Grove Press
Atlantic Monthly Press
Atlantic Monthly Press

Son of the Old West

The Odyssey of Charlie Siringo: Cowboy, Detective, Writer of the Wild Frontier

by Nathan Ward

An epic narrative of the Old West through the vivid, outsized life of cowboy, detective, and chronicler Charlie Siringo

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 368
  • Publication Date September 10, 2024
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-6366-0
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $19.00
  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Page Count 368
  • Publication Date September 05, 2023
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-6208-3
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $28.00
  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Publication Date September 05, 2023
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-6209-0
  • US List Price $28.00

As Nathan Ward reveals in his evocative new book, no figure in the Old West lived or shaped its history more fully than Charlie Siringo. Born in Matagorda, Texas in 1855, Charlie went on his first cattle drive at age 11 and spent two decades living his boyhood dream as a cowboy. As the dangerous, lucrative “beeves” business boomed, Siringo drove longhorn steers north to the burgeoning Midwest Plains states’ cattle and railroad towns, inevitably crossing paths with such legendary figures as Billy the Kid, Bat Masterson, and Shanghai Pierce. In his early thirties he joined the Pinkerton Detective Agency’s Denver office, using a variety of aliases to investigate violent labor disputes and infiltrate outlaw gangs such as Butch Cassidy’s train robbing Wild Bunch. As brave as he was clever, he was often saved by his cowboy training as he traveled to places the law had not yet reached.

Siringo’s bestselling, landmark 1885 autobiography, A Texas Cowboy, helped make the lowly cowboy a heroic symbol of the American West. His later memoir, A Cowboy Detective, influenced early hard-boiled crime novelists for whom the detective story was really the cowboy story in an urban setting. Sadly sued into debt by the Pinkertons determined to prevent their sources and methods from being revealed, Siringo eventually sold his beloved New Mexico ranch and moved to Los Angeles, where he advised Hollywood filmmakers and especially actor William S. Hart on their early 1920s Westerns, watching the frontier history he had known first-hand turned into romantic legend on the screen.

In old age, Charlie Siringo was called “Ulysses of the Wild West” for the long journey he took across the western frontier. Son of the Old West brings him and his legendary world vividly to life.

Praise for Son of the Old West:

Winner of the Will Rogers Medallion Award (Biography/Memoir)

“In Son of the Old West, writer Nathan Ward tracks Siringo from Texas to Idaho and seemingly everywhere in between while relating his encounters with an array of characters, some of them among the most famous of his day. As Mr. Ward explains, his book is as much a chronicle of the Old West as it is the study of a colorful, and ubiquitous, frontiersman . . . Mr. Ward—like Siringo himself—spins a good yarn, and his book will surely please Old West enthusiasts, whose interest in the characters of this period remains evergreen.”—Andrew R. Graybill, Wall Street Journal

“[A] handsome telling.”—Dan Piepenbring, Harper’s Magazine

“Ward tells the tale of a strange and distinctly American life, one that wove through every facet of the Old West and cowboy culture; Siringo is in significant ways responsible for the birth of the mythical American Cowboy, the unkempt and sometimes unhinged hero of the Wild West.”—Anna Heyard, New York Times Book Review

“A vibrant portrait of Charles Siringo, one of the most ubiquitous characters in the history of the American West . . . Ward’s sharp eye for detail and breezy prose style make this a riveting look at the mythology of the Old West.”Publishers Weekly

“The life of a Texas cowboy who ranged the wild frontier paints a broader picture of bygone times in the American West . . . Lively and detailed . . . Illustrations, vintage photos, and maps throughout the text add atmosphere and context to this stirring, multivaried life . . . A well-rendered cowboy tale that fleshes out a larger history of the Old West.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Dozens of photos and other images bring the text beautifully to life. Perfect for biography, history, and western fans.”Booklist

“Nathan Ward’s chronicle is a twisting storm of horseback odyssey, snake-bitten fortunetelling, class warfare, and deep-cover pursuit of legendary outlaws. The eye of this hurricane is cowboy detective Charlie Siringo—brave, stubborn, heartbroken and hopeful—who races through perils and adventure like a man who knows we’re all watching, all the way to his literal Hollywood ending. Son of the Old West is full-gallop history, and I loved every page.”—Leif Enger, author of Peace Like a River and So Brave, Young, and Handsome

“A veritable real-life Jack Crabb, Charlie Siringo claimed to have seen and done it all in the Old West. Even better, a lot of what Charlie claimed was actually true! In this engrossing book, Nathan Ward expertly guides us along Charlie’s meandering trail, from Texas childhood to author of his own legend. At the same time, we are treated to a rich and fascinating portrait of the American West at its wildest.”—Mark Lee Gardner, Spur Award-winning author of To Hell on a Fast Horse: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West 

