(1855 – 1928)
A lot of folks have tried to trace the “private eye,” as we understand the term, to the American cowboy myth. While I think it actually goes back further than that, you could certainly make a case if you consider American lawman, detective and bounty hunter, CHARLIE SIRINGO. He’s a fascinating character, a real-life frontier figure who spent more than two decades as The Pinketon National Detective Agency‘s “Cowboy Detective.”
Charlie Siringo was born on February 7, 1855, in Matagorda County, Texas, the son of an Irish mother and an Italian father. He received some schooing, but by the age of fifteen was working as a cowboy, mostly in Texas at first, before eventually becoming a trail driver, and working the Chisholm Trail. In 1884 (coincidentally the same year Allan J. Pinkerton passed away), he quit the cowboy life, settled down and got married, becoming a merchant in Caldwell, Kansas. It was there he began writing his first book, A Texas Cowboy; or, Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony. A year later, it was published to much popular acclaim — one of the first real looks at the cowboy life by someone who actually lived it. Will Rogers called it the “Cowboy’s Bible.”
In 1886, perhaps bored with the quiet life, Siringo moved to Chicago and joined the Pinkertons (using Pat Garrett as a reference) and ending up working for them for over twenty years. He worked cases all over the West, from as far north as Alaska to as far south as Mexico City. In a long and varied career, Siringo often went undercover to get the goods on rustlers, thieves, embezzlers, outlaw gangs and labour unions, posing as saddle tramps, mining executives, bronco busters, thieves and rustlers–whatever it took, and using a slew of aliases, including C. Leon Allison, Charles T. LeRoy, Leon Carrier and Dull Knife.
Posing as Charles L. Carter, a gunfighter on the run from a murder charge, he infiltrated Butch Cassidy’s notorious Train Robbers Syndicate, and with the information he gathered, seriously put a crimp in their plans for over a year. A few years later, following the legendary Wilcox train robbery of 1899, Siringo would once again be assigned to tracking down Cassidy’s Wild Bunch, “dogging the Bunch over mountains, deserts, across raging rivers, through blizzards, from Wyoming to Arkansas… he was four years in the saddle… and covered an estimated twenty-five thousand miles.” (from Horan’s Desperate Men). In the 1969 film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, when a frustrated Butch spies the nameless men pursuing them once again and asks “Who are those guys?” one of the answers is certainly Charlie Siringo.
The Wild Bunch weren’t the only celebrities Siringo tangled with, however—sometimes he seems like an Old West version of Forrest Gump, purportedly running into such legendary figures as Comanche leader Quanah Parker, outlaw Billy the Kid, and getting dragged into a bar brawl with buffalo hunters in Bat Masterson’s Dodge City saloon. He was even defended in court at one time by Clarence Darrow.
“Playing outlaw” was the kind of work Siringo loved, being out in the open, free from the restrictions and rules of the Agency, but he didn’t always get to choose his assignments. In the early 1890s, Charlie was assigned to “city work” and worked out of the Denver office for a few years. Charlie hated it — he didn’t like being in the city, and he wasn’t particularly fond of working in such close proximity to the other agents. The exception seems to be another operative who had recently been hired, the soon-to-be-notorious Tom Horn. Perhaps Siringo recognized something of his own free spirit in Horn.
The “city work” ended in 1892 when Siringo was dispatched to the Idaho mine fields, where he went undercover once again, this time to get the goods on one of the early labour unions. And again, it wasn’t the sort of work Siringo ever really took a shine to. (Siringo himself was originally quite pro-labour and reluctantly agreed to work such cases, but his acquaintance with radical union leaders while undercover apparently completely changed his attitude, and he once famously referred to the Western Federation of Miners as “that blood-thirsty dynamiting bunch.”)
Despite his reluctance, Siringo was also involved in the infamous Coeur d’Alene miners’ strikes, the Haymarket anarchist trial, and the trial of Western Federation of Miners Secretary “Big Bill” Haywood, who had been charged with the murder of a former Idaho governor.
By most accounts, Siringo was brave, loyal, tough and exceeedingly honest. Despite his disdain for the tactics of the radicals of the labour movement, when Haywood was found not guilty, Siringo helped protect the labour organizer and his lawyer, Clarence Darrow, from a lynch mob. Although reputed to be a crack shot, he liked to boast that he made most of his arrests without resorting to violence.
Perhaps taking his cue from Allan J. Pinkerton himself, and inspired no doubt by the success of his earlier A Texas Cowboy, Siringo decided to tell of his adventures as a detective. He left the Pinkertons in 1907, and began writing another book, Originally titled Pinkerton’s Cowboy Detective, the agency held up publication for nearly several years, objecting to the use of their name and pointing out that it violated the confidentiality agreement that Siringo had signed when he first joined them. Siringo ultimately deleted the name “Pinkerton” from the title and throughout the book, and re-named all the characters. That book, A Cowboy Detective, and a sequel, Further Adventures of a Cowboy Detective were both were published in 1912.
But the lawsuits didn’t stop. In defiance, Siringo stubbornly self-published Two Evil Isms: Pinkertonism and Anarchism in 1915, but once again the Pinkerton lawyers swopped in to stop the printing of the book. This time, however, they also tried to extraditie Siringo from his Sante Fe ranch to Chicago to face charges of criminal libel. Fortunately, the New Mexico governor refused the extradition request, and the matter was dropped. In 1916 Siringo became a New Mexico Ranger and saw active service against cattle rustlers in the southeastern part of the state for a couple of years.
