Historian of the American West, Professor, and Documentarian
Author: Dr. Matt Luckett
I’m a historian and aspiring documentarian based in Orangevale, California. I teach history at Sierra College and coordinate the Masters in Humanities External Degree program at California State University Dominguez Hills. I also own 7 South Productions, which I established in 2018 as I began pursuing a new career in documentary film production.
Hi folks, I’ve decided to deactivate my Twitter. There are a few reasons for this . . . first of all, it was driving me bonkers. My blood pressure is high enough.
Secondly, as a self-promotional tool, it is egregiously flawed. The followers to followed ratio makes it so that it is nearly impossible to follow a bunch of people without being seen as a spam bot, which means that each account needs a net positive followers to followed ratio, and thus it is mathematically impossible for all accounts to possess a net positive ratio. This zero-sum game results in a lot of duplicitous behavior, like “Twitter churn,” which is the process of following people and then unfollowing them a few days later after they’ve followed you back. It’s all nonsense, and I’m not going to engage in that kind of behavior.
Yet Twitter rewards exactly that kind of profile, since it bestows legitimacy on those accounts with large followings and casts suspicion on those without an aggressively large following. In theory this promotes the marketplace of ideas by making it easy to follow and unfollow people, but in practice it elevates a small number of voices and empowers a tsunami of bots and trolls who can follow each other over a couple of days, creating algorithmically beefy accounts and thereby bypassing Twitter’s supposedly impartial terms of service.
Have you ever seen the Meow Meow Beanz episode of Community?
Twitter is basically that.
Anyway, if you need up-to-the-minute updates on what I’m doing, you should sign up for this blog! Or if you’re one of the few people on Twitter I’ve met over the past few months, please follow me on Instagram (lucketthistory), send me an email (my IG username @ gmail), Facebook me, or heck . . . follow this blog!
In the meantime, my wife seems to do a better job of not getting too engaged when on Twitter. Maybe she’d be willing to open an account for me and run it on my behalf?
One of my favorite aspects of military history is the availability of documentation.
Militaries are big things, indeed. They have lots of soldiers, lots of vehicles, and lots weapons that vary in size and lethality. They also have support staff, logistical supply chains, doctors, nurses, engineers, ditch diggers, builders, movers, doers, and even dreamers. They are everything a human being needs to be trained and housed and fed and dressed and armed and cared for while in the States, as well as everything needed to ship that person across an ocean and then train, house, feed, dress, arm, and care for that person while on deployment. And that’s just the Army.
In order to make such a large, complicated entity that culturally thrives on exactitude run like clockwork, militaries in general and Navies in particular require a great deal of data collection and record keeping. Today that burden is eased thanks to computers and smart devices, but back during World War II those processes requires lots of paper, pencils, typewriters, and people to jot down all those things that needed to be jotted down.
Deck logs were indispensable record-keeping devices for ships. They recorded all sorts of things, from the windspeed at different times of day to the ship’s location and speed. They also contained a narrative of the day’s events. Most of these were mundane – who boarded and left the ship, details about food and fuel deliveries, inspection reports, etc.
The food deliveries are especially interesting, since they give us a sense what (and how much) all those sailors ate (they sure loved their potatoes):
The logs provide additional threads to pull, which reveal about not only the ship and its crew, but the wider community that surrounded and interacted with them. For instance, the Chun Hoon Company supplied many of the ship’s vegetables and fruits. The company’s namesake founder immigrated to Oahu in 1887 at the age of 14, and after starting out as a vegetable peddler Chun Hoon became increasingly successful as a vendor and then later as a grocer. Although he passed away in 1935 his sons took over the business, and in 1939 they opened a brand new supermarket at the corner of Nuuanu and School Streets in Honolulu. By 1940 the Chun Hoon Company was a major player in local business and a substantial benefactor for several local schools and charities.
More broadly, Chinese-Americans found and took advantage of the opportunities they found in Hawaii, which offered a space of relative refuge from persecution when compared to the post-Chinese Exclusion Act United States mainland. Of course, Hawaii itself was not annexed by the United States until 1898, by which time nearly 50,000 Chinese immigrants had relocated to Oahu. But by that time, Chinese-Hawaiians were already well-integrated into the island’s economy, and immigrants like Chun Hoon continued to thrive despite the changing of the flag. His company was an institution by 1940, and while the Chew and the United States Navy were important customers for the business, they were by no means the only ones.
I had no idea about the Chun Hoon Company before looking at this specific page in the Deck Log. I have several hundred more pages to go. What other secrets do they hold? What other connections do they suggest? What was the weather like at 7:30am on December 7th, 1941? Where was the ship located the next morning at 9am? Deck Logs can help us answer these questions and more . . .
To find Deck Logs for other ships, you will need to do one of two things: you can go directly to the Archives II NARA reading room in College Park, Maryland and request them, or you can hire an independent researcher in the area to scan the ones you want. You will have to wait until NARA facilities reopen after the COVID quarantines lift, and once that happens there will likely be a considerable backlog of folks like me who are clamoring to begin or continue ongoing research projects. But the staff there is very helpful, and the materials themselves are easy to access.
