Lawman: The Life and Times of Harry Morse, 1835-1912.
By John Boessenecker. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992. Photographs, illustrations, maps, bibliography, notes. xiii + 366 pages. $29.95 cloth.
Reviewed by Richard Griswold del Castillo, Professor of Mexican American Studies, San Diego State University, author of The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: A Legacy of Conflict (1990), and co-author with Arnoldo De Le-n, North to Aztlan: Mexican Americans in United States History (1996).
Henry Morse was a sheriff in Alameda County during the height of the ethnic violence and banditry involving Mexican Americans in California. He gained a reputation as a tenacious, unrelenting lawman who “always got his man,” and personally knew many of the famous outlaws of that period, including Tiburcio V‡squez and Black Bart. Later as a private detective, Morse wrote extensively about his days as sheriff and much of this book is based on his own detailed account of his chases, gunfights and sleuthing. The author believes that Morse was more well known by nineteenth century citizens than lawmen like Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson or Wild Bill Hickock and he hopes that this biography will give Morse his just place in the pantheon of western crime fighters.
A question, raised by Boessenecker at the onset relates to his treatment of the Mexicans suspects who he pursued. The author presents in great detail the many instances where sheriff Morse rounded up Mexican suspects and in his own words had little good to say about them. But Morse had lifelong friends who were Mexican Americans and was considered by the Hispanic community as a man who was protecting them from a criminal element. Nevertheless Morse shared the prejudices of many Anglos of that day. In his views most Mexicans were “greasers” who could not be trusted. In at least one case noted by Boessenecker, that of Bartolo Sepœlveda, Morse helped put an innocent man in jail based on perjured testimony. Observers at the time noted that racism against “native Californians or Mexicans” motivated the lawmen as well as the jury.
This is a very detailed and complex story, meticulously researched. The “facts” are carefully interrogated and examined in light of evidence and logic. It is not a book that is full of generalizations or sweeping poetic statements, but a prosaic account of every significant case that Morse was involved in up to his death in 1912.
For those who are interested in the actualities of law enforcement in “the good old days,” they should closely read Boessenecker’s account of the tremendous amount of work that went into finding and arresting cattle thieves in Contra Costa County; or of his tracking of the murders of Frank Medina and five others near Stockton. We can almost feel the heat and taste the dust and certainly sympathize with those who tried to bring law and order to the California back country.
There are many detailed stories accumulated within this biography which make it a rich source for understanding nineteenth century California. In the end readers may conclude that Morse was as much a protector as a menace for some elements of the Mexican community in northern California and that it would be unfair to characterize him only as a racist, although he certainly supported and represented a racial hierarchy. Morse vigorously pursed non-Hispanic bad men as well, some of whom had killed native Californios.
Boessenecker is to be congratulated for a very thorough job of research. Unfortunately for those interested in San Diego history, there is only a slighting reference to our region of California. It remains for others to do a comparable history of law men in San Diego.