Monday, April 4, 2016

Save Us From Random Violence

Cursed with an inability to say no and an equal propensity to volunteer, I have read and reviewed and judged scores of western novels of recent vintage (published in 2014, 2015, 2016).  I love them, but I am struck
by how many are motivated by (have as their inciting incident) random acts of violence.

Perhaps there is no more here than a personal quibble.  What rises above a quibble, one hopes to the level of justifying a WF Blog, is that I don’t believe them!

It is not acts of violence that I disbelieve.  Both of my published novels, and one soon to be to the publisher, have a certain act of violence central to the plot. None of the three violent acts were random.

My objection is to (forgive the coined word) randomness.  A coincidence that starts the event/action cycle of the plot is simply less satisfying, less dramatic, and less true than violence or the threat of violence with a purpose, integral to the plot and to the characters.  (I admit, I also object to excessive violence.)

We are all out there seeking to print the legend, but it never hurts to deal, for a moment, with those pesky little devils, the facts. 

Murder and Shootouts

Right off the bat we run into complications.  Before Dodge City was incorporated (on November 2, 1875), from September, 1872, to September, 1873, that piece of geography recorded fifteen murders.  After incorporation, Dodge City hired its first lawmen and went on to record the most murders in any old-west town in one year: five.  Its total ten-year period as a cow town yielded fewer shoot-out deaths (15) than it did mythological lawmen (17).  Five of those fifteen shoot-out deaths were justifiable homicides by officers.

The same data measured for Abilene and Caldwell numbered 1.5 murders a year – and not all of those were shootings.

Vigilantes were a whole other story.  Too complicated to cover here, vigilantism was terrorism —not random homicide —against the business enterprises of men the vigilantes deemed to be secular and moral outlaws. Vigilantism may make a great theme for a novel, but it was not random.

For the full year 1881, Tombstone recorded three deaths by shooting.  Don’t call them murders because they all occurred on the same October day in the same famous incident about so much we keep writing.  No other year before or since saw so many deaths by shooting.

You were at greater risk of violent death (or to be the victim of violent crime) in the 21st Century in Washington D.C. or Baltimore or Detroit than in the Old West.


Tricky, almost as hard to discuss as rape (below), but illegal executions in only three states of the Wild West (California, New Mexico, and Colorado) have been carefully studied by historians.  These three states combined suffered per-100,000 population, lynching rates of 5.5 in the 1860’s, and 0.7 in the 1890s. By that last decade, rates were higher in the Deep South, for example, Louisiana’s 1.2 rate for the 1890s. Again, not zero, but also not random.

Bank Robbery

So, maybe your protagonist was not at great risk of violent death, at least he could stand on a street corner and watch a good bank robbery.


Research has documented eight (that’s 8) bank robberies in the Old West from 1860 to 1890.  One scholar was quite adamant about that point, while another guessed twelve.  So, even the experts show a range of 50%, but that’s still a pretty small number.  There seems to be universal agreement that a lot more stage coaches and trains were robbed because they were much more accessible.  (I could not get a reliable estimate of how many.)

Not to demean these bank robberies.  The ones we celebrate (Butch Cassidy in Telluride, CO, Jesse James in Northfield, MN) actually did occur.  They just happened to be 25% of all bank robberies that ever occurred.

Indians attacking the settlers?  Or vice-versa?

A protagonist who is military or who is an Indian fighting the military truly has a vast scope of tragedy with which to deal.  Those who perished in official actions by governments, meaning military against Indians and Indians against military, numbered in the millions.  Big numbers, but again, not random, and most of the deaths were among Indians.

What astonishes is that about 300, maybe 400, settlers were killed by Indians who, in turn, suffered maybe 400 deaths at the hands of settlers.  Not zero, but almost certainly not random.

Not totally on point, but to this day, "circle the wagons" is shorthand for "hunker down and fight back."  Not true.  That ring formation was used at night and not to keep hostile Indians out, but to keep expensive cattle in.  Wagon trains typically traveled spread out in a line that was wide rather than in a column that was long, as the term "train" suggests.  The reason: an effort to avoid each other's dust, wheel ruts, and debris. From the first alarm it would have taken hours to form a circle. It wouldn't even be possible to "circle the wagons" in an emergency (except if directed by Mel Brooks.)


Whether or not rape was less frequent and less random than it appears to be when used as a sloppy plot device, one does not want to be on the insensitive side of a truly malevolent issue.  Best I can tell it would appear most experts on the subject believe “then” was about the same as “now.” None of it is good.

Prevailing experts in the field today estimate that 20% of all women suffer sexual assault and only 10% report it.  At the same time, current theory is that 76% of sexual assault is committed by someone known to the woman.

There are, however, two reasons to believe that “back then” even fewer than 10% of rapes were reported.  First, the gradual accretion of law enforcement agencies to which to report (meaning a lot of crime went unreported), and, second, a belief that “they knew their attackers would never be pursued,” was an even greater certainty then than now.  (Both of these changes in crime reporting are believed to be true for all forms of crime.)

Why do we believe it?

We believe our Western stories for two reasons. First, some because people who are trying to create a reputation want us to believe it.  No less than current presidential candidates, Billy the Kid wanted you to believe. According to sources who aren't Billy The Kid, his lifetime kill count was four.  Second, most belief comes because, a century and a half later, we still love that lie.

