Critical Intel

Critical Intel
History and Legend in Call of Juarez: Gunslinger

Robert Rath | 25 Jul 2013 16:00
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Jesse and Frank James were merely ex-Confederate guerillas robbing banks - war criminals who'd killed and scalped civilians and unarmed Union troops during the war - until Kansas City Times editor and Confederate veteran John Newman Edwards decided to make the brothers a vehicle to espouse his anti-Reconstruction beliefs. Edwards published letters from Jesse and celebrated the brothers as heroes, lionizing them in editorials with hyperbolic titles like "The Chivalry of Crime," where he compared them to the Knights of the Round Table and suggested that Northern authorities were the real criminals. The overstatement could become extreme. One Times issue included a twenty-page supplement of James-Younger Gang hero-worship that cast Jesse's armed, violent Confederate insurrectionists as sympathetic victims - and Jesse was only too happy to take on the role, as it meant he could shelter with newfound sympathizers. Dime novels, cheap fiction magazines telling partially or wholly fabricated tales of the West, also took up the banner and pumped out stories about famous outlaws like Billy and the James-Younger Gang. Dime novel authors had a fairly cavalier attitude toward veracity, and had few qualms about changing facts to make their heroes more sympathetic or inventing exciting escapes and gunfights that would sell more books.

Other gunfighters took their legends directly into their own hands. John Wesley Hardin wrote his memoirs as a way to justify his enormous body count as a gunfighter, casting himself as a proponent of individual freedom and southern honor rather than a cold-blooded killer. According to Hardin, he lived by a gentleman's code where he refused to be slighted or dominated, but unlike the British honor culture we've discussed before, Hardin took it as his gentlemanly duty to kill any man who crossed him. He killed trail hands he had fights with, multiple Texas State Policemen and had a penchant for murdering racial minorities. Once, when he was getting mugged, he threw his money on the ground then shot the thief in the back of the head when the man bent to pick it up. Many of the times Hardin claims to have killed in self-defense, he was actually pursuing the people he wound up murdering, or purposefully boxed himself into a situation where he'd be "forced" to respond with gunfire. However, many of the stories in Hardin's memoirs are probably apocryphal - he claims 42 killings in the book, but newspaper accounts only record 27 of them. Some incidents, like a claim he bushwacked three Union soldiers and killed all of them, are impossible to confirm and may never have happened. In other words, Hardin may have padded his kill count to increase his reputation.

This sort of identity creation and promotion was a major trend among Old West personalities in the 1870s through the 1900s, and probably saw its ultimate form in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. The show was a riding and roping exhibition with some shooting and "historical" reenactments, usually ending with reenactment of Little Bighorn. The show toured America and Europe, recreating a false facsimile of the West for the masses while telling "true" stories from "Buffalo" Bill Cody's former life as an Indian scout. But Bill wasn't the only attraction - from Annie Oakley to Calamity Jane and Sitting Bull, the show had an entire stable of performers telling untrue or partially true stories about their pasts in order increase ticket sales.

All of this was, overall, accepted as a part of the American "tall tale," a genre where the storyteller was allowed to take liberties with the facts and exaggerate, provided it served to make the story more entertaining and pass the time on the entertainment-starved frontier. In the 1880s and 90s, there were even social clubs where members were expected to tell inflated and untrue tales as a condition of membership, often known as "bragging contests." One of these, the McGinty Club of El Paso, had a tradition that when a story became too over-the-top, the audience would shout at the teller, "But did you die?" at which point the storyteller would answer that yes, he had indeed been killed - an absurdist way of admitting the tale was a lie.

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