Bounty Hunters of the Old West

The law was a bit sparse in the Old West, often not a lawman around for hundreds of miles. If a criminal knew how to live off the land and he owned a fast horse, he was pretty well guaranteed an escape. What’s a sheriff to do?

In 1872, the Supreme Court ruled that bounty hunters were a part of the U.S. law enforcement system with a decision in Taylor vs. Taintor:

“When the bail is given, the principal is regarded as delivered to the custody of his sureties. Their domain is a continuance of the original imprisonment. Whenever they choose to do so, they may seize him and deliver him up to his discharge; and if it cannot be done at once, they may imprison him until it can be done. They may exercise their rights in person or by agent. They may pursue him into another state; may arrest him on the Sabbath; and if necessary, may break and enter his house for that purpose. The seizure is not made by virtue of due process. None is needed. It is likened to the arrest by the Sheriff of an escaped prisoner.”

As you can see by this decision, bounty hunters didn’t have to adhere to the same rules of due process that lawmen did. (This is still true in some states.)

One of the greatest bounty hunters was Pinkerton Detective, Charlie Siringo. Siringo had a long and distinguished, if not controversial, career. He had steely nerves and his cleverness got him out of more than one jam. But he wrote a book, and the Pinkerton Agency wasn’t too keen about that, so he spent several years at the end of his life arguing with them. Could be that the Pinkertons were the only ones to ever best him.

Lots of town marshals and county sheriffs supplemented their meager incomes with bounties. Of course, they had to follow the rules of due process while a bounty hunter had no such restrictions. Then again, if there’s no one around for a couple hundred miles, who’s to know? This is part of how the West was tamed. Many lawmen straddled the fence between law-enforcing and law-breaking.

Charlene Sands, author of Bodine’s Bounty, blogged about bounty hunters on Pistols and Petticoats. Really good info at this site on lots of Old West topics. Anyway, she points out that in order for a bounty hunter to get his money in British Columbia, he had to bring the criminal in alive. The US had no such compunctions, but the bounty was half if the prisoner died before making it to jail. She also mentions that the bounty hunters didn’t receive payment until later, so when they brought in prisoners, they’d either have to wait, or have the money sent to a bank. (They’d probably wait, considering the state of banking at the time.) But the most important thing that Ms. Sands mentioned was that bounty hunters’ names were never, ever recorded, because their anonymity was their protection. This little item is what makes research difficult.

Much to movie and TV viewers’ delight, popular lore glorifies the Old West bounty hunter. The role of Josh Randall in Wanted: Dead or Alive in the 1950s made Steve McQueen a star. “Josh Randall (Steve McQueen) was a man of few words. A bounty hunter by trade, he tracked his prey all over the West. Randall carried an 1892 44/40 center fire Winchester carbine that he called “Mare’s Laig.” It handled like a revolver by had the punch of a rifle. Unlike other bounty hunters, Randall had scruples. He tried to bring the prisoner in alive and often found himself called upon to protect people in need.”

Then there’s my personal favorite, Paladin, played by Richard Boone on “Have Gun-Will Travel.” (Okay, so he was more gunslinger than bounty hunter, but they go together well.) I’m not the only one impressed with that character: Eminem will be starring as Paladin in a contemporary movie remake. Does Eminem have what Richard Boone had?

We’ll see!


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11 Responses to Bounty Hunters of the Old West

  1. perils3 says:

    hi, did bounty hunters require a special license or 2 be sworn in back in the old west? did women collect on bounty’s?

  2. No, anyone at all could be a bounty hunter. In fact, that’s still true in some states.

    Women? Sure! No limits. I never could find a woman bounty hunter, but there were no regulations against it. The very lack of regulations is what had (still has) opponents up in arms.


  3. Michael Journeau says:

    On movies I usually see bounty hunters disliked, scourned and even run out of town by the town sheriff. I find this hard to believe being the service provided the bounty hunters. It would seem that thinning out a good number of “outlaws” would have been appreciated. I guess that’s Hollywood.

  4. Jason Nuku says:

    I was wondering if there were ever bounty hunter gangs or did they usually work alone?

  5. Friday E. says:

    Watch the movie “6 Guns” for an interesting take on old West bounty hunters, including a woman.

  6. Gwenyth says:

    how did local marshals and sheriffs pay off the bounty hunters when they brought someone in?
    did they have a way to confirm they had the right guy?
    where did they get the photos on wanted posters?


  7. Joe says:

    Slim Shady doing Paladin? That’s a laugh, maybe it’s a Western comedy….

  8. Mary Pinkston says:

    I have been researching my ancestors and there is a rumor that my Great Grand Father Math Thompson was a bounty hunter. He is reported to have been gone away from the family for months at a time. He last lived in ND. Would love to find out if the rumor was true or not.

  9. Destinee Zwart says:

    What did a bounty hunter do in the 1850-1900 I was wondering because it’s for a school project and I need information about all the Bounty Hunters instead of olny one spicific person and I need a lot more information.

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  11. Mark H says:

    Bounty hunters, Skiptracers, Bond Enforcers, and CI’s (confidential informants) were and are much needed components to law enforcement. Men & Women in this profession actually save precious resources for law enforcement, because they can specialize in prioritize in the search and apprehension of suspects, bail jumpers, ect, and bring them back to the court of jurisdiction, over county and state lines… There are very good reasons why this 1872 law still exists today..! Now for the truth, the profession is nothing like what they put on TV or the movies, while for me to take down a bond jumper is a pretty nice payday. I’d starve to death (most people make it too court) trying to live on that alone. Traceing down rent jumpers, dead beat dads, serving civil process, and repo are what pays the bills, and puts children through college… I was in the profession for over 30yrs with few regrets…

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