Many people I know—writers and readers and viewers alike—are of the opinion that people living in the Old West were somehow “better” than those of us walking the earth today.
Back then, people didn’t use profanity. Honesty and square dealing ruled the day. Men placed women on a pedestal. Women were content in the kitchen and keeping house. Children were obedient, save occasional innocent hijinks. And while those were violent times, it was mostly good guys in white hats killing bad guys in black hats who needed killing. Truth, justice, and the American way ruled the day.
Studying history—rather than reading novels and watching movies and TV shows based on celebratory mythology—will soon disabuse you of any notion that human nature was any different then than now. Or at any other time in the history of people, for that matter. Certainly social conventions change, but that only affects times and places of misbehavior rather than behavior itself.
Back then, while men pretended to put “the fairer sex” on a pedestal, wives were little more than chattel, and could be beaten with little or no consequence. Ladies of the evening were routinely mistreated, with abusers considering violence included in the price. Alcoholism was rampant, drug abuse widespread. Child labor routine. Mistreatment of minorities acceptable, even encouraged. And so on.
The only real difference between then and now is that bad behavior often occurred behind closed doors in those days, and was little noted. Unseen, but there all the same. Now, it fills our TV screens and newspapers day and night.
Our blind spot concerning the evil in days gone by reminds me of the poem “Antigonish” by William Hughes Mearns. It begins this way:
Yesterday upon the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away.