::Literate Blather::
Friday, February 22, 2008
8 Infamous Outlaws of the Old West

The Most Notable Gunslingers, Thieves, and Cold Blooded Killers Who Ever Drew a Six-Gun

(DaRK PaRTY has been on a western kick lately. We blame watching Brad Pitt play Jesse James in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” Pitt plays the outlaw with an inner savageness that got us thinking about the real Jesse James – and the other vicious gunslingers of the Old West. So let us introduce you to the real deal – our picks for the meanest hombres ever to saddle a horse or draw a six gun. The Old West photographs in this post are courtesy of the travel site Legends of America.)

Clay Allison

Born: September 2, 1840

Died: July 3, 1887

Method of Death: He fell off a wagon and the wheel rolled over his neck, snapping it. His tombstone reads: “He never killed a man that did not need killing.”

Quick Bio: He was the fourth of nine children of a Presbyterian minister. Even as a child, he was known for his mercurial temper and violent mood swings. During the Civil War, he fought for the Confederate Army for the 9th Tennessee Cavalry. After the war, he joined the Ku Klux Klan. Later moving to Texas with his brothers to become ranchers, Allison developed a reputation as a gunfighter with a fast draw. He killed many men during this time – once even breaking an alleged murderer of prison so he could kill him (dragging his body through town and severing his head).

Why He Was a Bad Man: He killed several men in gunfights, including a sheriff. Once he went to dinner with Chunk Colbert, a notorious murderer who hated Allison. A gunfight erupted during dinner with Allison winning the battle. When asked why he go to dinner with a man who wanted him dead, Allison said, “Because I didn’t want to send a man to hell on an empty stomach.”

Myth Busting: Technically, Allison wasn’t a criminal. While he was arrested for murder several times, he always beat the rap and never spent any time in jail.

Actors Who Have Played Him: Unknown

Best Movie about Him: None

DP Cool Fact: Shortly before his death, while ranching in Texas, Allison once rode through the town of Mobeetie completely bombed and stark naked.

Billy the Kid

Born: November 23, 1859

Died: July 14, 1881

Method of Death: Ambushed and gunned down by Sheriff Pat Garrett and two deputies.

Quick Bio: Little is known about William Henry McCarty until his criminal life began, but most historians think he was born in New York City. He moved to New Mexico with his family and began a life of petty crime. He later went to work for rancher John Tunstall, an Englishmen. During the Lincoln County (N.M.) Cattle War, Tunstall was gunned down and McCarty (then known as William H. Bonney) formed a gang called The Regulators to hunt down those responsible for Tunstall’s murder. They ended up killing a sheriff and his deputy. McCarty took over leadership of the Regulators, but the gang was short lived. He fled to Texas and spent most of his last years gambling, stealing cattle, and gun fighting.

Why He Was a Bad Man: McCarty was a cold-blooded killer and a crack shot with his pistol and rifle. He once murdered a man while playing cards together. Joe Grant boasted he would kill Billy the Kid without being aware that the man across from the table was, in fact, Billy the Kid. McCarty asked to see his pistol and allegedly emptied the chamber. When he identified himself as Billy the Kid, Grant drew on him and clicked on the empty chambers. McCarty then shot him down allegedly saying: “it was a game for two and I got there first.”

Myth Busting: McCarty is said to have killed 21 men, but the likely number is about 9 and most of those came during gun battles with the Regulators.

Actors Who Have Played Him: Roy Rogers, Audie Murphy, Val Kilmer and Emilio Estevez,

Best Movie about Him: “Billy the Kid” (1989)

DP Cool Fact: Billy the Kid is an outlaw who has captured the imagination of singers and rock stars. He is the subject of songs by Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Charles Daniels, Billy Dean and Billy Joel.

Butch Cassidy

Born: April 13, 1866

Died: November 6, 1908

Method of Death: Most likely gunned down by Bolivian soldiers after a botched attempt to steal a mining company payroll with his friend the Sundance Kid. Although there is some evidence that Cassidy survived and returned to the U.S. and lived in obscurity until July 28, 1938. This latter version remains in dispute.

Quick Bio: Born Robert LeRoy Parker in Utah to Mormon parents. He worked as a rancher and a butcher before turning to a life of crime. He stole horses, robbed safes, and later turned his passion: robbing banks. After a brief stint in prison, he formed the Wild Bunch gang in 1896. The Wild Bunch went of string of robberies that remains unmatched in U.S. history. However, when pressure from law enforcement increased – applied in a good part by Union Pacific Railroad – Cassidy tried to surrender. But it didn’t work out and he fled to South America with the Sundance Kid.

Why He Was a Bad Man: A thief and murderer who formed one of the most prolific bank robbery gangs in history.