Hi folks, I received some news yesterday that was not unexpected: the 2020 Western History Association Conference will be conducted entirely online. The good news here is that the entire conference (including both of my panels) will be held digitally, and all panels will be recorded and uploaded for future viewing. It will also be free to all WHA members, so if you’re interested in checking out what the Western History Association does . . . why not kick a few bucks their way to support historical scholarship on the American West and join? You’ll get a quarterly journal and a really nice tote bag (I have a collection of them from past conferences). Anyway, given the number of conferences canceled over the spring (including another one I was supposed to do in Michigan), I am relieved that the WHA 2020 will be a sure thing this fall.
Of course, that’s the good news. The bad news is that none of us will be meeting in Albuquerque this October, or for that matter probably leaving our houses. No evening drinks with old friends and colleagues. No New Mexican-style food or dinner at Papa Felipe’s (which in my opinion is the best regional cuisine in the United States . . . no contest). No annual UCLA alumni brunch. No face-to-face networking. No chance encounters with world renowned scholars. And no book launch parties, complete with warm brie and autographed copies of my new book.
Conferences are an integral part of any academic book launch. Attendees usually hang out in “the book room,” which is a large gallery of various publishers and other groups who set up tables containing the latest and greatest books in our field. During my first few years going to conferences, they were a place for me to chat with editors and senior historians. During the last few years, they’ve become a place to bump into friends I’ve made over the years, while still making time to catch up with various editors and others. And this year, I was looking forward to seeing my own book on the table, and possibly taking some time to “officially” launch it. Conference-goers get a hefty discount on all the books there, and people attending my panels would no doubt learn about my book once I start to talk.
However, like the WHA Conference itself, I will not let COVID-19 get in the way of me celebrating the publication of my book, which was the result of a lot of hard work on my part and the publisher’s. So, to that end, I am exploring some alternative possibilities for getting a bit more exposure, including the possibility of a “virtual” book launch. Do YOU have any ideas for what I can or should do? Please leave me a comment or some other suggestion!
One thing I will do, starting right now, is begin planning an online exhibition of some of my Nebraska and Great Plains photography. Since my book will not have any full color photos, I will include those photos that I have taken here in color, along with a little bit of narration about the photo and what I was doing or where I was when I took it. I am also doing this because I am canceling my planned flight to Nebraska to take and document a “Horse Thief Road Trip” through some of my favorite sites in Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming. I was really looking forward to the journey, and to being able to fly my drone around the Plains . . . but, alas, it would not be safe, advisable, or even kosher at the moment to make such a gratuitous trip. But I do have a ton of photos from my previous trips to the Plains, and a place to showcase them. I will begin making these posts in September, in advance of the book coming out, but in the meantime here is one of my favorites:
This is a photo of the towering Buffalo Bill cutout at Fort Cody, a tourist attraction glorified gift shop along Interstate 80 in North Platte, Nebraska. It’s worth a visit if you’re ever passing through the area . . . that’s where I bought my dad a roll of John Wayne toilet paper. But they have more than just souvenirs, including a miniature, animatronic Wild West show with a cast of thousands of individual pieces. It’s a cool thing to see, especially after driving across the Plains for several hours.
Anyway, this shot isn’t my best (e.g., it does not follow the rule of thirds), but to be fair this cutout is absolutely enormous. It towers over the parking lot, much like how the man it depicts towers over Western culture and the Western genre itself. And I love the bright blue sky behind it . . . imagine that slightly marshmallowy azure extending toward the horizon in every direction, above a grassy and barely peopled land, and you can imagine yourself in the Great Plains.
Hopefully enough people buy the book so that there will be a paperback edition to hawk, thus giving me another legitimate, professional excuse to visit this surreal, sublime place. And if that happens, then next time it will be the book launching me . . . perhaps back to North Platte, or to some other place under that endless sapphire Nebraska sky.
Good news: the Interior Borderlands: Regional Identity in the Midwest and Great Plains has just won a Midwest Book Award for Best General History. I’m honored and privileged to have had the opportunity to submit a chapter to this exemplary collection, which was edited by Jon K. Lauck. The whole book is wonderful, start to finish, and if you have any interest in the Midwest or the Great Plains it is worth a read.
Hi folks, Sorry about the lack of posts this past week. One reason is because I’ve been busy with the three courses I’m teaching this summer, as well as spending time with visiting family. Another reason is that I received the proofs for my upcoming book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890, and I need to review every word of it to make sure that the printer has correctly set the type (which looks gorgeous, by the way).
But a third reason is algorithmic: suddenly, due to both changing accounting measures at WordPress and Google Analytics, as well as too-rosy-to-be-true assumptions on my part, my day to day site traffic plunged this week from what I thought was a few hundred views a day to about a dozen. While that realization this week did not necessarily cause me to not want to blog anymore – after all, I’m not doing this to be a social media influencer or a professional blogger, but to give my actual writing and teaching work a virtual home base for both new and existing readers of my work – it has reduced the urgency I feel to produce filler content when not blogging about my Grandpa’s Letters (which, as mentioned elsewhere here, is the basis of my current book project).
