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Son of the Old West
The Odyssey of Charlie Siringo:
    Cowboy, Detective, Writer of the Wild West 

‘Ulysses of the Wild West,’ Charles Siringo was called at the end of a frontier life in which he encountered everyone from the southwestern outlaw Billy the Kid to Comanche leader Quanah Parker, even brawling with Buffalo hunters one night in Bat Masterson’s Dodge City saloon. Trail hand and bronco buster; rodeo rider or working undercover as a cowboy detective, adventuring under a series of personas not his own “playing outlaw” or as a labor spy in the mines. He might have met every bad man, lawman, outlaw woman or cattle king worth knowing in the West, but often not as himself. As a manhunter infiltrating desperado gangs, he spent four years chasing Kid Curry and Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch. Asked by an interviewer if he had lived a brave life, he said, “I was just a plain damn fool, that’s all.”
 
Siringo was the first cowboy to publish his own autobiography, A Texas Cowboy, and through his multiple books about his "rugged life" he created the image the world would come to have of the American West –not of the ranching kings who shaped much of it, but of the humble cowboys who drove their cattle up the trail and the private detectives who traveled where the law had not yet reached. As an old man, Siringo came to Hollywood to advise on early Westerns, watching the frontier history he had known first-hand turned into romantic legend.
     
Son of the Old West spans the violent history of the American frontier from the cattle trails and rise of railroad cow towns just after the Civil War to the era of outlaws and Western labor wars –all the way to Hollywood in the 1920s. It is a portrait of an era and a man who insisted his life should be his own to write about, even its roughest episodes, despite the Pinkerton Agency’s long campaign to silence him

 

Early Praise & Reviews


 
"Nathan Ward's chronicle is a twisting storm of horseback odyssey, snake-bitten fortunetelling, class warfare and deep-cover pursuit of legendary outlaws. The eye of this hurricane is cowboy detective Charlie Siringo - brave, stubborn, heartbroken and hopeful - who races through perils and adventures like a man who knows we're all watching, all the way to his literal Hollywood ending. Son of the Old West is full-gallop history, and I loved every  page."                                                                          --Leif Enger, author of So Young, Brave, and Handsome                                                                                                                                           and Peace Like a River
"A veritable real-life Jack Crabb, Charlie Siringo claimed to have seen and done it all in the Old West. Even better, a lot of what Charlie claimed was actually true! In this engrossing book, Nathan Ward expertly guides us along Charlie’s meandering trail, from Texas childhood to author of his own legend. At the same time, we are treated to a rich and fascinating portrait of the American West at its wildest."                                                                                            --Mark Lee Gardner, Spur Award-winning author of To Hell on a Fast Horse: Billy the Kid, Pat                              Garrett, and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West

Mr. Ward—like Siringo himself—spins a good yarn, and his book will surely please Old West enthusiasts, whose interest in the characters of this period remains evergreen. --Wall Street Journal

"Si­rin­go..trekked across desolate stretches of America; he consorted largely with foul-breathed malcontents who spoke through their revolvers. In Ward’s handsome telling, though, it’s only in the dark of the movie house, watching himself in a crowded saloon on the silver screen, that he appears truly alone."                                                                                                                                                                        --Dan PiepenbringHarper's Magazine
 
“Ward tells the tale of a strange and distinctly American life, one that wove through every facet of the Old West and cowboy culture; Siringo is in significant ways responsible for the birth of the mythical American Cowboy, the unkempt hero of the Wild West…’No other cowboy ever talked about himself so much in print,’ Ward quotes the Texas folklorist J. Frank Dobie as saying, and ‘few had more to talk about.’” --NY Times

“Lively and detailed. . . . The life of a Texas cowboy who ranged the wild frontier paints a broader picture of   bygone times in the American West. . . . A well-rendered cowboy tale that fleshes out a larger history of the Old West. . . . Illustrations, vintage photos, and maps throughout the text add atmosphere and context to this    stirring, multivaried life.” Kirkus Reviews

"Ward paints a vibrant portrait of Charles Siringo (1855–1928), one of the most ubiquitous characters in the history of the American West. ...Ward’s sharp eye for detail and breezy prose style make this a riveting look at the mythology of the Old West."Publishers Weekly

Praise for Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront:

"Meticulous reporting, a keen eye for detail, and an elegant writing style...terrific." --Jonathan Eig, The New York Times Book Reivew

"Elegant and affectionate...excellent true crime and true history. Dark Harbor goes on the shelf next to Joseph Mitchell and A.J. Liebling."                    --Alan Furst, author of Night Soldiers

"True crime done right, sharply researched and written with an economy of language ...as atmospheric as a two A.M. stroll down the wharf on a late October night." ---Allen Barra, The Daily Beast

Twelve Facts about Charlie Siringo.

 

Q: How big was he?

A: By all accounts, he was an appealing little guy around 5 foot four and 130 pounds, whose lifelong habit of lashing out against what he called “bullies” may be traced to growing up a relatively runty frontier kid. As a cowboy, he wore a size 5 boot. William Pinkerton would note, admiringly, that his scrappy detective was “as tough as a pine knot and I never knew a man of his size who can endure as much hardship as he does.”