Myth Busting: Popular culture has whitewashed many of the crimes by Butch Cassidy by portrayed him as preferring to use non-violent methods when engaged in robbing banks. This files in the face of the historical record that shows that many innocent people were killed by Cassidy and his gang of cutthroats.

Actors Who Have Played Him: Paul Newman and Tom Berenger

Best Movie about Him: “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969)

DP Cool Fact: Cassidy once dated female outlaw Ann Bassett.

John Wesley Hardin

Born: May 26, 1853

Died: August 19, 1895

Method of Death: Shot three times in the back by John Selman, an El Paso, Texas sheriff.

Quick Bio: Born in Texas, Hardin was the son of a Methodist minister. Yet Hardin had a murderous disposition even as a young lad (once stabbing a classmate twice). By the time he was 15 years old, he had killed four men. He spent years running from the law, but ended up in Kansas as a cowboy. Returning to Texas, however, he killed a freed black slave and went on the run again (which lasted nearly 10 years until his death). He became embroiled in the Sutton-Taylor feud in Texas (murdering a lawman). He was caught and sent to prison for 17 years. On his release, he became a lawyer in El Paso, but was often drunk and often got into fights. He claimed to have killed 44 men in his life.

Why He Was a Bad Man: He was gambler, drinker, gunslinger, and murderer. At one point near the end of his life, Hardin said about himself: “They tell lots of lies about me. They say I killed six or seven men for snoring. Well, it ain't true, I only killed one man for snoring.”

Myth Busting: Hardin is credited with several murders that he probably had nothing to do with. For example, he claimed to have murdered three Union soldiers in 1868 and there is no evidence connecting him to the crime. He also claimed to have gunned down a pair of Pinkerton detectives in Florida in 1876, but the legendary private detective agency has no records of such an incident.

Actors Who Have Played Him: Rock Hudson, Randy Quaid, and Jack Elam

Best Movie about Him: “The Lawless Breed” (1953)

DP Cool Fact: Novelist Larry McMurtry included Hardin in his novel “Streets of Laredo.”

Tom Horn

Born: November 21, 1860

Died: November 20, 1903

Method of Death: Hanged to death for a murder he most likely had nothing to do with.

Quick Bio: He was born in Missouri, but left home as a young man and joined the U.S. Cavalry as a scout in the Apache Wars. He worked as a gunman and then became a sheriff in Colorado. His law work led to his hiring by the Pinkerton Detective Agency. In his four years with the agency, he killed 17 men. He was fired, not for his murdering ways, but because he became a robber himself. Afterwards, he became a hired gunman (he liked to call himself a Range Detective, but a closer depiction is probably hitman). During this time he killed about 23 cattle thieves. He was arrested in 1901 for allegedly killing a 14-year-old son of a sheep herder. Most historians think that this may have been one murder Horn did not commit.

Why He Was a Bad Man: Horn had a late career as the first frontier hitman.

Myth Busting: There’s some revivalist literature out there that claims Horn gets a bad wrap as an outlaw when most of his exploits took place while carrying a badge. But wearing a badge and being a lawman are two different things. There’s little doubt that Horn deserves his reputation.

Actors Who Have Played Him: Steve McQueen and David Carradine

Best Movie about Him: “Tom Horn” (1980)

DP Cool Fact: Horn joked with the guards as they lead him to the gallows to be hanged.

Jesse James

Born: September 5, 1847

Died: April 3, 1882

Method of Death: Shot in the back by cohort turned assassin Robert Ford

Quick Bio: Jesse Woodson James, probably the most famous western outlaw, was another minister’s son gone bad. Born in Missouri, James became a bushwhacker during and after the Civil War. He conducted raids under the legendary Bloody Bill Anderson. After the war, he formed a gang with his older brother Frank and the Younger brothers. They made themselves famous by robbing banks and trains. Jesse became a symbol of Confederate defiance when his letters were printed in newspapers. When the James-Younger gang broke up, James formed his own gang, but was less successful. He became paranoid and moved from place to place before being killed by one of his own men.

Why He Was a Bad Man: Train and bank robber, cold-blooded murder.

Myth Busting: The idea that Jesse James was an Old West Robin Hood is completely misplaced. He is held up as a hero by neo-Confederate groups, but James was a ruthless killer and career criminal.

Actors Who Have Played Him: Tyrone Power, Audie Murphy, Robert Wagner, Robert Duvall, James Keach, Kris Kristofferson, Rob Lowe, Colin Farrell, Brad Pitt

Best Movie about Him: “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007)

DP Cool Fact: There have been more than 20 movies made about Jesse James since 1921.