I say that partly in exasperation over the sheer amount of work it takes to obtain a blogging audience, but also because I want to say a couple of things about online teaching, and while this might not be one of those promised album reviews this blog is the best place for me to do it.
First of all, teaching on Zoom in my office is more difficult and much less fulfilling than teaching in a classroom. It’s easy to understand the “less fulfilling” part: I am a bit of a ham when I’m in front of an audience (a few of you may remember me “acting” in my high school’s plays during the late 90s), and even on days when I don’t feeling like teaching a class for whatever reason the time seems to speed by when I’m in a classroom. I love the energy, the forced extroversion for an hour and a half, the campus atmosphere. I love the libraries, the manicured lawns, the trees when they explode pink and green during the spring and burn crimson and yellow in the fall. I love the ritual of grabbing a pre-class coffee, and I love it when students approach me on campus with a question or a comment. I miss all that. There’s nothing Zoom or Canvas or any other online intermediary can do to make those things better, unless they combine their AI and invent a vaccine for this ghastly disease.
Then there’s the job itself. I love telling stories. I’m thrilled that I have found a way to make it my job to tell stories. Have you ever watched Moana? In some ways I believe the historian’s job is not unlike that of Moana’s grandmother: she is both an educator and a keeper of the island’s lore and legends. She is the keeper of the island’s past and its secrets. She knows where the skeletons – and the boats – are buried. But she also loves the island and its people. History is not just a growing collection of books and vast archival holdings. It is tactile, visual (hence the debate over statues), and interpersonal. Human connection and lived experience are history’s emulsifiers. Unfortunately, these things are largely if not wholly absent on Zoom. If history was born around a campfire, it will someday die on a closed browser tab.
Of course, Zoom and other intermediaries are necessary at the moment, especially given the sudden rise in new COVID-19 cases throughout the United States, including here in California. And we are all learning how to navigate these new challenges throughout the world of education . . . in fact, my grievances hardly compare to those who are now tasked with teaching Kindergarten and First Grade online. But those challenges do seem to exist across the board, including for those of us who already have some online teaching experience (like me).
One of those challenges is my tendency to say “um” a lot. Weirdly enough, this is something I don’t do in class, since part of my theater and speech training was to excise such filler words from my vocabulary when speaking to an audience. However, when speaking on Zoom, I am sitting down and talking to a webcam, which is not even close to being the same thing. Suddenly, my lectures are full of “um”s, whereas when standing up and giving a lecture I will typically pause when I am thinking and, if necessary, fill the time with a sip of coffee (another great reason to bring coffee to class!).
In an effort to make my lectures more accessible, I started taking the sound files and mixing them into podcast episodes. That way students can listen to their lectures on the go or while doing other things. While this was a good idea, I think, the execution sounds very different in that I realized just how many filler words I use now:
The 17B Lecture Series is a repository of my summer 17B Zoom lectures for my HIST 17B: United States History from 1865 to the present.
In this episode we review WWII and I defend my native son attachment to Harry S Truman.
Note: all episodes are labeled "explicit," not because there is an overabundance of cursing, but because a curse word does sometimes slip out every now and then.
Practice will make perfect, and now that I am aware of the problem it is something I can begin to work on. One thing that I think will help: I just bought a nice, entry-level microphone for my broadcasts. It is not unobtrustive . . . like many broadcast mics it is inconveniently large. But I hope that, in addition to dramatically improving my sound quality, it will also trick my brain into believing that I’m actually behind a podium, and not my desk.
Speaking of my desk, I built the top out of oak and attached it to a standing desk base. Maybe my lectures would be a good time to dispense with the desk chair and start standing again.
In any event, although the podcast is a fun way to distribute lecture content, I’m not a podcaster at heart. Unlike with my recent blog analytics, I won’t be bothered by the fact that I can count the number of downloads on one hand. I can’t, ummm, imagine having to do one of those podcasts, ummm, regularly, you know? But my new microphone does look pretty cool.
You may have noticed that there are now ads on the website. That’s on me . . . this is not a free account, and I have my annual site renewal coming up, so every little bit helps. Anything above what it costs to run the site will naturally go towards my research and historical work, which as one might imagine is also expensive. I greatly appreciate your patience with this transition, and please do let me know if the ads become a hindrance to your ability to enjoy or read the posts here.
Also, as I wrote last week the final year of letters is going to take more time to produce, if for no other reason than there are twice as many letters for this period! Which is exciting, obviously, but it also means I’m going to need some time to review and write about them.
So what will I do in the interim?
First of all, I’m bringing back the book reviews! Since I have a stack of books about World War II, I might as well get started and update you on how that’s going. Since Friday is a good day for those, I will try to keep posting those each Friday, starting with this one.
In addition to that, one of my buddies from grad school recently posted a series of posts on Facebook about his ten most influential albums. I thought that was a pretty cool concept, but Facebook being what it is, I didn’t want to place my content there . . . so why not blog about them? I spent some time thinking about it, and I’m going to share them with you over the next few weeks here, along with some stories, some historical context, and a little bit of musical criticism.
