San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

April 20th, 2011
Cowboy author Siringo told it like it was

Freethought San Marcos: A column

Riata and Spurs, the last book by the first cowboy author, hit bookstores on Apr. 22, 1927 and by closing time had sold 3,500 copies.

The son of an Italian father and an Irish mother, Charles Angelo Siringo was born in the Gulf Coast county of Matagorda in 1855. To lighten his widowed mother’s load, he left home at 15 and did the rest of his growing up in the saddle as a working cowboy.

Graduating to trail driver in 1876, the young drover escorted 2,000 Longhorns up the Chisholm Trail to Kansas. On a return trip to Texas, Siringo delivered one of the original herds to a vast new spread in the Panhandle. That turned out to be his last cattle drive, as he spent most of the next six years earning his keep on the LX Ranch.

While riding the LX range, Siringo met a wild young cowboy four years his junior. New York-born Henry McCarty was just another gun-crazy rustler, when the older Texan tried and failed to rein him in with a Panhandle posse. Siringo had no way of knowing he was chasing a legend in the making or that someday he would make his own contribution to the Billy the Kid myth.

Siringo was pushing 30, when he decided the time had come to put a roof over his head and a woman at his side. In 1884 he married and moved to Caldwell, Kansas, where he became of all things a storekeeper.

Discovering that his new occupation left him with a lot of free time, the Texan with a barebones education put his personal experiences down on paper. The result was the instant classic A Texas Cowboy; Or Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony.

With readers hungry for more from the first cowboy autobiographer, Siringo could have settled into the comfortable life of a full-time chronicler of the Wild West. Instead, he sold his store, went to Chicago and joined the Pinkertons.

In the three decades since its founding by Allen Pinkerton, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency had grown into a private security force with more employees than the United States Army had soldiers. For a former cowboy bored with the humdrum routine of a small-town merchant, the exciting life of a Pinkerton man seemed to be just the ticket.

The Pinkertons may have been up to their ears in agents, but individuals like Siringo were in short supply. His first-hand understanding of the western criminal as well as his many contacts on both sides of the law made the “first cowboy detective,” as he liked to call himself, indispensable.

Siringo’s job took him from Alaska to Latin America in search of a wide and dangerous assortment of fugitives. Although he was said to be a crack shot, he was proud of the fact that he never took a life and made most arrests without resorting to violence.

Siringo pioneered the technique of going “undercover.” Posing as a murderer named “Charles L. Carter,” he wormed his way into the Wild Bunch in the late 1890’s. He kept up the masquerade for a year, sharing the gang’s plans with law enforcement before abandoning the risky ruse.

After the famous Wilcox, Wyoming robbery of the Union Pacific in 1899, Siringo was reassigned to the Wild Bunch. He took part in the pursuit that led to the break-up of the gang and the ill-fated departure of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for Bolivia.

The Pinkerton Agency also utilized Siringo’s undercover skills in its notorious union-busting and strike-breaking activities. Although he had little sympathy for militant trade unionists like “Big Bill” Heywood of the Western Federation of Miners, he felt the Pinkertons frequently crossed the line with their “end justifies the means” tactics.

After 22 years on the Pinkerton payroll, Siringo retired to a ranch in New Mexico and went back to writing. Once again he wrote about what he knew in Pinkerton’s Cowboy Detective, but the Agency took exception to the title and his exposure of its more questionable methods.

A lawsuit held up publication for two years until Siringo finally agreed to delete “Pinkerton’s” from the title and to remove all the objectionable passages. In spite of fictitious names and made-up stories, A Cowboy Detective sold well and reestablished Siringo as the premier western author.

Determined to get even with his ex-employer, Siringo next wrote and secretly produced Two Evil Isms: Pinkertonism and Anarchism. The Pinkertons pulled the strings necessary to ban the book and tried to have him extradited to Chicago to stand trial for criminal libel, but the governor of New Mexico rejected their request.

After a two-year stint as a New Mexico Ranger rounding up cattle rustlers, Siringo wrote A Lone Star Cowboy (1919) and History of “Billy the Kid” (1920). Failing health and worse finances forced him to relocate to Los Angeles to be near his two children.

Charlie Siringo’s final book, which saw the light of day only after the Pinkertons gave it their seal of approval, was Riata and Spurs in 1927. The cowboy, who told Americans what life was really like on the range, died a year later at 73.

Column collections available at or request list from Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas.

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