When I started researching the history of dude ranching, I came across quite a few stories about crime and lawlessness. This really isn’t surprising, because the dude ranch is the perfect location for mystery and shadowy behavior: an isolated location, usually in the remote West, with strangers thrown together, living for a few weeks in a closed society with its own language and customs. This formula worked well for my award-winning debut novel Dudes Rush In. (**Shameless Self-Promotion Alert**)
Anyway, the crimes I read about in books and newspapers ranged from robbery to murder. In 1930, for example, a man named Hugh Ingersoll, who ran a dude ranch near Helena, Montana, was convicted of grand larceny for stealing a calf owned by Wolf Creek rancher William Steinbach. This was Ingersoll’s second offense, because when his first calf-stealing case came to court, the jury was deadlocked and the judge declared a mistrial.
Then there was “Diamond Jack” Alterie, whose real name was Leland Verain. He had been part of the Al Capone and Dion O’Banion mobs in Chicago, and was accused of burglary and murder in the 1920s. He decided to get out of the line of fire, so he and his wife moved to her home state of Colorado. They bought a ranch at Sweetwater Lake, north of Glenwood Springs, most famous for being the place where Doc Holliday, of OK Corral fame, took his last breath.
Alterie told locals that he just wanted a quiet western life, and threw himself into the role. He held rodeos at another ranch he owned near Denver, and in the summers he ran Sweetwater as a private dude ranch. He bought fancy cowboy duds and strutted around Denver looking a lot like movie cowboy Tom Mix. His Chicago cronies came to his ranch during deer season, and Alterie took their privacy seriously. In the spring of 1931 he shot at a fisherman who dared to take his boat onto the lake. Everyone thought the place was a firearms-filled hideout, and he did get arrested for the gun incident.
He was released on bail, and it appears his case never came to trial. But Alterie did not stay a dude rancher for long.
Someone beat him up in Denver in 1933, and he went on a drunken revenge spree, accidentally shooting two bystanders. He went to court and a judge gave him a choice: spend five years in prison or leave Colorado. He was no fool, and after packing up his ranch he went back to Chicago. He was gunned down on its streets in 1935, and his dude ranch passed through many owners, though mostly as a hunting and fishing lodge. Renamed Sweetwater Lake Lodge, it burned down in 1955.
One of the saddest stories I came across took place at the Seven Dash dude ranch near Willcox, Arizona, about eighty miles east of Tucson. In 1924, New York born ranch owner “Captain” E.M. Joyce shot and killed one of his hands, a Texas cowboy named Jess Whitley. Turns out Joyce’s wife Lillian had been having an affair with the young man, and after his arrest Captain Joyce claimed he was just trying to protect the integrity of his home. The jury didn’t buy it, and he went to prison for manslaughter.
Local cowboys came to the trial every day to support Whitley’s family and his memory. And to make sure everyone knew that Captain Joyce was not one of them. “Joyce’s only resemblance to the ranch life was the large cowboy hat which he wore to the court room,” reported the Tucson Citizen newspaper.
Tales of dude ranchers gone bad are rare. They are usually the victims, rather than the perpetrators. And there was more crime in movies and television shows set on dude ranches, than on the real thing.
Some crimes can take place anywhere, and dude ranches weren’t immune. Ranchers started keeping cars at their places — which they drove into remote towns to get supplies and pick up dudes at the train station — and starting in the 1950s the dudes drove themselves to ranches in their own vehicles. This was a situation ripe for crime and bad behavior.
In the summer of 1933 Mrs. Rush Swayne, owner of a dude ranch outside of Santa Fe, reported to the local police that two of her cars had been stolen: a Chevrolet and a Nash. The Chevy was later recovered, though it was nearly a wreck. The Nash was lost for good.
And some stories can only be told in the West. A wrangler from an unnamed dude ranch in southern California was arrested for drunk driving in February of 1933. When the Highway Patrol pulled him over, he told them he could handle a horse, but a car was something different.