"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Thursday, August 6, 2020

The First Fast Draw by Louis L’Amour: Cullen Baker


Not a nice man


The First Fast Draw was a Louis L’Amour novel that was published in 1959, coming between Radigan and Taggart. In my opinion it was not one of L’Amour’s best, for three main reasons: firstly because the hero is a less than savory character; secondly because of the preposterous basic plot that the hero invented the whole quick-on-the-draw hoohah; and lastly because it’s told in the first person.
 
Very fictional

Western novels do really depend on a central character with those ‘Western’ virtues of toughness, taciturnity and survival skills. A Western hero has to be resourceful but modest, has to be really good with fists and/or guns but say little about it. He (it’s always a he) also has to be decent, and follow the Western code of honor. It’s not easy when recounting the action from the point of view of ‘I’, to bring those skills and character traits out without the fellow appearing to boast. And if you are going to make that ‘I’ someone like the Texas reprobate Cullen Baker, it’s harder still.

Cullen Montgomery Baker (1835 – 1869) was Tennessee-born but operated after the Civil War in northeast Texas and southwestern Arkansas. Like his contemporaries such as Bill Longley and John Wesley Hardin (and Longley figures in the story) Baker was notorious for fighting in saloon brawls and his fiery temper, resorting willingly to firearms and perfectly happy to gain any advantage going, no matter how ‘unfair’ or ‘unsporting’. It is impossible to know how many men he killed but it was a very considerable number.

A picture often said to be Cullen Baker but almost certainly not.
At least he holds the favored Baker weapon.

One newspaper called Baker "the Arkansas brigand" and “the most feared gunman in the Lone Star State who had spread a reign of terror in Texas." The Athens Post referred to Baker as a “notorious guerrilla, of Red River notoriety”.

Baker started young. At the age of 18, while out drinking with friends, he became involved in a verbal altercation with a youth, grabbed a whip, and beat the boy nearly to death. He then shot a witness to this crime in the legs with a shotgun and left him lying in front of his house, where he died a few days later.

Baker fled to Arkansas where a local woman berated him. He took several hickory switches to her house and threatened to beat her. When her husband protested Baker stabbed him to death.

Baker joined the CSA during the Civil War and according to The Memphis Daily Appeal “he shot and killed at least three African Americans, killing a black woman in an immigrant train and later shooting a black boy six times with a pistol after taking the Oath of Allegiance and becoming an overseer of Freemen.”

By 1864 he had either been discharged or had deserted, and he joined the notorious ‘Independent Rangers’, supposed to pursue and capture deserters from the Confederate Army but in reality taking more time over murder, rape, theft and extortion.

With much of Arkansas under the control of the Union army, often using African-American troopers, Baker was enraged. Near the end of 1864 in a saloon in Spanish Bluffs, Baker shot and killed three soldiers and a sergeant.

After the war Baker joined forces with outlaw Lee Rames, and the gang of desperados killed and looted. Baker’s favored modus operandi was to shoot from ambush with a shotgun.

Louis had a good imagination

None of this occurs in L’Amour’s novel, of course. There, Baker is a put-upon man trying to farm his dead daddy’s land in peace but driven into the alligator-infested Caddo Lake area by unjust persecution. He has a few loyal friends but is not a gang leader.

It is at this time that he realizes the necessity for being ready to shoot to defend himself at a moment’s notice, and practices long and hard until he can pull a revolver (he doesn’t use a shotgun) with lightning speed, thus becoming “the first fast draw”. The quick-on-the-draw legend was of course to become a mainstay of pulp literature and Hollywood Western movies.

Cullen’s time of mayhem was in fact relatively and mercifully short. Eventually his homicidal wildness was too much even for Rames, and a split occurred, with all but one of the gang members, a certain Kirby, siding with Rames.

Cullen Baker was killed in January 1869 by one Thomas Orr, a schoolteacher, said to be romantically involved with Baker’s (inevitably estranged) wife, who  immediately cashed in with a book, Life of the Notorious Desperado, Cullen Baker, from His Childhood to His Death, with a Full Account of All the Murders He Committed.

