Fine Line Between Criminal and Law Enforcement


I’m willing to bet most of US readers will be familiar with the name Wyatt Earp.  Most of what you know about Wyatt Earp is not exactly the truth.  One of the things all those stories does get right though, Wyatt Earp made a name for himself as a lawman in Dodge City, Kansas as well as a US Marshal in Tombstone, Arizona.

Oh, and the shoot out at the OK Corral was real… Mostly.  Earp really did decide to clean up an outlaw gang in Tombstone, the Cochise Cowboys.  And like most shoot outs it was bloody.  Here’s the kicker about it.  Earp had actually committed a crime at a previous date with many members of the Cowboys and owed them money.  Virgil Earp was the marshal of Tombstone and the Cowboys took their revenge out on him when they couldn’t get to Wyatt.  It was an unhappy time for the entire Earp clan as Virgil was left maimed from the encounter with the Cowboys and Morgan Earp was later murdered by the Cowboys.

And if you think it’s shocking that our most celebrated US Marshal was also a crook, I’m here to bust that fantasy.  Many US Marshals in the late 1800s and early 1900s were both Marshals and criminals.  And they were rarely prosecuted, although a few were lynched.

I was reminded by this fact while listening to a true crime book by none other than Bill James the creator of the famous sabermetrics analysis system of of baseball players.  The book has been good so far as he tries to make a case for a serial killer being responsible for the Villasca, Iowa ax murders.

It reminded me of something else as well; police detectives are a relatively new phenomenon.  Before the police got their own detectives, the standard operating procedure was for the police to hire private detectives like the Pinkerton Agency in New York.

At the time, it was these private agencies that had the money to invest in whatever forensics were available and most of their detectives went through some form of training.  While we have all probably heard of the Pinkertons, it should be noted that there were lots of private detective agencies across the US, the Pinkertons were just the most famous.

Also, there were lots of crime concepts that didn’t exist.  For example, stranger murders just didn’t happen that often unless money was the motive.  Because of this, many cases went cold and scapegoats were found, tried, and convicted to appease the public.

The book I’m listening to attempts to make a case that there were a string of murders committed that were probably committed by the same man.  And he is responsible for the Villasca Axe Murders as well.  Of course, it’s all theory, but it’s interesting to listen to.  It’s called The Man from the Train and I highly recommend it to any true crime readers.  James seems to have researched the killings quite thoroughly from the stand point of a statistician.

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