Texas cowboy helped create our fascination with the ‘Wild West’

An 1885 first edition of Charles Siringo’s A Texas Cow-Boy sold for $28,680 at a November 2009 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1885, Charles Siringo published his first book. It was an autobiography with the long and awkward title A Texas Cow-Boy; Or Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony. It may have been a slight exaggeration to claim it sold a million copies (accounts vary). However, it was definitely plausible, since it was the first authentic book written by a genuine working cowboy.

Siringo had a reputation for being a reckless but courageous cowboy who was an expert shot with his reliable six-shooter. This was a fascinating combination and, when added to his real-life experiences, was exactly what ranch hands and dreamy-eyed city dwellers were eager to read about.

It’s doubtful that anyone was remotely aware of just how insatiable the public appetite was for stories about the exciting American West or the paucity of books or magazines available. This was a mysterious place filled with cowboys, ranchers, outlaws rustlers, Indians and lawmen. Stories about the “Wild West” were to become bestsellers beyond wildest imaginations.

Charles Siringo was born in Texas in 1855 and, after a few rudimentary lessons, became a cowpuncher. While still a teenager, he had his own registered brand and dreams of one day having a big ranch. This was still possible by simply rounding up a bunch of “mavericks” – unbranded cows wandering the open range – claiming ownership and slapping your own brand on them. He was never able to build much of a herd and ended up as a shopkeeper in Kansas for a few years.

However, before he was 30 years old, he had plenty of stories and a zeal for making money. The book he wrote was an immediate success and played a pivotal role in creating the enduring American fascination with the Western cowboy. He had spent 20 years working as a Pinkerton detective chasing rustlers and train robbers, sometimes even going undercover and infiltrating gangs of outlaws. Some of his more notable exploits included chasing Butch Cassidy and his “Wild Bunch” all over the Southwest until they escaped to South America (much to the relief of the railroad owners). Earlier, he and Sheriff Pat Garrett put an end to the career of Billy the Kid in a famous gunfight.

He finally left Pinkerton in 1907 but had enough real-life experience to write five more novels. He died in Altadena, Calif., in 1928 at age 73, probably unaware of just how popular stories of the West would become in books, movies and television.

By fate or coincidence, 10 years later, the most prolific chronicler of the American West would also be buried in Altadena, but this storyteller made a fortune and was the first author to become a millionaire. It was none other than the incomparable Zane Grey (1872-1939). Nobody comes close to spinning tales of this genre for so long and in every media available.

Zane Grey was from Zanesville, Ohio, and would become the best selling Western author of all time. From 1917 to 1926, he was one of the top 10 bestsellers nine times and is credited with sales of over a staggering 40 million books. Then, when the paperback format was introduced, most of his books were reissued into mass distribution.

Hollywood eagerly turned most of his stories into over 50 movies. His bestseller was 1912’s Riders of the Purple Sage; Grey sold the movie rights to motion-picture executive William Fox for $2,500. Fox went on to sell his company and it eventually grew into an entertainment giant. Last week, Disney bought 21st Century Fox for $71 billion.

Zane Grey books and movies easily made the transition to television. Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre ran on CBS from 1956 to 1961 with 149 episodes. Uniquely, five episodes were so popular they ended up being spun off into their own shows: Trackdown (Robert Culp), The Rifleman (Chuck Connors), The Westerner (Brian Keith), Black Saddle (Peter Breck), and Johnny Ringo (Don Durant). And, of course, there was Grey’s novel The Lone Star Ranger, which spawned four movie adaptions.

I grew up going to the movies every Saturday and I tried to see every Western at least twice. This addiction carried over into television and I loved them all, memorizing all the actors and their role names. Somewhere in this repertoire, I suspect you will recall a favorite.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Eliminating national debt will require a bit of financial wizardry

An intimate and honest letter by John Adams to Vice President Elbridge Gerry, dated April 26, 1813, sold for $46,875 at an October 2014 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

President James Madison set the rather dubious record of having both of his vice presidents die in office. George Clinton went first on April 20, 1812. Clinton also set a record as the first person to lie in state at the Capitol. However, it was for only two hours pending finalization of his burial services.

Then Vice President Elbridge Gerry died on Nov. 23, 1814, during Madison’s second term as president. Gerry’s name is still in common use today … “gerrymandering” is a way to draw voting districts to favor a candidate or political party. Gerry also holds the distinction of being the sole signer of the Declaration of Independence to be buried in the nation’s capital. He is interned at the Congressional Cemetery, which is the only “cemetery of national memory” founded before the Civil War. Although it is privately owned, the federal government has 806 plots that are used for ex-members of importance.