The papers loved it

A newspaper at the time recounted: 

Texas outlaw Cullen Baker was killed by a schoolteacher named Orr who had married Bakers ex-wife. Baker had once hung Orr but cut him down too soon in order to save his rope. Orr, with three others, followed Baker and an accomplice to a hideout in southeastern Arkansas, coming upon the two men just as they were squatting next to a fire, having lunch. Orr and the others did not call out to the outlaws to surrender, knowing what their answer would be. The teacher and his companions rode down on Baker and his henchman with their six-guns blazing, shooting both men dead on the spot. Orr found that his old adversary was a walking arsenal. Strapped to his side was a double-barreled shotgun. Baker was also wearing four six -guns, three derringers, and six knives. Also found on Baker's corpse was a carefully kept packet of newspaper clippings.

L’Amour won’t have this, though. In his story Baker generously gives a man in rags one of his distinctive shirts, and it is this man whom Orr kills and who is taken for Baker. Baker finds it convenient to be ‘dead’ and so does not disabuse the world of his reported demise. He goes out West with his lady love. Believe that if you will. Actually, L'Amour was fond of Baker and the character appears in other books by him too, such as Lando

Of course with all outlaws there are escape stories. Billy the Kid got away from Fort Sumner, Jesse James escaped the assassination at the hands of the Fords, and so on.


Equally predictably, Baker was elevated to Robin Hood status. He was a noble defender of the rights of the poor and downtrodden against political and corporate exploiters. Jesse James would get the same treatment. This was exacerbated in Baker’s case by the fact that some of the authorities he rebelled against were Reconstruction ones, and as we know, in much of white Texas – and indeed in Western movies and novels – Reconstruction was all bad, with no saving graces. It was all about corrupt Northern carpetbaggers unjustly favoring “uppity nigras” at the expense of decent white folk, and there was nothing positive about the system at all.

Still today Baker has his defenders, especially in Texas. A recent biography of him (2018) bears the title The Robin Hood of Caddo Lake. The town of Bloomburg, Texas commemorates Baker with the annual Cullen Baker Country Fair, held the first weekend in November - proceeds to the Bloomburg Volunteer Fire Department.

Bloomburg (I don't think the MG was original)

Baker hasn’t appeared much in Western movies or TV shows, perhaps surprisingly. There was a Mexican spaghetti, La Mula de Cullen Baker, with Rodolfo de Anda as Baker, in 1971. You’d think at least that detective Matt Clark would have captured him on Stories of the Century, yet nay. Do please leave a comment if you know of any other Bakers on the big or small screen.

A more serious biography of Baker is available, if you want to know more, Cullen Montgomery Baker, Reconstruction Desperado (Louisiana State University Press, 1997) by Barry A Crouch and Donaly E Brice.

But I’d skip the Louis L’Amour one if I were you.


What about a figurine?

 

 

6 comments:

  1. Jeff, using the words written by screenwriters James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALENCE(filmed in 1961, released 1962).
    Ransom Stoddard(James Stewart) asks the newspaper editor, "You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?"
    Maxwell Scott(Carleton Young) replies, "No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

    Looks like too me that Louis L'Amour didn't do much research, if any, concerning Cullen Baker. L'Amour probably read Ed Bartholomew's CULLEN BAKER, PREMIER TEXAS GUNFIGHTER(Houston: Frontier Press of Texas, 1954). Bartholomew's book glamorized Baker’s exploits and claimed that Baker was the first of the Texas gunfighters. Bartholomew writes, “With his Colts Dragoon Cullen Baker came to be known as the crack dead-shot with percussion pistols; he led all the gun-wise lead slingers of the frontiers, in accuracy and speed, from then on out.” This sensational style of praise probably would have appealed to novelist L'Amour.