Harry Longabaugh (“Sundance Kid”)

Born: Sometime in 1867

Died: November 1908 (?)

Method of Death: Probably died with Butch Cassidy during a shootout in Bolivia with government soldiers after robbing a mining company payroll. However, there are theories he survived and moved back to the U.S. where he died of natural causes in 1936. However, there is much dispute about this latter theory.

Quick Bio: Not much is known about Sundance. He was a rancher for a while in Canada before being arrested for stealing a horse. He spent nearly two years in prison in Sundance, Wyoming (thus his nickname). He joined with Wild Bunch Gang and later the Hole in the Wall Gang to conduct a bank robbery run that remains the most successful in U.S. history. At some point, Sundance married a woman named Etta Place.

Why He Was a Bad Man: He was a convicted horse thief and notorious bank robber.

Myth Busting: Hollywood is responsible for portraying Sundance as a fast gunslinger, but it probably wasn’t true. Most historians think people confuse Sundance with another Wild Bunch member – Kid Curry, who was in many shootouts. Sundance is only known to have been involved in two shoot-outs in his life time.

Actors Who Have Played Him: Robert Redford and William Katt.

Best Movie about Him: “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969)

DP Cool Fact: The Sundance Film Festival, founded by Redford, is named after the Sundance Kid.

Cole Younger

Born: January 15, 1844

Died: March 21, 1916

Method of Death: After prison, he became a born-again Christian and died of old age

Quick Bio: The son of a slave-holding farmer, Younger became a guerrilla fighter in Missouri during the Civil War. He was fueled by rage when Union soldiers killed his father. He was part of the Lawrence, Kansas raid of August 21, 1863 where more than 200 people were slaughtered. He was one of the founding members of the James-Younger gang with Frank and Jesse James. His two brothers, John and Jim, were gunned down by Pinkerton detectives in 1874. The gang was caught in a furious firefight after trying to rob a bank and the Younger brothers were captured (Jesse James escaped). Younger pleaded guilty to avoid being hanged to death and went to prison. After being released, Younger formed “The Cole Younger and Frank James Wild West Company” which toured the country. He later became a Christian and repented his criminal past.

Why He Was a Bad Man: Bank and train robber and murderer. After he was caught, Younger said: “We tried a desperate game and lost. But we are rough men used to rough ways, and we will abide by the consequences.”

Myth Busting: Younger tried to portray himself as a Confederate rebel, but he was simply a criminal.

Actors Who Have Played Him: Cliff Robertson, David Carradine, Randy Travis, Scott Caan

Best Movie about Him: “The Long Riders” (1980)

DP Cool Fact: Younger was one of 14 children – four of which became ruthless outlaws.

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Blogger OutOfContext said...
After having little interest in Westerns all my life, the last couple of years I find myself drawn to them. I read my first Louis L'Amour western, Shalako. It's a little silly, but goes down easy and is kind of fun.
One of my favorite books from way back though was Oondatje's The Complete Works of Billy the Kid. When I grew up I wanted to write a book like that.
Also, I've been obsessing a little about an Andre de Toth picture starring Randolph Scott called The Man In The Saddle--it's got a weird vibe I can't put my finger on, but I like.
Finally, I took part in a little group writing thing about a fey gunfighter on another blog that was extremely silly and fun as well.
A couple of these guys I'd not heard of and I didn't realize John Wesley Hardin was such a vicious bastard. Thanks for the thumbnails.

Blogger GFS3 said...
Hardin was a mean bastard -- surprised me as well.

I'd be interested in the link to the writing group project on the "fey gunfighter." That sounds like it could be fun to read.

Blogger OutOfContext said...
Here's a link to the story. Obviously done on the fly, but that's part of the fun. No one has added to my last so feel free to do so.

Blogger GFS3 said...
Fancy man, indeed. Thanks for the link!

Blogger Bybee said...
Really enjoyed this post -- hadn't heard of Clay Allison.

Blogger Dwight said...
Whenever you feel cinematic treatment of some of these people are over the top, it's handy to re-read their true exploits. It usually turns out the movie version is dialed down a bit.

Although there are exceptions. Samuel Chamberlain's 'judge' is just a minor character in his "My Confession" (in only one chapter if I recall correctly) but it will be interesting to see Judge Holden on the screen in "Blood Meridian" (if and when it's ever finished).

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Your picture of Tom Horn is not actually Tom Horn...it's a picture of U.S. Deputy Marshal, Joe LeFors.

Blogger Year of the Cat said...
McQueen's Tom Horn is one of his very best.

Another candidate for the worst of the worst outlaws: Harry Tracy.


Anonymous Anonymous said...
Billy The Kid was born near Rolla Missouri.

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