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A Lesson to Be Learned in the Old West Code : Violence: There were shootouts but far fewer cowardly or random killings, scholar Roger McGrath explains.

October 11, 1993|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHRIDGE — Either from his book-lined home office or the quiet confines of some public library, Roger McGrath regularly consorts with stage-robbers and scalawags, highwaymen and hangmen, sweaty sodbusters, gunfighters and saucy saloon girls.

Rapid-fire, the local historian can quote from the letters of Black Bart--the infamous San Francisco gentleman-stagecoach robber--as well as discuss the deeds of a young Jesse James, the Earp boys or a host of gunslinging High Noon street duelists.

Sure, they were killers. But McGrath believes the violence was tempered by a code of honor that brought harm and sometimes death mainly to those who deserved it. And with the growing trend of senseless mayhem that has visited Los Angeles and the rest of the nation, he says, the code of the Old West still has something to teach modern men.

At 46, McGrath is an historian with a reputation for passion and insight into the lives and times of frontier men and women--good souls and bad--who peopled the great American West more than a century ago.

For him, these long-gone characters are as real as any modern adventurer. And in his eyes, their accomplishments don't pale in comparison--even to the deepest-sea diver, mountain climber or astronaut who has walked on the moon.

They're women such as Nellie Cashman and Belinda Mulrooney, two frontier-era entrepreneurs who mined the Old West like the best of contemporary businessmen, establishing everything from banks to boarding houses both in gold-crazy California and the Yukon.

"Just like thousands of others who came West, these women were adventurous," McGrath said. "They were courageous and enterprising and honorable--all the traits that helped them settle the West under contrary conditions, making this time the Homeric era of U.S. history."

The Thousand Oaks academician, a published author who teaches courses in American history at UCLA and Cal State Northridge, has some well-researched yet outspoken opinions about the wanderers who made their western odyssey in the face of disease, wild animals and Indian tribes fighting to protect their land.

For one thing, modern-day society has much to learn from the code of honor established way back then, McGrath says. In that supposedly shoot-'em-up era of seat-of-the-pants justice, the murder of innocent people was a rare occurrence, although it did indeed occur. In short, he says, people had a reason for being killed.

In a detailed study of Aurora and Bodie--two boom-town mining communities in Nevada and California, the author of "Gunfighters, Highwaymen & Vigilantes: Violence on the Frontier" has compared the reasons behind societal bloodshed then and now.

America has become a place where the innocent are killed on a daily basis.

"Today's criminal preys only on the weak, the old and the female," he said. "Every day, crimes are committed that just would not be tolerated in places like Aurora and Bodie. People would not just stand by and let these things occur. Justice would have been swift and sure."

There's yet another lesson to be learned from those frontier characters: America can arm itself as a way of protection. "One of the things that kept the Old West honest is that people carried firearms and knew how to use them.

"It's something we should keep in mind today as a deterrent to crime. That solitary woman on a dark street does not have to be vulnerable--if she has a gun that people figure she's ready to use."

Interviewed for numerous television histories of the Old West, McGrath is now writing a commentary piece for the academic magazine "Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture" on his theories of the justice in America's frontier days. His article is entitled "Treat Them to a Good Dose of Lead."

And next spring, he will host a public forum at UCLA on the Old West and will be among several lecturers discussing crime, the role of women, and the Mexican bandido, Tiburcio Vasquez.

McGrath, a taut and muscular former Marine from Pacific Palisades who grew up surfing the local coastline, also fell in love with things past at a young age--a curiosity that has fueled countless hours sorting through dusty manuscripts.

"History is high adventure, especially the study of the American West," he said. "By studying history, you can live thousands of years, tens of thousands of lifetimes. You can escape to any frontier, any civilization."

As a historian, McGrath is part gossip, part investigator, part gadfly. When he talks of his characters, it is as though he were an old friend relating tales of a bygone relationship he misses very dearly.

Take Black Bart, one of McGrath's favorite characters, who lived a double life as a California stagecoach robber as well as a respectable San Francisco speculator known for his snappy wool suits and diamond stick pins.

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