Charles Angelo Siringo, The Cowboy Detective – A Classic (Italian) American Archetype

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Ah, you’re wasting your time,” said the self-assured Butch. “They can’t track us over rocks.”

Sundance peered into the distance from behind the large boulder. “Tell them that,” he said, almost ashamed to disrespect the wisdom of his mentor.

Butch turned around to see for himself. He couldn’t believe what he saw. “They’re beginning to get on my nerves,” he said with a tinge of anger. Then, after a pause, added with heartfelt curiosity, “Who are those guys?”

“Those guys,” as they referred to in the 1969 classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, were Pinkerton Detectives. In the film, the Pinkertons chase the outlaws after their gang had robbed the Union Pacific train. Butch Cassidy identifies one of them as Joe LeFors. No matter how hard they try, they can’t escape the posse.

In real life, the Wilcox Train Robbery, as it has come to be known, took place in the early morning hours of a rainy June 2, 1899. At 2:09 AM, a number of masked robbers – from three to six, the accounts vary – held up the first section of the westbound Union Pacific Overland Flyer about a mile west of Wilcox, Wyoming. Officials immediately suspected Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch gang. (N.B.: For you film buffs, in the movie, Butch’s gang is called the “Hole-in-the-Wall” gang because Samuel Peckinpah released his rival film The Wild Bunch – a movie not at all about Butch Cassidy’s gang – two months before the release of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The real-life Hole-in-the-Wall Gang was an association of outlaw gangs, one of which was Butch Cassidy’s gang, The Wild Bunch.)

Newspaper accounts of the time didn’t finger “George” (he’s real first name was Robert) Leroy Parker (a.k.a. “Butch Cassidy”) as the leader of the Wilcox Train Robbery. Both he and Harry Longbaugh (a.k.a. “Kid Longbaugh” who we know as “The Sundance Kid”) were listed as member of The Curry Gang, led by the notorious Harvey Logan, (alias “Harvey Currey,” a.k.a. “Kid Curry”). It was Kid Curry, not Butch Cassidy or the Sundance Kid, who was the man the Pinkertons really wanted. Sure, they wanted the rest of the gang, and they did chase them down, but Kid Curry represented the trophy. The Pinkerton annual report before the American Banker’s Association in May 1903 referred to Kid Curry’s gang as “The Wild Bunch.”

Joe LeFors was one of several Pinkerton Detectives assigned to track down The Wild Bunch after the Wilcox Train Robbery. He wasn’t necessarily the best tracker in the posse, though. That honor, according to a well-respected cowboy author who rode with both men in that same posse, belonged to the notorious Tom Horn. That author’s name was Charles Angelo “Charlie” Siringo, and he was an Italian-American. He was also one of the most famous cowboy detectives.

Charlie Siringo was born on February 7, 1855 in Matagorda County, Texas. His mother was an Irish immigrant and his father was an Italian immigrant. His father died when Charlie was only one year old, leaving his mother to raise the boy and his sister. When he was 15, Charlie became a cowboy. He drove cattle herds along the Chisolm Trail.

The west was wild back then and he crossed paths with many recognizable names: Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, to name a few. In 1884, he got married, quite the cowboy life, and settled down as a storeowner in Caldwell, Kansas. The next year his life changed yet again.

In 1885 he published his first book, A Texas Cowboy: Or Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony. Based on his actual experiences, it was billed this way: “Taken from real life by Chas. A. Siringo, an old stove-up ‘cow puncher’ who was born in the Lone Star State and spent nearly twenty years of his life on the great cattle ranges of the west, including those of the Indian Territory, Kansas, New Mexico, and parts of Old Mexico.”

One review wrote of the book, “He writes easily, and in language that all can understand… to the great reading public it will give far better satisfaction than the works of young authors usually do.” His first book became an instant hit. Charlie sold his store.

Riding his new-found fame, but getting a bit bored, Charlie moved to Chicago and began his life-long career as a cowboy detective working for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. For the next 22 years, often working under cover, Siringo helped apprehend some of the nation’s most notorious outlaws. He also once convinced an angry mob not to lynch Clarence Darrow.

His most famous work, however, occurred in the late 1890s when he infiltrated The Wild Bunch. His cover name was Charles L. Carter and he posed as a murderer on the lam. He must have learned a lot during his year as part of the gang, because once the Wilcox Train Robbery occurred, he was assigned to track those responsible for the theft. In this capacity, he is noted for providing the detective work that led to the arrest of Kid Curry, the leader of The Curry Gang, a.k.a. “The Wild Bunch.”

When he left the Pinkerton Agency in 1907 he moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico. There, he set up a ranch and returned to writing. His second book, Pinkerton’s Cowboy Detective, landed him in trouble with his former employer. They felt he revealed too many secrets and he was forced to rewrite the book and change all the names. This one manuscript eventually became two books, A Cowboy Detective and Further Adventures of a Cowboy Detective.

He would continue arguing with Pinkerton. The company even tried to arrest him, but the New Mexico governor refused to extradite him to Illinois. Siringo eventually moved to Hollywood where he helped in western films. He continued to write and further burnish his image as the cowboy detective, as well as a first hand witness to the history of the old west.

He loved telling stories of the desperadoes and may be in part responsible for the mythic adulation of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In 1925, Siringo told an interviewer “Butch Cassidy and Harry Longbaugh, “The Sundance Kid,” got away and it took 100 South American soldiers to finish them. Cassidy killed himself with his last cartridge.” (“Detective Who Fought Wild-West Desperadoes Now Hollywood Citizen,” The Los Angeles Times, April 12, 1925, page 3, Part II-a).

His final book, Riata and Spurs, came out shortly before his death. The publicity associated with its publication supplied a fitting epitaph in this unattributed quote from various newspaper articles: “Wherever crooked trails led, from Texas to Alaska, he followed them skillfully and patiently, usually to bring back with him a man or two who had up till that time outridden the law. Wherever there was trouble, there was Charlie Siringo.”

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