Gangsters & Gunslingers brings together two defining chapters in the history of the United States that shaped America’s national identity: the Wild West (mid 1860s to the late 1880s) and the wild years of the Prohibition/Depression era (1920s and early 1930s). Each epoch produced legendary characters, who have become famous and infamous – Buffalo Bill, Calamity Jane, Bonnie and Clyde, to name but a few. For the benefit of the inhabitants of America’s industrial eastern cities, homegrown ‘western’ heroes and villains performed acts of derring-do, penned by writers who had seldom (if ever) abandoned their urban comforts for the inconveniences of travelling to the frontier or even to small Midwestern towns.
The debilitating lives endured by many in squalid city sweatshops, unregulated factories, and cramped offices fuelled the mass market for ‘real life’ western adventure stories in dime novels, the pulps, and sensational newspapers. Individuals immortalised in print became victims of the popular fiction they inspired: their literary namesakes appeared more alive, even to them, than their all too frail corporeal selves. Just like the heroes in ancient tales, America’s gangsters and gunslingers showed hubris and began to act as if they were indestructible. Their ends, however, were often anything but heroic.
For Gangsters & Gunslingers, the American Museum in Britain will showcase treasures from the comprehensive Americana collection and Hollywood archive of David Gainsborough Roberts. Based in Jersey, Gainsborough Roberts generously partnered the American Museum for its popular 2011 exhibition Marilyn – Hollywood Icon.
This exhibition will include such historic memorabilia as the watch and vest worn by Clyde Barrow when he was gunned down with Bonnie Parker; one of the two death masks of the notorious bank robber John Dillinger; Native American weapons confiscated in reprisal for the Battle of Little Big Horn, Custer’s Last Stand, in 1876; as well as the gangster Doc Holliday’s medicine bag; a silver cigarette case which belonged to mobster Al Capone; and memorabilia owned by Hollywood ‘gunmen’ Tom Mix, Humphrey Bogart, Tyrone Power and Elvis Presley.