His Life and Misadventures
“Allen P. Bristow’s account of the life of James L. Smith (1838-1914) is a work of admirable research. A shadowy, intemperate figure who worked in a string of quasi-law enforcement and security jobs, Smith left a trail of belligerent encounters and a few dead men during his forty years in the West.
“A central issue the author does not adequately answer is the connection between the name “Whispering Smith” used in the book’s title, and James L. Smith, his subject. Bristow writes that the nickname was applied to James L. Smith, but it is unclear when. The author’s sources are other authors who wrote about Smith years after Frank H. Spearman had popularized the name Whispering Smith as his fictional railroad detective and Hollywood had begun to serialize it in movies. Spearman’s account of the name’s origin has no connection with James L. Smith. Bristow writes that Smith did not use the nickname himself, and from the 1880s on, he was usually referred in newspapers with the pseudo title “Captain Smith.”
“Nickname aside, Bristow’s account of the life and deeds of James L. Smith is a detective story full of Old West bad men and notorious incidents. Smith left no heirs, no apparent friends, no correspondence, and no photos of himself. By their sub rosa nature, his jobs, ranging from security officer, inspector for stock grower associations, and railroad detective, offer scant official trace of him. Nonetheless, through diligent research of newspaper articles, public records, and secondary accounts, the author has teased out a chilling portrait of Smith and the combative milieu in which he lived and worked.
“Smith was a fixer and enforcer for powerful forces. With the authority of a lawman, he developed a record of dispensing justice as he saw fit. Bristow relates numerous shootings and lynchings in which Smith was involved or very likely had a hand. One was the hanging of Cornelius Donahue, known as Lame Johnny, while Smith was escorting the outlaw prisoner from Fort Robinson to Deadwood in July 1879. Another affair was his shooting of several suspects in an 1880 gold theft in Sidney, Nebraska. And later in life, Smith was hired by a newspaper publisher to drive William ‘Bat’ Masterson out of Denver. As Smith caromed around Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado, the author recounts his subject’s brushes with Western figures, including Doc Middleton, George ‘Big Nose’ Parrott, Pat Garrett, William Llewellyn, and Butch Cassidy.
“Readers will find little admirable, much less heroic, in Smith’s life, which ended at age seventy-two when he drank lye while being held in a Denver jail. With details documented in two hundred-plus footnotes and an impressive bibliography shored up with doses of conjecture, the author moves a reader with ease through Smith’s rancorous life in 155 pages. Yet in the end, most readers will probably find comfort that they never met James L. Smith in person.
“Bristow, a former law enforcement officer and teacher of police administration in California, has previously written two fictional works about law enforcement in the early West, The Pinkerton Eye and Playing God.”
—Tom White, Nebraska History, Vol. 89, Number 1