Charles Siringo witnessed the bomb explosion and gunfire that signaled the onset of Chicago's 1886 Haymarket riot. He would later write that he "commenced to wish that I were a detective so as to help ferret out the thrower of the bomb and his backers." A blind phrenologist's advice that he was "cut out for a detective" echoed in his mind. Armed with a recommendation from Pat F. Garrett, Siringo met with William Pinkerton, the head of Pinkerton's National Detective Agency. He got the job.
In 1855, Charles Angelo Siringo was born on the Matagorda Peninsula, a narrow strip of Texas land that separates the Gulf of Mexico from East Matagorda and Matagorda bays. His parents had immigrated to the country, his father from Italy and his mother, Ireland. At the age of four, Siringo began formal education that ended two years later, when the village schoolmaster joined the Union Army. During the American Civil War, Union forces controlled the peninsula, and young Charlie watched many fights between Union and Confederate soldiers.
At the age of 11, Siringo embarked on a career as a cowboy, roping and branding maverick mustangs and long- horned cattle for 10 dollars a month. Siringo's father had died when the boy was one year old, and in 1868, his mother remarried. The family moved to Lebanon, Illinois, where the new husband quickly ran through their savings and abandoned them. His mother and sister sought employment in St. Louis, Missouri. In the fall of 1869, Siringo quit his job and walked to St. Louis, but could not find his mother and sister. He wandered the country for several years, working on a farm, as a bellboy at the Planters' Hotel in St. Louis, as a laborer on a New Orleans riverboat, and other odd jobs. He even agreed to attend school for a while in exchange for food and shelter.
Siringo returned to Matagorda in 1871 and, once again, worked as a cowboy, breaking wild ponies for two dollars and fifty cents a head. He also skinned dead cattle and sold the hides. After a drive up the Chisholm Trail, Siringo bought a schooner-rigged boat and became a merchant mariner, carrying food and passengers. By the spring of 1877, he was back on land, helping David Beals to set up the huge LX Ranch in the Texas panhandle. Siringo met Billy the Kid while working on the ranch. In later years, he described the outlaw as "a real prince of a human being, who got off on the wrong foot." In 1882, Siringo attended church with David Beals' niece who introduced the cowboy to her friend, 15 year old Mamie Lloyd. Six days later, Mamie and Charles married.
From the fall of 1883 to the spring of 1886, Siringo lived in Caldwell, Kansas, operating a tobacco and cigar store, which he expanded to include an ice cream and oyster parlor. In his spare time, he wrote his autobiography, A Texas Cowboy: Or, Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony (1885), a book considered to be the first autobiography of a working cowboy. In 1886, Siringo, Mamie, and their daughter Viola moved east. As Siringo wrote in Riata and Spurs (1927), "After leaving Caldwell, Kansas, a train dumped us off in the great city of Chicago." Siringo planned to establish himself as a professional writer in the big city. Instead, he found a new career: private detective.
For about 20 years, Siringo worked as a Pinkerton operative. His undercover work required Siringo to play many roles from penniless drifters to wealthy mine and ranch owners. The ex-cowboy had a talent for mingling with train robbers and other outlaws. Posing as a gunfighter fleeing the law, he infiltrated Butch Cassidy's Train Robbers Syndicate. After learning the gang's secret codes, he passed on information that hindered their plans for a year.
Siringo also pursued bank and train robbers, mine thieves, rustlers, and murderers across the West and from Mexico City to Alaska. A few of his more famous targets included Kid Curry and his Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, and Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch. Siringo claimed that he chased Butch Cassidy and his gang over 25,000 miles and forced them to flee to South America.
Working as a cowboy detective was dangerous. "Many times I saved my own bacon by getting the drop on my opponent," he wrote in his book, The Two Evil Isms (1915). Siringo was very skilled with a Bowie knife and his "Old Colt's 45", as he fondly called his firearm companion. One of his more dangerous assignments commenced in the fall of 1891. James McParland, head of Pinkerton's Denver office, asked Siringo to infiltrate a Coeur d'Alene, Idaho miners union, which had been threatening violence. At first, Siringo refused, because he was sympathetic toward laboring men. He finally agreed when McParland made a deal with him. If Siringo found the miners in the right and the mine owners wrong, then he could quit the case.
