The Lawman and Real Lawmen

More often than not when I do my enjoyable duty and read about Old West marshals, sheriffs and the like, it triggers a tune from my distant Western TV–watching past that sticks in my head even more than an infectious children’s song from my recent baseball TV–watching past. “Baby Shark” was the rallying cry of the Washington Nationals during the 2019 baseball season. Yes, that catchy number nearly did a number on a curmudgeon like me, but all was forgiven when the Nats defied all odds and went on to win their first World Series. Thankfully, when fall turned to winter, “Baby Shark” stopped ringing in my ears, but the theme from Lawman (1958–1962) is a song for all seasons that keeps echoing in this ancient editor’s brain nearly 60 years after that ABC-TV series went off the air. Truth be known, that’s fine with me.

Jerry Livingston composed the arresting Lawman theme music, while Mack David penned the lingering lyrics: The Lawman came with the sun/There was a job to be done/And so they sent for the badge and the gun/of the Lawman/And as he silently rode/Where evil violently flowed/They knew he’d live or he’d die by the code/of the Lawman/A man who rides all alone/And all that he’ll ever own/Is just a badge and gun, and he’s known/as the Lawman.

The lawman in question is Dan Troop, played by John Russell, the hard-nosed but upstanding town marshal of Laramie, Wyoming Territory. As the lyrics state, there was a job to be done (the previous marshal having been murdered), evil violently flowed (in each half-hour episode), and Dan, like a real trooper, followed a strict code of badge-wearing honor. But that part about riding all alone isn’t quite true. He had a young, loyal deputy (Johnny McKay, portrayed by Peter Brown) and, after the first season, a love interest in Birdcage Saloon owner Lily Merrill (played by Peggie Castle).

I must admit that for my taste Marshal Troop was too rigid and stuck to his guns too stubbornly. The actual town of Laramie was born with the railroad in the mid-1860s, but it had no Trooplike marshal. Actor Russell reportedly based his character not on any real-life lawman but on an officer he knew while serving in the U.S. Marines. Certainly, early Laramie Deputy Marshal “Big Steve” Long would have been a lousy role model, as he and half-brothers Ace and Con Moyer became a violent, often lawless trio who were strung up by vigilantes on Oct. 28, 1868. In the 1985 Clint Eastwood Western Pale Rider the chief villain is a marshal played by none other than Russell. At the time I was startled to see the valiant marshal from the small-screen Lawman portray a big-screen badman. I shouldn’t have been. After all, Russell was an actor, and he’d played plenty of badmen during his career. In real life (and it took me some time to grasp this fact) many peace officers in the Wild West went both ways—that is to say, sometimes they upheld the law, and sometimes they broke it. They were good guys and bad guys all rolled into one.

In our April 2020 cover story, “Law and Some Disorder,” Wild West contributor Don Chaput writes about such two-faced lawmen, including Sheriff Henry Plummer in what would become Montana. On Jan. 10, 1864, in Bannack, Plummer and two deputies (much like Big Steve Long and his half-brothers four years later in Wyoming Territory) ended up dangling from vigilante-made nooses. Chaput also mentions a few lawmen who distinguished themselves—including Virgil Earp of Tombstone fame, Seth Bullock of Deadwood fame, John Hughes of Texas Ranger fame, and Bob Paul, who was a model of dedication and integrity in California and Arizona Territory. The author concludes that while the majority of Old West badge wearers, now mostly forgotten, “may not have had stellar careers, they nevertheless answered the call to service.” Dealing with routine duties from collecting taxes to locking up drunks for the night was what occupied most of a law enforcer’s time. Maybe there never was an actual Old West lawman as exemplary as Marshal Dan Troop of Laramie or that other, even more famous fictional marshal of Dodge City, Matt Dillon. I can live with that realization, for it hasn’t spoiled things for me and definitely hasn’t knocked certain TV Western themes out of my cerebral cortex. WW