A Brief History
On May 16, 1957, Eliot Ness, former head of the “Untouchables” and former Safety Director of Cleveland, Ohio, died in relative obscurity, unlike the famous character of television and movies. Today we take a quick look at 5 famous lawmen, with the emphasis on “fame” rather than on any particular virtue or value.
Wyatt Earp, Frontier Lawman
Wyatt, along with his brothers Virgil and Morgan, gained everlasting fame as the winners of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral in 1881. Despite his far greater fame, Wyatt was not the main lawman on the scene, as his brother, Virgil, was the actual town and Deputy US Marshall, with Wyatt merely deputized. Earp became an American legend of the Wild West, and is usually associated with law enforcement though his actual time as a lawman was limited. A fascinating character that engaged in gambling and other vices as well as trying his hand at law enforcement, Earp has been memorialized and mythologized in untold books, television shows and movies. In fact, before he died in 1929, he was working as a Hollywood movie consultant! Wyatt Earp’s ambiguous morals make him a less than ideal model of a peace officer, but he certainly can claim a lot of fame.
(Honorable mention: Pat Garrett (Shot Billy the Kid)
Edgar Hoover, FBI Icon
Hoover, born in 1895, became the first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a post he held for an incredible 48 years in which he became the incarnation and face of that famous law enforcement agency. Never one to miss an opportunity to promote himself and the FBI, Hoover molded his agency into the premier law enforcement agency in the US and probably in the entire world. Serving under 8 different Presidents, Hoover was a force to be reckoned with and is rumored to have held dirty information over the heads of those presidents in order to keep his position secure and his power intact. Such rumors as these and his alleged abuse of power, including in un-Constitutional harassment and surveillance of suspected communists, anti-Vietnam War activists and other perceived “enemies” of either the US in general or of Hoover himself have sullied his reputation since his death. While many of the allegations of improper conduct on Hoover’s part or on Hoover’s behalf have surfaced with some credibility, his name remains at the top of famous American lawmen.
(Honorable mention: Melvin Purvis)
Joe Arpaio, former Sheriff Maricopa County, Arizona
In the 21st Century, many high ranking law enforcement officers have injected themselves into the political spectrum, especially in the arena of either being a force for change or as in the case of Joe Arpaio, a force for resisting change. Arpaio became nationally famous for his years (1993-2017) as the Sheriff of Maricopa County with his outspoken and unapologetic pursuit of criminals and the vigorous prosecution and detention of said suspects. Famous for strict jail conditions he imposed on Maricopa County prisoners, Arpaio fed the prisoners a meager diet of cast off food, housed them in tents outside in intense heat when his jails were too crowded, and gave those prisoners little of the vices afforded prisoners in other American jails, such as sexually explicit material and subjected his prisoners to his own brand of radio “entertainment,” consisting of Patriotic music, classical music, and selections by Frank Sinatra. A publicity hound, Arpaio made frequent television appearances and vociferously proclaimed his intention to pursue illegal immigrants, resulting in frequent charges of racial profiling against his agency. Not only did Arpaio gain international attention for instituting “chain gangs” of prisoner work details in 1995, he took it a step further by including female chain gangs! A staunch conservative, Arpaio got further and further to the right of the political spectrum, including becoming a national moving force for the allegation that Barack Obama was not really born in Hawaii in 1960 as claimed, and that Obama’s birth certificate was a forgery. Arpaio also gained notoriety as he allegedly harassed and investigated any reporters or politicians that opposed him or his methods, to the point of breaking the law and violating the rights of those opponents. Racism, wrongful arrest, entrapment, misspending, failing to properly investigate important crimes, mismanagement, fiscal irresponsibility, inhumane and unconstitutional jail conditions and a host of other alleged misdeeds got Sheriff Joe in hot water and lawsuits with increasing frequency as his years as sheriff went on. Arpaio eventually managed to get convicted of a crime for his conduct, though he was pardoned by President Trump. Now 89 years old, Joe Arpaio is as feisty as ever!
Bass Reeves, Deputy US Marshall of the West
A former slave born in 1838 in Arkansas, Reeves made history after the American Civil War by becoming the first Black US Marshall West of the Mississippi River. His exploits fighting crime and rounding up criminals on the American frontier are legendary. While law enforcement was certainly dangerous for anyone back in the 1800’s of the American West, for a Black Marshall the prospect of finding, arresting and transporting dangerous criminals of all races had to be a daunting task, a task Reeves never shied away from. Possibly the greatest American lawman of all time, or at least of the Wild West days, Reeves shot and killed at least 14 men that tried to take his life and arrested over 3000 dangerous culprits.
Alan Pinkerton, Private Eye
Born in Scotland (1819), Pinkerton emigrated to the United States and gained fame as the owner and chief operating officer of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, whose logo of the unblinking eye (“We Never Sleep”) gave us the term, “private eye.” Not only did Pinkerton and his crew fight crime such as train robbery and bank robbery in the absence of any coherent national government law enforcement effort as later evidenced by the FBI, Pinkerton also provided a service as the spy agency for the Union during the American Civil War and protection for President Abraham Lincoln in the days before the massive Secret Service presence we have become accustomed to around each President. Pinkerton even worked personally as a spy, putting his own life in jeopardy while infiltrating the Confederacy. Sadly, Pinkerton and his men were used in anti-union busting during the rise of organized labor in the latter part of the 19th Century. Pinkerton was even hired by Spain to fight a revolution that was brewing in Cuba in 1872. In the second half of the 20th Century and onward, the Pinkertons have regained much of their reputation by providing security services to businesses without the taint of anti-labor activities
Question for students (and subscribers): Who is your favorite American Lawman (or Lawwoman)? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Gentry, Curt. J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets. W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.
Hinman, Bonnie. Famous Lawmen (The Wild West). Core Library, 2016.
The featured image in this article, Ness’s credentials as agent, is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.