Thursday, October 04, 2007

Charlie Siringo

Almost every day I drive down Siringo Road in Santa Fe, and I was vaguely curious about the source of this street name. Then one night I was watching an old made-for-TV movie with Elizabeth Montgomery playing the role of Mrs. Sundance (Etta Place, previously played by Katharine Ross in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). And the Pinkerton detective tracking Etta bore the name of Charlie Siringo--bingo!

L. Q. Jones played the role of Charlie Siringo in the film Mrs. Sundance

It turns out Charlie was quite an interesting character, and almost single-handedly helped to develop and propagate the image and myth of the American cowboy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

He was born in Texas in 1855, the son of an Irish immigrant mother and an Italian immigrant father--like many of us, a true American mongrel! He left school at 15 to become a cowboy, and traveled much of the American West as a trail driver in the 1870s.

During this period he met Billy the Kid, later leading a posse into New Mexico in pursuit of the Kid and his gang. He was also around during the famed confrontation (or lack thereof?) between Wyatt Earp and Clay Allison in Dodge City in 1878, and contradicted Earp's claim that he and Bat Masterson had forced Allison to back down. (Siringo's claims appear to be supported by others; click here for a summary by the Ford County (Kansas) Historical Society.)

In the 1880s, Siringo became a merchant in Kansas, and authored his first book in 1885: A Texas Cowboy; or Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony. The book was published to wide acclaim, and has been called a classic of "range literature".

By 1886, at the age of 31, he was bored with business and moved to Chicago to join the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency. In pursuit of various "bad guys", he traveled as far north as Alaska and as far south as Mexico City, and was one of the first to use undercover techniques, variously disguising himself as a robber, rustler, union member, railroad hobo, etc.

In 1892 he was engaged in undercover work as a union member in Idaho, and was on duty during the bloody Coeur d'Alenes miners' strike. According to this American Heritage article, Siringo had actually done his undercover work so successfully that he had been elected recording secretary of the Gem Miners' Union, and had a close call described in the article as follows:

During the night he had crawled under a platform to listen in on the conversation of union leaders and then had returned to his rooming house. When he was awakened by the shooting at the Frisco Mill, he decided it was time to abandon his disguise and join his true allies in the Gem Mill. He had not proceeded very far before he was halted by a company guard, who told him that he would never get past Daxon’s saloon, where some fifty union men were firing on the mill and at anyone trying to leave or enter it.

Returning to his room at Mrs. Shipley’s lodgings, the resourceful detective sawed a hole in the floor, pulled a trunk across to cover it, and wriggled under the house. Like most western frontier towns, Gem made it possible for ladies to keep their hemlines unsoiled by providing an elevated wooden walkway along the dusty road. Using the walk as cover, Siringo wriggled his way toward the mill. Overhead, he heard union men cursing the poor shooting quality of their rifles—and speculating about the spy in their midst. A bunch of them broke off and headed for the Shipley home after this discussion, and Siringo put more speed into his movement in the opposite direction. He finally reached another saloon bordering the walk, with room enough to crawl beneath it to a point where he had only to make a short dash to reach the safety of the mill.

In the late 1890s, he infiltrated Butch Cassidy's gang, leading to the arrest of several gang members, though not Butch himself.

SIringo first came to Santa Fe at the behest of Gov. Lew Wallace to investigate a politically motivated murder that involved members of the Santa Fe Ring. According to Howard Lamar, a former president of Yale University, Western historian, and author of the 2005 book, Charlie Siringo's West: An Interpretive Biography, Siringo liked Santa Fe so much he stayed on and established a ranch near today's Siringo Road. In 1907 he retired to the ranch, and authored two more books about his experiences, A Cowboy Detective and Further Adventures of a Cowboy Detective.

But after nine years of retirement he began to yearn for his former life again, and responded to the governor's invitation to become a New Mexico Ranger, tracking cattle rustlers for the fledgling state from 1916-1918.

He moved to Los Angeles around 1920, and, like other retired cowboys, became a film advisor and a bit player for the burgeoning western movie industry. He died in 1928 in Altadena, California.


Here are a couple of interesting sources if you'd like to read further:

The Handbook of Texas Online

Wikipedia entry

Legends of America website; the Charlie Siringo photos used in this post are courtesy of this site.


Anonymous said...

Wow, what an amazing little piece of history! Discovering something like this is like spotting a shiny rock on the road side, doing a little polishing, and discovering it is a diamond. With characters such as this, how can people say that history is boring!?

Unknown said...

I know who sirringo was, a great man and never discovered who he really is, a great detective with secrets that go beyond two graves.