An ambitious, well-written effort to restore a Wild West desperado to history.
Broad Street Review editor Rottenberg (In the Kingdom of Coal, 2003, etc.) has a yen for back roads geographical and historical. This long tale, full of shaggy-dog elements, begins on a back road on the High Plains that was once America’s chief highway for wagon trains crossing to California and the Pacific Northwest by way of South Pass, Wyo. There he picks up the trail of Joseph Alfred “Jack” Slade, a figure long forgotten, turning up these days in the occasional monograph or journal article. Slade, by Rottenberg’s vigorous account, has all the makings of a Western character that ought to be remembered, begging for portrayal by, say, Tommy Lee Jones or Russell Crowe. Zelig-like, he turns up as a muleteer, wagon-train driver and stagecoach exec along the Emigrant Trail, serving as de facto law of the land over a large area of what is now Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming. His stern enforcement of the law in a time of outlaws and dry-gulchers, to say nothing of secessionists, kept a steady flow of ore streaming from the western goldfields to the federal treasury. Yet this lawman went bad, turning to drink and crime, becoming a bully and general pest across his former domain. Ironically, given that he was one of those who “could believe that a few salutary hangings might enhance their security,” he met his end at the hands of a vigilante mob, as Mark Twain recorded in Roughing It—inaccurately, Rottenberg shows. Likening Slade to the twin leads of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Rottenberg considers why Slade’s trail went south, and why he is not better remembered—perhaps because “he resisted neat categorization…He could not even be labeled a good man or a bad one.”
Readers will surely remember Jack Slade henceforth. A treat for Western history buffs and fans of true crime.