Taking up his coiled lariat, the rider brought one bronco to the ground by twisting his rope around its legs, but cut the horse loose when the rope wrapped the animal’s throat. Then, after lassoing and throwing a steer, he was done. “They called him Dull Knife,” reported the Denver Republican, “and he was from Meeker. That was all the information obtainable. But Dull Knife was a daisy…he was all that the Eastern imagination of the typical cowboy could picture.”
In fact, “Dull Knife” was Charlie Siringo, an operative with the Denver office of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. For his “skillfull cowboy work,” he received a $15 check and the pleasure when, days later, two men hailed him as Dull Knife — a nickname from his Texas years — on a Denver street.
During his undercover travels, Siringo went by many other names — Charles Henderson, C. Leon Allison, Leon Carrier or Charles T. LeRoy as he played a tramp in the Mojave, a Colorado silver thief, an Alaska liquor salesman, a Wyoming wife-killer or a Texas gunman. Forbidden to break his Pinkerton cover, the former ranch hand had been unable to resist a rodeo competition, even if riding as someone else. Siringo kept the uncashable check as a reminder of the cowboy that he still was at heart.
A Texas CowboyThe son of Irish and Italian immigrants, Siringo was born in Matagorda County, Texas, in 1855, and came of age on the staked plains of south Texas when it was still “black with buffalo.” Although he would later write about it with a kind of Tom Sawyer tone, Siringo had a hard boyhood. His father died before he could know him, and his stepfather, after forcing his mother to sell their small farm and move the family to Illinois, drank and gambled the money away before disappearing.
Siringo made his way back from his northern ordeal alone, stowing away on a ferry from New Orleans to Texas, and never looked back. He was a salaried cowboy by age eleven, night-herding and singing to quiet the cattle against stampede, and made his first trip up the Chisholm Trail in the spring of 1876, driving 2,500 “mossy horn steers” for W.B. Grimes. “Of course,” he remembered, “I naturally became an expert at riding ‘bad’ horses and roping ‘wild’ cattle.” It was while tracking rustled cattle that he got his first taste for detective work.
As the young, gray-eyed foreman for the LX ranch, Siringo had just returned from delivering steers to market in Chicago in the fall of 1878 when he discovered a “jovial” gang of horse thieves one afternoon, resting beneath a stand of Texas cottonwoods near Tascosa. These men had made camp on his boss’s ranch while transporting their pilfered range horses. The crew’s young leader turned out to be Billy the Kid himself, William Henry McCarty, who would boast that in his twenty wild years of life, he had sent some 21 men to their glory (leaving Indians off his death tally). Siringo found Billy surprisingly cheerful for a killer, and made the acquaintance of the other young outlaws who followed him, including a lean, square-jawed gunman named Henry Brown.
Four years later, Siringo saw Brown again, when he arrived in Caldwell, Kansas, and the outlaw welcomed him to town wearing a gold marshal’s star. “I shook hands with him,” Siringo wrote, “and he begged me not to give him away, as he said he had reformed and was going to lead an upright life in the future.” Siringo would meet his teenage bride, Mamie, in Caldwell and quit the trail to run his own ice cream and oyster parlor, wearing suspenders for the first time. But he soon came to regret the pact with Brown, who reverted to form, attempting to rob a bank in the nearby town of Medicine Lodge in April 1884. The heist was a bloody disaster, and after a rainy chase, a posse brought the disgraced marshal and his three accomplices back to Medicine Lodge, where a mob strung them from an elm tree that night.
Siringo would tell how a blind phrenologist had once come to Caldwell and felt his skull, announcing that its pronounced bump showed a mule-like stubbornness that suited him for just three professions: stock rancher, newspaper editor or detective.
When asked in later years why he became a detective, Siringo would tell how a blind phrenologist had once come to Caldwell and felt his skull, announcing that its pronounced bump showed a mule-like stubbornness that suited Siringo for just three professions: stock rancher, newspaper editor or detective. While a merchant in Caldwell, Siringo wrote A Texas Cow-Boy, or Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony (1885), a pioneering work about the saddle life that Will Rogers later called the “Cowboy’s Bible.” (It has remained in print since the 1880s.) Siringo would write more books and have many more adventures, but after signing with Pinkerton, he would never own all of his remarkable story again.