Neither VPs Clinton nor Gerry were replaced, since the Constitution at the time did not have a provision for filling a vice presidential vacancy. If a VP died, the job was held open pending the next election. Congress finally got around to addressing this in 1967 with the ratification of the 25th Amendment. In the aftermath of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the 25th provides the specific procedures for replacing the president or vice president in the event of death, removal, resignation or incapacitation (better late than never!).

Clinton had earlier served as Thomas Jefferson’s second vice president (Aaron Burr was the first) and was one of two vice presidents who served under two different presidents. John C. Calhoun was the other to have this iffy honor.

Calhoun was VP for John Quincy Adams and then Adams’ successor, Andrew Jackson. Calhoun then resigned the vice presidency to become a senator from South Carolina. The South Carolina legislature had voted to nullify federal tariff laws and threatened to secede from the Union if the issue was not resolved. Calhoun, ever the politician, thought the tariff issue could best be resolved by Congress and he thought he would be of more help to South Carolina as a senator.

However, Jackson began mobilizing federal troops to send to Charleston and made headlines by stating he would hang Calhoun if South Carolina went ahead with their threat to secede from the Union. In December 1832, Jackson issued a “Proclamation on Nullification,” warning that disunion by force was treason! Recall that this was nearly 30 years before the Civil War started.

President Jackson remained steadfast on federal tariffs. First, he was adamant that the Constitution trumped states’ rights. Asked if he had a message to those who threatened to secede, he replied: “Yes, give them my compliments and say that if a single drop of blood is shed in opposition to the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man upon the first tree I can reach!”

Secondly, he knew the federal tariffs were critical to his firm pledge to pay off the national debt. Remarkably, Jackson made good on his promise to eliminate the national debt. On Jan. 8, 1835, the federal government paid off 100 percent of the national debt … the first time in the history of the country. Fittingly, it was the 20th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans. The following year, an even more astonishing event occurred. President Jackson approved returning surplus treasury funds to individual states.

With the current national debt at more than $22 trillion, and another $100 trillion in liabilities (Social Security and Medicare), I suspect zero national debt will require a degree of financial wizardry not seen since Bernie Madoff was reluctantly letting people give him their money to invest.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Prohibition one of the most improbable political achievements in U.S. history

Dell in 1961 was publishing a comic-book based on The Untouchables television show.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1959, Desilu Productions aired the first episode of The Untouchables, a TV series starring Robert Stack. The storyline was from a book of the same title that recounted the exploits of an elite group of Prohibition agents working for the Treasury Department. They were battling the mafia in Chicago during Prohibition (1920-1933). “Untouchables” was a nickname for a small group of lawmen who refused to take bribes from bootleggers.

There was a real-life Eliot Ness (1903-1957), who had a career battling booze and bootleggers, but the 119 episodes on TV were generally fictional accounts. The show had a decent run over four years (1959-63) and the format used famous newspaper/radio commentator Walter Winchell as a narrator to make it seem more realistic. Winchell (who was paid $25,000 per program) and Robert Stack were the only two actors to appear in all 119 shows.

In 1987, there was a movie version starring Kevin Costner as Ness and Robert De Niro as a fictionalized Al Capone. Sean Connery played a regular street policeman, and won an Oscar for Best Actor in a supporting role.

Prohibition was one of the most improbable political achievements in American history. The idea that a democratic nation with millions of voting-age drinkers, more than 300,000 taverns and saloons (all eager to slake their thirst), and the fifth-largest industry were unable to prevent this legislation was unthinkable. However, the battle had been raging for as far back as Colonial times. A temperance movement had been fighting alcohol consumption on the basis that it would destroy the moral fiber of the nation. The effort was joined by political forces with booming voices (e.g. William Jennings Bryan) who were convincingly vociferous about the evils of John Barleycornwith only limited success.

Pragmatic business leaders discouraged the use of alcohol, pointing out the negative effects on worker reliability, job-related injuries and, importantly, productivity and quality. But the problem was gradually becoming worse as the nation’s workforce refused to heed the warnings. Perhaps the loudest and most passionate opponents of alcohol were the wives and mothers left to contend with the impact on their families if the primary breadwinner was a drunk. Gradually, it seemed that the only people who were against prohibiting alcohol were the drinkers and all the people making money providing it.

Even the government seemed supportive of alcohol since one-third of federal revenues was derived from the tax on sales. However, in 1913, the 16th Amendment replaced alcohol taxes with a federal income tax, which generated significantly higher revenues. In the 1916 presidential election, neither President Woodrow Wilson nor his opponent Charles Evans Hughes even mentioned the issue. Both parties were leery of discussing it for fear of alienating either the “drys” or the “wets” in such a close race.

