Jim DeFelice: “West Like Lightning: The Brief, Legendary Ride of the Pony Express”
Where: The Half King
505 W. 23rd St.
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It was the most audacious get-rich quick scheme in American history, an attempt to monopolize freight, transportation, and financial services through half the country. So what if it involved a swindle of hundreds of thousands of dollars, bribes to government officials, and the occasional loss of an ear or other body part? The only thing standing in its way were fifteen hundred miles of desert, impassible mountains, hostile Indians, sociopathic killers and religious fanatics.
It was the Pony Express.
And while the Pony itself was conceived as a money-losing proposition from the start—a kind of loss-leader for a grandiose plan of financial riches and commercial domination—it so captured American imaginations that it lives on today as a byword of speed and derring-do.
As well it should. Some of the great legends of American Western history, from Wild Bill Hickock to Buffalo Bill Cody, were associated with it. Mark Twain shared breakfast and bon mots with one of its superintendents, a good cook and better murderer. Hundreds of thousands of newspaper readers from New York to San Francisco relied on its dispatches. Congressmen and at least one shady banker got rich off it, albeit illegally. Had the scheme behind it succeeded, the credit card we carry today, would have a Pony logo on it. We’d be making mortgage payments to the Pony Bank. Instead, those honors go to its chief rivals: American Express and Wells Fargo.
Jim DeFelice celebrates the legends, separates fact from fiction, and probes the darker side of the Pony in lively, readable style in his new book, WEST LIKE LIGHTNING (William Morrow, May 15, 2018). Along the way, he shows that the service was both a product and victim of its time, a lightning rod for the conflicts that were about to tear the country apart in the Civil War. Part love-song to our Western history and myths, and part eye-opening expose, the book retraces the Pony trail, figuratively and literally, from St. Joseph, Missouri, to San Francisco, California, with myriad stops in between to talk about Western expansion, Native Americans, the effects of gold and silver rushes, Mormons, railroads, the telegraph, and the bloody conflict that tore the nation apart even before the cannons fired on Fort Sumter.
Bringing a fresh eye to historical data and neglected records, DeFelice punctures a number of myths about the Pony and some of its alleged riders, but ultimately celebrates its true achievements. He lionizes the young men whose exploits were every bit as heroic as the legends suggest, and salutes today’s men and women working to keep the legends alive.
Not content to simply troll dusty archives in his research, DeFelice traveled the Express’s route, researching the landscapes as well as the people who inhabited them. (He got lost only once. Well, once and a half…) Writing with a firsthand understanding of the challenges faced by the Pony’s riders, he has created narrative history at its finest, a rich exploration of an enduring icon of the American West. It’s a wry, loving romp through history that will have you turning the pages as quickly as the riders changed horses.
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