John Mack Faragher: Old West was time of lynch mobs and vigilantes

Historians in the News

America's culture of the Old West was wrapped up in violence, a Yale University professor said Thursday night at Southeast Missouri State University.

Dr. John Mack Faragher, a prominent historian and scholar of the American West, delivered the sixth annual Veryl Riddle Distinguished History Lecture to a crowd of about 70 people at the Show Me Center. The lecture series is named after its benefactor, a prominent Southeast Missouri lawyer.

The 19th-century American frontier involved a culture of lynch mobs and vigilantes, Faragher said.

He recounted that Theodore Roosevelt said the chief feature of frontier life was the endless war between settlers and American Indians.

Roosevelt, said Faragher, referred to the men and women who populated the frontier as "fighters and breeders."

Faragher recounted the views of several historians concerning violence in the West and the "habit of shooting first and asking questions later."

Murder was common in the Old West, he said. Historians have calculated the murder rate in the late 1800s amounted to 150 per 100,000 population.

By comparison, the national murder rate in 2005 was 5.6 murders per 100,000 population. The United States has the highest murder rate of any industrial democracy today, Faragher said.

"The United States is a first-world nation with a third-world violence problem," he told the crowd.

Frontier towns, with their numerous saloons and drunken and armed men, provided the setting for countless gunfights, Faragher said....

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