From Bedlam to Reform (Religion and Culture), 1851-1900

by O. Vernon Burton, Troy Smith, and Simon Appleford, University of Illinois


The “frontier” of Mark Twain’s lifetime –from the Mississippi to the Pacific –has held a peculiar mystique for the American public, from the mid-19th century until the present. That mystique has been shaped around a specific framework: violence. Violence from Indians, from bandits, from nature itself. In our own time, endangered soldiers have been in “Indian country,” crime-ridden neighborhoods have been referred to as “Fort Apache,” and it is a commonly held belief that, when in a potentially dangerous situation, it is time to “get out of Dodge.” In the 19th century, eastern newspapers sensationalized violent events “out West,” dime novels mythologized them, and religionists and reformers feared that the land beyond the Mississippi would prove to be a moral wilderness as well as (to their eyes) a physical one.

Ned Buntline and Buffalo Bill Cody may have been among the most flamboyant purveyors of this mythology –but Mark Twain himself did his part, especially in his memoir Roughing It. His “long-tailed heroes of the revolver” such as Sugarfoot Mike, Pock Marked Jake, El Dorado Johnny, Six-fingered Pete, and others perfectly fit the mold of frontier ruffians that Americans like to read about. Historian Robert Dykstra notes that the memoir “probably provided the most influential elaboration on this theme of ubiquitous, casual murder in the West.” (1) Dykstra and others have also endeavored to put frontier violence in perspective. Cattle towns averaged 1.5 murders per year, and mining camps averaged 4.75 –Deadwood’s famous first year yielded four homicides, including Wild Bill Hickock’s –whereas in 1893 alone 433 men were accidentally killed trying to uncouple train cars. “The real frontier West,” Paula Mitchell Marks comments, “had little relation to the Wild West, that violent murderous place of popular imagination.” (2)

It may seem odd that the public of Mark Twain’s day could have been so enamored of “wild and woolly” characters both (allegedly) real and fictional, when one considers that the period was one of reform, benevolent societies, and Victorian ideals of control. On further reflection, however, perhaps it is not so odd, after all. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg has produced several works examining that very paradox. One of her articles focuses on a figure who was prominent in the public consciousness during Twain’s youth –Davy Crockett, as presented in the popular Crockett Almanacs (most of which were published after the real Crockett’s death in 1836.)

The fictionalized Crockett would have been a worthy denizen of Twain’s exaggerated mining towns. “I can run faster, dive deeper, stay under longer and come out drier, than any chap this side of the big Swamp. I can outlook a panther and outstare a flash of lightning; tote a steamboat on my back and play at rough and tumble with a lion.”(3) Such literary works extolled the rough, footloose, uncontrolled, and autonomous young man –a figure that existed, not just in a writer’s fancy, but in real life. Commercial, transportation, and industrial changes were in the process of transforming longstanding agrarian traditions. These changes –which involved both a decline in the apprenticeship system and the allure of westward movement –strained former patriarchal and patrilocal patterns which had traditionally kept young men in check. The fanciful adventures of Davy Crockett and other frontier figures thrilled those individuals who were perhaps themselves in a state of flux. 

This was in start contrast to the other sort of young man who was praised by older members of a more settled population: the self-controlled youth who obeyed a wide range of dietary and sexual restrictions, thus holding his baser nature in abeyance and pleasing his elders. Moral reformers such as Sylvester Graham and O. S. Fowler led the way in exhorting young men to avoid temptation and intemperance –and especially the “destructive” sin of masturbation. Concerns for purity went beyond controlling the dangerous vices of youth and led to benevolent societies and movements advocating a wide range of social change, much of it centered on morality in some form or other. Historian Clifford Griffin wrote that “in its simplest form benevolence was following the Golden Rule. But in the nineteenth century many men argued that perfect neighborly love was making other people obey the will of the Lord. The officers claimed that they knew how God wished His creatures to act on earth and that the kindest thing one person could do for another was to save him from folly, vice, and sin.” (4)

However, something more than spiritual concern was involved. The nation was in a state of transition –not unlike the changes experienced by adolescents, moving from one stage of life to another. Reformers’ earnest efforts to control young men –and their fears of the unstructured West –reflected a desire to minimize and regulate that change, both in an immediate sense with young men and in a broader cultural sense. Smith-Rosenberg wrote: “It was a debate about the liminality of Jacksonian society poised between the traditional agrarian and mercantile social order and the new ways of commercial and industrial capitalism… American society was itself the adolescent.” (5) Ironically, in both the frontier and self-controlled paradigms, women are treated as either madonnas or whores –as one would expect from a simplistic adolescent male perspective, and as indeed has continued to be the case in the frontier myth.

Reformers feared bedlam, and romantics relished it –both perspectives combined to make the West seem much more violent than it actually was. “Dodge City is a wicked little town,” one visitor said. “Indeed its character is so clearly and egregiously bad that one might conclude… it was marked for special Providential punishment.” Another visitor remarked that, back home in Pennsylvania, Dodge City’s cemetery Boot Hill was “considered almost as great a curiosity as the grave of Shakespeare.” In reality, frontier communities were “sociologically cohesive” places where settlers carved out their new lives with picks, spades, and plows rather than with guns. (6)

  • Richard A. Bartlett, The New Country: A Social History of the American Frontier (New York, 1974.)
  • Robert R. Dykstra. The Cattle Towns (New York, 1968.)
  • Robert R. Dykstra, “Imaginary Dodge City.” The Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Autumn, 2000), p. 278-284.
  • Robert R. Dykstra, “Overdosing on Dodge City.” The Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Winter, 1996), pp. 505-514.
  • Clifford S. Griffin. “The Abolitionists and the Benevolent Societies, 1831-1861.” The Journal of Negro History, vol. 44, no. 3 (July 1959), pp. 195-216.
  • W. Eugene Hollon. Frontier Violence: Another Look. (New York, 1974.)
  • Roger D. McGrath. Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes: Violence on the Frontier (Berkeley, 1984.)
  • Paula Mitchell Marks, “How the West Got Wild: Comments.” The Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Autumn, 2000), p. 290-292.
  • Carroll Smith-Rosenberg. “Davey Crockett as Trickster: Pornography, Liminality, and Symbolic Inversion in Victorian America.” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 17, No. 2 (April 1982), pp. 325-350.
  • Carroll Smith-Rosenberg. Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (New York, 1985.)
  • Carroll Smith-Rosenberg. “Sex as Symbol in Victorian Purity: An Ethnohistorical Analysis of Jacksonian America.”