“Nathan Ward skillfully brings to life the enigmatic Charlie Siringo, a gypsy-footed cowboy, manhunter, and writer, who helped merge the Wild West of reality with the Wild West of myth.”—Michael Wallis, author of Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride

Praise for The Lost Detective:

“As a devoted Hammett aficionado, I’ve read most books about him and published his daughter’s memoir, but learned so much in this captivating examination of the great author’s life that I feel compelled to reread his complete works with far deeper understanding than ever before.”―Otto Penzler, Editor, The Best American Noir of the Century

The Lost Detective is full of stimulating insight into how the novice writer shaped real-life experience into vital fiction.”―The Wall Street Journal

“Ward’s focus on the origins of Hammett’s writing style and his connecting the events of the author’s background to the fiction are the highlights of this brief, accessible biography . . . Highly recommended.”―Library Journal

“As brisk and conversational as a magazine feature, The Lost Detective invites readers not just to explore Hammett’s early years in more detail and consider how those formative experiences helped shape his writing career, but also . . . to look at how the Hammett persona was created. And as we Hammett fans know, there are few personas, few writers in 20th-century literature period, more interesting to read about.”―Washington Post

“A gritty portrait of the 20th century’s great pulp poet Dashiell Hammett, who turned his days gumshoeing for the Pinkerton Detective Agency into bawdy and muscular American classics.”―O, the Oprah Magazine

“Highly entertaining . . . Captures what it feels like to read Hammett’s early work and, as Ward says, ‘watch a sickly ex-detective in his late twenties, with an eighth-grade education, gradually, improbably, teach himself to write.’”―Boston Globe

“Nathan Ward shows that Hammett’s innovative style did not, as it may have seemed, spring fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus . . . With deft investigative work, Ward shows how much of Hammett’s fiction owed to Pinkerton reports . . . A lively, witty account of how Hammett came to be Hammett—a portrait of the artist, if you will, as a cynical man.”―Chicago Tribune

“Nathan Ward’s book shines a detective’s flashlight on Hammett’s early development.”―Buffalo News

“Hardboiled crime novel fans will find Ward’s research into what it meant to Hammett to be an actual detective before he wrote about them quite fascinating.”―Shelf Awareness

“With its sharp focus and strong hook, The Lost Detective is a fascinating read [that] casts Hammett in a new and intriguing light.”―Herald Scotland

“Beguiling . . . The Lost Detective is a dazzling display of literary detection.”―Sydney Morning Herald

Read an excerpt:

Excerpted from Son of the Old West © 2023 by Nathan Ward. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

A number of Western films had come through Santa Fe’s Paris Theater while Siringo lived there—Hell’s Hinges, in which an entire town burned spectacularly down, sparked by a saloon gunfight involving a vengeful William S. Hart; breezier stuff, like the Tom Mix feature Six Cylinder Love; or another tough Hart picture, Wolves of the Rail, in which Mexican bandits attacked a moving train guarded by their conflicted former comrade. Such entertainments might be more romantic than life, but the riding and landscapes were a wonder even to a Westerner living among the desert mountains.

Real cowboying was no longer possible, so he’d headed toward the make-believe kind.

Other grizzled frontiersmen—from Emmett Dalton to Bill Tilghman and Wyatt Earp—had gone ahead of him to peddle their experiences to the movies. He came alone but was part of a migration of cowboys seeking movie work, some just for the winter but many cut loose from ranches collapsing around the West. In their chaps and hats and spurs, one columnist noted, there were “more real cowboys in Los Angeles right now than in any other one spot in the world.” To them, all work was honorable that wasn’t on foot, and motion pictures offered a remaining hope of staying in the saddle.

Even as it quieted, the frontier was reenacted and revised, first in Wild West shows and rodeos and now in moving pictures, with the able help of its last working witnesses.

People reinvented themselves all over the West, in Siringo’s case dozens of times. But unlike others hoping to sell their more fabled stories, since his thirties he had often kept stealthy and anonymous, adventuring under a series of personas not his own as a cowboy detective—C. Leon Allison, Leon Carrier, Charles T. LeRoy. He might have seen more of the West than most and met every bad man, lawman, outlaw woman, or cattle king worth knowing, but often not as himself.

He was known mostly as the man who had published the first cowboy autobiography, A Texas Cowboy; or, Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony; as well as a detecting memoir that enraged the Pinkertons, A Cowboy Detective; and a short life of Billy the Kid, whom he had briefly known. Now he would become another retired cowboy in Los Angeles, a slight old Texan without a horse, fingers bent from the ranch work he no longer performed, selling his self-published books out of a satchel. One thing he retained was his silver-plated, pearl-gripped “old Colt’s 45,” which he would bring out for visitors on the least excuse.