Of course, those of you who know me are probably aware that I never really put away my flannel shirts and Smashing Pumpkins CDs, so I narrowed my choices down to a wide variety of albums that reflect a broader range of interests and (as the list would imply) influences. Not necessarily my Desert Island albums, but those albums that challenged me, that opened me up to new worlds and pushed me in new directions. There’s some Johnny Cash, some Curtis Mayfield, some Sleater-Kinney, some . . . well, you’ll just have to stay tuned! And as I go through the list, I would love to hear your thoughts as well. Do you like these albums? Hate them? What should be on this list that isn’t? Please let me know in the comments!
Finally, a bit of good news: on Saturday I received the proofs for my upcoming book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890. The book itself is gorgeous – the type, the font, even the title page . . . it all looks fantastic. The University of Nebraska Press does a fantastic job with all of their books, but I really love how they produced mine.
My job now is to review the proofs for typographical and layout errors over the next couple of weeks, and then send it back to be printed.
The Mink dropped anchor in Biak’s Mokmer Harbor on September 2 and discharged diesel fuel there until the 5th. At some point during that time Elmer left the ship and went ashore. It had only been two weeks since the Americans won control of the island after a ferocious three-month long battle. It was then, almost three years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, that Grandpa finally caught up with the blood-edge of the sword of war. He never forgot what he saw:
At one time, we went to an island there and it was called Biak. That’s the only place I saw dead Japs . . . When we got ashore there, we was able to go to this cave. The Japs tended to hole up in caves a lot when they were on these islands. Anyway. They used flamethrowers to get them out of there. Anyway. I was able to go into this cave there and see a lot of dead Japs laying around, or the good ones, the dead ones. Well, anyway, I remember that. That’s the only time I had occasion to see dead Japanese. That was on the island of Biak, B-I-A-K. Anyway. I remember that.”
Elmer Luckett, Oral Interview
Even the engine room aboard a tanker could not completely insulate Elmer from the horrors of war.
Anyway, the shock of seeing dead Japanese soldiers did not prevent Elmer from thinking more about life after the service, which increasingly appeared to be a not-so-distant possibility. “The war news is really great and the end is in sight,” he wrote. “If the pace keeps up the same it shouldn’t be long.” He told his parents he missed them greatly, and told them they “had so much to look forward to when [he comes] ‘marching home.'” He also mused about possibly going to school after the War, although he wasn’t “crossing bridges” quite yet. Such things would have to wait until the killing stopped.
Elmer continued to work through the stack of correspondence he received while in Australia. Four of the letters were from Rose Schmid. However, she was not yet at the top of his call sheet. His response on September 2nd treated her almost as if he were a call center employee apologizing to a customer for having to listen to four minutes of ambient telephone music. “I know you will understand why I am late in answering,” he wrote. “All the mail piled up on the ship during our absence. And sugar, I have more than fifty letters to answer. Of course, in many cases like yours, I must answer several letters with just one from me.” With the apologies out of the way, he threw in some lighthearted humor to smooth things over: “I’m still snowed under, darling. Don’t you feel for me? Poor me.”
Unfortunately, the letter’s tone did not improve after that. Since Elmer and Rose were not exclusive, Grandpa felt no need to censor himself. “I met a girl named Lorraine Henry [in Australia] . . . She was my steady girl, and we enjoyed everything together: dances, movies, picnics, dinner, and sight-seeing. She didn’t smoke or drink. Of course, I drank enough for the both of us.” And in case this story was not enough to dissuade Rose from feeling attached to him, Elmer stated his feelings more explicitly on the next page. “Be a good girl and remember I was just a fling.”
Rose’s next letter must have hit its mark, since Elmer struck a much warmer tone on the 12th. “Words seem so inadequate when I write you, Rose; [I] wish I could be with you because action speaks louder than words . . . but I must console myself with the good war news and hope that a speedy victory will bring us together soon. You are a regular ‘doubting Thomas’ or the female counter-part, and probably won’t believe me. But I miss you very much.” After some more romantic talk, he segued back to his usual request in his letters up until this point: that Rose send him more pictures of herself. However, his overall thinking was not so crass. Rose enchanted him – she required some effort on his part. The cut of his jib and his uniform just would not cut it with her. “As ignorant as I am regarding the ‘ways of women’ (as you put it), I’m anxious to learn more. Maybe, I could understand you better, sweets. You have me baffled in a number of ways.”
Having already mailed his rather curt letter of the 2nd, he needed his latest reply to really shine. He assured Rose that she was still “on [his] mind” while in Australia: “I got a number of match folders for you while there . . . Do you want me to mail them or just keep them until later?” He also heaped on the charm: “Oh honey, to have you in my arms again (this is torture being away.) . . . miss you and love you. Elmer.” After signing the letter, the urgency he felt to rescue his soon-to-be floundering romance compelled him to go ahead and mail the souvenir gifts with that letter. After all, he said it himself: actions speak louder than words, and the match books he sent spoke volumes.
Meanwhile, his letters home to his parents revealed that the summer months had brought some improvements aboard the ship, most notably the availability of beer. Sailors could buy bottles for fifteen cents, and the ship was “well-stocked” with a variety of lagers. “Well, they just passed around the beer and I dashed over and drew mine also,” he announced to his parents in real time on the 27th. “Ah, it’s nice and cold. So I’ll be able to finish this letter between sips at the bottle. It’s Rainier Beer, from Frisco.” The ship store also had cigars and candy – two essential items for Elmer.
