Vital Signs

Revisions – The Wild (and Tranquil) West

American intellectuals have spent much of this century blaming the frontier experience for everything from cultural poverty (John Crowe Ransom) to "our lawless heritage" (James Truslow Adams). The high rates of violent crime in modern cities, they insist, cannot be caused by anything we are doing now­ that is, hamstringing the law en­forcement system, handingout six­ month sentences for rape, and eter­nally justifying criminal behavior as the result of economic and racial discrimination. In the minds of ac­ademics, our violent ways are in­ herited from the social anarchy of frontier towns, where we acquired our fascination with firearms. This argument, the stock-in-trade of gun-control fanatics, will have trouble surviving the scrutiny of Roger McGrath in Gunfighters, Highwaymen Vigilantes: Vio­lence on the Frontier (University of California; Berkeley).

To get a sense of the level of violent crime in the West, Mc­Grath looked at the records of two mining towns in the Sierra Ne­vadas, Aurora and Bodie, which had dismal reputations for lawless­ness. The "Badmen of Bodie" be­came so proverbial throughout Cal­ifornia that crimes all over the West were attributed (usually falsely) to its former inhabitants. There was crime, to be sure, in the mining towns and bad men aplenty. The tales of their exploits alone are enough to make the book entertain­ing....

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