By the time Siringo came to town in 1923, an enormous lighted sign was going up in sixty-foot letters spelling the name of a growing real estate development across the brushy hillsides, Hollywoodland. The last time he had been in Los Angeles was the 1890s, before the first filmmakers visited California in 1906 and well before a young theatrical director, Cecil B. DeMille, arrived with a crew, rented a former livery barn at Vine Street and Selma Avenue, and made Hollywood’s first three-reel feature, a melodrama of the West called The Squaw Man, in 1914.

DeMille had been pleased to find skilled cowboy riders drinking and playing cards at a place called the Water Hole, a simple gray frame building on Cahuenga between Sunset and

Hollywood Boulevards, just blocks from his rented barn. (A number of these horsemen would ride as medieval Frenchmen in his Joan of Arc picture.) The Water Hole was more a café than an honest saloon but retained a brass rail and bar; cowboy patrons sneaked their whiskey and tequila from coffee cups. When a stranger entered, recalled the stuntman Jack Montgomery, everyone turned to determine if the newcomer was “Prohibition or free choice.”

As Siringo would discover, any cowboy arriving in Los Angeles was directed to take the streetcar out to the Water Hole to find old friends and learn the news. Some paid an extra nickel to bring their favorite saddle beside them on the trip. Of the Water Hole crowd, the movie gossip Louella Parsons reported, “These heroes of the horse operas are clannish. They talk their own lingo and let the rest of the world go hang. Always, any day you can see dozens of them in a small restaurant near Hollywood Boulevard, where they congregate to swap yarns and discuss their latest ‘operas.’”

Movie people needing cowboys knew to seek them out at the Water Hole, and in those early days before the Central Casting office, they also hired riders out of the Los Angeles stockyards at a day rate. Lucky ones might be picked up and shuttled to the enormous ranch at Universal City, stunt riding for one of the studio’s many Westerns for five dollars a day plus a boxed lunch, far better than they had made as real cowboys.

Among Charlie’s earliest friends in the city was George “Jack” Cole, a cowboy artist and son of Senator Cornelius Cole, whose Colegrove acreage became a part of Hollywood. When the younger Cole heard about Siringo pitiably moving from one lodging to another, he helped find him a place near a building his family owned. The man who managed the apartment house for the Coles lived next door, where he built a one-room cabin for Siringo in his backyard, at 6057 Eleanor Avenue. Charlie moved in, posting a sign above the door, “Siringo’s Den,” and turned the inside walls into what he called a “Rogue’s Gallery” of tintypes showing favorite outlaws and lawmen he had known or hunted or people he merely admired, like Bill Hart.

Hart’s long equine face and lanky form were familiar to anyone who went to the movies—tight-lipped and squinting beneath his broad hat, playing long-limbed frontiersmen like “Two Gun” Bill or “Square Deal” Sanderson, bad men like “Blaze” Tracy, or a self-made legend such as Wild Bill Hickok. Although he privately spoke in the Yankee patrician accent of the Broadway stage, Hart cut a charismatic cowboy figure on the silent screen, riding well and throwing a rope with conviction, flaring a match with one hand, or jumping his beloved pinto gelding Fritz through a window. Charlie had sent the screen Westerner an appreciative letter, and Hart’s kind response credited the writer’s old cowboy book as an inspiration, words Siringo would quote on the back of his new business cards.

From his little Hollywood bungalow, Charlie could now stroll over to the Water Hole. The existence of this cowboy haven walking distance from his new cabin made Siringo’s life more bearable away from his desert ranch and horses. Along with his walk to the public library, Charlie made the Water Hole part of his daily routine, a place where he could hold court of an evening. Some of the bar’s younger regulars had higher hats and shinier spurs than the cow folk he remembered, but the Western outfit Charlie wore did not make him an exotic figure. Everyone seeking movie work dressed the part before leaving the house, just as other hopeful extras crowded studio gates each morning gotten up as soldiers or shopkeepers or southern belles.

Set loose in bars like this one, Siringo had charmed his way into all manner of gangs. He could tell his Hollywood drinking friends about everything from trailing longhorn cattle up from Texas as a boy to playing cards with Billy the Kid or about how a blind old phrenologist once laid his hands on young Charlie’s skull, declaring him fit to be only a newspaper editor, rancher, or detective. He had watched the Old West change, first as a Texas trail hand and later as a cowboy detective, had known the cattle trails in their prime, and had seen the creation of the wild cow town.