Elmer and the rest of the crew kept busy watching movies, enjoying the weather, and collecting sea shells. Beach-combing and jewelry making became unexpectedly popular hobbies aboard the Mink. “I usually read [or] work at my sea-shells,” he told his parents on the 27th. “[I] collected some nice ones and cured them.” Elmer then added a parenthetical (and slightly macabre) explanation that was quintessential Grandpa: ” [seashells] have a small animal growing in them, something like a snail, and you must dry them out and remove the corpse.” As unromantic as his explanation was, it suggests that Missourians did not have a great deal of knowledge about the inner workings of seashells, even though Elmer and the crew clearly still believed that they would make fine (and cheap) gifts for folks back home. “Most of the fellows make bracelets out of them – and they’re really nice. I’m making one for Shirley. And will make some more later and send them home.”
In his last letter of the month, written on September 30th, Elmer complained about Australian writing (“Rae hasn’t a very good hand at penmanship,” he wrote. “In fact, I think it is an Aussie characteristic, judging by the letters other fellows get from Aussie girls”), congratulated his cousin Bob on entering the Navy, and thanked his mother for sending him foot powder. He also announced an important, and imminent, milestone: “It is Saturday evening, and another week and month gone. And I start on my fifth year in the Navy tomorrow. But enough for that.”
Elmer was dismissive of the anniversary that day, but his fifth year would be his last, most eventful, and most dangerous during his time in the service. And when he returned home just over a year later from the war, he would bring a bundle of letters back with him. Bafflement gave way to love, and suddenly the future appeared far more certain.
What a difference twelve months can make.
While we are on the subject of the future, this will be the last Grandpa’s Letters blog post for a little bit. There is only one year left of correspondence to cover, but it is consequential: the Battle of Leyte Gulf, kamikaze attacks, Elmer’s rapidly growing correspondence with and decision to commit to Rose, his reaction to V-E and V-J Days, and his long journey home are all in the posts ahead. Since the vast majority of my Elmer-Rose correspondence was written in 1945, I will have a lot more prep work to do for the last several posts than before. Stay tuned . . . and thanks for reading!
I’ve been reluctant to write about the relationship between my research and recent debates over police reform. That’s in part because, as I’ve said earlier, I think it’s important that the microphone be given to people who are usually unheard. But the other reason is that I have spent so much of my research time lately working on the Grandpa’s Letters project that I have not done as thorough of a job as I would have liked since finishing Never Caught Twice keeping up with the history of law enforcement literature. I have been meaning to do some historiographical literature catching-up over the summer, and since it is always better to focus one’s reading in a specific direction than to cast a wide net and hope for the best, I think I’ll take a cue from recent events and work on that.
That being said, the book itself deals heavily with the history of policing and its relationship to the wider horse stealing phenomenon. And while I do not take any stance on whether or not police should be “defunded” or demilitarized in the book, I did notice several things while conducting my research that I think will shed some additional light on how police institutions themselves developed in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries. Overall, I believe that a better understanding of police history is critical for both supporters and opponents of police defunding, as it will echo not only a lot of the problems we face with police agencies today, but also a lot of what made early policing agencies more efficient and in some ways more successful than their current counterparts.
So, here are three quick hits from my research to think about when engaging with police reform as a historical subject and as a contemporary issue.
Since these were hurriedly composed and written mostly without reference to my books or notes, I will welcome any corrections or questions in the comments section below.
The police were not always monolith
Today we tend to think about “the police” as a singular institution, even when they are not. Municipal police forces, county sheriffs’ offices, state highway patrols and investigative offices, plus the seemingly limitless alphabet soup of various federal agencies are all different institutions with different agendas. Movies and television shows frequently depict tensions between these different agencies as they quibble over cases, budgets, and jurisdictions. However, there are fewer identifiable contrasts between these organizations now than there were before. After all, if someone pulls you over, it hardly matters whether or not they are highway patrol or the local sheriff. On a macro level, however, interagency cooperation and the blurred lines between legal and geographic jurisdictions mean that in practice people are less likely to parse the differences between these different agencies.
Conversely, one characteristic shared by many, if not most, late-nineteenth century police departments was that they were operationally stratified. In Nebraska, sheriffs departments handled most of the felony offenses, while also servicing civil court documents like subpoenas. These roles kept them busy, so sheriffs did not do much patrolling, particularly at night. Thus, some towns like North Platte and Sidney, Nebraska created small police departments, which handled less serious offenders, like tramps, prostitutes, and drunks. North Platte even had its own “police court,” which adjudicated these offenses. Notably, North Platte also hired a night watchman, whose role was distinct from and independent of the police. Especially serious offenses could invite the involvement of a federal marshal.
This motley assembly of different law enforcement roles and organizations suggests that the public did not see law enforcement as a state-monopolized monolith, but as a spectrum of various officers and offices, ranging from night watchmen to federal marshals, who looked after their own specific niches. There was no police monolith, and, as NYPD detective Andre Davis (played by Chadwick Boseman) puts it in 21 Bridges when he wants to send thousands of police into Manhattan to search for two cop killers, no way to “flood the island with blue.”
