Hollywood filmography presented a violent and morally complex vision of the American West during circa 1850 to 1900, according to which the West was a place where life was insecure and where property was precariuos: rapes, burglaries and robberies were common.

How closely did the history of the West match the filmography constructed by Hollywood? How common were these crimes?

  • 1
    "real reconstruction" is vague: you can't reconstruct a history, and if it is a term of art then it is very obscure. Films with fictive intent can't produce history because of the "factive" genre conventions of history. Given that fictive works select atypical instances of human conduct, we can't use them to engage questions of number or rate. We could interrogate the normative construction of law in Hollywood film, but this interrogates the norms at the time of production (or consumption), not in the period gestured at: every science fiction is a story about today. Commented Jun 16, 2013 at 22:25
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    "Real reconstruction" is obscure as a term, it isn't used social history. Violence, its meaning, and the US are normative: is the Iraq war comparable to the genocide of Indigenes. This isn't like the UK where England, "assault" and the state have been stable for very long runs. On long term trend to a decline in societal violence try Fischer (1996) The Great Wave Commented Jun 17, 2013 at 0:18
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    Samuel's very correct methodological comments notwithstanding, this question does allow an answer - crime rates are objective things and can be measured and compared. Whether we have any data for Wild West crime data to go in this case is another matter. Commented Jun 17, 2013 at 9:48
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    For now, I suggest looking up @DVK's answer here: history.stackexchange.com/questions/7277/… Commented Jun 17, 2013 at 9:52
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    Don't forget that a lot of crime in the old west has since been glorified so it gets blown way out of proportion in reporting. Far more interesting to make a movie or novel about a farm if there's cattle rustlers, Indian attacks, bank robbers, and other vagrants providing a constant backdrop to the drudge of subsistence farming, scraping a meagre living out of the earth, hoping the rains will come in time and not lead to a mudslide destroying your barn like happened 3 out of the last 5 years.
    – jwenting
    Commented Jun 19, 2013 at 5:44

2 Answers 2


The biggest issue regarding comparing crime between then and now is that you just have to guess at a lot of it. This paper - unfortunately all I have access to is the abstract - talks about some of those reasons:


In a nutshell:

  1. Investigative techniques were much different than they are today. I'd highly recommend the book The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum, which is all about the birth of modern forensic analysis. During the time of the Old West, doing something like slowly poisoning someone to death with arsenic was nearly a perfect crime: if nobody was tipped off, the poisoned person just looked like they had "the consumption" (the 19th century term for tuberculosis and a number of other wasting diseases). In fact, one of the treatments for consumption was to move to a drier climate for a few months, and one of the reasons it is believed that this was effective was that it got patients out of a bedroom lined with arsenic-laced wallpaper.

  2. A lot of crime just plain went unreported. This was true with the lower class in the cities - I believe The Jungle talks of a person who was dumped into a meat grinder, either by accident or because they'd run afoul of the wrong people - but also with an area like the Wild West, where a person could be killed and left out in the wilderness with relative ease. If that person didn't have any family around - not an uncommon occurrence on the frontier - their disappearance might not have been investigated at all.

  3. A lot of what was reported was modified into an accidental death or a suicide. Police departments understandably did not like to call something a murder when it wasn't obvious that it was a murder, or if they couldn't pin the case on someone quickly and easily. Cold case departments were a thing of the far future. If a guy might have hit his head on a rock or the rock might have been thrown at him, it was in the best interests of the police/sheriff to assume the former.

The available evidence that we do have indicates that crime rates were quite a bit higher in the Old West, as they tend to be in areas without good, far-reaching law enforcement. How much higher? I'm not sure that's a question we'll ever be able to get an answer for.

  • "in areas without good, far-reaching law enforcement..." - excellent point. The Old West was similar to a modern "failed state", except that it was a nascent state - the institutions of law enforcement, the judiciary, etc. hadn't yet been deployed. That is part of what makes it the Old West.
    – MCW
    Commented Jun 18, 2013 at 13:25

This question is the subject of a lively debate among professional historians (non-professionals are also pitching in, but I'd rather not discuss their contributions at this stage, as per my impression they range from thought-stimulating cherry-picking to outright hackery).

There is a recent (2009) review paper by Robert R. Dykstra: Quantifying the Wild West: The Problematic Statistics of Frontier Violence. Alas, I cannot access it now.

The first page of another article by Dykstra is available for free and I'll quote a bit from it to indicate some points:

As an expression of this, it is now widely believed that the frontier West experienced interpersonal homicide of Homeric proportions. Once the intellectual property of film director Sam Peckinpah and his imitators, this conviction overtook western historians in the 1980s. [...] Dissenters from the reigning paradigm, although few, have occasionally been heard. Thomas M. Marshal, Lynn I. Perrigo, and Michael N. Canlis contested the portrait of violent, anarchic frontier mining camps drawn by Bret Harte, Mark Twain, and other writers. None in early Gilpen County, Colorado, said Perrigo, resembled "a traditional 'Wild West' settlement, with each man a law unto himself." This reviewercontributed the information that Dodge City, Abilene, and the other fabled Kansas cattle towns were only intermittently violent and hardly lawless; they averaged only one and a half adult homicides per cattle-trading season. Harry H. Anderson revealed that literally lawless Deadwood, South Dakota experienced only four killings in its notorious first year. Frank Richard Prassel concluded from his survey of frontier law enforcement that a westerner "probably enjoyed greater security in both person and property than did his contemporary in the urban centers of the East." W. Eugene Hollon agreed, contending that the frontier "was a far more civilized, more peaceful and safer place than American society is today."

As a professional should, Dykstra also warns from committing the fallacy of small numbers.

I also found in a Texan blog an example, apparently drawn from the first-mentioned paper:

Dykstra believes that "the fallacy of small numbers," which results in over-inflated generalizations based on statistics from small localities, is the unresolved weakness on the violent West side of the debate. Thus, based on a single homicide in 1880, Dodge City, population 996, had a murder rate three times that of Miami, in 1980, which saw 515 murders among a population of 1.57 million. But was Dodge City more violent than Miami?

So the jury is still out, as far as I can tell.

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