In the spring of 1886, Siringo moved his wife and child to Chicago, where his publisher was preparing a second edition of his cowboy memoir. Following the horror of that year’s anarchist Haymarket Square bombing, Siringo joined the world’s largest detective firm, owned by the two Pinkerton brothers, “so as to ferret out the thrower of the bomb and his backers.” (As a reference, he gave Pat Garrett, killer of Billy the Kid.) After learning the ropes in Chicago, Siringo was assigned to work out of Pinkerton’s new branch office in downtown Denver, at 1 and 2 Opera House Block. He became a cowboy detective, he wrote, “to see the world and learn human nature.”
Denver DaysSiringo’s first superintendent was the breathtakingly corrupt Charles Eames, who favored paid-protection schemes and other shakedowns and bookkeeping tricks. Months after the Siringos arrived in Denver and set up house, the whole Pinkerton office was sacked except for the newcomer. (Being spared in the purge left him with a “swelled head,” Siringo confessed.) His new boss was William McParland, the most famous Pinkerton detective of the nineteenth century after he infiltrated and busted up the Molly Maguires gang in the Pennsylvania coalfields. He would become a mentor and friend, even as he repeatedly sent Siringo into harm’s way.
Siringo’s abilities as a tracker and actor proved equally impressive; he’d often buy nights of drinks and mix with “free and easy girls” to ingratiate himself with outlaws. A less boozy way to gain an outlaw’s trust was by manufacturing an injury: In 1887, Siringo was looking for an escaped convict who was suspected of being at the Keeline ranch in Wyoming with some other Texan criminals “along the Platt river above old Fort Laramie.” Before arriving, Siringo faked a broken leg and took the further precaution of rolling his horse at a spot on the trail to leave a dusty impression in case his “accident” was fact-checked. Soon the gang surrounded the affable stranger and carried him into the house. After privately discussing hanging him, “just to frighten me into a confession in case I was a detective,” the doubters were overruled, and leader Tom Hall fashioned Siringo a pair of crutches. Although Siringo’s original quarry had already fled, he learned enough from his weeks spent stumping around with the gang of fugitives to send a posse back for them, and later testified at their trial in Cheyenne.
Siringo seemed to have it all that summer, a family man even while carousing his way into the criminal conspiracy. But as the weeks went on, respectable ladies in the Alma hotel began to take Mamie aside to warn her of the dissolute character of her dining partner, spotted raising hell with bar trash over in Fairplay. This rougher part of Siringo’s life Mamie did not usually hear about, but “sanctioned” if it was “part of my job,” he wrote. Still, after Siringo wrapped up the mine-salting case — trapping the gang who’d salted the Mudsill Mine and taken their investor, the Lord Mayor of London, for $190,000 — the dual experiment was not repeated.
Siringo’s acting skills were again required when he was assigned to help Sheriff Cyrus Wells “Doc” Shores of Gunnison County in the spring of 1888. A sometime Pinkerton special operative, Doc Shores was investigating the robbery of a Denver and Rio Grande passenger train by three miscreants who had then hidden for several months near the Green River; two of the gang were farm brothers named Smith. Siringo visited the Smith farm in Kansas as a potential buyer and flirted with “Farmer Smith’s black-eyed daughter” long enough to gain access to her letters from the train robbers. After learning their last known address in Utah and studying their photos, he quickly “cooled” on the girl. The men were apprehended, then Siringo switched acting roles, posing now as Doc Shores’s glowering prisoner, an escaped wife-killer from Wyoming thrown together with the train robbers in Doc’s small Gunnison cell that had once held convicted cannibal “Alferd” Packer.
Siringo’s cowboy skills made him credible while working undercover and saved his life many times: In 1889, he applied for work as a bronco buster at a ranch outside Longmont, where he suspected a fugitive was hiding. The rancher’s meanest bronc, “a vicious iron-gray four-year-old,” was brought out blindfolded for his audition, and, as Siringo had expected, people gathered to see how quickly the stranger would be thrown. In his pocket, Siringo had a photo of his subject; scanning the crowd from the saddle, he recognized the “black-haired man peeping around the door casing” just before he raised the bronc’s blinders and rode out the bucking storm. After the horse was spent, Siringo was offered the job, but he slipped away to town to tell the sheriff he’d found his man.
