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Wanted Man

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Tamsin Spargo's fascination with Oliver Perry, as she tells it, began with his photograph. Perry's personal magnetism, preserved in his image, led Spargo to research and reconstruct his fugitive life in Wanted Man: The Forgotten Story of an American Outlaw.

Perry robbed a train known as the “American Express Special” on September 29, 1891, near Utica, New York. Perry's robbery struck the public imagination for several reasons. A characteristic Western frontier crime had occurred in New York state. In an act of arresting gallantry, the robber later sent a note that revealed his own whereabouts in order to clear a train employee of suspicion. Perry managed to elude Pinkerton agency investigators, likely with the help of sympathizers or people charmed by the romantic outlaw mythology that developed around him.

Perry attempted a second robbery the next year but after a long chase and stand-off was captured. On trial and in jail, Perry played the role of prisoner with the same verve and “reckless, masochistic impulsiveness that characterized his adult life.” In his years as an inmate, Perry attempted a number of escapes, invented a “blinding machine” with which he took his own vision, agitated vigorously for a pardon, published poetry, and staged protracted hunger strikes. He was declared insane several times over and transferred to an asylum. Perry spent his final years at Dannemora State Hospital.

Spargo's lucid prose and breezy storytelling style are complemented by careful research about the events of Perry's youth, efficient expositions of historical and cultural context, and psychoanalytic conjecture about Perry's familial and romantic relationships. Her personal obsession with Perry and the myth of the American West brings to light a lively and thought-provoking account of the real life of an American folk hero.