Private Eye Cowboy? A Texan’s First Generation Colt sold with a badge tied to a nationwide detective agency.

private eye cowboy laney thomas cathey true west magazine
Laney Thomas Cathey.
— All images courtesy Rock Island Auction —

Born on November 3, 1877, in Hillsboro, Texas, Laney Thomas Cathey was four when the railroad arrived. His relatives believe he worked for the Katy—the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railway—both in Hillsboro and in Denison, where he moved in 1914 and died in 1957.

Of the firearms linked to their Old West pioneer owners, Cathey’s First Generation Colt Frontier Single Action Army .44-40 revolver took the highest bid, $6,000, at Rock Island Auction on February 15-18.

An odd item included with the Colt was Cathey’s badge for the American Detective Association. As early as 1897, Harry C. Webster, of Indianapolis, Indiana, was posting wanted ads for private detectives. “Shrewd, reliable man wanted in every locality for profitable secret service; experience unnecessary,” stated one ad, in the Houston Daily Post, on January 11, 1903.

private eye cowboy laney thomas cathey true west magazine gun auction
First Generation Colt Frontier Single Action Army (serial no. 215281), with tooled holster and American Detective Association badge.

Whether or not Cathey pursued a case is unknown. If he had, he might have felt swindled, as did Samuel Griswold, a black Chicago detective who, in 1894, arrested a robber to earn $25 the agency promised for every arrest made. Griswold was the one who ended up in jail, with his star and papers taken away by authorities.

The following year, James A. McGraw claimed in court that the “firm holds out inducements which it has no power to fulfill, and that many persons are deluded into paying money, for which they receive a badge, a certificate showing they are members of the association and a circular of instructions,” reported Indianapolis’s Sunday Daily Journal, on November 24, 1895.

private eye cowboy laney thomas cathey true west magazine gun auction

Members also received the National Detective and Police Review, featuring photographs and descriptions of criminals to aid members in capturing them.

In his testimony, Webster “admitted that his firm had no power to grant authority to its agents to make arrests.”

private eye cowboy laney thomas cathey true west magazine gun auction
A Katy Railroad engineer based in Oklahoma’s Indian Territory carried this Colt Single Action Army .45 caliber revolver (serial no. 27187), shipped out in 1876; $3,250.

Webster sold the detective agency in 1904…and got sued again, by the new owner, in 1905, who alleged fraud, claiming Webster had violated a non-compete agreement by starting a new detective agency and magazine.

An unperturbed Webster went on to head investigative work for the Indiana Bankers’ Association and wouldn’t retire from pursuing criminals until 1929.

Along with the Texan’s powerhouse of a Colt, Cathey’s badge provided a link to  frontier detective history beyond the more famous Pinkerton firm. Collectors earned more than $7.5 million at the firearms auction.

Upcoming Auctions

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Meghan Saar

Meghan Saar is the editor of True West, the world’s oldest, continuously published Western Americana magazine. She has worked in niche publication content development since 2002, and she has a B.S. in Journalism and Creative Writing from the University of Arizona—Tucson.