In the fall of 1889, Siringo was riding the stage to Tuscarora, Nevada, where two mining executives had recently been blown up in their beds. One of his fellow passengers was a “possible friend to the dynamiters,” so he made the man’s acquaintance by putting on a shooting demonstration — killing a coyote from the moving coach. He arrived in town already having a foot inside the dynamiters’ conspiracy, presenting himself as a useful freelance gunman with a past. After being asked to prove his shooting skill on a fence knot in town, and following an interview at the bottom of a mine shaft, he was mostly accepted. To close out the case, though, Siringo used another favorite tactic — taking his new criminal pal, Tim Wright, on a long camping trip with the promise of a gold hunt.
A previous operative had already been run off, and Wright was repeatedly told by friends not to trust Siringo, who continued to intercept their letters of warning mailed to Wright while the two traveled together. In the Wichita mountains, Siringo even introduced Wright to Comanche leader Quanah Parker. Under the open skies, Wright finally unburdened himself of the dynamite plot, telling how “they had cut the fuses of both bombs the same length...so that the mine owners would sprout angel wings together.” Warned by a stranger named “Six-Shooter” Bill to “shake that detective you are traveling with,” Wright refused to believe it of his friend, and the two rode 600 miles together to Denver, where Wright was promptly arrested.
One Los Angeles newspaper later called Siringo a “Ulysses of the West,” but he stopped much of his traveling after Mamie became sick with pleurisy in both lungs and went home to her family for an operation that proved unsuccessful. When she returned to Denver, Siringo asked McParland to assign him mostly city work.
Money was tight, and one night after collecting his salary, Siringo was walking to a Larimer Street pawn shop to retrieve his favorite “old Colts .45,” as he liked to call it, when he came upon a crowd waiting to see a body brought out from a nearby explosion. After climbing on an iron fence for a better view, he was hauled down by a big policeman, who tore Siringo’s coat in the process. Enraged, Siringo broke his umbrella over the cop’s head; both then reached for their pistols — Siringo producing a gun he’d borrowed from another operative while his Colt was in hock. He aimed it at the policeman’s heart and pulled the trigger. At this point, the lives of both men were arguably saved when “a policeman by the name of Ball threw both arms around me from the rear. His right hand grabbed the pistol, and the hammer came down on his thumb instead of the cartridge.” Siringo was hustled away into the police wagon and to the city jail, where McParland came to see him. He was followed by the chief of police, who grudgingly freed Siringo. The detective would see the officer often around Denver over the years, “but never made myself known to him.”
In the winter of 1890, Mamie died in his arms at home in Denver, “at the window as I was holding her to get fresh air.” Her doctor wept, he remembered. Five-year-old Viola went to live with Mamie’s aunt in Illinois.
Throughout the labor wars of the 1890s, Pinkerton’s clients increasingly became companies fighting their growing unions, inserting operatives into strikes as spies. In the fall of 1891, Siringo posed as a miner during the violence in the Coeur d’Alene mining district in northern Idaho. (He later claimed that he had the right of refusal with McParland if he found that the working men were in the right, and said he accepted the assignment after determining the unions were being “run by a number of dangerous anarchists.”) Siringo was able to get himself elected recording secretary of the miners’ union in the camp at Gem, and soon had prepared an escape route through the backyard fence of his boardinghouse in case he was discovered.
Alarmed at the quality of information leaking out to the Mine Owners’ Association, a representative from the Butte parent union traveled to Gem to identify the company snitch. He guessed Siringo was the inside man, and Siringo barely escaped the tumultuous strike meeting at which he was accused. Afterward, he slept with his Winchester and cartridges beside him.
A superintendent’s false lead took them 500 miles off the trail: “We were not mad, but the cuss words hurled toward Denver left a sulphuric taste in our mouths.”
