman from the cowtown days, one who might have reason to know if it was false, or even embellished. Some of Wyatt Earp’s critics have claimed this to be a lie, but if so, it seems strange Earp would make it to someone in a position to know its veracity, not in order to spice up a book to a newspaper reporter or would-be biographer.
It is also interesting to note that Siringo refers to Earp as “the noted Marshal of Dodge City.” Whether or not Earp was actually Marshal, or held some lesser post, has been an element in the on-going debate over the importance of Wyatt Earp in Dodge, but Siringo at least appears to remember him as Marshal. Like many of his contemporaries, and unlike a number of later historians, he apparently did not question the honesty of Wyatt Earp, perhaps because he knew the truth of the matter.
In 1993 Arizona based researcher Bob Palmquist published court testimony he had uncovered indicating Bat Masterson had admitted to his April 9, 1878 shootings of two drunken cowboys named Walker and Wagner, the killers of his brother, Dodge City Marshal Ed Masterson. Palmquist found that in an 1885 election fraud lawsuit. Masterson testified, “I shot those parties who killed my brother there in 1878- in the spring of 1878.” Former Dodge City mayor George Hoover in a deposition verified this during the same lawsuit. This testimony was not known when Bob DeArment wrote his seminal biography of Bat Masterson, but Siringo’s recollection appears to confirm the Palmquist find.
The Los Angeles Examiner article written by journalist and Earp friend Jim Mitchell (1891-1934) included by Siringo in the envelope with the above letter and accompanying this article has been available to a few researchers, although to my knowledge it has not been published since it originally appeared in the Examiner on June 18, 1926. Some of the present-day controversies about which Earp has been accused of lying are notable for the lack of mention in this article. For example, although there are mentions of the shootings of the Clantons and McLowrie’s (sic), and of Curly Bill Brocious, Earp makes no claim that he killed John Ringo in Arizona. A reference of interest is to Curly Bill’s stolen shotgun, which Earp had mentioned in the 1896 San Francisco Examiner interviews, a statement that has also been used to question his honesty.
The letter demonstrates that at least some old western pioneer officers and frontiersmen were in contact in their final years when the Old West as they knew it was gone. Perhaps there is more correspondence of this type yet to come to light, sitting uncatalogued in archives as these were.
Thanks are due to George A. Miles, William Robertson Coe Curator of the Yale Collection of Western Americana, and to his staff, for their help and prompt answers to my many questions, and for permission to reprint archival material. Appreciation is also due to Wyatt Earp historians Dr. Gary L. Roberts and Casey Tefertiller for their valuable insights into the significance of the Siringo letter and the Mitchell article.
Other Charles Siringo letters are found at the Angélico Chávez History Library in Santa Fe, New Mexico
Siringo tells Hawks in this letter about a letter he received from Cowboy Stories Magazine, and that he might write some stories for McClure’s Magazine, but in an affecting section, writes, “As matters stand I dare not leave this state yet (New Mexico)…I have had a chance to go on detective work to Kansas and also California but am afraid to leave…for fear the P’s (Pinkertons) will get me back to Chicago, as I am not able to stand a fight there in the courts.” Siringo writes, with some pathos, that it looked doubtful that H. M. Martin would buy his ranch, but wrote, “Hope he will succeed as I need the money to pay you that $200.” (Pingenot, p. 85-6)
Coincidentally, at the time of this writing, the October 28, 1928 letter, written just eight days before Charlie’s death, is on sale at an on-line auction house for $2599. The text of the surviving pages of the incomplete letter is printed here before it disappears into private hands:
Altadena, California, 1928 October 10.
Your welcome letter of 9/28-28 - to hand. Glad you have not forgotten me. I have fixed up a ‘Den’ at my Sons (Lee Roy Siringo) home in Altadena - the town of High brows and Millionaires. It lays just north of Pasadena, at the foot of Mount Lowe. This does away with me paying rent. During the months of June, July and August, I had apartments at the Colehurst, Corner Santa Monica Blvd. and Vine Street, in the new building built by the Cole Estate. It is the finest aranged (sic) Apartment House I ever Saw. It has every Convenience. A man and wife cleans (sic) the two rooms every morning, and changes (sic) the linen, etc. There are four floors above the Drugstore, Café, News Stand and barber Shop, with a Self-regulating Elivator (sic). I would advise you to get quarters there next winter at a cost of $5500 a month. Your wife wouldn’t have to turn her hands over, except to get meals. And if she didn’t feel like doing that you could eat at the first class Café underneath. It is only a few blocks from the ‘Water Hole.’ Mrs. Stauffer is the Manager. Her husband manages the Eleanor, a block south, owned by the Coles. No doubt you met my friend George Townsend Cole - the Artist? My health has been very poor, but am feeling better now. The Editor of McClure’s Magazine in New York wants some short fact stories from my pen. I may make a deal with them. So watch the Magazine each month. Write when the Spirit moves you and give my best wishes to Mrs. Hawks.
