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Historic Hedonism 

A Tombstone author takes readers on a true-life tour of the vice-laden Wild West

Literary voyeurs will love this one. It features everything from whiskey to whores, faro to fisticuffs, and hedonism to homicide. This was the Old West of the late 1800s, untouched and untamed, as told through memoirs and eyewitness recollections of the men and women who lived the era.

Although the 176 pages of scandal, sex, sin and saloons discuss events that took place more than a century ago, The Wicked West: Boozers, Cruisers, Gamblers, and More offers enough detail to paint a vivid picture. You can almost hear your own spurs clank as you enter one of these rowdy saloons and become part of this history. "I thought I knew how wicked the West was until I read this book. Now I really wish I'd been there!" wrote a reviewer for American Heritage magazine. "The glitz and grits of the old-time West. What a book! What a wild romp! What a read!" blurbed True West magazine.

Author Sherry Monahan, an authority on the Victorian West, divides her time between two homes, one of them a ranch near Tombstone--a city featured prominently in her text. "Tombstone started out in an unlikely patch of Southern Arizona ... and quickly turned into a town bustling with miners, businessmen, gamblers and cowboys," she writes. "Exploding in population from its founding in 1879, the town rapidly grew to be one of the most famous boomtowns in the history of the West, with saloons to match."

Early inhabitants of newly emerging communities throughout the West worked hard--and some played even harder--living life to its fullest. Drinking, smoking, gambling, drugs and prostitution (plus a few less-well-known sins and vices) were widely practiced and/or abused as the order of the day, every day. Monahan's recounting avoids the familiar infamous Western figures and, in her ride through frontier bars and bordellos, introduces the real-life players. Barkeeps, barflys and an assortment of others who actually lived "the wicked life" tell of their follies and foibles in their own words.

Intoxication appears to be a common theme. Different inebriates described their nights of heavy drinking as "on a tear," "on a hurrah," "on a roarer" or "on a toot." One saloon posted an entry sign reading, "Whiskey, the road to ruin. Come in." And a good percentage of the town's populace accepted the invitation. The author quotes one long-ago pundit: "Whiskey's power of raising the imagination to a high degree of foolishness is well known."

Monahan, who appears on the History Channel as an expert commentator on the Wild West, takes readers on a salty-worded tour of days gone by that shows how our forefathers--and in some cases, foremothers--enjoyed life's wild little pastimes.

"By today's standards, life in the West was always unpredictable, often rough, and sometimes dangerous," she writes. "Yet saloons, gamblers and sporting women offered Westerners more than just the opportunity to spend money, bend the rules or indulge themselves--in so many ways they proved an important asset to the social life, the economy, and the building of the West into the thriving, lively and diverse area it remains to this day." She quotes Mark Twain, an avid Western traveler: "Moralists and philosophers have adjudged those who throw temptation in the way of the erring, equally guilty with those who are thereby led into evil." Monahan also found a kindred viewpoint quoting Abraham Lincoln in her chapter on the temperance wars: "It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues."

Eventually, as the towns, cities and settlements of the Old West became more "civilized," the pendulum of popular opinion swung away from tolerance of vices to teaching of virtue.

In the book's wrap-up, Monahan notes: "Whether it was drinking, gambling or some other type of 'sin,' vice played an integral role in the West's expansion. With towns suddenly springing up in bare patches of land, most saloons weren't built because men were alcoholics--they served as social gathering places where liquor was enjoyed along with conversation and cigars. After working all day or night, miners, businessmen and cowhands also gambled, primarily for entertainment. Entertainment also came in the form of female companionship, and in most towns' early stages, prostitutes weren't scorned--they were welcomed."

The author concludes by asking and then answering a question: "Could the West have been expanded and developed without all these vices? Maybe, but what a boring place it would have been!"

More by Lee Allen

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