But times were tough, and with both his ranch and his health failing, and the Pinkertons determined to sue him into oblivion, Siringo eventually sold his beloved New Mexico spread and moved to Los Angeles, where he advised Hollywood filmmakers, and especially actor William S. Hart, on their early 1920s Westerns, watching the frontier history he had known first-hand turned into romantic legend on the screen.
He moved to Los Angeles, and became something of a celebrity, hobnobbing with assorted politicians, writers and movie stars, and possibly even appearing in a couple of silent westerns. In 1927 Riata and Spurs, a composite of his first two autobiographies was released, but once again the Pinkertons halted publication, threatening a lawsuit. The book was eventually reissued later that year with a revised subtitle, and whittled down many of Siringo’s detective experiences, padding out the book with plenty of fictionalized and often irrelevant material on outlaws.
Still, Siringo’s recollections of his life as both a cowboy and as a detective helped romanticize the myth of the West and of the American cowboy, as well as that of the private detective. He died in Altadena, California, on October 18, 1928.
Unfortunately, Siringo seems to be largely forgotten now. Then again, judging by a couple of less-than-successful attempts to dramatize his life, perhaps it’s just as well.
Evidently, Siringo isn’t quite as forgotten as I thought. In 2014, Loren D. Estleman, an award-winning author known for both his westerns and his crime novels (notably his series featuring Detroit private eye Amos Walker), released Ragtime Cowboys, which teams up Charlie with another former Pinkerton op, Dashiell Hammett, in 1921 Hollywood. Along for the ride on this star-studded historical romp are Wyatt Earp, Jack London and Joseph Kennedy. More recently, Hammett biographer (The Lost Detective) Nathan Ward, stuck in the house with a bunch of research during COVID, has written the first new biography of Siringo in years.
- “Just came across your site. Siringo has long been a pet hero of mine and I think you may be correct in suggesting he is… an early P.I. Heck Thomas, one of Oklahoma’s ‘Three Guardians’, is another possibility… he worked for a detective agency but I’ve not come across his exploits except as a railway messenger protecting a shipment of cash by hiding it in a stove.
About the time the Siringo movie came out (what a disaster!) I was trying to market a movie script based on the premise that Siringo and Butch Cassidy did meet while Siringo was undercover and Cassidy was using an alias. Came to naught..”
— Bill Ward
- By Charlie Siringo
- A Texas Cowboy; or, Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony (1885) | Read it here
- A Cowboy Detective; or, A True Story of Twenty-Two Years With A World-Famous Detective Agency (1912) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Further Adventures of a Cowboy Detective (1912)
- Two Evil Isms, Pinkertonism and Anarchism: By A Cowboy Detective Who Knows, as He Spent Twenty-Two Years in the Inner Circle of Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency (2015) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- A Lone Star Cowboy (1919; revised version of “A Texas Cowboy”) | Kindle it!
- A History of “Billy the Kid” (1920) | Kindle it!
- Riata and Spurs: The Story of a Lifetime spent in the Saddle as Cowboy and Detective (1927) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- By Other Authors
- Ragtime Cowboys (2014; by Loren D. Estleman) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
In this wild historical romp of a novel, Siringo teams up with fellow former Pinkerton op, Dashiell Hammett, in 1921 Hollywood. Jack London, Wyatt Earp and Joseph Kennedy are along for the ride.
- Son of the Old West: The Odyssey of Charlie Siringo: Cowboy, Detective, Writer of the Wild Frontier (2023; by Nathan Ward) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- CHARLIE SIRINGO
Directed by Stuart Millar
Starring Steve Railsback as CHARLIE SIRINGO
- SIRINGO | Buy this video
Screenplay by Peter A. Kinloch
Directed by Kevin G. Cremin
Produced by John Copeland, Douglas Nette
Associate producer: George Johnsen
Starring Brad Johnson as CHARLIE SIRINGO
Also starring Chad Lowe, Stephen Macht, Keith Szarabajka, Floyd ‘Red Crow’ Westerman, William Sanderson, George Aguilar, Maggie Baird, Michael Horton, Apesanahkwat, Barry Corbin, Crystal Bernard
- Horan, James D.,
Desperate Men: The James Gang and the Wild Bunch
Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962
Revised and expanded from original 1949 book
- Peavy, Charles D.,
Charles A. Siringo, A Texas Picaro
Austin: Steck-Vaughn, 1967.
- Pingenot, Ben E. ,
Charlie Siringo: New Mexico’s Lone Star Cowboy
Cattleman, November 1976.
- Sawey, Orlan,
Charles A. Siringo
Boston: Twayne, 1981.
- My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys
- The Dangers of Dime Westerns
From Mark Twain’s “bloodthirstily interesting” favorites to first-person shooters, Westerns were the first “true crime” sensation.
- The Cowboy As Detective: Finding Charlie Siringo’s West
Nathan Ward discusses his book. An excerpt is also available. (September 2023, CrimeReads)
- My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys
Respectfully submitted by Jim Doherty and Kevin Burton Smith.