The police were underfunded and paraprofessional
Almost across the board, various law enforcement agents and agencies in late-nineteenth century Nebraska were underfunded and understaffed. The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department’s budget was comprised almost entirely of user fees, for instance, which were charged upon serving warrants, subpoenas, and other official legal papers. This offered few resources for things like horses, weapons, and deputy salaries. There was no other recourse, however. Much of the land in Lincoln County was owned by the Union Pacific Railroad, and thanks to the federal government’s transcontinental funding model it did not have to pay taxes on that land. Starved of revenue, the County found creative alternatives. North Platte eventually hired a city marshal and, later, a municipal police force, but even these organizations paled in comparison to their contemporary equivalents.
Of course, this lack of funding was to some degree immaterial, since late-nineteenth century police had few if any of the technologies available to them then that they have now. Law enforcers had no tanks, no tear gas grenades, no cruisers or SUVs, no body armor or cameras, no computers, no cell phones . . . the Western meme of a disaffected sheriff’s deputy handing in his badge and gun and then walking off into the sunset was not too far away from the truth. The gun was his equipment, and the badge his uniform.
Because of the comparatively shallow learning curve for new law enforcers, the work itself was mostly paraprofessional – meaning that while law enforcers were empowered by the state to carry out their duties, they seldom received professional training or vetting through background checks. Virtually anyone could become – and did become – sheriff, including convicted criminals. Police science was not yet a thing, and while today the FBI is considered by many to represent the gold standard in professionalized and competent law enforcement and investigative competency, in the late-nineteenth century a private police force could have made a similar claim: the Pinkertons.
The logics of late-nineteenth century policing are consistent in this regard. Officers did not need much training because their roles were limited and there were few technologies at their disposal to master. Police departments did not need massive budgets because there was little hardware to purchase.
However, the limitations of this sort of policing were visible to everyone, and therefore few were satisfied with the results.
State-sponsored law enforcement was only marginally capable of protecting private property
This is where my horse stealing research comes into play, since one of the questions I had throughout the project was why so many people both today and during that time period believed that horse thieves needed to be hanged.
The answer seems obvious: horses were important, so hanging a horse thief was a powerful disincentive for anyone considering that line of work. But it isn’t quite that simple. In Nebraska, out of fifty-eight total documented lynchings statewide, vigilantes only killed nine men for stealing horses, and three of those murders occurred before the Civil War. The others were part of larger vigilante movements in the Niobrara Valley and elsewhere. Meanwhile, the vast majority of horse thieves either escaped or, if they were less lucky, spent a few years behind bars. However, by reading the newspapers in Nebraska from the late nineteenth century, one could certainly think that vigilante killings were a daily part of life in Nebraska. Threats to hang horse thieves were especially common, and even memoirs such as Mari Sandoz’s Old Jules overstate the role vigilantism played in keeping horse thieves in check.
As it turns out, vigilante threats were a more effective tool than vigilante violence. For one, threats were cheap – just a few posters and a couple of short blurbs in the county paper about a new anti-horse thief association could frighten prospective thieves from stealing. More importantly, the threats themselves did not threaten the fragile place already occupied by law enforcement in frontier communities, which according to some recent studies were already hotbeds of violence. For law enforcement to be functional, it could not spend all of its time and resources protecting private property. Nevertheless, someone had to protect peoples’ horses, which were quite possibly the most expensive AND essential things they owned.
Law enforcement did not have the training, resources, or personnel to proactively fight theft, so other things filled the vacuum. As a result, vigilante violence, threats of violence, and detective societies were some of the options used by farmers who did not have the money and the means employed by bigger firms and businesses. Those larger enterprises, like ranches, could mobilize their ranch hands and cowboys to pursue thieves, and stockmen associations helped organize and augment these efforts, for instance by hiring brand detectives to monitor cattle shipped via train. The railroad companies themselves hired their own detectives, and Union Pacific police were a common presence along the railroad in western Nebraska. Elsewhere in the country, business and factory owners could hire police to do their bidding, as if they were private mercenaries. In one especially notorious instance, Andrew Carnegie sent an army of Pinkertons into Homestead, Pennsylvania, to break a steel workers’ strike there in 1892.
These multiple and divergent institutions responsible for law enforcement and private property protection all coexisted with one another. But by the early twentieth-century, public police began to overtake private police forces as it became cheaper for firms to rely on the police, whose swelling budgets, professionalizing talent, and growing technological sophistication led to more police and better tools. New inventions, from telephones to street lamps, made it easier to surveil with fewer people and report back in record time. And as the police continue to justify growing budgets, they embraced more and bigger responsibilities, including private property protection.
It would be difficult to continue this discussion without both getting political and leaving my immediate field of expertise, although I will note that there is a significant and growing literature concerning the role between state-sponsored policing and its relationship to slavery and systemic racism throughout history. I don’t really tumble down these rabbit holes in the book, either, although I do suggest that horse stealing be used as a jumping off place for discussions over the history of state violence being used to protect private property, the use of law enforcement in facilitating and perpetrating racist violence, and, more generally, America’s continuing fascination with both policing and vigilantism.
