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Spring 2003
Volume 39, No. 3
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Sarah Dolinar

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An American Outlaw

Last of the Old Time Outlaws: The George West Musgrave Story
Karen Holliday Tanner and John D. Tanner, Jr. ’65
University of Oklahoma Press, 2002 • 384 pages, 37 photos • $39.95

On the surface, George West Musgrave was a well-dressed, respectable Southern gentleman. Underneath, he was a horse thief, cattle rustler, train-robber, bank-thief and murderer. According to authors Karen Holliday Tanner and John D. Tanner, Jr. ’65, however, this Texas cowboy was not a simple criminal. Self-reliant and bold, with a remarkable instinct for survival, he embodied in many ways the values at the heart of American identity. From local newspapers, court records, and personal accounts, the Tanners have reconstructed an intriguing historical image of Musgrave, whose crimes were always clouded by his myth.

Running with a band of ruffians around the turn of the century, Musgrave moved across state boundaries, evaded authorities and dodged detectives, becoming a legend as the last of the old-time Southwestern outlaws. At the center of the notorious High Five Gang, he was noted for being the first to stage a bank robbery in Arizona and for orchestrating the most profitable train robbery in the history of the Santa Fe Railroad. A Pinkerton detective eventually caught up with Musgrave, and the outlaw had his day in court, but not before beating up the photographer who snapped a picture of him in handcuffs as he awaited trial.

At the time of his court appearance, Musgrave was said to look “more like a senator than a cattle rustler.” For the trial, he shrewdly assumed the identity of an honest family man, bringing his wife from across state lines with a new baby in tow. Pleading self-defense and swaying public opinion in the local newspapers, Musgrave miraculously received a “not-guilty” verdict. For his performance, one townsperson remarked, “If I’d been on that jury I’d’ve give George Musgrave a medal.” To celebrate the acquittal, Musgrave promptly left town and single-handedly robbed a train on his way back to Texas.

Both scholarly and recreational readers will find appeal in this historic outlaw. Many will be reminded of how influential the outlaw has been to American values and might just recognize that the American fascination with the outlaw spirit still survives today. But as this history of Musgrave shows, whether the outlaw should be remembered as a common criminal or an American hero remains to be determined.

—Brian Dolinar is a student in the doctoral program in Cultural Studies at Claremont Graduate University.