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Death of a Gunfighter: The Quest for Jack Slade, The West's Most Elusive Legend Hardcover – October 24, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From School Library Journal

Was Jack Slade (1831–64) a murderous gunfighter of the Old West, as depicted by Mark Twain in Roughing It, or was Twain off the mark? Journalist Rottenberg takes the results of research by a small group of amateurs who have been digging through records and carefully examining books for mentions of Slade and adds them to his own efforts to present a portrait of a wagonmaster, Overland Mail division superintendent, and at times a hapless drunk. The first two occupations earned Slade a small fortune, the last cost him his life, hanged by a group of vigilantes in Montana. Rottenberg shows Slade in all his complexity, delineating how his skill at keeping the stagecoaches and mail moving was a factor in keeping California in the Union. He examines how the myths and legends surrounding Slade originated and were propagated, sometimes with the aid of Slade himself. Since Slade left no letters or other writings, Rottenberg fills in with discussions of the times, occasionally becoming so immersed in the era that the reader loses sight of Slade. This won't matter to Western history buffs or general readers, but the record here isn't substantial enough for academics. Recommended for public libraries and comprehensive collections on the West.—Stephen H. Peters, Northern Michigan Univ. Lib., Marquette
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

The “West of the Imagination” can be utilized as a process transforming rather unpleasant personalities, such as Wyatt Earp, into characters of noble and mythic figures. This process is particularly evident in the case of Jack Slade. Slade has been portrayed as a skilled, courageous upholder of civilization, the sort of man made famous in dime novels. He has also been described as a cruel psychopath who killed for fun. Rottenberg has spent several years assembling the most credible reports about Slade’s exploits and personality. The result is an interesting, if still unsatisfying, account of a man whose “true” character remains tantalizingly out of reach. Slade, a Mexican War veteran, first achieved fame by securing the stagecoach routes between the Missouri River and the Pacific coast, before and during the Civil War. At some point (Rottenberg blames alcoholism), Slade’s propensity for violence got out of control, and he became a lawless thug. Rottenberg’s portrayal of Slade leaves some questions unanswered, but Western aficionados should still enjoy this effort to understand a mysterious man. --Jay Freeman

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 536 pages
  • Publisher: Westholme Publishing; 1 edition (October 24, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594160708
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594160707
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.5 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #693,181 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Zelie Nic on December 19, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Jack Slade was the prototype of the American Western Outlaw. At one point, he was a trusted vilgilante dealing harsh justice in a harsh world (check out the advert inside the book for men for the Pony Express, where it declares a preference for "orphans"). On the other-hand, Jack Slade was a murderous, drunken sort. He is hard to pin down, and thus was a legendary character, even during his life. Mark Twain's infatuation with Slade is constantly being referred to. And it makes sense that Twain would use elements of the Slade myth in his own literary creations.

I had never heard of Jack Slade before. I wonder if he is one of those names lost to history. There's certaintly not a huge amount of certifiable information about him, and this is where Rottenberg really excells; finding and using each bit of information he can. The book has an extensive list of references.

Like I said, I had never heard of Jack Slade before. I don't really like westerns. In fact, I came across this book on a table in Barnes & Noble and I skimmed over the jacket. What attracted me to "Death of a Gunfighter: The Quest for Jack Slade" was the history and the mystery of it all. Jack Slade certainly qualifies as mysterious. Several times he had been left for dead, only to turn up in another town. Indeed, "the stories of [his] death have been greatly exagerated."

Rottenberg does a good job of disecting the turth from the myth, the tall tales that abound; and delivers them both. It is an enjoyable read, and my only complaints are that:

a. I wish that the writing itself were a little more engaging
b. I wish there was more to read about Slade! and for this, I cannot blame Rottenberg a'tall, because he really does squeeze the sponge dry.

This is an enjoyable book on a distinctly American historical figure.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Barrett Freedlander on January 2, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This book provides a great insight into that part of the U.S. lying between Missouri and California in the years before the Civil War. There were lots of heroes, not just Jack Slade. The men who sacrificed their personal finances to buy the stagecoaches from New Hampshire, to find drivers willing to risk their lives to carry people and mail, to establish roads, to build stations every 12 miles or so to accommodate the passengers, to obtain horses to be kept at each station == was an enormous undertaking. The riders and drivers were themselves courageous as were the travelers, ordinary Americans seeking fortune in the West. This book tells it all in just the right amount of detail. Prodigiously researched. Easy to read. A true contribution to U.S. history.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Caroline D. Millett on April 13, 2009
Format: Hardcover
by Caroline Dunlop Millett 4/12/09

Although most reviews gave "Death of a Gunfighter" 5.0 out of 5 stars, these scores aren't good enough. They fail to recognize this superb biography as a classic: one of those rare works which opens up a whole new realm of thought, a new way of understanding what our culture is today.

All at the same time Dan Rottenberg gives us political, military, economic --- and perhaps most importantly, cultural history. For example, his comparisons of the British and French social interactions (as they evolved on the frontier) explain much about the evolution of our peculiarly "American Character".

Focusing the book on the life of one compelling personality, Jack Slade, makes for a very good story. Sometimes it is so exciting it's hard to believe. But Rottenberg makes his case, after fifty years of meticulous research. We become convinced that Slade literally opened up the West with his un-matched executive skills, fiendish law enforcements, and masterful marketing techniques. With a great deal of help from Mark Twain, Slade created the myth of the "American Gunfighter".

Other reviews have been critical of "Death of a Gunfighter" since so few facts are available about Slade and his glamorous wife. It is true that Rottenberg writes within realm of myths, which I think makes the book even more valuable, more mysterious, more exciting. Would that this wonderful book had been available when I was teaching U.S. history to bored teenagers! Jack Slade would have woke them up and made them pay attention.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Tom Purdom on December 31, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This a book that should appeal to anyone who's interested in economic history or general American history.

Like the biographers who tackle Shakespeare, Rottenberg is writing about someone who hasn't left us a lot of information. He fills in the gaps-- as the Shakespeareans do-- by giving us a picture of the kind of things his subject was doing. In the Shakespeare biographies, we get a picture of the London stage in Elizabethen times. Rottenberg gives us engaging chapters on frontier capitalism-- the adventures of the men who set up ox-drawn freight lines in the decades before the transcontinental railroad connected the West Coast with the rest of the United States. Slade worked for these companies as a wagon master and then a section boss, responsible for hundreds of miles of vital, difficult trail. If you like books like Stephen Ambrose's history of the transcontinental railroad, Nothing Like It in the World, you will find these chapters just as fascinating as I did. Rottenberg has worked for the Wall Street Journal and he has a good feel for the romance and turbulence of frontier business ventures, including the history of the Pony Express.

Slade, as he concludes, remains an enigmatic figure. But that's partly because Hollywood has given us a simple good guy/bad guy picture of the West. Slade was a human being, with all the contradictions of real people. He carried out some rough, important jobs and did things no Western knight is supposed to do. He was also a young man who might have become less troublesome if he had made it past his early thirties.

Rottenberg has collected all the information available on Slade and lets us draw our own conclusions. But he's also created a memorable look at the American West during a period that includes the decades before the Civil War and some of the war's most critical events.
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