The Good Guy

A new book looks at the life of a local sheriff during the gun-fighting late 19th century

During the last 20 years or so of the 19th century, the Arizona Territory was rotten with scoundrels, rogues, killers, thieves and confidence artists. Among this mob, Pima County Sheriff Bob Paul stood tall, brave and mostly incorruptible, an essential civilizing force in one of America's last lawless frontiers.

That's one way of looking at the life of Paul, one of the Southwest's pioneer lawmen, and it's a portrait that rises easily from John Boessenecker's comprehensive and deeply researched new biography, the first full-length study of this largely forgotten but important Old West character.

At 6 feet 6 inches, the powerfully built New Englander was likely a foot or more taller than the average ill-fed, bowlegged and disease-prone lost boy he would meet in the California gold fields. Paul arrived for the gold rush in January 1849, a few months before every second son from Massachusetts made it to San Francisco with a hot case of gold fever. Paul, at just 18, had more than a jump on the greenhorns: Since the unlikely age of 12, he had traveled the world working on a whaling ship.

While a hard worker, Paul never had much luck with mining, but his size, experience and nerve made him a natural for law enforcement, which was sorely lacking in the desperate, womanless camps of the gold rush, full of young, drunk and armed men far from home. For years he served as a constable, deputy and sheriff in rowdy Calaveras County. Later he would be employed riding shotgun for Wells Fargo, for which he "transported millions of dollars in gold and silver bullion and ... never lost an ounce," Boessenecker writes.

Then, in 1878, Wells Fargo sent Paul to the Arizona Territory to investigate a couple of stage robberies, and the future Pima County sheriff joined the now long tradition of Californians to have a second act in this wrinkled, arid land.

Paul made his home in Tucson, where he served as Pima County sheriff during some of the region's bloodiest years—though he had to go to court and prove ballot stuffing on the part of the opposition to win the office. He spent a good deal of his time roughing it in the wilderness, tracking desperados, jail breakers and highwaymen, or simply traveling between far-flung towns on official business. He must have made the ride from Tucson to Prescott dozens of times. Just thinking about that same trip, a roughly four-hour drive today, makes my back hurt. If there is one overriding lesson in Boessenecker's outstanding study, it's that they made them a lot tougher back then.

Paul didn't have it any easier when he was in town. A Republican and close friend of Wyatt Earp and his brothers, Paul was under constant attack from Democrat partisans such as William S. Oury and Louis C. Hughes, founder and longtime editor of the Arizona Star. Today's partisan bickering seems mild compared to the six-gun duels that politics sometimes inspired in Paul's day. When not dodging ad hominem attacks from the partisan press, Paul spent a considerable amount of time breaking up lynch mobs. He also served as executioner and hanged 11 men in the legal fashion.

It is Paul's close friendship with Wyatt Earp, a rogue if there ever was one, that blemishes his otherwise uniquely law-abiding career as a territorial lawman. He did little to go after the Earps, Doc Holliday and others while they sought revenge against the "Cowboys" in the wake of the OK Corral shootout, when they shot down Frank Stilwell at the train yard in Tucson. Paul was known as a dogged investigator and someone who would not relent until he had his man. Forgetting for a moment the complicated nature of frontier politics, and that the Earps probably had the moral high ground, such as it was, in the whole affair, Paul's willingness to allow his friends and fellow Republicans free reign is rather disappointing.

Boessenecker seems to agree, writing "His personal and political friendship with Wyatt Earp clouded his judgment, and, consequently he never sought to arrest Earp on the Frank Stillwell murder warrant."

Nonetheless, Paul's life story is one that deserves preservation and study, and Boessenecker's hefty tome serves both purposes admirably. Paul was certainly not perfect, and he was perhaps too much a tool of the corporate interests seeking to denude the territory of its resources, but he is worthy of our respect. For in a time and place where most so-called lawmen were often outlaws on the side, and when the highest forms of police technology were a six-gun and a hemp rope, Paul, mostly alone among his contemporaries, tried to do better.

Comments (1)

Add a comment

Add a Comment

Tucson Weekly

Best of Tucson Weekly

Tucson Weekly