His Life and Misadventures
Hollywood Versus History
The best-selling novel of 1906 was titled Whispering Smith and was written by Frank H. Spearman following a visit to Cheyenne, Wyoming. His purpose was to consult with two men that were considered to be leading authorities on railroad policing. They were Union Pacific Special Agent Timothy T. Keliher and U. S. Deputy Marshal Joe LeFors. They sat for hours in the bar of the Inter-Ocean Hotel, the principal watering hole in Cheyenne. Spearman sought to learn the techniques of railroad policing and the problems affecting officers that protected the rails in the west.
Spearman, never a railroader himself, became familiar with the romance of the rails through his contacts with the Union Pacific Railway while a Nebraska banker. He authored several books with railroad plots prior to the Cheyenne trip and one, The Strategy of Great Railroads, was adopted as a textbook at Yale University in 1904. As a young man he was involved in mid-western commerce and heard of a man called Whispering Smith. The name made a lasting impression on his memory and when he began to write fiction he used it in a short story. LeFors and Keliher must have mentioned a man they had known called Whispering Smith, thus reinforcing Spearmanís fascination with the name. His involvement with Keliher and LeFors inspired a new novel centering on a railroad detective they had described and the character was to be called Whispering Smith.
There actually was a Union Pacific Railway detective that served in the Nebraska and Wyoming area during the late 1870s and who came to be known as Whispering Smith. His true name was James L. Smith. While Spearman created his heroic character as a fictional composite of Keliher and LeFors, he could not resist the appealing nature of James L. Smithís nickname. It is unknown if Spearman ever met Smith in person, corresponded with him or if Smith was ever aware of the novel.
In a 1916 novel, Nan of Music Mountain, Spearman wove an exciting story of stage line robbery. This long and wordy novel was paced much like Whispering Smith and that fictional railroad detective was frequently included in the dialogue. Although James L. Smith died two years prior to publication of this second novel one wonders if he was aware of Spearmanís continued fascination with his nickname. The popularity of Smithís sobriquet was predictable. The public of that period was greatly attracted to the colorful names linked with characters of the old west. Celebrated examples include Wild Bill, Buffalo Bill, Bronco Billy, Black Bart, Billy the Kid, and Calamity Jane.
Hollywood pounced on Spearmanís catchy title plus the popularity of his 1906 novel and repeatedly obtained filming rights. With each new motion picture the story line strayed farther from the plot of Spearmanís novel. Hollywood filmmakers, in order to maximize the appeal of the western genre, created an entire mythology of inaccurate impressions with respect to language, accents, equipment, apparel, demeanor and grooming. Their fictionalization included heroic gunfighters, quick-draw shootouts, grunting Indians, quirky side-kicks, trick riding cowboys and defense of vulnerable womanhood. This fanciful coloration was applied to the Whispering Smith films, much to the distortion of history.
In Spearmanís 1906 novel Whispering Smith investigates the deliberate wrecking of trains by thieving salvage crews. He identifies an old friend as the principal scoundrel after the plot is delayed by romantic interludes. In a final chase the villain is killed by Smithís sidekick. Smith is then hospitalized with an illness but manages to win his true love. Spearmanís book was illustrated by N. C. Wyeth using the proper apparel of the era. The film versions of the novel are progressively rewritten to change the plot and lose most of the detail that Spearman originally included on railroad policing, use of informants and pay-offs made to troublemakers.
In 1948 the most popular film version featured Alan Ladd in his first color appearance. Laddís characterization of Whispering Smith portrayed a mild-mannered, two-gun railroad detective whose quiet voice and polite demeanor triumphs over evil. Ladd appears as a slightly built and clean-shaven hero dressed in Hollywoodís version of cowboy attire complete with a Buscadero gun belt and a pair of pearl handled Colt Peacemaker revolvers. This image was incorrect in every detail.
The common thread woven through the novel and the films cast Whispering Smith as an honest, moral man who took no advantage in a fight and whose courage never failed. Were Spearman and Hollywood guilty of a mischaracterization? Was the real Whispering Smith actually a cold-blooded killer, frustrated duelist, devious plotter and pugnacious braggart? These questions can best be answered by an examination of his life.