Old Times and Old Timers

by Don Bullis

New Mexico’s Old Times & Old Timers

Charlie Siringo  – Cowboy / Pinkerton Man / Author

The titles to some books published in the latter part of the 19th century left little to the imagination. One of the most prolix was this: A Texas Cow Boy [sic] or, Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony, Taken From Real Life.  The author identified himself as “Chas. A. Siringo, An Old Stove Up ‘Cow Puncher,’ Who has Spent Nearly Twenty Years on The Great Western Cattle Ranges.”

Charles Angelo Siringo was born of Italian/Irish parentage in Matagorda County, in southeast Texas, between Galveston and Corpus Christi about 1856. His father died when he was only one year old.

The “Nearly Twenty Years” he cited above is somewhat dubious. He would have to have began his cowboy career at age nine, or so, to have been at it twenty years in 1885. One biographer does report that he began cowboying at age eleven, but that is not accurate, either. He actually began life “on the Hurricane Deck of Spanish Pony” about 1867, but that adventure only lasted a few months before he fell sick and was obliged to return home.

His mother had remarried and Charlie spent the late 1860s traveling with her, his sister and stepfather, up the Mississippi to St. Louis and into Illinois where he worked on a farm for a time. His stepfather, a great drunkard, was finally driven from the community, and his mother and sister fled to St. Louis without telling Charlie they were going, or where they’d be. He was on his own.

Charlie was surely at work as a cowboy, employed by the famous Texas cattleman Shanghai Pierce by the early 1870s and he was a part of cattle drives north to Kansas railheads. In the late 1870s he found himself searching for stolen Texas Panhandle cattle in Lincoln County, New Mexico. He was thereabouts when Billy the Kid was captured in December 1880. That was his first effort at detective work.

Siringo married and settled for a time at Caldwell, Kansas. It was there that he wrote his first book; the one mentioned above. The idea of writing for a living appealed to him so he packed up his wife and child and moved to Chicago where he could be closer to the markets. That didn’t work out and he was soon looking for a job.

Because of the Haymarket Riot in Chicago in May 1886, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency was looking for investigators. Charlie and the Pinkerton got together and Charlie found himself a Pinkerton “operative” tracking down anarchists. He completed that, and other, assignments in the Chicago area and was reassigned to the Denver office. His wife died in early 1891 and his daughter went to live with an aunt in Illinois. The Pinkerton agency sent Charlie to Santa Fe.

His assignment in New Mexico was to identify the man (or men) who attempted to kill one or more of New Mexico’s political leaders, namely J. A. Ancheta, Elias Stover or Tom Catron on February 5, 1891.  The three of them, all legislators, had been working in Catron’s office on an education bill, when several shots were fired. Only Ancheta was hit, and survived. Given the rancor over a plethora of issues that existed in New Mexico at the time, the possible motives were almost too many to count, as were the suspects.

Early in the investigation, Governor Bradford Prince steered Siringo toward the so-called Gorras Blancas (White Caps) and its leaders, the Herrera brothers: Pablo, Juan José and Nicanor. Charlie infiltrated the group and became personally well acquainted with Pablo. His conclusion was that the Gorras Blancas were not involved in the shooting. (Others at the time believed that the group was indeed responsible for the attack.)

While Siringo was pursuing that avenue of inquiry, Santa Fe town marshal, John Gray, pursued another. It led to Victoriano and Felipe Garcia, both living at Cow Springs (Ojo de la Vaca), 20 or so miles southeast of Santa Fe. Siringo then conducted his own investigation into the Garcia brothers and came to agree with Marshal Gray. One of the brothers as much as admitted guilt to Charlie but the detective was never able to learn a motive for the attack.

Charlie delivered the information to Governor Prince, and the governor’s reaction had to have startled him. The governor ordered him to drop the operation.  The Garcia brothers, it turned out, were among Prince’s closest political allies. It is noteworthy, too, that Governor Prince and Tom Catron were bitter political enemies and personally loathed one another. The governor very likely did not care who took a shot at Catron but his stated reason for closing the inquiry was that the territory could not afford to continue the investigation. The case was never solved.

Siringo remained with Pinkerton until the early 1900s, during which he participated in many cases, including the search for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  He retired to Santa Fe in 1908, where he’d purchased property, intent upon raising horses and vegetables and writing books about his adventures as a Pinkerton man.  He wrote five of them: A Cowboy Detective (1912), Two Evil Isms: Pinkertonism and Anarchism (1915), A Lone Star Cowboy (1919), Billy the Kid (1920), and Riata and Spurs (1927).

He spent the remainder of his life in Santa Fe and in California where he became familiar with some of the literati and entertainers of the day. Upon his death in 1928, humorist Will Rogers and actor William S. Hart sent the following telegram to Charlie’s son, Roy:

“Another American plainsman has taken the long trail. May flowers always grow over his grave.”

Bullis, New Mexico Historical Biographies
William A. Keleher, The Fabulous Frontier
Howard R. Lamar, Charlie Siringo’s West, An 
Interpretive Biography
Ben E. Pingenot, Siringo: The True History of Charles A. Siringo
Chas. A. Siringo, A Texas Cowboy
Victor Westphall, Thomas Benton Catron & His Era