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?
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