It was one of the clichés in the old Wild West – that part of it which featured in dime novels, silent serial movies, Wild West Shows, and television shows – the crooked lawman. It did have some basis in fact, though; the recently established cow-towns and mining towns were tough places. Very often the natural choice for keeping the local bad-hats in some kind of seemly order was to co-opt the biggest, meanest baddest bad-hat of them all to administer order as sheriff. Not infrequently, said bad-hat was also a gambler, owned a saloon or an establishment of negotiable affections, and alternated between managing said establishment or the cards and keeping law and order. Other law officers started off on the side of the angels and went to the bad – such as the sheriff of Bannock, Montana, Henry Plummer, who was hanged by the local Vigilante organization in Virginia City. (The vigilantes were convinced by evidence that he was the head of a gang of road-agents, stock thieves and murderers.) In other words, the path wavering back and forth between the darkness and the light was a pretty well-trodden one, and so was the one-way path from light to darkness. But for one who walked from darkness of a criminal life, into the light of upholding the law – and remained there for most of his life, nothing quite comes close to the life of one particular lawman.
He was born Joseph Horner – although that would not be the name he bore for most of his adult life. The Horner family moved from Virginia after the Civil War, settling in Texas, where young Joseph worked as a cow-hand, with an active hobby in criminal and recreational hell-raising. Eventually he was wanted for cattle-rustling, bank robbery, assault with intent, and public brawling. The confident prediction would have been made that he was well on the way to being hung or shot full of holes, if a stretch in prison didn’t intervene. But somewhere along the way something happened to Joe Horner. He escaped from custody, and vanished from Texas. It seemed that he had vowed to turn his life around. Probably many dangerous and reckless young men in trouble with the law had promised themselves or their loved ones that they would go straight, and some of them actually meant it, and tried to for a time.
Joe Horner actually did go straight: around 1877 he changed his name and went to Wyoming, where he married and became an upright and respectable citizen. Ironically enough, he was twice elected sheriff of Johnson County, and for a time in the early 1890s was the chief detective for the Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association. He was involved in the notorious Johnson County war, which seems to have left a bad taste in his mouth. Being in the employ of the Stock Growers’ Association put him on the opposite side from the small ranchers, townsmen and farmers who had been his friends. He moved on – to Oklahoma, where he became a deputy US Marshall, a comrade of the ‘Three Guardsmen – Bill Tilghman, Heck Thomas and Chris Madsen, tangling with the particularly vicious criminals who took refuge in the last of the all-open Wild West. He also went to Alaska, in the Klondike Gold Rush – and there again, became a lawman. When he returned to Oklahoma, after the turn of the century, it was to take up a new office – as Adjutant General for the Oklahoma National Guard, increasingly respected by his colleagues as the years passed.
Sometime around that time, he arranged for a meeting with the then-governor of Texas. He wanted to come clean, about his real name and the criminal he had been, after more than a quarter of a century as a lawman. The governor arranged for a pardon, and although some old friends urged the man who had been Joe Horner to resume his real name, by that time he had spent the larger portion of his life as Frank Canton, a man the very opposite of what he had been when he was Joe Horner.
(Crossposted at www.celiahayes.com)
5 thoughts on “History Friday – The Man With a Past”
He as probably a one-of-a-kind
Sgt. Mom – You’ll probably be interested in the story I just linked to, describing “Gold Bar’s Secret Santa”, another man who changed his identity, and then went straight after quite a criminal career, including at least fur escapes from prisons.
Gold Bar Santa’s Secret, actually. And four escapes, not fur.
(I did read the preview, but not carefully enough, obviously.)
Thanks, Bill and Jim … and I will follow the link. The story of Frank Canton was curious to me because he did entirely make himself over. Of course, at that time, he did have the space to do it, and being the employee of the Wyoming big ranchers’ association was a bit on the shady side. He did walk away from it, though. But out of all the stories of vaguely shady gamblers and gunfighters in the old wild west, he was about the only one to go so emphatically from being a convicted criminal to being such a well-respected man of the law. I’m filing this away for future reference. There is a bio of him on Amazon that I may just well purchase, soon.
Canton’s autobiography is well wroth reading, if only for the very succinct writing style.
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