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Above the Law

The exploits of a little known but infamous Old West outlaw.

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He was Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy and Bret Maverick combined. He rustled more cattle, stole more horses, ran more hustles and held up more stores, banks, post offices, stagecoaches and trains in a half-dozen states and five countries than a bunch of other and better known Old West outlaws combined. Then why have so few heard of George West Musgrave?

Because his known aliases include: Burr, Bob Cameron, Jeff Davis, Bill Johnson, Jess Johnson, Ed Mason, George Mason, R.W. "Bob" Mason, Jesse Miller, Bob Murray, George W. Murray, Robert Sanders, Bob Steward, John Stoner and Jesse Williams. Warrants are probably still outstanding for some of those and a few others that even the Tanners meticulous research may have missed. On those rare occasions when he was caught, he posted bond, skipped and moved on to the next jurisdiction.

Until this biography no one has ever connected all of his varied exploits under many names. He ranged from Wyoming and Nevada into California, New Mexico and Arizona. (He knocked off one previously untouched stage line in Santa Cruz County four times in two months.) The High Five/Black Jack gang he helped form pulled the largest Santa Fe Railroad heist in history. Like Butch and Sundance, he headed for South America. Unlike them he survived, dying in bed in his own house in Asuncion, Paraguay, in 1947 at the age of 70. He had become, among other things, a cattle baron, actually owning some of the cattle.

Musgrave was also known as a card shark and a dead shot. There was one early murder rap from 1894 in Roswell that finally saw him stand trial under his real name. He beat it, arguing self-defense in a classic western discussion over who drew first. He charmed the jury into believing he was an upright family man making an honest living in Wyoming under one of his assumed names. His first wife, who later divorced him and lived for a time in downtown Tucson running some scams of her own in the '30s and who lived until 1976, was part of the sham that included borrowing someone else's child to fill out the family portrait.

Musgrave celebrated his acquittal by robbing a train. The man he tried to talk into joining him declined, so he went solo. The only recorded incident of a successful one-man train robbery occurred that night in 1910 a few miles from Roswell.

We have stratified our view of "the Old West" in many ways, including the time frame. Most Western novels and movies are set between the Civil War and 1890. Too many have taken Turner's "end of the frontier" stuff as gospel.

Apparently nobody told folks like George Musgrave. His West stayed old style until well into this century, telephones and motor vehicles aside. There were still things like stagecoaches, and still guys holding them up.

Karen Holliday Tanner is a direct descendant of Doc Holliday's brother, and discovered much of the George Musgrave story while researching her first book Doc Holliday, A Family Portrait (University of Oklahoma Press, 1997). Her husband, John Tanner Jr., is a professor of history at Palomar College in California and is related to George Musgrave, definitely helpful in finding family reminiscences. The Tanners, who alternate between living in Tucson and California, have done a painstaking job of compiling these reminiscences with old newspaper reports, public records and interviews with those who actually knew Musgrave and others who give us the fascinating story of what may have been the Old West's most successful bad guy.

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