The Eberstadt brothers were the sons of noted antiquarian Edward Eberstadt (1883-1958), and succeeded their father to run the book firm that Edward Eberstadt had begun (known as Edward Eberstadt and Sons even after Ed’s death). They were primarily antiquarian book, manuscript, and art dealers and collected widely in the field of western Americana over many decades. They made many generous gifts of material to Yale and numerous other institutions such as the University of Texas, Georgetown University, and the Smithsonian Institute. Yale Library established a close relationship with them, and it was partially due to their influence that philanthropist and collector William Robertson Coe was persuaded to donate part of his vast Western Americana collection to Yale. Note: Along with countless others, this writer has long benefited from the work of Coe’s grandson, Michael Coe, for many years a Yale professor of anthropology, dean of that department, a distinguished officer of the Peabody Museum, a noted expert on Meso-America, and author of numerous books on the Olmecs, the Maya, and the Aztecs.
George Horace Lorimer, 1867-1937, American editor, b. Louisville, Ky. After working for the Armour Packing Company (1887-95) and as a wholesale grocer, he went to work as a newspaper reporter in Boston. He became editor in chief of the Saturday Evening Post in 1899, and until 1936 his guidance was responsible for its growth. His success was attributed to his ability to ascertain the literary tastes of the middle class. He was president (1932-34) of the Curtis Publishing Company. Letters from a Self-made Man to His Son (1902) was reprinted from the Post. From the Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, Columbia University Press, 2003.
I found few references to other outlaws or lawmen. One notable one was in the midst of a thirteen page letter from Siringo to Hawks dated Santa Fe, New Mexico, October 10, 1914, where Siringo writes:
No doubt your friend has the right dope on Bill Gatlin and Butch Cassady (sic) but don’t think the photo in the magazine you sent represents Kid Curry. And I have reasons to believe Kid Curry is the boy who single handed robbed the Morencia (?, smudged), Arizona bank about three years ago. It was the slickest job ever pulled off in a rain of bullets. I went there to investigate the matter for Wm. J. Burns two weeks after it happened. The description of the robber would indicate that was Kid Curry. He made his escape while jumping his horse on a dead run over a rocky ledge 12 feet high, into a sandy arroyo. The print of his horses feet still showed in the sand when I was there. The deputies who were in close pursuit had to go 5 miles around the cliff, hence the robbers escape.
Butch Cassidy and Wild Bunch expert Daniel Buck, when shown the excerpt, found it amusing that Siringo felt he could recognize Curry by his method of escape. Neither Buck nor Wild Bunch researcher Donna Ernst was convinced that this evidence did anything to disprove the likely scenario that Curry (aka Harvey Logan) took his own life on June 9, 1904 rather than be captured in the aftermath of a failed train robbery.
Another Siringo outlaw reference was in a letter to Hawks written on March 23, 1920, where he writes in response to an apparent question about who really murdered Pat Garrett:
I wrote to John Meadows as to the murder of Pat Garrett, according to his views & knoledge (sic). He writes that there is no doubt but what the same influence which caused the murder of Fountain and his son caused the death of Pat.
Here is a quotation from Meadows letter: Jim Miller and Adamson did that killing and were paid for it. They made a cat’s paw of poor Brazel to get out of it. I understand (and from good authority) that Jim Miller went down this railroad two days before Pat was killed. E. Van Patten of Las Cruces told me that when they got to the boddy (sic) Patt was laying on his side, his gun about six feet from him. The ground looked as if he had got out of the buggy to respond to a call of nature as his pants was wet in front and that member of his person was yet out of his pants. He was shot in the back of the head. It came out near the left eye. Shot again in the breast. Now there must have been two men shooting. If Pat got the first shot in the breast you know he would not have turned his back for the second one. If he got the first one in the head he couldn’t have turned around. I told Pat many times those enemies would have him killed.
