21 July 2023
Hundreds of trigger-happy outlaws roamed the American west for a period of 45 years until they were either captured or killed, as John Pursley explains.
Many outlaws were the product of the American Civil War, while others were driven by circumstance or personal choice. Some educated, some from farms, all shared one thing in common, they were cold-blooded killers.
JESSE AND FRANK JAMES
Jesse was born to a Missouri slave-owning family in 1847 and was 16 when he joined his older brother Frank riding in a Confederate guerrilla outfit.
Led by William Quantrill, they terrorized pro-Union people in Missouri; slaughtered a group of 122 unarmed Union soldiers, set fire to over 180 buildings and left 150 men dead or dying in a raid on Lawrence, Kansas and committed numerous other atrocities.
After the war Jesse couldn’t shake the humiliation of defeat and chose to continue fighting, venting his fury on banks, trains and stagecoaches. His first robbery, accompanied by brother Frank in 1869, resulted in a wounded teller, a sack of worthless paper and a wild chase by a posse.
Once established, the James gang robbed with near impunity and, with Confederate sympathisers who saw them as Robin Hood-types on their side, were able to evade the law and prosecution. However, the situation changed when Jesse’s plan exceeded the gang’s abilities resulting in the 1876 robbery in Northfield, Minnesota into a disaster from which Jesse and Frank narrowly escaped.
Jesse laid low but returned to crime three years later minus the public tolerance the gang previously enjoyed. A $10,000 reward was posted for Jesse and Robert Ford was happy to shoot him in the back of the head for it in April 1882.
Frank James was calm, shy, studious, and a lover of Shakespeare; nothing like his reckless, showy, headline making brother. Alexander Franklin James was born 10 January 1843 and raised on his family's hemp farm in Missouri, where approximately a quarter of the population were slaves.
Frank believed in slavery and when the Civil War broke out in 1861, he joined a militia but soon linked up with pro-Confederate guerrilla’s intent on terrorising Union supporters. He rode with Bloody Bill Anderson or William Quantrill until a raid into Kentucky resulted in Quantrill's death and Frank’s surrender.
A few years after the war, Frank and Jesse along with few other Missourians, unwilling to accept the outrageous post-war Republican laws, chose instead to rob and murder during the early and mid-1870s.
They were very successful, but after an 1875 raid on their mother’s home by Pinkerton detectives, the brothers fled to Tennessee where Frank married a former schoolteacher. The following year was the failed Northfield robbery, after which they returned to Tennessee and laid low. Their final robbery in 1881 resulted in the death of a train conductor. Subsequent to the death of his brother, Frank surrendered his guns to the Missouri governor and was later acquitted. He died on his family farm in 1915.
At the age of five, Clay Allison lost his father and worked on his family farm until joining the Confederate 9th Tennessee Cavalry in 1862. Prone to mood swings, he was known as a vicious fighter.
During the post-war period, Allison, after several confrontations in Tennessee, ended up in New Mexico with his brothers earning a reputation as being a dangerous man with a knife and pistol.
In January 1874, Clay killed a rival gunman named Chunk Colbert, who picked a fight after they dined together. Asked later why he would accept a dinner invitation from a man who would likely try to kill him, Allison responded: ‘Because I didn't want to send a man to hell on an empty stomach.’
The following year, Allison led a mob that lynched a murder suspect. Several of the suspects family members confronted Allison in a restaurant and in the ensuing argument guns were drawn. After a shootout Clay stood the victor.
More trouble came Allison’s way in December 1876 when he and his brother John stopped at a saloon in Las Animas, Colorado. When asked by the sheriff and two deputies to surrender their guns they refused, forcing the gunfight that killed the sheriff. The Allison brothers were later arrested for manslaughter, but the charges were dismissed.
Allison settled down with his wife and daughter on a ranch in Texas until in July 1887 when Allison suffered an inglorious death for a gunfighter when he broke his neck falling from a wagon. He was buried the next day with hundreds attending his funeral.
JOHN WESLEY HARDIN
Without a doubt, John Wesley Hardin was one of the most notorious killers of his time once shooting and killing a man in an adjacent hotel room for snoring too loud. He also killed a black man at the age of 15 and, while on the run, shot and killed several soldiers attempting to arrest him.
After serving in the Confederacy during the Civil War, Hardin herded cattle and is known to have killed seven men in various locations along the trail and when the herd arrived in Abilene, Kansas, he killed three more. Returning to Texas, he married and fathered three children, but domestic life was not for him. After adding four additional deaths to his total, Hardin was jailed, but soon broke out and fled.
Being a Southerner, Hardin joined in the Texas Reconstruction political battle and, in 1873, killed the leader of the pro-Reconstruction forces. The following year he murdered a sheriff's deputy. He fled to Florida and, in 1877, was captured and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Bizarrely, while incarcerated he studied law and, after his early release, was admitted to the Texas bar.
Opening a law practice in El Paso, Hardin soon resumed his routine of heavy drinking and making enemies with law enforcement resulting in Constable John Selmon shooting him in the back. It is said Hardin died while still reaching for his gun.
Left: Quality reproduction wanted posters of Hardin and others are available on eBay and make great additions to man-caves
Sam Bass was from Mitchell, Indiana and born in July 1851. Orphaned at 12, he later ran away from his custodial uncles’ home to become a cowboy.
Bass’s life as an outlaw began by participating in a stagecoach robbery in March 1887 during which the driver was killed. Evidently stagecoaches appealed to Bass because within a seven-month period he robbed seven more.
