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When Law Was in the Holster: The Frontier Life of Bob Paul by John Boessenecker (review)

From: Southwestern Historical Quarterly
Volume 117, Number 3, January 2014
pp. 332-333 | 10.1353/swh.2014.0016

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Note regarding changes to the book reviews section: The publishing world is undergoing a revolution in product delivery that no longer restricts the choice in book form to cloth or paperback. Electronic and print editions in various formats each require a separate ISBN, prices vary on a frequent basis, and there are increasing opportunities for self-publication that defy traditional bibliographical organization. Consequently, with this issue the editorial board of the Southwestern Historical Quarterly has decided to streamline the headers that introduce book reviews by removing ISBN, format, and pricing information. The rest of the publication data will be provided based on the print copies from which reviews are done, and in those cases where a book appears in electronic format, the publisher’s listing will be employed. We hope the change does not produce too much inconvenience.

Attorney John Boessenecker has published the first full-length biography of the nineteenth-century lawman Robert Havlin Paul. Boessenecker claims that Paul’s career as a peace officer played an important role during a turbulent period in the American West. However, historians mainly remember Paul for his association with Wyatt Earp and the gunfight near the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. The author corrects the narrow understanding of Paul’s career by expanding the scholarship with this biography. His book is not thesis-driven, and simply gives readers a broad understanding of Paul’s life and career. Since Paul did not leave behind a diary or memoir, Boessenecker combs through numerous archives, newspapers, and court records to piece together Paul’s life story.

Boessenecker’s biography starts with Paul’s childhood, exposing important events and jobs that affected Paul’s worldview. He was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1830. At the age of twelve he joined the crew of a whaleboat with his older brother. He worked as a whaleman for six and a half years among a diverse crew and sailed the world. He left the profession when he heard the news that miners found gold in California. Paul found his way to Campo Seco where he searched for gold. In 1852 voters elected him constable for Campo Seco in Calaveras County, and thus began his lifelong career in law enforcement. He investigated murders and other crimes, gaining valuable experience and knowledge of the state laws and the state judicial system. Boessenecker praises Paul’s determination to bring criminals to justice because he repeatedly defended the men in his custody against lynch mobs.

After the Civil War, Paul found himself in need of a stable income. For nine years he supported his growing family by working as a shotgun messenger for Wells Fargo. His law enforcement experience prepared him for the criminals he faced as they attempted to rob cargo wagons. In the late 1870s Paul changed positions within Wells Fargo from shotgun messenger to a detective, but he eventually returned to law enforcement as a United States marshal. Though ultimately, a combination of old age and politics pushed Paul out of his U.S. marshal career. Throughout his life he dabbled in coal mining and ranching and continued in those trades in his retirement.

Boessenecker’s book will appeal to history buffs more than to professional historians for several reasons. For history buffs, Boessenecker provides an entertaining story of a lawman’s life when California and Arizona experienced gun-battles and bandits. The author includes captivating characters such as Tom Bell, Ike Clanton and the Cowboys, and Pearl Hart. He gives readers an excellent overview of famous events such as the gunfight at the OK Corral and relays the details in a colorful style. However, professional historians will find little in the book that advances the scholarship. Boessenecker does not utilize the historiography to place Paul’s biography in historical context or explain how Paul’s career adds to historians’ understanding of American history. At numerous points in the book the author gives detailed accounts of specific cases Paul investigated, but he focuses on the actions of Paul’s subordinates or the facts of the case. In these instances Paul’s role becomes unclear and overshadowed by the details of the case. Stylistically, the author makes abrupt transitions as well...



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