Siringo not only joined the union, he became elected as a recording secretary, a handy position for intelligence gathering. But it all fell apart in the riots of July 1892. "I was branded as a Pinkerton spy," he wrote in The Two Evil Isms, "and doomed to be burnt at a stake as a lesson to other traitors." Pursued by One- eyed Dallas and his gang, Siringo sought refuge in a house in the town of Gem. "I sawed a hole through the floor in a rear room and got close to mother earth," he wrote. "When the mob led by Dallas broke down the door and entered to get the fatted calf for the slaughter, I crawled up under the board sidewalk, under the mob's feet, and wormed my way for a distance of about a hundred feet to an opening, from whence I made a dash for liberty." The escape must have been close, because Siringo reported that "[o]ne bullet singed my breath."
Siringo was appointed a United States deputy marshal, and helped to capture the rioters. "I had as a cowboy rounded up wild cattle," he said, "but never before did I boss a round-up of dynamiting anarchists." His testimony led to the conviction of 18 union leaders.
Soon after the trial, Siringo resigned, disillusioned with Pinkerton's midlevel management and with some of the operatives. He moved onto his Sunny Slope Ranch in the outskirts of Santa Fe, New Mexico. To stave off boredom, Siringo worked several cases for the William J. Burns Detective Agency and wrote his second book, Pinkerton's Cowboy Detective. The Pinkerton Detective Agency caught wind of the book and delayed publication for two years with a lawsuit, finally forcing Siringo to delete references to Pinkerton's and to replace real names with fictitious ones. "To illustrate, they made me change the name of Tom Horn, their pet detective, hung in Cheyenne, Wyoming, to Tim Corn," Siringo wrote in The Two Evil Isms, "and had me state that he was working for 'private parties.' I was told that they didn't want the public to know he had been in their employ." The revised book appeared in 1912: A Cowboy Detective, A True Story of Twenty-Two Years with a World-Famous Detective Agency.
In 1916, he accepted the governor's offer to take a job as a ranger with the Mounted Police for the Cattle Sanitary Board of New Mexico. For two years, he "sanitized" the local cattle industry by catching cattle rustlers.
Eventually, Siringo looked west - to Hollywood. In 1922, he moved to Los Angeles, California, hoping to gain entry to the movie business. His friend, William S. Hart helped him to get work as an extra and a consultant on Tumbleweeds, a movie about the Old West. In 1927, Siringo published Riata and Spurs, a composite of his first two autobiographies. The first printing fired up the Pinkerton agency into action. The company compelled Siringo to extensively revise the book before the second printing. He removed any reference to his connection with the Pinkertons.
Around this time, Neil M. Clark interviewed Siringo for an American Magazine article. Clark described Siringo as a "small man, weighing barely a hundred and thirty pounds, but wire-tough, brown of face, and keen of eye, with humor still invincible in spite of his seventy-two years, and a mind razor-sharp for accuracy and pertinent detail."
Considered by many, including outlaw Butch Cassidy, as the finest of the Pinkerton detectives, Siringo worked as a cowhand from the time he was thirteen. At twenty-two he went out to join the search for 17-year-old killer Billy the Kid but was forced to give up after he lost all his money gambling. Siringo later worked as a grocer in Kansas for two years. On a visit to Chicago, he went to a blind phrenologist, who "read" the shape of his skull and told him he should be a detective. Siringo joined the Pinkerton Detective Agency and began a twenty-year career, building an enviable record of getting his man.
Trailing fugitives through deserts and blizzards, Siringo lived with moonshiners and disguised himself as a wanted criminal to convince Efie Landusky, a member of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, to tell him where infamous outlaw Harvey Logan hid out. After twenty years with the agency Siringo retired to write about his adventures. One of his pamphlets was called Two Evil Isms: Pinkertonism and Anarchism. He published several books but died a poor man in Los Angeles in 1928, solitary to the end.
Siringo, who suffered many years from severe, chronic bronchitis, moved to Altadena, California to live with Lee Roy, Siringo's son from his second marriage. On 18 October 1928, the old cowboy died. Upon hearing about Siringo's death, William Hart and Will Rogers sent a telegram. "Another American plainsman has taken the long trail," they wrote. "May flowers always grow over his grave."
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