Ride The Devil’s Herd: Wyatt Earp’s Epic Battle Against The West’s Biggest Outlaw Gang, by John Boessenecker
This is a book that is strangely relevant to our own times in ways that appear to make the author deeply uncomfortable. The author deliberately wishes to avoid making this book appear topical, but in the look at the unpleasant and violent consequences of partisan political hostility, a lack of legitimacy within law enforcement and political institutions, and a willingness on the part of people to take justice in their own hands when they feel it has been denied by a corrupt legal and judicial order, this book certainly looks very relevant to present-day concerns. The author includes a numbing about of detail about the goings on of two broadly opposed groups of violent people in the West, those who coalesced around the Earps, a side representing business interests (ranging from Wells Fargo to railroad interests to one of the Earps being a pimp of some kind) and the Republican party and the other group, led by the Cowboys, representing violent oppression of Mexicans, Democratic political interests, and a general pro-Southern approach. It is interesting to see how both of these side seek to control local governments and defend the interests of the violent people on their side, and if I have a clear side that I personally prefer over the other, the picture as a whole is one of anarchy and its costs to Western communities like Tombstone.
This book is about 450 pages long or so and is divided into seventeen chapters that sprawl through decades of violent history all over the West between two broadly defined groups of people, the Earps on one side and a criminal gang known as the Cowboys on the other side. The book begins with chapters that introduce the violence and lawlessness of the Cowboys (1) as well as the early history of the Earps and their wandering ways (2). After that there is a discussion of the warfare that took place in the border areas between the United States and Mexico (3) and the arrival of the Earps in Tombstone (4). After this comes a discussion of the leadership of Curly Bill over the Cowboys (5) as well as the violence that took place on the Tombstone stage (6) and the placing of certain violent people as wanted dead or alive (7). After this comes a discussion of the warfare between Cowboys and Mexicans (8) as well as the response of society at large to this violence (9). There are discussions of the rising violence between the Earps and the Cowboys (10), including the trial in Tombstone (11) and the revenge of the Cowboys (12). A couple of chapters discuss Wyatt Earp as both a frontier marshal (13) and a frontier vigilante taking the law into his own hands to obtain revenge (14). After that there is a look at the death of Curly Bill (15), the last ride of the Cowboys (16), and the sunset trail (17), after which there is an appendix that provides the roster of the Cowboys, acknowledgements, notes, and an index.
Overall, the mood of this book is one full of poignant reflection of loss and waste and vanity and frustration. Ultimately, neither the Earps and their allies nor the Cowboys ended up having a good fate. If Earp’s reputation as a lawman has been aided by the Western films that started in the 1920’s, his reputation in his own time was deeply colored by some of the choices he made, including the choice to avenge the death of his brother by taking up vigilante justice, as well as the fact that he and his friends and family had a checkered career that included stints in jail for various acts of violence. And the breaking up of the Cowboys, a massive criminal conglomerate that took advantage of the complexity and anarchy within the West, including porous borders, cultural and ethnic rivalries between Americans and Mexicans, Northerners and Southerners, Apaches and everyone else, and Republicans and Democrats as well as different factions within the Democratic party at least over control of important offices like mayors and elected sheriffs. The author is quick to point out the injustice meted out by various official law forces and the general picture is not one that will improve one’s feeling about the legitimacy of those who use the law to prosecute their own personal feuds, as was the case in the second half of the 19th century in the West and is sadly the case at present as well.