But regardless of what your feelings are about or your politics on the subject, we all need to establish and unpack some central premises in the history of policing if we are to have any kind of rational, thoughtful discussion on the matter. Understanding how law enforcement institutions evolved over time is critical to evaluating their efficacy in the present. After all, as the above paragraphs show, police and policing are not static, unchanging concepts. They constantly evolve, shift, adapt, and morph as the communities they serve change around them. Right now a majority of Americans agree that policing in America needs to change its trajectory and adapt once again, this time to scarcer resources, more limited roles, and public demands for greater accountability. I hope that by thoughtfully embracing some of the very good work that has been done on the history of policing in the United States we can all eventually come to a consensus that will eliminate racially and geographically biased policing while still keeping all Americans – and their private property – safe. I’ll work on putting together a list sometime this summer.
Hi folks, I apologize, but I don’t have anything for you today. My September 1944 post is not ready for prime time, nor are any of my other planned Grandpa’s Letters posts. I’m also writing a few posts on the history of policing, but I’m sticking mostly with what I discuss in my upcoming book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska.
Policing is a prominent subject in that book – not by itself, naturally, but as one of the many institutions that simply could not keep up with the demands of the citizenry with respect to finding and apprehending horse thieves. Yet it was in part due to disappointments over policing’s failure to protect private property that made private property protection a major area of emphasis when law enforcement institutions began to professionalize in the early twentieth-century.
Also, at some point we will address the question I am mostly commonly asked, which is whether or not horse thieves were hanged. There is a lot to unpack there, but needless to say there are parallels between that and other facets of American crime and punishment as well.
Beyond that, it’s the first week of teaching three six-week online courses while also taking another on the side, so I’ll get myself together this weekend and have some fresh material for you on Monday.
Now my kid is crying . . . it’s been that kind of week. Got to run!
Elmer ended up spending over a month in Australia. Once his leave ended at the end of the month, he was ordered to hang out in Sydney and wait for his transportation back to the Mink. In the interim, he stayed in the Naval Barracks in town and worked for the Shore Patrol. During the day he guarded one of the government buildings in town, but the nights were his. He spent most of them with with his Aussie girlfriend, Lorraine “Rae” Henry.
Rae was a Red Cross volunteer who worked the information desk at one of the clubs Elmer frequented. Originally from Perth, she had only been in town a few months when Elmer arrived. She did not smoke or drink, but as Elmer told Rose the following month, “I drank enough for the both of us.” Rae and Elmer usually doubled up with Lloyd Hill, one of his shipmates on the Mink, and one of her friends, and then they would go to the movies, attend dances, go out to dinner, and check out the local sights. Rae also invited Elmer over to dinner with her parents a couple of times, and she wrote a nice letter to Elmer’s mother on August 4th. “I met Elmer a few weeks back and have seen him every day since,” she wrote, “[but] he has been a very good boy. I have taken care of that for you.” Her return address was in Bondi, a neighborhood near the iconic Sydney beach. On July 30th they had a picnic there on the sand.
Almost every letter Elmer wrote contained some variation of “this has been a marvelous vacation.” But the vacation was starting to run a little long by the middle of the month. Although Elmer was having a great time, he had nearly exhausted his money. “Wonderful vacation down here,” he wrote on the 9th, “but expensive. I’m down to the last of my money now.” He borrowed $10 from Lloyd, knowing that once they got back to the ship he would be flush with cash again. But even that only went so far, especially with his prolific social life. “Of course, we can borrow from the Red Cross if necessary,” he wrote, “But I don’t like to borrow money. [But I] think I can make it with the funds I have now.” Yet the days rolled on without a ride back to the Mink, and by the 16th he was down to his last few pounds. Then his luck changed. “Several of us fellows were drinking beer at the Navy club one night last week, and I decided to try my luck at a slot machine. We call them ‘one-eyed bandits.’ Anyway I was lucky and hit the jackpot for about twenty dollars in our money. Not bad, eh what?” That was enough to tide him over until the end of the trip.
However, money was not the only thing waiting for him back at the Mink. He was not receiving any of his mail down in Australia, as it was all being delivered to his ship. As a result he began to worry. “I’m extremely anxious to get a hold of my mail,” he wrote his parents on the 29th. Despite not getting any letters from his parents or Shirley, he resolved to write them both twice a week. But now that the shoe was on the other foot Elmer got a small taste of what his parents had to deal with earlier that year while he was transiting the Pacific. “Mom, dear, I feel a little uneasy because I can’t get my letters from you until we reach the ship. I’ll be glad to see your letters again and know all is well.”
Elmer and his shipmates were able to finally go back to their ship during the last week of the month. “We shoved off in rather a hurry after all our wait for transportation” he wrote on the 26th while en route to the Mink. Before he left Rae made Elmer promise to write her regularly once he made it back to his post. She also told him she would knit him a turtleneck and ship it to him once it was done. Meanwhile, he had another long journey ahead of him as he shuttled north towards New Guinea. “Not a bad life as a passenger,” he mused on the 29th, “but we are all anxious to get back ‘home.'” He also heard an important – and exciting – piece of news while on the boat back. “The Allies have Paris now. Hot dog!”
