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The Last Outlaw

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Date/Location: April 17, 1991: Beecher’s Hope Ranch, Stallion County, Commonwealth of West Elizabeth

Submission to: Journal of the American West, 22nd Edition

Author: Dr. John (Jack) Marston, Jr. Professor Emeritus of American History, University of Blackwater

Title: Musings of a Dying Fossil: The Death and Legacy of Edgar Ross

In my more than six decades as a historian, I have noticed a great shift in how the discipline is conducted. Many of my colleagues (and myself included) pay far too much attention to constructed data, to military equipment, to machinery, and the search for a hidden fact or truth that somehow justifies their political or economic ideology. What is lost throughout this entire process are the stories. We all have our own stories, as do the dead, and mine is coming to an end. I am ninety-six years old, was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer, and I feel my body getting weaker every day. Perhaps I have a month left to live, two if I’m lucky. I am quite certain that this will be my last ever publication.

Coming to terms with my own mortality (my three children, John III, Abby, and Arthur have been instrumental in this) has given me an opportunity to notice that I, in essence, am a living relic of history. I remember the excitement when the city of Blackwater first installed its streetlights, and the proclamation that days would now last forever (a notion that seems silly to the contemporary, cosmopolitan, and supposedly enlightened metropolis of eleven million). I remember when Saint Denis smelled of soot and excrement, the air being as toxic to the lung as tobacco. I remember traveling for days on horseback from town to town, notoriously perilous journeys that would now take fifteen minutes driving on the interstate (but I choose to take the train to work). Some of my earliest memories involve my early childhood with the infamous Van der Linde gang (who I have written extensively about), and the mad dash to safety after the Blackwater Massacre of 1899.

It is important to note, from an objectively historical perspective, that much of this advancement would not have been possible without the efforts and influence of Edgar Ross. His destruction of the Van der Lindes over a period of years is a known and frankly overdone subject of analysis. When I wrote Red Dead back in 1946, I sought to tell the stories of the gang at its peak, not of its downfall. The stories of my father (John Marston I), the gruff but gold-hearted Arthur Morgan, the whimsical but courageous “Uncle”, the maniacal Micah Bell, and the infamous Black Widow are known far and wide now (a fact of which I am quite proud of), but it was Edgar Ross who ended those stories.

I have long been a private critic of Ross, but I have refrained from criticizing him publicly due to his revered status in many areas of academia. I am now ninety-six, dying, and no longer care. I could write a series of books on my criticisms of Ross, but, as I no longer have the time or strength, consider this essay the drastically abbreviated version.

The great German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, cautions us that it is wrong to use people as a means to an end, rather than an end in and of themselves. For those who may have not dabbled in ethics or philosophy in general, it is wrong if you use people for your own purposes. It is also wrong to murder them. Unfortunately, I do not think Edgar Ross accomplished anything in his life without using people. He used myself (an innocent boy) and my mother as bait for my father, and then used my father as a tool to draw out and exterminate the desired remnants of the Van der Linde Gang. Once Ross was done with my father, he killed him.

My colleagues argue that Ross was the catalyst for western modernity, and that we’d all be riding horses and towing away on farms if it weren’t for him (as someone who has rode horses and towed the land for his entire life, I’m not sure what the problem is), and perhaps this is true to a certain extent. As I stated previously, the influence of Ross is undeniable. But the praise of progress as an intrinsic good concerns me, because as historians, it is imperative that we analyze at what cost the “good” came. In the case of Ross, the cost was blood and innocent lives. In many cases, the Pinkertons were as “bad” or worse than the outlaws they hunted. They murdered, hunted, stole, and raped. They destroyed innocent lives and communities without care, largely as the result of personal vendettas. The outlaw town of Van Horn, for instance, was violently occupied by Agent Andrew Milton in 1899 (until his subsequent assassination).

Historians are not supposed to have opinions about criminal cases, merely report the information and interpret their wider impacts upon society, but the fact that the Assassination of Edgar Ross in 1914 is considered to be one of the greatest cold cases in history amuses me to no end. Criminologists, psychologists, forensic analysts, biologists, and both the American and Mexican governments have relentlessly hunted for a killer, but found nothing besides a dead old man beside a river in Mexico, a brother who had possibly had information but was too shocked to reveal it, and a widow who married a younger lover within a month. This is a special case, though, as it is the historian who has the definitive answer, as you need not look beyond Ross’ most famous quote, that “everyone eventually pays for what they've done.”

For years, Ross hunted, harassed, and abused myself and my loved ones. He killed my father, and would have left his body to rot had I not buried him at our ranch, like he would have wanted. I suppose this essay will be interpreted as a confession after I’m gone, but I don’t think it amounts to one.

Regardless, I killed Edgar Ross. I shot him in a duel on the Mexican side of the San Luis River. I did it for my father, and I am still as angry now as I was seventy-seven years ago. The authority of the state does not diminish the immorality of Edgar Ross.

To me, the word “confession” implies some level of guilt or remorse. By confessing, one expects some form of forgiveness or leniency. I feel neither guilt nor remorse and I ask for neither forgiveness nor leniency. If I had a thousand opportunities, I would kill Edgar Ross a thousand times. At this point in my life, there are only three things I wish for:

1. That my loved ones continue to find happiness and prosperity, and I think that they will.
2. That I have made my father, wherever he is, proud.
3. That Edgar Ross is treated with the necessary historical accuracy to convey who he was.

I suppose I may be considered the last outlaw after my death, but I beg you to consider if any action of Edgar Ross was more just than mine. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about history as a study over the course of my long career, it’s that Edgar Ross had the right idea about one thing; Everyone eventually pays for what they've done.