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Tracking the history of the American cattle rustler


As someone who’s worked a brief stint as a cowhand in Southwest Arkansas (the ball-busting heat didn’t sync up with my half-baked cowboy aspirations), I approached Matt Wolfe’s “Ride Along with the Cow Police” in the Oxford American’s spring issue with skepticism. My initial thought was, Who’s this guy from New York writing about rustling? But I was quickly won over by Wolfe’s incisive reporting and raw characterization of a ranger in Texas and his historical foe: the cattle rustler.

Wayne Goodman, the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA) ranger Matt accompanies, is a wonderful character and a keen guide to the strange economy of the Texas cow. In the Old West, Wolfe writes, “virtually everyone stole cattle,” and the ambitious cowboy often doubled as rustler out of necessity. But the modern-day cow thief Wolfe and Goodman talk to at the end of the article doesn’t seem to fit on the classic cowboy-rustler continuum of the American frontier. Most rustlers nowadays are small time criminals looking to fund a drug score, or simply trying to pay the bills. Ranchers harbor unparalleled hatred toward these thieves—which seems a prerequisite of the profession—and as Wolfe notes, this stigma has some deep origins; we’re talking Biblical. Thus, on the surface it’s a battle of good vs. evil, with Goodman, a pinch of Long Cut Skoal bulbous in his lower lip, righting wrongs in a hardboiled Texas ranger fashion.

But Wolfe’s account of the frontier politics at work in the struggle between ranchers and rustlers indicated there was much more to the historical narrative than he was able to include. I wondered if Wolfe, too, thought of ranchers and rustlers as sharing a common ancestor: the archetypical American cowboy of the Old West. Last month, I caught up with the author over email to go deeper into cattle rustling.

Originally, you titled the piece “That Masterful Grasp of Material Things.” What were you wanting to convey? Are cows mere chattel to these ranchers or do they symbolize something more meaningful?

It’s a rather purple phrase from the historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous essay on the closing of the American frontier. Turner argues that what’s distinct about the American mind can be traced to the people who hacked out an existence on the edge of civilization. Fur-traders, farmers, cattle ranchers, and even rustlers are all echt Americans. Turner sees our collective national intellect as bold, inventive, curious, and especially capable of taming nature. Modern historians hate his frontier thesis, for lots of good reasons, but I think he has a nice grasp on how our country, a century on, still enjoys thinking of themselves.

Unpacking what a cow means to a rancher isn’t something I feel remotely qualified to speak on, but it’s clearly a deeply cathected animal. Ted Conover had a lovely essay in Harper’s a few months back about a rural vet that gets at some of the more impassioned aspects of livestock ownership.

You write about the special stigma ranchers attach to cattle rustlers. As an outsider, did this reputation seem too harsh to fit the crime? 

I spoke with more than one rancher who was genuinely perplexed that cattle rustling wasn’t still a hanging crime. This level of enmity seemed pretty typical. Nobody likes to get their stuff stolen, but I doubt there’s a commensurate level of anger directed at, say, car thieves. The stigma applied to rustling goes way back, all the way, at least, to the Old Testament. As I point out in the article, in Exodus, God orders the Israelites to punish cattle thieves extra severely. (Then, later, when Pharaoh refuses to release His people from bondage, an angered God punishes Pharaoh by killing off all his cattle.) When you’re a Hebrew or a Texas rancher, this kind of response makes sense, because, in a cattle-based economy, a cow is more than a piece of property—it’s a livelihood. So, naturally, in such a community, cattle rustlers are going to be bear a pretty ugly mark. However atavistic, that attitude dies hard. That said, I don’t condone administering the death penalty for property crimes.

Goodman is, as the TSCRA rep said, “colorful,” and his commitment to cow policing is relentless. What do you know of his past? What led him to this line of work?

Goodman always wanted to be a TSCRA ranger. I find that level of commitment to a relatively obscure profession kind of amazing. Since childhood, he had strong connections to cowboys and law enforcement. His grandparents owned a dairy farm in Wisconsin, and he has early memories of hauling grain to the cows and bottle feeding calves. His grandfather’s best friend, who the family called “Uncle Dave,” was in the FBI. So, being a TSCRA ranger seemed the best of both worlds, one in which Goodman got to be a cop and still work with cattle.