On the same July morning that the men blew up the Frisco mill, they came for Siringo, pushing through the front doors of the first-floor store run by a brave woman named Mrs. Shipley. Siringo’s rear escape route had been blocked for several days, so he had cut a hole in Mrs. Shipley’s living-room floorboards; he now climbed down into the foundation to hide, taking with him a sandwich and coffee she had made him. Then she covered the hole with a rug and a large trunk. As the men demanded, “Where’s that infernal detective Allison?” and their leader explained that they meant to burn him at the stake, Siringo crawled out from his “dark refuge” toward the street, inching along on his belly under the wooden boardwalk where the armed mob was waiting. He crawled the length of three buildings and emerged inside a saloon, where he escaped through a window and then ran into a watery culvert to temporary safety when an armed guard let him join the men sheltering inside the Gem Mill.
Often in his undercover travels, Siringo ran into men he had known while still a Texas cowboy. They usually thought nothing of him using a different name, assuming he had done something outside the law to need an alias — not that he was the law himself. To guard against suspicion, Siringo traveled with phony newspaper clippings about the misdeeds of his undercover personas, and sometimes had letters mailed to him that referenced his former “crimes.” Occasionally, though, he was exposed: While he was undercover in Cripple Creek, Colorado, a detective from a rival agency gave him up to the miners, who planned to throw Siringo down an abandoned shaft. But “a tough dance hall girl...saved my bacon by warning me,” Siringo wrote, “as she couldn’t believe me degraded enough to be a detective.” Most of the lowlifes Siringo portrayed were considered socially above the snitchy character of a detective.
In 1895, Siringo went to Alaska to hunt down $10,000 in gold bullion stolen from a refining mill near Juneau, “a swift little city on stilts, mostly.” A series of agents had already failed when he took a job as a machine oiler at the mill where the theft had occurred. After learning what he needed, Siringo used his familiar tactic of staging his own injury for credibility, falling down the mill’s staircase in order to leave work without suspicion. He tracked the thieves with fellow operative W.O. Sayles, the two posing as liquor salesmen in a large canoe filled with 25 gallons of whiskey. The liquor helped them make quick friends in unfamiliar country, eventually leading to their man, who’d been sailing the stolen gold in a schooner.
Wild BunchAfter a gang held up the Union Pacific railroad in Wilcox, Wyoming, in September 1899, Siringo and Sayles joined an epic Pinkerton investigation that would take them over tens of thousands of miles and four years pursuing Kid Curry (Harvey Logan) and Butch Cassidy (Robert LeRoy Parker), from Wyoming through Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Along the way, following a combination of horse tracks and passed currency, Siringo got useful information from old contacts: Doc Shores, in whose Colorado jail he’d posed as a prisoner, now worked in Salt Lake City and had a tip about two men seen traveling with thirteen horses; in Lumberton, New Mexico, J.M. Archuleta, from Siringo’s first cowboy detective assignment, had seen the men and horses, too. Atop a rocky mesa in Utah’s White Canyon, “all traces of the horses’ tracks were lost.” But after Sayles interviewed Kid Curry’s family, Siringo headed toward the Little Rockies in Montana, where Curry kept horses.
As Charles T. Carter, “an Old Mexico outlaw,” Siringo made friends with “the worst people of the community” and charmed the common-law wife of Curry’s brother, who proudly shared letters from her outlaw lover. Siringo gleaned what he needed and moved on. He learned the Wild Bunch’s system of “blind post offices” used “all the way from the Hole-in-the-Wall in northern Wyoming to Alma in southern New Mexico.” At one point, a superintendent’s false lead took Sayles and Siringo 500 miles off the trail: “We were not mad, but the cuss words hurled toward Denver left a sulphuric taste in our mouths.”
Although Siringo and Sayles failed to catch their quarry directly, by 1901, much of the Wild Bunch had been killed, captured or chased across the border. A source later told Siringo that Curry had once spied him from the rear door of a saloon, where he was mingling with the rough crowd, and remarked that Siringo looked “too bright and wide awake to be a common rounder.” Curry was caught in 1902, only to escape jail the following year. When he read that a man identified as Curry was killed in 1904, Siringo refused to believe it.
