The Wilder West Of George Lawton

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By the 1890’s, when Denver telegrapher George Lawton began collecting the curious photographs on this and the following pages, the era of the Western badmen was coming to an end. The old hiding places were no longer secure: marshals, sheriffs, Pinkerton agents, and bounty hunters swarmed everywhere, eager to claim the rewards posted by banks, railroads, and stockmen, and descriptions of outlaws and their movements could be flashed across the West in an instant by telegraph. Scores of bandits fell to posse bullets; many more were hanged or jailed. The shrewdest turned themselves in, following the advice of Frank James, who had seen it all coming and surrendered a decade earlier. “I have been hunted like a wild animal from state to state,” he said. “I have known no home, I have slept in all sorts of places—here today, there tomorrow. … I am tired of this life of taut nerves, of night-riding, and day-hiding. … I want to see if there is not some way out of it.” (There was: after serving some years in prison, James is said to have become a floorwalker in a St. Louis department store; Cole Younger, his former partner, eventually sold tombstones.)

Such facts were a source of grim satisfaction to older pioneers like George Lawton who had seen the West tamed firsthand. When Lawton went west in the early 1870’s to join Western Union in Denver, he wore a six-shooter to the office, and over the next forty-two years he saw more than his share of what he called “the bad habits of the frontier.” He strung wire across hostile Ute country and, as the first telegraph agent for the Associated Press in the Rocky Mountains, he reported the details of countless gun battles, holdups, and hangings—often from the scene itself. Between messages he liked to collect things: Indian knickknacks, autographs, paintings of Western scenes, and photographs of peace officers and the outlaws they chased.

These last seem to have held a special fascination for him. Friends and fellow telegraphers sent him grisly mementos from all over the West: one view of a spectacularly dead bandit is inscribed “it gives me great pleasure to add another horror to your collection.” Lawton was careful to identify his pictures, pasting newspaper clippings to the backs of some, writing out lengthy captions on others.

He loved Colorado, even named one son “Denver,” and hoped to stay on after his retirement in 1914. But his wife had other ideas, and the couple moved back east the following year to settle on a prairie farm near Plymouth, Illinois. There Lawton lived until his death in 1931, surrounded by his souvenirs. All his collections were broken up over the intervening years; all of them, that is, except his law-and-order file, which somehow remained intact and was bought at auction and brought to our attention by reader Ron Keefer of Macomb.

—G.C.W.