But the ratification of the 18th Amendment on Jan. 29, 1919, banned the manufacture, transportation and sale of liquor – introducing a period in America’s history we still call simply Prohibition. Of course, wealthy men and institutions stocked up before the legislation went into effect. Curiously, the Act did not prohibit consumption. President Wilson moved his extensive inventory into the White House as did his successor, Warren Harding. The Yale Club in New York procured a supply that would last 14 years! Cynics were quick to point out that the president could have his martini each evening, but the working man could no longer get a beer and free sandwich at his favorite saloon.

For the less affluent, 15,000 doctors and 57,000 pharmacies got a license to supply medicinal alcohol. Drugstores were discrete sources as evidenced by Walgreens, which grew from 22 stores to over 500 in short order. Another loophole was the exemption that allowed homemade “fruit juices” for consumption exclusively in the home. Wineries in California were supplanted by millions at home. If left untended, the alcohol content in grape juice could soar to 12 percent. Grape juice production exploded.

However, a more insidious source of the banned alcohol developed. As the suburban population migrated to big cities, nightlife became synonymous with “speakeasies.” All one had to do was “speak easy,” act discreet and there was a convenient door where even women were now welcomed. The battle over alcohol shifted to the supply and distribution and there was a massive increase in organized crime as they fought over territories. Law enforcement was badly outgunned or was paid to look the other way.

Welcome to the Roaring Twenties!

As the Great Depression deepened, President Franklin Roosevelt signed legislation on March 21, 1933, that legalized the consumption of 3.2 percent beer, saying, “I think this would be a good time for a beer.”


Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Richard Henry Dana Jr. turned measles into an adventure of a lifetime

A Classic Comics adaptation of Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s Two Years Before the Mast (Gilberton, 1945) sold for $1,314.50 at an August 2014 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

People of my generation are well aware that measles is a highly communicable disease, with many people usually infected in grade school. In a typical year, up to 4 million became infected, resulting in up to 500 deaths. In 1963, an effective vaccine was developed and infections plummeted as vaccination rates soared. By 2000, measles was officially declared eliminated in the United States.

So it was a surprise on July 3, 2015, when USA Today reported the death of a woman in Washington. There was another rash of infections several years ago in Southern California and there is currently an active outbreak in the Pacific Northwest. Apparently, a bogus report in the U.K. linked autism with the MMR (mumps, measles and rubella) vaccine and although thoroughly discredited, some people are cutting back on childhood vaccinations. I imagine they’re depending on other people getting vaccinated rather than taking a personal risk themselves. This has been characterized as “the most damaging medical hoax of the last 100 years.”

Richard Henry Dana Jr.

One man who didn’t have a choice was Harvard College student Richard Henry Dana Jr. (1815-1882). In 1831, he contracted measles and developed ophthalmia, an inflammation of the eye that’s considered a side effect. To improve his vision problems, he became a seaman in 1834 in the hope the exposure to ocean breezes would be helpful. It’s not clear if the sea air helped, but he spent two years sailing from Boston to South America and around Cape Horn to California.

The primary purpose of these voyages was to trade goods between the United States and the Spanish Colonial missions in the ports of San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey and San Francisco. California’s Spanish missions were a series of 21 religious outposts founded by Catholic priests to convert American Indians.

In the early 19th century, cattle ranching was the primary industry in California. The few hundred head introduced by Spanish friars 50 years earlier had flourished and grown into seemingly endless herds that roamed California’s lush grasslands. Vaqueros on horseback slaughtered the animals, skinned them and stripped off the best meat and tallow. The remains were left for coyotes and other scavengers.

The dried hides and tallow were then traded to the various ships that traveled the Pacific Coast in exchange for a wide range of goods manufactured on the East Coast of the United States. The cowhides were inevitably known as “California Banknotes” as they were the primary medium of exchange in the lucrative hide and tallow trade.

The San Diego port became a big market since it had an excellent harbor, a climate that was ideal for drying the hides and proximity to the entire coastline. The hides were destined to become shoes and boots while the tallow was used to make candles in lieu of the whale oil lamps in the East. It seemed like an ideal situation for all (except perhaps the cattle) until Dana pointed out that Californians were trading for shoes made from their own cowhides, produced far away in New England factories. Thus the leather had traveled around Cape Horn twice before Californians got to wear it – and all the profits remained in the East.

