Law of the Land

Photo courtesy of John Wayne Enterprises.

A new exhibit at the National Cowboy & Western Museum explores the badge and the black hat.

Written by Jenn Thornton

John Wayne is most often associated with the American cowboy and the American fightingman, having played plenty of both in his long career as a film actor. But he conquered another frontier of film genre, too—the law, portraying everyone from U.S. Marshals Rooster Cogburn in True Grit (1969) and J.D. Cahill in Cahill U.S. Marshal (1973) to police officers in McQ (1974) and Brannigan (1975). There’s also long-simmering Hollywood lore that has a young John Wayne meeting real-life lawman Wyatt Earp on the set of an early Western.

Hollywood loves a legend, real and imagined, and in the new exhibit outLAWman, on show at The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum through May 7, 2023, viewers can see the relics of a few in person. This includes a purse thought to have belonged to the pistol-packing, bank-robbing Bonnie Parker of the notorious Barrow Gang. “It’s alleged the purse was removed from the bullet-riddled Ford at the scene of her and Clyde’s infamous death at the hands of Texas Rangers,” said Michael Grauer, curator of the exhibition and McCasland Chair of Cowboy Culture & Curator of Cowboy Collections and Western Art. “At some point, someone crudely carved the name ‘Bonnie Parker’ into the outside flap, and there’s what appears to be a bullet hole in the body of the purse.”

There’s also a Smith & Wesson revolver belonging to Wyatt Earp’s older brother and fellow O.K. Corral gunfighter Virgil Earp. These are just two of the artifacts among a fascinating cache of firearms, badges, photos, incarceration tools and various bank- and rail-related ephemera. There’s even the transcripts that author David Grann used to write his book Killers of the Flower Moon, about a series of Osage murders in 1920’s Oklahoma and the basis for a forthcoming Western crime drama directed by Martin Scorsese. All elements in the exhibit are used to tell a broader story of the often-thin line between the law and the lawless in the American West.

“There’s a fascination with Old West outlaws and lawmen, but many don’t know how often the line between the two was blurred, with outlaws becoming lawmen and vice versa,” notes Grauer.

Sometimes, as Charles Portis’ novel of “True Grit” reminds us—and John Wayne so memorably illustrated in his Oscar-winning portrayal of U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn in the classic film adaptation—the West was fertile territory for morally ambiguous characters in a rough-and-tumble time. This exhibit wades through the mythologies and the exaggerations to set the record straight about the badge and the black hat.

Photos courtesy of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum (except where noted)