Changing things up a bit, Bass and his men commenced robbing trains with their first raid being extremely profitable, netting them $60,000 in gold. The gang was pursued by the authorities with Joel Collins and Bill Heffridge being killed on 25 September and Jim Berry on 16 October. Only Sam Bass and Jack Davis managed to return to Denton County.
In early 1878, Bass formed another gang and within two months had robbed several stagecoaches and four trains, none of which were very profitable.
Bass decided to try his luck raiding banks and, with the assistance of a few other outlaws, committed a robbery at Round Rock, Texas. Unknown to Bass there was an infiltrator in the gang and the escapade was a disaster. The authorities had been lying in ambush for the gang and during the ensuing gun battle the outlaw was mortally wounded, dying on 19 July, his 27th birthday.
Like the James brothers, the Younger family supported the Confederate cause which made it reasonable for their 18-year old son, Cole to join in the fighting. After linking up with William Quantrill and his gang of guerilla fighters, he participated in attacking Union troops, mail coaches, murdering Union supporters, and terrorising people in selected areas of Missouri and Kansas Quantrill deemed to be anti-Confederate.
After the war it was almost a natural progression for hardened murderers like Cole, Bob, and Jim Younger to become outlaws and, in 1865, they joined forces with the James brothers and others of like minds and behaviour.
Their first venture transpired in 1866 when the gang robbed a bank at Liberty, Missouri. Over the next few years they raided 12 banks, robbed seven trains, four stagecoaches and committed numerous other criminal acts in West Virginia, Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas and Minnesota. 11 citizens of various towns met their end at the hands of the James Gang.
In September 1876 the gang shot and killed a bank cashier, prompting the townspeople to fight back resulting in the deaths of three outlaws and the wounding and capturing all three Younger brothers.
At his trial, Cole Younger was sentenced to life in prison for murder and robbery but was released after serving 25 years. He, along with Frank James teamed up and made a living from lectures. Cole also authored two books - Crime Does Not Play and What Life Has Taught Me. He died in 1916.
William Doolin, born and raised in Arkansas, moved to Oklahoma in 1881 at age 23 to become a cowboy, earning a reputation as a hard and responsible worker.
He had no previous history of trouble with the law until attending a party at Coffeyville, Kansas where possession and consumption of alcohol was illegal. When deputies arrived to confiscate the beer, Doolin pulled his pistol and wounded two of them.
After his hasty departure from town, Doolin soon partnered up with an outlaw gang led by Bob Dalton and for the next 18 months, robbed banks and trains throughout Oklahoma.
Bob Dalton had a grandiose idea to rob two banks simultaneously at Coffeyville, but Doolin backed out stating it was a bad idea. This was fortunate because on 5 October 1892, four of the gang were killed by townspeople during the robbery.
Doolin formed his own gang and continued his crime spree in Oklahoma robbing several trains and banks and, in May 1894, struck Southwest City, Missouri during which JC Seaborn, a former state senator, was murdered.
For a while, Doolin tried to live very low key on his farm with his wife, but soon returned to robbing and was eventually arrested by famous lawman Bill Tilghman. Managing to escape from the local jail, Doolin hid out near his home and made nightly trips to visit his wife when not traveling and committing robberies.
During one of those visits on a dark August night in 1896, Doolin was confronted and killed in a shoot-out with lawmen Bill Dunn, Heck Thomas, and Bee Dunn.
John Henry Holliday aka Doc graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Dental School in 1872, subsequently returning to Georgia to begin his career. He moved to Texas two years later for the climate possibly because he may have contracted his case of tuberculosis by then.
Doc continued with his dental career, but hard drinking, card games, and Dallas nightlife influenced him so much that by the mid-1870s, he'd reinvented himself as a gambler and gunslinger, eventually credited with eight known gunfights.
After evading a murder charge, Holliday moved to Dodge City, Kansas, and became good acquaintances with lawman Wyatt Earp. Seeking better and more profitable opportunities, the pair left town for Tombstone, Arizona where both would become legends.
It was there, on 26 October 1881, at the OK Corral that Holliday and the three Earp brothers found themselves opponents in an intense firefight with members of a notorious gang called the Cowboys. More than 30 shots were fired in the half-minute gunfight that left three men dead and several others wounded, including Holliday.
When Morgan Earp was killed months later, Wyatt and Doc set off on a vendetta and killed most of the remaining members of the Cowboys. Afterwards, Holiday and Earp parted company with Doc moving to a convalescent home in Glenwood Springs, Colorado where he died of tuberculosis in November 1887.
COLLECTING THE OLD WEST
Authentic old western items are available at online auctions or internet sites. Recent sales included an original picture of Cherokee Bill, member of the Buck gang for £395, a Colt SAA .45 in good condition for £2,969.18 and a gun belt and holster rig selling for £950. Rock Island, Cowans and Morphys are good places for US-based auctions, while Bonhams in the UK often has American firearms. Also, take a look at Martin Giles Antiques (www.mgantiques.co.uk), which is a specialist in 19th century American firearms, stocking pistols and rifles by Winchester, Smith and Wesson, Colt, Remington etc. Currently in stock is a cased Colt Model 1855 Type 2 Revolver for £4,250.
Reproductions are also offered on eBay and Old West Memorabilia/ETSY is a good source for unique period items. You can pick up framed Reward posters for around £20, or a hand-tinted photograph of Jesse James himself for around £17, both on eBay.
Left: A cased Colt 1855 revolver, for sale at a UK website, will set you back over £4,000
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