The American West holds an endless fascination—and a fair bit of exaggeration. (I doubt pistols at dawn were really that regular an occurrence.) Andrew Chamings explores the appeal of a violent past and how the location of any gruesome tale becomes a tourist attraction. There are some fascinating historical accounts here, but also a realistic approach to what may have been adjusted to fit a narrative that appeals to our bizarrely dark psyche.

The American West is full of these once-violent places now polished for tourism and consumption. On my way here from California, I passed a marker for the site of the last camp of the Donner Party, a notorious group of pioneers caught in a winter storm. More than 40 of them died, and some of the survivors consumed the dead. The tragedy is now memorialized in a park, a museum, a ski resort, movies and a musical.