Elmer was back on the Mink by the 31st. His bunk, his job, his friends, two months worth of pay, and fifty letters awaited him. “Opening and reading my mail was just like a Christmas occasion,” he gushed. Nine were from his parents, while Shirley wrote eleven. Rose sent him a letter as well. Answering them all would be a job in and of itself, but there was not much else to do in New Guinea at any rate.
Hi folks, There won’t be a Grandpa’s Letters post today or for the rest of the week. There are a few reasons for this. For one, I still feel like it is important for me to step aside and let other people talk at the moment. If you haven’t read them, I think Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both put out eloquent, essential statements supporting what the George Floyd protests are about (i.e., they’re not just about George Floyd). Of course, there are many others out there with important things to say as well. Since Grandpa’s Letters aren’t going anywhere, I’ll save them for a slightly quieter week.
In addition to that, I need to take a breather from my current pace. I wrote the last several entries during the first three weeks or so of the quarantine, back when no one knew what was happening and many of us were afraid to leave our homes. Now that we’ve settled somewhat into this new normal (I still miss escaping to the local coffee shop to read), I’ve been working on – and have now just about finished – a new online United States History since 1865 class that includes a lot of new programming and material (you can actually check out the syllabus here, which I’ve posted for students who cannot access it via the school). Between that and finishing the spring semester grading, I have not had a great deal of time to start the next big research portion of this project, which is the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Since I want to provide as much context as possible when I start going through those letters, I have a lot of reading to do in the weeks ahead.
Here’s what I have in mind: during the next two weeks I will post the August and September 1945 updates, along with a couple of other posts I’ve been working on. Then I will take a break from the Grandpa’s Letters for a few weeks (I have a lot of things to say about the move to online-only education and our rapidly expanding garden) and pick it back up after July 4th. At that point I will start posting Grandpa’s Letters updates regularly again, probably once a week, along with book reviews.
There’s one other really big reason for why I’m slowing it down . . . we’re approaching the end of the line! I only have 14 months’ worth of letters left until Elmer is mustered out and sent back home. I am sad that this journey is coming to its climax pretty soon and that much of the remaining work of finishing the book will be the usual solitary labor of historical research, writing, and editing. It may sound hackneyed by now, but it really has been a privilege getting to know my grandparents throughout this project.
I don’t want “Grandpa’s Letters” to be the last time I do this. I would like to keep this blog growing, and I already have a few “next project” ideas that I’m beginning to explore for early 2021. In the meantime, there is much to be excited about . . . for instance, I’m planning to celebrate the publication of Never Caught Twice with a lot of horse stealing stories, artifacts, and maybe even some videos. I am also going to try to contextualize it a bit with some Western history posts and book reviews. Stay tuned!
Finally, thank you as always for reading and for all the feedback you’ve given me over these past few months. I sincerely hope that you and your loved ones are staying safe and healthy, and that a better world for all of us is just around the corner.
Hi folks, In general my policy is to keep this space – particularly the Grandpa’s Letters blog – as free from politics and current events as possible. As a historian, one of my goals is to tell stories that bring Americans together, while also telling the truth – however unsparing – about our past.
However, the protests and riots last few days demand that we all think about and contend with some harsh realities. Many of those realities are historically well-documented: that people of color and black men specifically face the disproportionate burden of aggressive and militarized policing in this country; that mass incarceration and “tough on crime” policies overwhelmingly affect people of color and poor Americans; and that eliminating racism is about more than just changing hearts and minds, it is about dismantling larger social, economic, and political structures (which we might not even be consciously aware of) that perpetuate inequality.
My heart goes out to George Floyd’s family, and to all of the families of those who have been killed under similar circumstances. And while I believe the time for change is long overdue, I am hopeful that peaceful protests, community activism, and growing public awareness of and engagement with these issues will make this particular event a watershed moment in the history of our country.
So, in lieu of one of my usual blog posts, I’m instead going to link to three pieces that I believe are particularly important for spaces like this, in which Democrats and Republicans and Independents and people of all shapes and stripes and colors (I hope) co-mingle out of a shared love for history. Please read and reflect, and, if you would like, leave a comment below.
Jim Bovard, “Cops Kill Because We Gave Them the Legal Framework to do it,” The American Conservative, 30 May 2020. So, now that we know what the problem is, what are some concrete steps for what to do next? Personally, I believe that police and criminal justice reform is one of the few bipartisan issues left. Both parties have an interest in demilitarizing police, minimizing the impact of law enforcement and law in general on our everyday lives, and keeping good people out of jail. Although there are naturally a wide range of solutions to this problem, I think this set of reforms as proposed by a prominent conservative publication are a great place to start thinking about them.
Finally, if anyone is looking for a concrete way to help without using their money to sanction or condone violence, consider donating to Campaign Zero. Their goal is to reduce and eventually eliminate police violence using smart public policy backed up by social science. You can donate here: https://www.paypal.me/campaignzero
As always, thank you for reading and for spending a few minutes of your time here today. Be safe and be well.