Popular history tells us that once upon a time the west was wild. Gunfights, rustling, shooting etc. Then civilization came with the railroads and things settled down to a more genteel 'Little House On The Prairie' life that we still enjoy today.
Or did it?
In reality gunfights were few and far between. The wild west got it's reputation from pulp fiction and movie portrayals. Whenever a researcher looks into a famous outlaw things are always less bloody and more mundane than the legend.
"All too often, a shooter doesn't need to rush. A quarter to a half hour can pass before police respond to a call reporting gunfire — if anyone calls at all. Many shots fired in urban areas go unreported. When sheriff's officers in the Willowbrook neighborhood of Los Angeles County tested the system, they fired boxfuls of blanks and live rounds in nine separate areas. Hardly anyone noticed. The patrolmen shake their heads when they tell the story, repeating the key details: nine locations — more than 100 rounds discharged — and only a single phone call. They reckon that citizens are either distrustful of the police, fearful of retaliation, or simply inured to the frank pop pop pop of gunfire."
"Still, with reaction time cut down to minutes or seconds, it's inevitable that some ShotSpotter alerts will turn deadly.
On February 3, three sensors picked up gunfire at 1:49 am. A red dot on the map appeared just blocks from the Eastmont station, and officer Martin Ziebarth, who was there filling out paperwork, rushed out into the night. A few minutes later, he came upon 21-year-old Addiel Meza walking down the street with the butt of a pistol sticking out of his pants pocket. Ziebarth stopped his car, jumped out, and yelled at Meza to stop. Meza began to run and pulled out his gun.
At 1:57 am, ShotSpotter showed a fresh red dot on Foothill Boulevard. The shots recorded at that moment came rapidly, five staccato blasts in less than two seconds.
As the echoes faded, Meza ran east on Foothill and then north on 61st. Before reaching the end of the block, he slowed and then collapsed to the sidewalk. He died that night at Highland Hospital."
Gunfights happened in towns for the most part, the densest population clusters. New York City had the Five Points at around the same time, and the murder rate there was enormous.
However, Five Points was right down the street. Nevada had the romance of distance. The romance of carving civilization from the Wild, fortunes won and lost, people suffering and eating one another occasionally. High drama.
However, one could very well argue that the killings in Five Points, Southeastern LA over a chicken leg are also mundane, albeit bloody enough.
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Handguns were freely available in New York back then, and were relatively cheap. Yet historians show most Americans did not bother to own guns, so I suspect the murder rate at the Five Points must not be as bad as you are implying.
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During the mid-1830s, the nation experienced a wave of crime and rioting without parallel in early American history. In 1834, the most violent year, municipal elections in New York had been accompanied by three days of rioting. Three months later, a New York mob stormed the house of a prominent abolitionist, carried the furniture into the street, and set it on fire, and then proceeded to gut New York's Episcopal African Church and attack the homes of many of the city's free blacks. On August 11, 1834, a mob composed of lower-class men and boys had sacked and burned a convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, near the site of Bunker Hill. Then in October, pro-slavery rioting swept Philadelphia, destroying 45 homes in the city's black community. Altogether there were at least 115 incidents of mob violence during the 1830s, compared to just seven incidents in the 1810s and 21 incidents in the 1820s.
A variety of factors contributed to the sharp upsurge in crime and mob violence during the 1830s. These included a rate of urban growth faster than in any previous decade; a marked upturn in foreign immigration, generating bitter religious and ethnic tensions; growing political polarization; and the sudden emergence of abolitionism, which enflamed racist anti-Negro sentiment.
The explosive eruption of crime and mob violence during the mid-1830s revealed the total inadequacy of traditional methods of preserving public order. Prior to the late 1830s, the nation's cities were "policed" by a handful of unpaid, untrained, un-uniformed, and unarmed sheriffs, alderman, marshals, constables, and nightwatchmen. In New England towns, tithing men armed with long black sticks tipped with brass, patrolled streets searching for drunkards, disorderly children, and wayward servants.
These law officers were not a particularly effective deterrent to crime. Nightwatchmen generally held other jobs during the day and sometimes slept at their posts at night. Sheriffs, alderman, marshals, and constables made a living not by investigating crime or patrolling city streets but by collecting debts, foreclosing on mortgages, and serving court orders. Victims of crime had to offer a reward if they wanted these unpaid law officers to investigate a case.
This early system of maintaining public order worked because rates of serious crime were extremely low. Boston had only a single reported murder between 1822 and 1834. One New Yorker amazingly and inaccurately claimed that an 1819 homicide was "the first fatal assault" that had ever occurred in the city.
Lacking an efficient police force to enforce the law, citizen relied instead on a variety of informal mechanisms to maintain order. Most cities were small and compact and lacked any distinct working class ghettoes. Shopkeepers usually lived at or near their place of business and apprentices, journeymen, and laborers tended to live in or near the house of their master. Under these circumstances, the poor and the working class were subject to close supervision by their social superiors. By the mid-1830s, however, this older pattern of social organization had clearly broken down. Class segregated neighborhoods grew increasingly common. Youth gangs, organized along ethnic and neighborhood lines, proliferated. Older mechanisms of social control weakened.
After 1830, the number of violent crimes shot upward. Drunken brawls, robberies, beatings, and murders all increased in number. In Philadelphia the number of homicides reached 67 during the period between 1839 and 1845 and then rose to 75 over the next seven years and to 126 over the following seven years. Fear of crime also mounted. Declared a New York City council report in 1842:
The property of the citizen is pilfered, almost before his eyes. Dwellings and warehouses are entered with an ease and apparent coolness and carelessness of detection which shows none are safe...Thousands that are arrested go unpunished, and the defenseless and the beautiful are ravished and murdered in the day time, and no trace of the criminals is found.
During the 1830s, the increasing number of urban riots and violent crimes led city leaders to look for new ways of preserving public order. Many municipal leaders regarded the new professional police force established in London in 1829 by the British Parliament as a model. London's police, nicknamed "bobbies" after Prime Minister Robert Peel, were trained, full-time professionals. They wore distinctive uniforms to make them visible to the public, patrolled regular beats, and lived in the neighborhoods they patrolled.
Initially, resistance to the establishment of professional police forces in American cities was intense. Taxpayers feared the cost of a police force. Local political machines feared the loss of the night watch as a source of political patronage. Many critics denounced a police force as a "standing army" that was incompatible with republican liberties.
By the mid-1840s, however, continued rioting and violent crime overcame opposition to the establishment of a professional police force. In New York City, the turning point came in 1841 following the unsolved murder of Mary Rogers, who worked in a tobacco shop. On July 25, 1841, she disappeared. Three days later, the body of the "beautiful cigar girl" was found in a river. The coroner said she had died not from drowning, but from being abused and murdered by a gang of ruffians. The case aroused intense passion in New York City, prompting vocal demands for an end to water-front gangs. But the city's constables said that they would only investigate the murder if they were promised a substantial reward. Public opinion was outraged. In 1844, the New York state legislature authorized the establishment of a professional police force to investigate crimes and patrol streets in New York City. Boston appointed its first police officers in 1838 and Philadelphia established a modern police department in 1854.