After returning home to New England, Dana wrote the memoir Two Years Before the Mast, which chronicled his sea travels, under the heavy foot of the captain, and observed that Californians were “an idle, shiftless people and can make nothing for themselves.” West Coast ranchers shipped out well over 1.2 million hides by 1845 that decimated the herds of cattle much as the buffalo would suffer in the Midwest. As Dana would observe, “In the hands of enterprising people, what a country this California could be.”

He was obviously unaware of their propensity to build a vast network of crowded freeways where cars can zip along at 5 mph or their obsession with high-speed rail between low-density, obscure locations. However, Dana’s book became a bestseller when gold was discovered and people flocked to California from all over the world. His book was one of the few travel guides available and it was highly sought after by the Forty-Niners. It was also made into a movie, released in 1946 and starring Alan Ladd and directed by John Farrow, who married Maureen O’Sullivan and had seven children (including Mia). The film was one of the most popular films released that year.

In 1869, Dana published an update of his famous book, Twenty-Four Years After, in which he was still arguing for improved conditions for seagoing men.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Couriers through history have toted a staggering volume of items

Alf Landon’s congratulatory postal telegram to Franklin D. Roosevelt on Nov. 4, 1936, realized $7,767 at a June 2008 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The passing of information over great distances is an ancient practice that’s used many clever techniques.

In 400 B.C., there were signal towers on the Great Wall of China; beacon lights or drumbeats also were used to relay information. By 200 B.C., the Han dynasty evolved a complex mix of lights and flags. Speed has always been a priority and took many forms, including at the U.S. Postal Service. “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” is the unofficial motto of the Postal Service (probable source: The Persian Wars by Herodotus).

Authorized by Congress in 1792, the many forecasts of the Post Office Department’s imminent demise appear to be exaggerated. We still get incoming six days a week and a post-office driver delivered a package to my place at 8 p.m. last week … one day after I ordered it from Amazon. The post office – renamed the U.S. Postal Service in 1971 – is now running prime-time ads claiming they deliver more e-commerce packages than anyone.

Through history, postal couriers have toted a staggering volume of items, as well as a few astonishing ones. A resourceful farmer once shipped a bale of hay from Oregon to Idaho. A real coconut was sent fourth class from Miami to Detroit with the address and postage affixed to the hull. Even sections of pre-fab houses have been mailed, delivered and then assembled into full-size homes.

Accounts vary as to where the 53-cent postage was affixed to pre-schooler Charlotte May Pierstorff the day her parents mailed her to see her grandmother in Idaho. In 1914, they had discovered it was cheaper to send her by U.S. mail than the full-fare the railroad charged for children traveling alone. At 48½ pounds, little May fell within the parcel post 50-pound weight limit. She traveled in the train’s mail compartment and was safely delivered to grandma. She lived to be 78 and died in California. She’s featured in an exhibit at the Smithsonian … at the National Postal Museum.

Another cheapskate shipped an entire bank building – 80,000 bricks, all in small packages – from Salt Lake City to Vernal, Utah, in 1916. This time, the postmaster put his foot down … no more buildings! But 9,000 tons of gold bars were transferred from New York to Fort Knox in 1940-41. This time, the post office collected $1.6 million in postage and insurance. My all-time favorite was when jeweler Harry Winston donated the famous Hope Diamond to the Smithsonian in 1958. He kept costs low by sending the 45.52-carat gem in a plain brown wrapper by registered first-class mail. (Note: It arrived safely.)

The quest for speed took a quantum leap on May 24, 1844, when Samuel F.B. Morse sent the first telegraph. Standing in the chamber of the Supreme Court, Morse sent a four-word message to his assistant in Baltimore, who transmitted the message back. Members of Congress watched the demonstration with fascination. At the time, the Supreme Court was housed in the Capitol building. They finally got their own building in 1935 after heavy lobbying by Supreme Court Justice William Howard Taft.

For Americans at the turn of the 20th century, seeing a telegram messenger at the door usually meant bad news. Western Union and its competitors weren’t pleased by the fact that their roles as bearers of bad news had spread. So in 1914, they started emphasizing good-news messages, sending them in bright, cheerful seasonal envelopes. Next were 25-cent fixed-text telegrams that gave senders pre-written sentiments in 50 categories, like Pep-Gram #1339: “We are behind you for victory. Bring home the Bacon!” Forgot Mother’s Day? Use #432: “Please accept my love and kisses for my father’s dearest Mrs.” Next were singing telegrams, but they became passé and in 2006, Western shut down its telegram service.

The message of that first Morse telegraph in 1844 is a question we still ask after every innovation, whether it was faxes, the internet, email or texts: “What hath God wrought?”

Perhaps next is mental telepathy. Who knows? It will be faster and awe us once again.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].