“Where did you get the Siringo book, and how much did it cost? If not too much, I think I’ll get a copy.”
– Robert E. Howard to Tevis Clyde Smith, April 1932
Many critics have drawn a straight line from the frontier hero to the detective hero, marking the transition from the wild frontier of the 19th Century to the urban jungle of the 20th Century. Charles Angelo Siringo lived the transition. A Texas trail driver, he became an operative for the legendary Pinkerton Detective Agency, putting his range savvy to use in pursuing, among many others, the cowboy outlaws of the Wild Bunch. As the wild days of free ranging horseback outlaws faded into history and legend, he shifted his attentions to infiltrating labor organizations that were embroiled in out-and-out warfare with mine owners across the West.
Charlie Siringo was born in Matagorda, Texas, in 1855, to an Irish immigrant mother and an Italian immigrant father. In other words, he was the quintessential 19th Century American. At age 15 he started working as a cowboy on local ranches, and in 1876 he hit the Old Chisolm Trail, driving 2,500 head of longhorn cattle to Kansas. He rode up the trail again in ’77.
He witnessed Clay Allison hoorawing Dodge City — and gave the lie to Wyatt Earp’s claim that Earp faced Allison down. According to Charlie, it was a couple of storekeepers who talked the mercurial, alcoholic Texan down.
Siringo signed on with an outfit in Dodge that penetrated the Texas panhandle, newly opened up with the demise of Quanah Parker’s final Comanche resistance. He was part of the contingent of cowboys who rode for the legendary LX Ranch. The LX was a target for rustlers, including Henry McCarty, alias William H. Bonney, alias Billy the Kid. Charlie knew the Kid and rode with a posse that tried unsuccessfully to hunt the young outlaw down.
Cowboying was a young single man’s game, and when Siringo married Mamie Lloyd in 1884, he hung up his spurs and opened a cigar store/oyster bar in Caldwell, Kansas. He didn’t like the staid work, staving off boredom by turning his memories into memoirs — “A Texas Cowboy — Or Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony.” It’s a fine memoir, and it sold well, but Charlie Siringo wasn’t ready to consign himself to the quiet life of a storekeeper. A blind phrenologist had run his hands over his skull and told him he’d make a good detective — and that sounded right to Charlie. He migrated with his wife and daughter to Chicago, where he signed on with the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, the Eye that Never Sleeps.
In the late 19th Century, there was no federal law enforcement. Those with a need for law enforcement investigation and action across state lines had to hire their own. The Pinkertons were the preeminent investigatory outfit in the country, despite a high-profile failure to bring the James-Younger Gang to heel.
Siringo became a kind of specialist — a Cowboy Detective. From Alaska to Mexico, he infiltrated gangs of robbers and rustlers, relying on range skills, nerve, bluff and a natural capacity for acting to keep himself alive and get the goods on the criminal element.
He was no tigerish Howardian hero; he stood about five-foot-eight and was whipcord lean. He was, however, range toughened and as hardy as they come.
“He is as tough as a pine knot,” said William Pinkerton, heir to the detective dynasty. “I have never known a man of his size who can endure as much hardship as he does.”
Charlie’s wife died in 1890, leaving him a widower and single father of a young daughter. He remarried in 1896, but that marriage failed quickly and ended in divorce. Charlie Siringo did not domesticate well.
Driven to expand, the Pinkerton Agency opened an office in Denver, headed by the legendary James McParland, who made his bones by infiltrating and breaking up the Mollie Maguires, a secret organization of Irish coal miners in Pennsylvania in the 1870s. Siringo would become McParland’s top operative.
Infiltration of radical labor organizations was becoming a specialty of the Pinkerton Agency — along with violent strikebreaking. Charlie was sent up to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho to infiltrate miners whose strike against corporate mine owners was little short of low-intensity warfare. Union men and scabs were exchanging pot shots at each other on the forest-clad slopes around the mines, and union strikers dynamited a sluice, killing one man.
This kind of work suited Siringo just fine. He hated the kind of radicalism that was sweeping the nation, and Europe as well, in the late 19th Century He had no problem lying and deceiving in the cause of defeating rampant “anarchism.” The purpose of such infiltration was multifold: to build criminal cases against union leadership — if possible, for conspiracy to commit violence; and to provide intelligence to the Pinkertons’ mine-owner clients to keep them a move ahead in the chess match of labor warfare.
The Pinkertons weren’t above acting as agents provocateur, either. And the mere possibility of infiltration sowed distrust and paranoia among the miners.
As C. Leon Allison, Charlie hired on as a mucker in Finch’s Gem mine. He hung around in the local saloons and stood men to drinks — always an excellent way to make yourself popular. It wasn’t long before he was considered a right kind of fellow. He insinuated his way to the inside of the miners’ union and got elected recording secretary. He and his shift boss arranged for him to be “fired” from his mine job, which gave him plenty of time to gather intelligence and write reports.
Bad luck struck when a man named Black Jack Griffin, whom Siringo had known in Nevada, recognized him and called him out. Charlie did some fast talking that allayed suspicions, but only for the moment. When two miners were savagely beaten in town, the strikers’ mood turned ugly, and they turned on Siringo. He escaped buy hiding under a boardwalk.
A firefight broke out between strikers in the hills and scabs forted up at the mine’s mill. The scabs got the worst of it, and Siringo had to make a run for it, escaping into the pine forest.
Eventually, infiltrating miners’ unions and chasing Wild Bunch Bandits wore ol’ Charlie out. He retired and wrote another memoir. The Pinkertons, whom he had served so well, did not like accounts of their doings that they did not control. They quashed the book, which Charlie ended up publishing as “A Cowboy Detective,” using a fake name for the agency and doctoring the facts to avoid the wrath of the Eye. He came to despise “Pinkertonism” just as much as he did anarchism.
In his retirement, he wrote a second cowboy memoir, titled “A Lone Star Cowboy,” and in 1928 condensed both cowboy books into “Riata and Spurs: The Story of a Lifetime Spent in the Saddle as Cowboy and Ranger” — the book that would wind up on Robert E. Howard’s shelf.
The late, great Howard scholar Steve Tompkins* cast a jaundiced eye on the cowboy detective, calling him “half centaur, half weasel, a cowboy, an agent provocateur, and the man who gave Pinkertons’ unsleeping orb a bad case of pinkeye…” whose work was devoted to “making the world safe for plutocracy.” And, indeed, there is something unsavory about Siringo’s kind of undercover work — winning men’s trust with the intent of betraying them, on behalf of rich men who valued their profits far more than they valued men’s lives.
Howard said that he did not much like detective fiction. Perhaps the tinge of sleaziness that attaches to it was the reason why. Surely Howard found “Riata and Spurs” a fine read. Given everything we know about the Texan’s sympathies, it’s hard to imagine that he would have thought much of Charlie Siringo’s detective work. He wasn’t a Howard kind of hero.
* “After The Gold Rush: From Whapeton to Poisonville” by Steve Tompkins — Vision, Gryphons, Nothing and the Night, A Member Journal of Robert-E-Howard: Electronic Amateur Press Association, Issue no. 3, Summer Solstice 2002
Be sure and check out Jim’s excellent Western themed blog, Frontier Partisans.