Openings in the TSCRA, however, are really rare, and Goodman had to wait a long time to be hired. He joined a police department in Dallas and would check in with the TSCRA every year or so to see if a spot was available. As a police officer, Goodman was a detective in the Crimes Against Children division for eleven years. For a good portion of that time, he actually spent part of his day in Internet chat rooms, posing as a flirtatious twelve-year-old girl named “Brittany.” (He didn’t pick the name: his chief said he looked like a Brittany.)

It was actually only in 2010, shortly after his retirement from the police department and after more than thirty years of asking, that Goodman finally got the call from the TSCRA. “And now,” he told me, “I’m chasing rustlers ’stead of perverts.”

What was it like seeing Goodman in the interrogation room? I'm picturing a cowboy-hatted Elliot Stabler from Law and Order.

It’s a really intimate space. I was surprised by how comfortable the TSCRA was with letting a reporter closely observe their work. Usually, trying to get any kind access from a law enforcement agency is like trying to cut a steak with a soup spoon. I don’t know if Texas assumes a different attitude toward law enforcement or if the TSCRA is just exceptionally proud of what they do, but, whatever the reason, they didn’t see a problem with letting a journalist shadow one of their rangers for a week. 

The rustler, I should say, too, was cordial as can be. I was bracing for him to be mad—I’d certainly be mad if a journalist had been invited to witness me during a low moment in my life—and maybe he was, but outwardly he was just extraordinarily polite. He asked me questions about my work, how I liked Texas, etc, all in the manner of a gracious host, and then, at the end, with zero irony, said he hoped I got what I needed for my story. I felt incredibly embarrassed.

What happened to this particular rustler? Jail time? Pilloried for public scorn? And how does this hold up against how rustlers in the Old West were punished? In your piece, you mention an infamous case involving sun-dried cowhides and eyeballs popping out of sockets.

In the course of my reading, I got mixed answers as to whether rustlers were killed in gruesome fashion out of malice, as a deterrent to would-be rustlers, or simply because an absence of local courts and jails made death the most expeditious punishment and some executioners got inventive with their methods. Probably a healthy mix of all three. 

The rustler received a sentence of four years, no parole. Harsh for theft, but, historically speaking, he got off lightly.

You talk about how, in frontier times, rustling cattle was more or less common practice—a way for cowboys to make a name for themselves. You quote Joe Bertram Frantz and Julian Ernest Choate: “Cattle rustling had the dignity of history behind it.” What was the perception of cow thieves then? 

Before the Civil War, there were a lot of unmarked strays and cattle wasn’t worth all that much, so everyone rustled, cowboys and cattle barons alike. The barons were far more efficient. They’d send out legions of cowhands to round up mavericks, paying them two or three dollars for every one they branded with their employer’s mark. So, at least, if a cowboy did eventually achieve his dream and steal his way into legitimate business, he could be confident his origins wouldn’t be held against him.

After the Civil War, things changed. The Northern states, their food stocks depleted, started to buy up lots of beef and the price shot up. As unmarked strays became scarce, what had been just kind of casual mavericking evolved into a more purposeful form of theft. Young calves were a prime target, as most ranchers neglected to brand them before they’d been weaned. It was at this point where rustling fell into ignominy.

Dignity of history aside, the methods used by rustlers to secure these cows became increasingly brutal. Because calves have a strong instinct to seek out their mothers, rustlers needed to prevent them from wandering off. To do this, a rustler could rub sand in a calf’s eyes or cut its eyelid muscles, rendering it temporarily blind. They could also hobble the calf’s feet with a rasp or hot iron, or slit its tongue so it couldn’t nurse. Or they could simply kill the mother, making the calf an orphan. I’m sure this cruelty didn’t make them any more popular among ranchers.

