July 23, 2014 11:45 UTC

In the News

Famous Outlaws and Gunmen of the Wild West

They are the subjects of many books and movies.

Dodge City, Kansas in 1874
Dodge City, Kansas in 1874

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FAITH LAPIDUS: This is Faith Lapidus.

STEVE EMBER: And this is Steve Ember with EXPLORATIONS from VOA Special English. Today we present the first of two programs about some of the most famous people who lived in the American West many years ago.  We tell about lawmen, criminals and gunfighters.  And we will try to tell as much truth as possible about this interesting time in American history.

(MUSIC)

FAITH LAPIDUS: Our story begins in eighteen eighty-three in Dodge City, Kansas.  Dodge City was a railroad town.  Huge herds of cattle were brought there from western states to be transported by railroad to markets in the eastern United States.

A man named Luke Short owned a small store where he sold alcohol.  People also took part in gambling -- games of chance -- in his store. Several people who owned similar businesses wanted Luke Short to leave Dodge City.  They did not like the business competition.  Luke Short was threatened several times.  He knew his life was in danger. So he left Dodge City.

STEVE EMBER: Several weeks later, the people in Dodge City began to see something that frightened them.  Strangers were entering the town.  All of these men carried guns. The men said they were friends of Luke Short.  They caused no trouble.  A newspaper in Dodge City printed a story that identified the men. 

One of the first of these men to arrive was a former Dodge City lawman.  His name was William Masterson.  The newspaper said he was well known as an expert with guns and had killed several men. His friends called him “Bat.”

Wyatt Earp
Wyatt Earp

Two other men arrived together. One was Wyatt Earp.  He was a famous gunfighter from Tombstone, in the Arizona territory.  He also was a former lawman who had killed men in gunfights.  With him was his friend, a dentist, John Holliday, who also survived several shooting incidents.  His friends called him “Doc.”

About twelve other men also arrived in Dodge City to help Luke Short.  They were not as famous as the three named in the newspaper.  But they were also considered to be very dangerous.

FAITH LAPIDUS: Luke Short returned to Dodge City wearing his guns.  The chief lawman of the town quickly sent a telegram to the governor of the state asking for help.  He was afraid a major civil war would begin in his town. The men who had forced Luke Short out of town decided to negotiate a settlement. They did not want to face his many dangerous friends.

A few days after the settlement, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the other dangerous friends of Luke Short left Dodge City.  No one ever fired a shot.  No one was even threatened.  All it took to force a negotiated settlement was for these dangerous men to show their faces in Dodge City.  Just the fear of them settled the argument in favor of Luke Short.  No one wanted to deal with men who were not afraid of a gunfight.

(MUSIC)

STEVE EMBER: Who were these dangerous men?  Why did people fear them so much?  Why did they become so famous?  The story of these famous men began a little before the American Civil War of the eighteen sixties.  

This wild and lawless period in the West has been shown in hundreds of movies, television programs and books.  It only lasted for about seventy years.  The first shooting incident by a person who could be considered a professional gunman took place in Texas in eighteen fifty-four.

Most of the shooting incidents between professional lawmen and outlaws took place during the eighteen seventies in Texas.

FAITH LAPIDUS: The real movement into the American West began after the Civil War.  Many families moved west to build new lives after the war.   Land was almost free.  Some people wanted to find gold or silver and become rich. Other families wanted to raise cows or horses or begin a farm and start a new life.

But living in the American West was not easy. There were no laws, no courts and little or no government.  There were few lawmen to keep order.  The people who arrived in the West included many criminals.  Many were escaping punishment from their crimes.  They knew that an area with no law would provide them with safety.  These professional criminals often used force to take what they wanted -- cows, horses or money.  Often, there was little to stop them.

(MUSIC)

STEVE EMBER: Honest people who moved to the West carried weapons to protect themselves and their property.   These settlers began to build small towns when they found areas they liked.  They tried to improve their towns with churches, schools and the rule of law.  But it was often difficult.

To protect their towns, the settlers often had to employ people who were expert in the use of firearms.  Several lawmen in the Old West had learned to use their weapons when they were criminals.

Both the outlaws and the lawmen in the Old West had something else in common.  They could do something many other people could not.   They were willing to risk their lives to enforce the law or to commit a crime.  And they were willing to do this with a gun.

FAITH LAPIDUS: A good example was a man named William Matthew Tilghman.  He was arrested two times and charged with stealing when he was a young man.  However, he later became a deputy United States marshal, a law officer.

On July fourth, eighteen eighty-eight, a man named Ed Prather began shooting his gun in the street in Farmer City, Kansas.  People ran away in fear. Tilghman made him stop. Prather left the street angry and went into a drinking place.  He began drinking alcohol and making threats. 

Later, Tilghman went into the drinking place looking for Prather. Prather put his hand on the gun he was carrying. Tilghman told him to move his hand away from the gun.   When he did not obey, Bill Tilghman pulled out his gun and shot Ed Prather two times.   He died immediately. 

STEVE EMBER: That was only one of the many times Bill Tilghman used his gun as a law officer.  He served in many other towns.  Often, all he had to do was walk into a room to stop a fight.  Outlaws feared and obeyed him. Most criminals stayed away from a town where Bill Tilghman was the marshal. 

Bill Tilghman was shot to death on November first, nineteen twenty-four.  He was trying to arrest a man who had been drinking too much alcohol.   He was seventy years old and still working as the marshal of Cromwell, Oklahoma.  His life had lasted exactly the seventy years of the American Wild West.

(MUSIC)

FAITH LAPIDUS: The famous American gunman named Wyatt Earp has been the subject of at least four major motion pictures, one television series and many books.  He served as a marshal in Tombstone, Arizona.  He took part in one of the most famous gunfights in American history -- the gunfight at the OK Corral.

Wyatt Earp was once asked how to win a gunfight.   He said a good gunfighter took his time.  He said he had to go into action as quickly as possible -- as fast as he could move. But then he should take his time with the shooting.  He said a successful gunfighter could not let fear or anything else force him to shoot too soon and miss the target.  Missing the target could get him killed.

Wyatt Earp was very successful.  He was only wounded once in a gunfight.  He is one of the few successful gunfighters who lived to old age.  He died in nineteen twenty-nine.  He was eighty-one years old. 

(MUSIC)

STEVE EMBER: Experts on the American West often disagree about who were the most dangerous gunmen in that period of American history.  Was it one of the famous lawmen?  Was it Bill Tilghman, or perhaps Wyatt Earp?

Or was it one of the outlaws? Maybe it was the famous bank robber Jesse James or an extremely dangerous gunman named John Wesley Hardin.Those questions will never truly be answered.  However, join us next week when we tell about two of the most dangerous gunfighters of the Old West. 

(MUSIC)

FAITH LAPIDUS: This program was written by Paul Thompson.  It was produced by Mario Ritter.  This is Faith Lapidus.

STEVE EMBER: And this is Steve Ember.  Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in Special English on the Voice of America.

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