It does not matter that his kill count was four.  To writers, it does matter than none of those four encounters were random.

Fallacy of small numbers

While any sample serves for making a prediction, as the sample gets larger, the prediction gets more accurate.  So, a single homicide in Dodge City in 1880, population 996, created a murder rate three times that of Miami in 1980, suffering 515 murders.  For certain, you were more likely to be the 516th victim in Miami than the 2d victim in Dodge City.

There is a powerful reason for a fiction writer to rely on the fallacy of small numbers.  A relationship between the reader and the character who is the subject of some violent act creates the anger, grief, or pain that is deeply felt.  That disproportionate reaction, however much a fallacy, is exactly what the author is trying to achieve.  Beware!  The achievement lies not in the violent act but in the character and in the actions by the character that create the relationship with the reader.  Again, not random.

Truth in fiction

Indeed, violence of all sorts was not zero. For sure, an act of terror or violence creates a traumatic possibility for the protagonist and an exciting pace for the reader. I am not arguing for stories without action or violence and I am not suggesting that the only violence that is appropriate in a story is that which was historically widespread.

To be sure, there weren’t many examples of whales attacking boats.  Indeed, only one report of an ill-fated whaler leaving Nantucket appears to have been reported in the newspaper in New York and read by an obscure customs agent.  We can now observe that this one occurrence, through a pen held in the hands of a genius, could be turned into the greatest literature of all time. We should all keep striving.

But, remember that story.  That attack was not random.  Ahab sought his destruction!

True then, true now, most murder, death by gunshot, violence of any sort is among people known to each other.  To me this enhances its value in our stories.  Again, not random.

Note:  Some people have really studied the true level of violence in the Old West.  Take a look at: Peter J. Hill and Terry L. Anderson, The Not So Wild, Wild West: Property Rights on the Frontier, (Stanford University Press, 2004).


E-mail Edward Massey with comments, author of 2014 Gold Quill winner, Every Soul Is Free and Amazon ABNA 2009 Quarter-finalist, Telluride Promise.


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  2. Regardless of genre, I believe writers capture the "kernel" of truth about their subjects and not necessarily truly representative samples. You're correct that, unlike much western literature suggests, statistics don't reflect excessive murders/band robberies/Indian raids. But the statistics could be pitifully misrepresentative since settlements were so far-flung and authorities so few.

    Similarly, the romance market is thriving even though the chances of falling in love on an elevator or a radio talk show or a battlefield are pretty durn slim. We won't even talk about political/crime/action thrillers! (I haven't seen ONE car chase scene in my city in the 25 years I've lived here but then I don't get out much.)

    I like to think of it as aiming a spotlight on a particular, maybe even theoretical, moment that encapsulates all the moments around it.

    So here we go...another day of making something that didn't really happen sound believable. Are authors crazy or what?

  3. I think the same could be said for contemporary fiction. We live right by the freeway and other than the occasional fender bender, nothing of significance has happened in 12 years. But point taken--any action should be well-motivated.

  4. Statistics are such a powerful medium, but so easily manipulated. Just ask my stats class in college. Still, one can find nuggets of truth if you're willing to dig. Having worked in/with juvenile delinquents for twenty years, I saw the violent side of those stats.
    When I tell stories, despite the inciting incident, it is the reactions and redemption's possible that keep me going.
    Thank you for working to dispel some misconceptions, but as Vonn said, writers try to make the unbelievable, believable. Doris

  5. Edward Massey,

    This is another complicated article. I believe it would take a dissertation to answer the issues you raise. And...that may not be long enough to answer questions regarding statistics and violence in WESTERNS.

    I don't know---I am a firm believer that after the Civil War, all those trained soldiers with weapons moved WEST and a lot of robberies and killing went on. Most of it wasn't documented because it happened far from any town.

    The Indians suffered death by the thousands and were shot at for sport and randomly killed at any time. A lot of it was done by the military and the shameful act of the Sand Creek Massacre and Washita, show this plainly. Actually, Washita is Custer following up and completing the act Chivington started. Custer killed Black Kettle the peaceful Indian Chief and leader of the Southern Cheyenne who escaped the first attack by Chivington. My opinion is these are two of most despicable characters of the WEST.

    Random violence? I suppose there has to be a sound reason for it in the story.

    I agree statistics can be manipulated.

  6. This kind of thinking would put me out of business!

  7. Peter Brandvold, you said it all. All that violence may not have been prevalent in the old West, but nothing I hate worse than reading a blech! plot where the hero and heroine pick daisy petals to see if they love each other with nothing else going on except watching the leaves on the trees wave in the breeze.

  8. I've long felt that the violence portrayed in Westerns--movies, TV, and novels--was way over the top. Its even more so with the police procedural, detective, secret agent, and so on action-adventure movies and TV. Its beyond the pale. Says a lot about our culture and society. Regardless, we thrive on it. The violence is a means to tell the stories of the Old West, values we would like to see. I will say this about the study of murder rates in Old West cities. Granted it is extremely low, but what's left out of the equation is the number of murders committed in county jurisdiction. Look at the hundreds of counties in the Western states and territories. Carrying guns may have been illegal in city limits, not so outside of town. I would be interested in seeing murder rates by county for say Texas in a given year.