“You’re family men, decent enough people. But you’ve got a lot of frustration and hate in you, so you get together and do things that make you feel big and brave, only they aren’t so big and they aren’t so brave when you stop to think about it . . . you’re all sort of ashamed and nobody looks much like a brave hero . . . You men are guilty of murdering your own souls… what’s decent and good in you!”
-Grey Matson aka Doctor Sixgun, addressing a mob of nightriders
One doesn’t usually think of old time Western radio dramas as a resource for positive social awareness. These epics were traditionally tailored as nationalist mythology to assuage White guilt over genocide against native populations during the bloody conquest of North America. So it’s particularly interesting a vein of the genre, known as “adult Westerns” took a highly complex approach that stood apart from the more common “black hat / white hat” cowboy narratives that portrayed settlers and European colonialism optimistically, while glossing over their human cost.
The most successful of these was surely Gunsmoke, which aired on radio stations from 1952-62 and also in a popular television version until 1975. Yet another lesser known drama from that era remains well worth examining. This show, called Doctor Sixgun, lasted only a single season from 1954-55 and informed listeners through an intro that it’s protagonist was a “symbol of justice and mercy” perhaps warning away Western fans who preferred more macho gunplay and less introspection.
It followed the exploits of a frontier physician named Grey Matson (played by Karl Weber) known to locals as Doctor Sixgun, yet famed for solving problems through wit and compassion more often than his revolver. While falling for occasional problematic ethnic stereotypes, it’s remarkable how well the storylines hold up. Throughout multiple episodes, Dr. Matson presents sympathetic perspectives regarding nearby Indian tribes without sugarcoating the actions of White townspeople and military officers attempting to exploit or murder them.
During one especially wrenching episode, ”Atonement for Cowardice” (November 7, 1954) Dr. Matson intervened after an elderly alcoholic continually degraded himself in public for liquor. However, the man refused any assistance, choosing instead to wear a dog collar and entertain local roughnecks who kept whisky flowing in return. It concluded with the man’s death, but not before letting him share the tragic story he claims caused his condition, lending a final tone of dignity instead of mockery.
Most notable in today’s political environment is “The Immigrant Settler” (October 21, 1954). It began with an introduction from Dr. Matson’s frequent companion, a Romani peddler named Pablo, who declared: “There was the time when my good friend, Doctor Sixgun, had to cure an epidemic, a strange disease which infects men whose heart is filled with hatred.”
The first indication of this epidemic came when a crowd of masked men called “nightriders” assaulted the homestead of an immigrant family, in obvious allusion to the Ku Klux Klan, who were often known by the same term. Significantly, earlier in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education struck down school segregation and brought about a major moment in the American Civil Rights struggle, alongside escalating Klan related political violence against it. Most Doctor Sixgun radio listeners would have immediately made the association with current events.
It’s important to note, while the KKK has since become synonymous with racist lynchings, bombings and other brutalities, this episode aired long before some of their most notorious acts. The 16th St. Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, for example, wasn’t until 1963. It’s possible many White people tuning in would have only associated the KKK with it’s much more socially acceptable incarnation earlier in the 20th century when politicians openly posed for photo ops with hooded Klansmen and President Wilson lauded D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, which celebrated them. In other words, painting the KKK as villains in a popular radio script that year was hardly easy virtue signaling.
What’s also interesting is the attacked family were Norwegian immigrants. Many today forget that the concept of White supremacy only recently evolved into an idealization of pan-European culture, often fixated upon Nordic peoples as pinnacles of racial purity. Years before, a strict hierarchy existed in the pseudo-science, which regarded Southern and Eastern Europeans as quite inferior, including the Irish and other western Celts. Scandinavians were sometimes singled out for persecution in America because so many of them became involved with union organizing.
Once Dr. Matson discovered members of his community were being terrorized, he approached the local sheriff, who suddenly showed little enthusiasm for law enforcement, stating: “I’m against this night ridin’ as much as any man, but it’s a thing you can’t fight! For one thing they wear pillowcases… you can’t identify them! . . . the boys are just gettin’ rid of a little steam!”
The reluctant sheriff only agreed he would take action if Dr. Matson could round up a posse of ten or fifteen men. Unfortunately, this attempt at playing Abraham to save the city of Sodom failed. Everyone Matson attempted recruiting either feared the vigilantes, or secretly counted among their ranks. However, his investigation did turn up one woman who informed on her deceitful husband and revealed their next target was Pablo.
Together, Dr. Matson and Pablo concocted a scheme that caught nine of the nightriders, including their ringleader, a leading sheriff’s deputy who immediately fled town. The remaining men were subjected to a tongue lashing from Matson who passionately decried their inhumanity, leaving them publicly unmasked and ashamed. Pablo then generously declined pressing charges, observing: “…they have harmed themselves enough.”
The whole story, despite being set one-hundred and fifty years in the past and broadcast almost seventy years ago, resonates deeply today. Waves of recent xenophobia would have saddened, but not shocked Doctor Sixgun. He spotlighted how common prejudices among ordinary people can be mobilized into violence, especially when law enforcement is actively complicit, like the guilty deputy- or simply looks away as the weak-willed sheriff preferred. There remains no simple vaccine against this epidemic, which still runs strong, turning infected hearts toward hatred and making immigrants targets. We can learn much from a well-intentioned physician who countered its spread, at least in his part of the West on old time radio waves.