 

Q: Where did he grow up?

A: On the middle Texas coast, on Matagorda peninsula. Matagorda was where his immigrant parents met, while Charlie’s first job running cattle came when he was twelve, in the spring of 1867, with a man named Faldien. The cattle trails established during this time would eventually bring Charlie to Kansas, where the developing train line would take him to Chicago, “punching” up steers with a long rod from the top of crowded cattle cars.  

 

Q: Being a cowboy with very little schooling, what made him write a book?

A: A combination of factors: barbed wire was ending the cattle trail life he had known; he met a woman in Caldwell, Kansas who inspired him to put on an apron and try working as a merchant; he was about to turn 30 and already missed the cowboy life terribly; and he saw writing a book as a way to make money for his young family. 

 

Q: Was his the very first memoir of the ranching West?

A: No. Before Siringo’s classic A Texas Cowboy, gentleman ranchers and newspaper reporters had written the story of the West. Siringo’s was the first published account seen from the cowboy’s saddle, or “from the hurricane deck of a Spanish pony.”

 

Q: Did he know Billy the Kid?

A: They were acquaintances, from when Billy and some fellow rustlers camped on the ranch where Siringo worked on the Texas panhandle in 1878. The two were close in age and, according to Charlie, played cards, traded Siringo’s new cigar holder for a signed book the Kid was carrying, and may have had a shooting contest, before the outlaws moved on. (There is an appealing but unproven theory that the book the Kid gave Charlie was Don Quixote.) 

 

Q: Was he a gunfighter?

A: No, although he makes frequent reference to his sidearm “Old Colts 45” in his writings, shooting snakes or putting down an old horse. While he was said to be good with a gun –could plug a coyote from the top of a moving stagecoach--he probably never shot anybody, or he would surely have put it in his books. He often escaped from brawls by using his pistol as a club, which was common in the West. 

 

Q: Did a phrenologist actually predict he would become a detective?

A: Charlie tells in several books that a “blind phrenologist” came to Caldwell, Kansas, and declared a bump on Charlie’s head indicated he was too stubborn to be anything but a newspaperman, stock rancher, or detective. According to old newspapers, there were actually two men known as “the blind phrenologist” touring Kansas at this time, so it likely did happen.

 

Q: How did he really become a cowboy detective?

A: After his first book came out, he moved his family to Chicago, possibly to oversee an imagined literary career. Money may have been slow, and, according to him, the Haymarket bombing in that city convinced him to offer his services to the Pinkerton agency to fight anarchists. Charlie had just the skills William Pinkerton was looking for in a cowboy detective for his new Denver offices, where he would send him. 

 

Q: What kind of detective was he?

A: Siringo was a superb tracker and actor, able to infiltrate criminal gangs by “playing outlaw,” and, if necessary, to seduce the sister or common-law wife of the man he was seeking, learning information from their letters. He could make friends in the roughest saloon by buying rounds and telling stories, or befriend bank robbers in a jail cell by posing as a chatty murderer; after several nights, he would leave the jail with his new friends’ confessions. He followed the Wild Bunch for four years and 25,000 miles, romancing Butch Cassidy’s Mormon sister along the way. 

 

 

Q: How reliable are his books as history?

A: His books are superb works of witness, but he is also a storyteller whose writings should be read alongside each other. Surprisingly, they are less reliable when he is telling a story he did not witness than when it is his own first-hand experience: He’ll improve stories that don’t need gilding, such as the lynching of Henry Brown, who failed to rob the Medicine Lodge (Kansas) bank in April 1884. But Charlie tells it straight when it comes to the story of his own shooting, fired upon by a gunman sent by an angry Texas rancher, in 1875. A number of his Pinkerton case histories were also delivered under oath in court. His life of Billy the Kid is his weakest work, since their acquaintance was brief.

 

Q: Why so many autobiographies?

A: Once he retired from detecting, he attempted to write his memoirs of his undercover career, feeling his life was his own, no matter what agreements he’d once signed. After two years in court, he published his redacted but highly enjoyable A Cowboy Detective. But three more autobiographies would follow, drawing more lawsuits, and requiring extra mortgages to enable him to keep fighting to tell his story. He was buried in Hollywood in 1928. 

 

Q: Did he ever appear in a movie?

A: Yes and no. He advised on a couple, one of which is lost. But he does briefly appear in a simulated saloon in William S. Hart’s Tumbleweeds. Old and tanned in a large hat, seeing him seems a flickery miracle. 

 

Praise for The Lost Detective: Becoming

 

Dashiell Hammett (Nominated for the Edgar and Anthony awards):

“As brisk and conversational as a magazine feature…And as we Hammett fans know, there are few personas, few writers in 20th-century literature period, more interesting to read about.”          —Washington Post

 

“[A] splendid biography of this keystone figure of American letters. Fittingly, there have been numerous biographies of Hammett . . . but none have explored as deeply his life before he became a writer.” —Otto Penzler, The National Review

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