    There was another popular best selling book out there, at that time, that surely the well read Louis L'Amour had run across. Eugene Cunningham's TRIGGERNOMETRY: A GALLERY OF GUNFIGHTERS, WITH TECHNICAL NOTES ON LEATHER SLAPPING AS A FINE ART
    GATHERED FROM MANY A LOOSE HOLSTERED EXPERT OVER THE YEARS(New York: The Press of the Pioneers,1934). That is a humdinger of a title. This book has went through several editions and reissues over the years. There was the 1956 edition published by Caldwell, Idaho: The Caxton Printers, Ltd. You would think that L'Amour might have known about this one. Let's look and see what Cunningham had to say about our "Robin Hood of Caddo Lake." In Chapter I-"Breed of the Border-Bill Longley", Cunningham described Longley as "number one of the modern gunslingers-even more than Cullen Baker." Although, this probably didn't happen, because the timeline is wrong, but Cunningham did describe Cullen Baker's "Merrie Men." Supposedly Longley joined up with Baker, and Cunningham writes, "he joined the desperate band of Cullen Baker, robbers, killers, in what they called guerilla warfare against carpet-baggers, Negroes, and Northern sympathizers." A real nice band of warriors for the "Lost Cause."

    Well, Louis L'Amour chose to memorialize Cullen Baker in his novel THE FIRST FAST DRAW. L'Amour as a novelist used a whole lot of poetic license and romanticized this ugly story, but as we know, he wasn't the first, nor will he be the last to do this.

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    1. Hi Walter
      Thank you for these informatiove additions. Cullen's "Merrie Men", I ask you. You couldn't make it up. Though Cunningham did.
      I intend to review TRIGGERNOMETRY at some future point.
      Jeff

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  2. Jeff, I should have made myself more clear. I thought that "Merrie Men" would fit right in with Marilee Rabb Chapman's THE ROBIN HOOD OF CADDO LAKE: THE LIFE & LEGEND OF CULLEN BAKER(CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2018), although I haven't read this book. No, I'll stick with Cunningham's description of Cullen Baker and his gang as robbers and killers.

    I got a real kick out of the Cullen Baker action figurine. I'll have to pass on buying one from ebay. $79.99 plus $12.00 shipping is a little much.

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  3. The character Slim Pickens plays in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is named Cullen Baker but clearly he's not based on the real guy. Don't know why Rudy Wurlitzer chose that name.

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  4. I grew up here along the Sulphur River and have known many of the Bakers thru the years, and I strongly disagree with much of what has been popularly written on Cullen, starting with the book by Thomas Orr, who disliked him and painted the real Cullen far darker than he was. As in all legends there is truth and then there is legend, and I do think in the last couple of years Cullen was more and more pure trouble and temper, but was not always so. Many of his so called exploits are exaggerated and some just plain false, as in most cases with famous outlaws. The war years were hard years here and Reconstruction was a complete chaos of corruption of carpetbaggers and down right theives looking to make profit on the south, most so Texas as it was little affected by the combat of the war, so there was much cotton in warehouses and properties that could be taken for taxes and such. The general temperment of Baker is not at all uncommon in the region to this day, tho we keep a lid on it and do not have the war or the carpetbaggers to deal with these days. The book itself was an enjoyable read tho fiction of course, I like the first person style and there is much to be said for the pistol work of Baker and a few others of that time, such as Bill Longely and Hardin, both younger men, but in general before this time most carried the large Dragoon pistols on their saddles or did not practice with them in a combat situation, tho the "fast draw of Hollywood" is false to the old west there were some pistoleers that were quiet good and adept with their weapons. Normally back then to say a man was quick on the draw meant he was touchy and would pull his weapon and shoot a man over little to no provocation, Wild Bill Hickok was a prime example of such, extremely touchy and prideful, but that was part of the so called Code of the West. The real Baker was no saint or Robin Hood of course, but was a regular east Texan with the anger and meanness to fight back.

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  5. There is a book that was written in 95 by Bakers ggreatgrandson, Robert W Teel that is well worth reading, is well researched and looks at the human side of things and less legend

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