These days most written works of history - those atleast going back more than just a few decades - mostly are reliant on the written record. Writers go back over what's been written about the subject before, consult material from the times, original documents and first-person accounts where they're available. But mostly, writing history that runs back beyond living memory involves going through the paperwork and, if the writer is very lucky, finding some new paperwork no one has seen before, or maybe finding a new interpretation of it.
In writing the new book Diamondfield about the life and tribulations of Jack Davis, Max Black has gone through the written record, and found both new interpretations and masses of new records that no one - neither of the two previous authors who wrote at book length about Davis' murder trial and legal case - has examined before, not since the 19th century at least. That along is reason enough for a re-examination of the case.
But Black also did something more remarkable. He tracked down the location - information never positively determined for more than a century, and thought to be lost - where the murders in question took place. He found in the ground there one of the bullets involved in that shooting, a bullet that an expert concluded had been there for more than a century. And he found a gun that was involved. And quite a bit more long thought to be lost and irretrievable.
This is a remarkable piece of detective work, more than reason enough why I'm pleased to be publishing this book.
The Diamondfield Jack case may be unfamiliar to you if you're not an afficianado of the Old West, but anyone interested in the time and place will pick it up immediately. The context was the great cattle and sheep conflict (between opposing ranchers, not the animals) around the 1880s in south-central Idaho. (There were other similar conflicts, range wars really, in Wyoming and elsewhere.) The shootings of two sheep herders was the trigger for the case; Jack Davis was a gunman employed by the cattle interests, and accused of the killings. The two men were in fact killed by cattle workers, but not by Davis, and the Davis murder case dragged on for years, even years after two other men had themselves confessed to the killing. Davis came within minutes of being hanged, before eventually receiving a pardon. He left Idaho, and went on to a remarkable life in Nevada and elsewhere around the west.
The story long has been poorly understood, and the reasons for it tell a lot about early Idaho and how it developed as it did. Black, after putting together more of the pieces than anyone had before, lays it all out in clear fashion.
Max Black doesn't come to this by professional circuits. A long-time Boisean, he served in the Idaho Legislature for a couple of decades, and in his private life worked in insurance. But he brought to his search for the facts an unusual determination, and that was enough to unearth what no one had before.
What he's come up with here is a book worth reading for what it says about Idaho, for what it says about the old west, for what it says about one of the country's most notorious murder cases, and what it says about what determination in search of the facts and the truth really can do.