Karen Holliday Tanner & John D. Tanner Jr.,
Last of the Old Time Outlaws: The George West Musgrave Story
(University of Oklahoma Press, 2014)

Who knows why some Western outlaws live on in myth and history while others fade away until they aren't even a tug at your memory? Everyone knows the names Jesse James, Cole Younger, the Dalton Brothers and so on, but who remembers George Musgrave?

Yet it was Musgrave who pulled off Arizona's first bank robbery, as well as the biggest Sante Fe Railroad robbery in history. As a charter member of the High Five gang, also known as the Black Jack Gang, Musgrave ran roughshod over the Arizona territory for a dozen years. When he was finally caught and tried for the murder of a former Texas Ranger, he decided his home territory was getting a little too hot, so he went down to South America and became known as the Gringo Rustler, continuing his rustling and theft career until the 1940s when he just too old for a life of crime.

His was a life that should make for a fascinating book, but Last of the Old Time Outlaws is not that book. Musgrave's story is one that calls for a strong narrative; it is the story of a boy who seeing limited opportunities for himself, leaped enthusiastically if not very intelligently into a life of crime, a life his older brother had already embarked on. His fortunes changed when he joined his brother in the Black Jack Gang, led by the Christian brothers, Will aka Black Jack, and Bob aka Tom Anderson.

The gang was fond of aliases. At various times, Musgrave himself was known as Bob Cameron, Jeff Davis, Bill Johnson, Jeff Johnson, Ed Mason and about half a dozen other names.

They were also fond of robbery. It seemed as though they would rob anyone for any amount. If no other target of opportunity presented itself, they'd stop at a neighboring ranch, share a meal and then rob the people there, taking a couple of bucks and a pocket watch. Many of their robberies went that way. The authors mention stagecoach heists that resulted in maybe six bucks. One thing the book does is definitely remove the glamourous image of the Old West outlaw.

As I said, the story calls for a strong narrative. The skeleton of a fine story is there but the book mistakes a piling on of detail with the revealing of detail. Every event appears to be covered and every event is given equal importance; the reader is left to distinguish the trivial from the crucial. Perhaps it is my own impatience with the academic approach but I don't care if a posse searches for the outlaws for weeks and has to turn back, especially if the posse then reforms and searches unsuccessfully again. I don't need all of the mundane details; I need those that shed some insight into who these people are. Last of the Old Time Outlaws tells us nearly everything Musgrave did but it doesn't tell us very much about who he was and why he did these things.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

25 April 2015

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