Siringo had earlier written, in A Lone Star Cowboy (p. 165), that Fred Fornoff had given him this information. Researcher Chuck Hornung has called this into question in his article entitled, “Surprising New Information on Pat Garrett’s Death: Details From the Fornoff Report,” commenting:
I don’t believe Siringo’s quotation [of Captain Fornoff that, "Jim Miller fired the bullet that killed Pat Garrett"] because it is not what Captain Fornoff told Fred Lambert. Siringo and Fornoff had been friends and Charlie does mentions Fred in his 1912 autobiography, A Cowboy Detective, but Siringo was known to embellish a story to enhance his own reputation. (Hornung, n35)
In still another letter, Siringo, in a brief one-line teaser, claims Frank Canton was half-brother to Tom Horn!
Although the year is not written on the news clipping, it was likely 1926, as Wyatt Earp refers to the death of his brother James “last January in Los Angeles.” James Earp died in Los Angeles on January 25, 1926.
Letter from Wyatt Earp to John Hays Hammond, Oakland, California, May 21, 1925. Courtesy Lake Collection, Huntington Library, Los Angeles.
Hart, in a 1928 letter to Siringo, likened Siringo to Earp, but writer Raymond Thorp who knew them both characterized Earp as a prototypical gambler, without the calloused hands of man who labored, and Siringo, as having the hands of a man who wrestled steers for years, with two fingers permanently bent. Earp’s eyes, to Thorp, were “cold, blue, and mean,” Charlie’s warm and brown, “the color of Idaho russet potatoes.” Siringo was always ready to “Whoop ‘er up, Liza Jane,” while Earp viewed with a natural suspicion the moves of others. Pingenot, p. 160.
Although Siringo is sometimes credited for writing unembellished history, several writers who have doubts about Siringo’s written version of the Clay Allison incident include Robert K. DeArment, Richard Erwin and Casey Tefertiller.
Riata and Spurs, p. 36
For a recent and full treatment of this gunfight, see the article by Gary L. Roberts listed in the bibliography.
Books by Charles A. Siringo:
-A Texas Cowboy or, Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony. Taken from Real life by Chas. A. Siringo, An Old Stove Up “Cow Puncher,” Who Has Spent Nearly Twenty Years on the Great Western Cattle Ranches. 1885
-Cowboy Detective: A True Story of Twenty-Two Years with a World-Famous Detective Agency. 1912
-Further Adventures of a Cowboy Detective. 1921-24
-Two Evil Isms. Pinkertonism and Anarchism. By a Cowboy Detective Who Knows, as He Spent Twenty-Two Years in the Inner Circle of Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency. 1915
-A Lone Star Cowboy, Being Fifty Years Experience in the Saddle as a Cowboy, Detective and New Mexico Ranger, on Every Cow Trail in the Wooly Old West. 1919
-History of Billy the Kid: The True Life of the Most Daring Young Outlaw of the Age. 1920
-Riata and Spurs: The Story of a Lifetime Spent in the Saddle as Cowboy and Detective. 1927
-Riata and Spurs: The Story of a Lifetime Spent in the Saddle as Cowboy and Detective. Revised edition, 1927
DeArment, Robert K., Bat Masterson, The Man and the Legend University of Oklahoma, 1979.
Eberstadt, Edward & Sons, Americana: Being a collection of Rare & Important Books & Manuscripts Relating to the History of America, Edward Eberstadt & Sons New York, 1964.
Erwin, Richard E., The Truth About Wyatt Earp, toExcel, 1992.
Hornung, Chuck, “Surprising New Information on Pat Garrett’s Death: Details From the Fornoff Report,” WOLA website, .
McIntire Jim, Early Days in Texas, “A Trip to Hell and Heaven,” Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Robert K. DeArment, University of Oklahoma Press edition, 1992.
Palmquist, Bob, “Who Killed Jack Wagner,” True West Magazine, October, 1993.
Pingenot, Ben E., Siringo, Texas A&M Press College Station, TX, 1989.
Roberts, Gary L., “Bat Masterson and the Sweetwater Shootout,” Wild West Magazine, October, 2000.
Tebbel, John, George Horace Lorimer and the Saturday Evening Post, Doubleday, New York, 1948.
Tefertiller, Casey, Wyatt Earp, the Life Behind the Legend, John Wiley and Sons, New York, 1997.
Thorp, Raymond W., “Cowboy Charley Siringo,” True West Magazine, January-February, 1965