As a purveyor of Western mythology, Altadena dentist-turned-author Zane Grey got most of the publicity during his years in the city. For a brief period, however, a real-life icon of the American West lived nearby. From 1926 until his death in 1928, “cowboy detective” Charles A. Siringo, a former lawman and Pinkerton agent, resided in a bungalow at 2095 Morton Avenue, near the corner of West Hammond Street, in west Pasadena.
Siringo was a unique figure in his profession. While the word “detective” usually evokes images of either cerebral sleuths in the Sherlock Holmes vein, or tough guys of the Sam Spade mold, rarely does one think of spurs and a ten-gallon hat.
Born in Matagorda County, Texas in 1855, Siringo spent his youth as a cowboy and ranch hand, befriending lawman Pat Garrett, and during a two-week period in 1878, becoming “quite chummy” with Billy the Kid.
After briefly owning a cigar, ice cream and oyster parlor in Caldwell, Kansas, Siringo moved to Chicago in 1886, where he joined the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, famed and feared for its ruthless and thorough investigations.
Over the years, Siringo became one of their top agents, in cases that took him as far away as Mexico City and the Alaska Territory, and sometimes involved journeys on horseback totaling hundreds of miles.
Siringo’s tireless efforts to track down Butch Cassidy’s Hole in the Wall Gang (also known as the Wild Bunch), a criminal syndicate of train, bank and payroll robbers, made him a renowned figure. From 1899 until 1903, he claimed to have traveled over 25,000 miles in pursuit of the gang, in a journey that took him through Wyoming, Montanta, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Arkansas and Mexico.
During this time, he gained the confidence of criminal associates of the gang, as well as family members of both Butch Cassidy and his partner, the Sundance Kid. Though he never caught the famous pair, who fled to Argentina in 1901, and were thought to have died in Bolivia in 1908, he came so close that he was once arrested on suspicion of actually being Butch Cassidy.
At the end of his investigation, Siringo wrote, “The ‘Wild Bunch during these four years were pretty well scattered, many being put in their graves and others in prison.”
Left to his own devices, he might have caught Butch Cassidy, and possibly the Sundance Kid as well, but he often felt his hands tied by his Pinkerton superiors. “His failure to catch Cassidy was probably due more to the Pinkerton Agency’s bureaucratic hang-ups and mistakes than to wrong moves by Siringo,” explains historian Howard R. Lamar in Charlie Siringo’s West (University of New Mexico Press, 2005).
One of the detective’s favorite investigatory techniques, according to Lamar, was to disguise himself as an arrested criminal and have himself placed in the same jail cell as another criminal so he could win their trust and withdraw a confession. On other occasions, he would disguise himself as a drunk, or pretend to have a broken leg or a broken arm.
During one case in Alaska, Siringo applied for work in a mine where a large amount of gold had been stolen, and worked for weeks in the mine, while obtaining clues from fellow miners. On another occasion, he pretended to court the 18-year-old niece of one of Butch Cassidy’s associates, to obtain information.
Siringo wrote about his experiences as a detective in a 1912 book called A Cowboy Detective: A True Story of Twenty-Two Years With A World-Famous Detective Agency.
Because of the unflattering portrait he painted of his Pinkerton bosses, the detective agency sued when Siringo tried to publish the book, and he was eventually forced to release it with all references to Pinkerton changed to the “Dickensen Detective Agency.”
Following his retirement from detective work, Siringo settled in New Mexico, where he worked as a New Mexico Ranger for several years, apprehending rustlers.
Failing health took him to San Diego, where his daughter lived, but his excitement about the new western films being produced in Hollywood led Siringo to move to Los Angeles in 1923. Settling into a cabin behind his friend Jack Cole’s house at 6057 Eleanor Avenue, Siringo took an immediate liking to the place. “I feel better since moving to the heart of Hollywood, where I can see the Flappers as they pass by,” he wrote to a friend.
Siringo soon began to frequent a tavern called the Water Hole, near the corner of Cahuenga and Hollywood Boulevard, which was a favorite hangout for actors. “I often go there to see the movie cowboys and cowgirls with their silver-mounted spurs,” he said. “They bring back memories of my cowboy days.”
One L.A. Times author, Orrie W. Robertson, described meeting Siringo in 1926: “He was a familiar figure those days as he made his regular visit to the public library and then walked home at 5 p.m. down Cahuenga avenue to his little bungalow.”
Siringo was a friend of actor William S. Hart, and was rumored to have been a consultant on early Western films, possibly appearing in several small cameo roles as well.
Siringo moved to Pasadena in the fall of 1926, at the advice of his son, Lee Roy, who lived in Altadena, and settled into his Morton Avenue bungalow. Here he finished his last book, Riata and Spurs, an account of his life as a cowboy.
Siringo died at his son’s home at 999 Beverly Way in Altadena, on October 18, 1928. Upon hearing of his death, humorist Will Rogers, an acquaintance, sent a telegram that read: “May flowers always grow over his grave.” In his L.A. Times obituary, he was described as “one of the last of the plainsmen who were prominent in the early days of the West.” Siringo is buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.
Though he does not appear in George Roy Hill’s 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Siringo inspired two films about his life, Charlie Siringo (1976) and Siringo (1996), and appears as a character in a 1967 spaghetti western called Face to Face, and two 1970s TV movies.