This perception has obviously shifted over time. What happened to the dignity (if there was any) of the past? As Goodman says, many of the rustlers now are caught up in drugs and just trying to turn a quick dollar.

The perception has shifted, but it has nothing to do with dignity. People need quick dollars—to make rent, to pay off high-interest debts, to buy drugs. We live in a post-industrial economy with a social and economic structure that makes it really, really hard to rise above the station into which you’re birthed. We’ve never been a country that’s good at acknowledging class, but lately there seems to be a greater acknowledgment that social mobility isn’t what it once was.

We can be judgmental about the drug use—though cowboys probably weren’t the most abstemious folks in the world—that feeling of being stuck almost certainly expresses itself in substance abuse. See, for example, Anne Case and Angus Denton’s paper last year on rising death rates among middle-aged white males, which they attribute to increases in drug and alcohol overdoses, but which, stepping back a bit, is itself almost certainly due, in part, to a generational pessimism about the future. Whether more than cowboys were genuinely able to build a business out of stolen cows or whether there was just a perception that this was possible, I’m not sure. But the fact that no one even pretends it’s possible anymore says something. This shift is one of the things that got me interested in the story to begin with.

There seems to be a sense of ambiguity concerning the widespread common practice of “mavericking,” the term for rustling in the Old West, and the punishment (death) for rustlers in the open-range era. Would hypocrisy be an apt description?

On the face of it, the disjunction certainly looks hypocritical. I came across a description of how one Texas community treated rustlers, in a memoir by the Dallas socialite-rancher Willie Newbury Lewis entitled, wonderfully, Between Sun and Sod: An Informal History of the Texas Panhandle. “Although theoretically the cattle thief was considered lower than the murderer, cattle stealing by individuals was a common practice,” she wrote. “However, when a man grew too bold or careless, the other ‘righteous’ citizens sometimes formed what they called a ‘necktie party,’ and a hanging resulted unless the culprit was very quick-witted and glib of tongue.”

Sounds pretty sanctimonious. The TSCRA, too, actually ran into early problems when it discovered that much of the stealing it was chartered to combat was perpetrated by its own members.

Some cases were pretty flagrant. The cattle baron Abel “Shanghai” Pierce, like a lot of cattle barons, got his start as a mavericker. In 1871, he was forced to flee to Kansas City to escape prosecution for his participation in the hanging deaths of five suspected rustlers. What’s amazing is that, during his exile, Pierce agreed to provide the Cuban government with 100,000 bulls—a contract he fulfilled through a rustling campaign of enormous scale. So, I think we can say he’s a hypocrite.

In your observations of Ranger Goodman interacting with ranchers, did they see him as a kind of hand of justice? Does he see himself this way?

Ranchers adore Goodman. He’s their defender. It’d be weird to not feel deep gratitude for someone whose professional life is dedicated to safeguarding your profession, right? Can you imagine if there was a writers’ equivalent to the TSCRA—armed men dedicated to policing literature-related injustice? Writer police who fought plagiarizers and publishers that don’t pay on time? I’d love that.

And, yeah, Goodman seems to view his work in pretty Manichean terms. It was funny, I’ve watched enough police procedurals—Law & Order: SVU among them—to come in with this idea that certain types of police work wear you down. I mean, Goodman worked child abuse cases for over a decade. But, every time I tried to get him to admit that the work had taken a toll, he wouldn’t bite. “I had a good partner and a good family,” he’d say. “They kept me straight.” And I’d be like, “OK, but still, didn’t it bother you?” But it really didn’t. “I put a lot of bad men in prison,” he said.

The notion of a cop traumatized by the evil he witnesses—the whole Nietzschean “gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes long into you” idea—didn’t seem to apply to Goodman. Whether rustlers or perverts, there were good guys and there were bad guys, and Goodman was a good guy, doing good things, a philosophy that usually serves as a pretty good cushion against despair. And here, working as a TSCRA ranger, he got to help a group of people he really cared about. We should all be so lucky.

 Read Matt Wolfe’s essay “Ride Along with the Cow Police,” from the Spring 2016 issue.