While the Wild Bunch chase was his longest investigation, in 1903 Siringo accepted what he described as the most dangerous and “interesting” case of his career: seven months among the moonshiners of Kentucky and Virginia. As he searched for a mine owner’s son named Edward Wentz, who’d been kidnapped in the Cumberland Mountains and presumed dead, “at least twenty murders were committed in these mountains during my short stay,” he wrote. Siringo adopted his familiar pose of a Texas cowboy with a violent past. But in Kentucky it seemed that Siringo, who had chatted up all kinds of desperadoes, had entered a country beyond his cowboy comprehension. Starting out, he even seemed a little spooked: “The next day after my arrival in Jackson, I saw something which convinced me that the human race is slightly mixed with the pig family of animals. An old man on a mule started out of town with two jugs of whisky tied across the back part of his saddle: he hadn’t gone but half a block when the string broke and the jugs fell to the ground and broke. The street was quite muddy and the whisky lay in pools on the ground. The old man got down on his knees and hands and began to drink from the fiery pools. Soon others came and followed suit. They put me in mind of a drove of animal swine.”
After waiting two days for the town blacksmiths to sober up enough to shod his mule, Siringo trekked inland by cart, arousing the suspicion of moonshiners as he went. His life was threatened many times, and the case called on his darkest skills; at one point he kept himself alive by playing teenage girls off each other, participating in a kissing contest at a backwoods dance. Eventually, Siringo befriended a woman who proudly repeated an account of the abduction and killing of Edward Wentz, taken for his family’s destruction of two local saloons. (The buildings had cleverly straddled the state line so that illicit liquor could be moved from one end to the other to elude state inspectors.) Wentz’s death was staged as a suicide and his hand removed to no apparent purpose.
Of the many times Siringo had seemed to go native playing outlaw, his months in the hills on the Wentz case seemed to leave him shaken. “I was thrown among a strange class of people who think nothing of taking human life,” he concluded, adding that he was “also anxious to get away from the sound of banjos…nearly every child can pick the same tune.”
In 1907, Siringo served very publicly as a bodyguard in the trial of Harry Orchard and three leaders of the Western Federation of Miners accused in a murder plot that had killed former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg in 1905. McParland modeled the nationally celebrated case on his earlier work against the Molly Maguires, and he had Bill Haywood and the other WFM defendants arrested and extradited to Boise. During the trial, Siringo was often seen picturesquely armed with his sidekick cane sword and pearl-handled Colt .45.
Defense attorney Clarence Darrow gave a public haranguing to the Pinkerton agency (and McParland in particular) in his eleven-hour closing argument and secured an acquittal. As his last act as a Pinkerton, Siringo saved Darrow’s life when he got wind of an outraged lynch mob on its way to Boise by train. “I didn’t have the heart to see Clarence Darrow hanged by an angry mob,” Siringo wrote, “just because he is always for the ‘under dog.’”
After that, Siringo retired to his Sunny Slope ranch in Santa Fe, which he had owned since the 1890s but where he’d never had time enough to linger. He brought along a new young wife, Grace, whom he’d met on an undercover assignment in Oregon, and hoped to take on the occasional freelance detecting case, spend time with his “pet” horses, and return to writing.
It was bad luck for Siringo that this was the year the stenographer of the Pinkerton’s Denver office chose to publish a scathing tell-all, The Pinkerton Labor Spy, with a radical publisher, profiling many undercover operatives as well as former boss McParland, whom he called “the Dean of Black Sleuthdom.” By the time Siringo’s own fond detecting memoir was ready, the Pinkerton brothers were in no mood for more publicity, even if it was positive. No one wrote about the company but the Pinkertons themselves. The company delayed publication for two years and forced every significant name to be altered in Siringo’s text, starting with “Pinkerton,” which became the fictional “Dickerson Agency.” (McParland became “McCartney.”)
“I didn’t have the heart to see Clarence Darrow hanged by an angry mob just because he is always for the ‘under dog.’”
After this experience, Siringo answered with a pamphlet-length revenge book detailing the agency’s corruption, Two Evil Isms: Pinkertonism and Anarchism (1914), enraging the Pinkertons into seizing his publisher’s plates and sending a Chicago police detective to New Mexico with orders to cuff and retrieve Siringo for criminal trial. (New Mexico’s governor, a friend, blocked his extradition.) In 1920, badly needing money from his legal battles, the ex-operative wrote a book on the life of his old acquaintance Billy the Kid. He also published a compilation of favorite cowboy ballads.
In the Pinkerton archives at the Library of Congress, Siringo’s detecting achievements are layered through the files, as is much evidence of the Pinkertons’ legal struggle to keep him from writing about his experiences. But if the American hardboiled detective story is really the classic cowboy tale moved to an urban setting, then Siringo, as a cowboy and detective who wrote about both lives, is the link from one to the other.
HollywoodDebt and poor health had forced Siringo to give up his Santa Fe ranch by 1922 and move to California, where he recuperated in the care of his daughter before moving into his own bungalow near Hollywood, in Altadena. By now a frail and leathery old man wearing a white mustache and a low-brimmed Stetson cocked youthfully to the side, Siringo favored a local place called the Water Hole, drinking among movie extras whose spurs were shinier and hats higher than those of the cowfolk he remembered.
In the ’20s, grizzled frontiersmen from both sides of the law were turning up in Hollywood, eager to peddle their Western experiences. Siringo found his way into the group of Hollywood Westerners surrounding actor William S. Hart, and advised on Hart’s movie Tumbleweeds, about the Oklahoma land rush, an event the old cowboy had seen roll past him as a young man. Hart cultivated friendships with a group of old gunfighters, making a fond loan to Bat Masterson or trying to place a memoir for Wyatt Earp, whose coffin he would shoulder opposite his screen rival Tom Mix.
Hart’s salon of Westerners brought Charlie Siringo other connections. In March 1927, Houghton Mifflin gave a party at the Hotel Alexandria in Los Angeles celebrating Siringo’s forthcoming book, Riata and Spurs: The Story of a Lifetime Spent in the Saddle as Cowboy and Detective. Siringo had the backing of a distinguished national publisher to tell his whole unexpurgated life from Texas cowboy to frontier detective. Bookstore orders so far were encouraging.
That night, when Hart rose to speak on the Alexandria’s ballroom stage, he opted to make his tribute to Siringo entirely in the Sioux language, his remarks rendered back into English by Luther Standing Bear. Not to be outdone, Siringo stoked the crowd’s excitement by speaking about his long-ago meeting with Billy the Kid. Then, according to the Los Angeles Evening Express, “suddenly, as he talked along, he whipped out with a speed that made everyone gasp, the Pistol of the Kid, now the property and the favorite gun of Bill Hart. Siringo looks like a whisp beside the giant movie star, but when he glances up your heart stands still.”
Siringo, who had spent so many years sleuthing under aliases, was at last the unapologetic center of things.
Riata and Spurs sold more than 3,000 copies on its first day. Then came the inevitable threats from the Pinkerton lawyers: The company was incensed that stories and names excised by court order from Siringo’s earlier memoirs had been included in his new book, and warned Houghton Mifflin to cease publication. The editors were blindsided, since their colorful cowboy author had assured them that those legal questions were years in the past. Under fire, Houghton purged and reworked the book, and a promising manuscript that Siringo had intended to be his follow-up work, Bad Man Cowboys of the Early West, was instead inserted to replace dozens of pages of his Pinkerton adventures stripped out for a second edition. (Surviving copies of the unexpurgated first edition are collectibles; I found mine at the Hermitage Bookshop in Denver.)
Living so long among outlaws, carousing and passing himself off as a train robber, dynamiter, ore thief or railroad tramp, had evidently come with a price. Much of what Charlie Siringo had learned and done undercover remained unprintable to the company that he had bravely served. When he died, in 1928, Will Rogers and Bill Hart remembered him in a joint telegram as a cowboy and chronicler of a lost world: “Another American plainsman has taken the long trail. May flowers always grow over his grave.”
But just before the end, Siringo told a reporter that he feared a kind of reckoning was due for his adventurous life: “When the final call comes, I shall have to take my medicine, with Satan holding the spoon.”
Nathan Ward is the author of Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett and Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront. Email him at [email protected]