Train thefts. Theft of horses. Cattle theft. Shootings. Cold blooded murder.
The most notorious outlaws of the Old West have long been romanticized as daring thieves and vicious assassins since their stories hit the first American tabloids. In many ways, their narratives have been fashioned – in novels, TV shows, and Hollywood movies – to fit the frontier ideals of robust individualism and pioneering spirit.
“Americans love an outsider, a person who stands up against perceived tyranny,” Bill Markley wrote in Billy the Kid and Jesse James: Outlaws of the Legendary West. “Jesse James and Billy the Kid personify this rebellious spirit. Americans ignore the crimes and see the rebel’s romance.
We’ve rounded up five of the 19th century’s most infamous outlaws, whose popular legends endure, despite their history of violent crime.
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Born in Clay County, Missouri in 1847, Jesse James grew up in a family of slave owners supporting the Confederacy. As a teenager in 1864, James and his brother Frank joined a guerrilla unit responsible for the murder of dozens of Union soldiers.
For some historians, James has never ceased to fight against the Civil War, translating his fury at the defeat of the secessionist cause into a career featuring banks, trains and stagecoaches. Sometimes he saw himself as a modern Robin Hood, stealing from politically progressive rebuilders and giving to the poor.
According to the State Historical Society of Missouri, the James-Younger gang operated widely, from Iowa to Texas to West Virginia. Overall, between 1860 and 1882, they reportedly committed more than 20 bank and train robberies, with combined transport estimated at around $ 200,000. While their focus generally was more on theft from train safes than individual passengers, they mercilessly murdered countless people who stood in their way.
WATCH: The James Gang: Outlaw Brothers on HISTORY Vault.
As the newspapers began to mention James, his love for attention grew.
“He was daring, planning and robbing banks in the middle of the day and shutting down the most powerful machines of the day – railroad locomotives – to steal their trains and manage to get away,” wrote Bill Markley in Billy the Kid and Jesse James: Outlaws of the Legendary West.
The legend of James developed with the help of newspaper editor John Newman Edwards, a Confederate sympathizer who continued the mythology of James Robin Hood. “We are not thieves, we are daring thieves,” wrote James in a letter published by Edwards. “I’m proud of the name because Alexander the Great was a daring thief, Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte.”
But if he robbed the rich, there is no proof that James gave the poor.
In 1881, the governor of Missouri issued a reward of $ 10,000 for the capture of Jesse and Frank James. On April 3, 1882, at the age of 34, James was shot and killed by one of his accomplices, Robert Ford, who was convicted of murder but pardoned by the governor.
READ MORE: 7 Things You May Not Know About Jesse James
Billy the kid
Legend has it that Wild West outlaw Billy the Kid – cattle thief, gunslinger, murderer, escape artist – killed 21 people before he was 21, his age at death. The reality is perhaps closer to nine. But the early days of Henry McCarty, later known as William Bonney, “the Kid,” are murky.
Billy the Kid was likely born in New York City in 1859, then moved to Indiana, Kansas, and Denver before his family moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Orphaned as a teenager after his mother’s death from tuberculosis, Henry was separated from his brother and placed in foster homes. It wasn’t long before I fell on a small flight. After an arrest in September 1875 for stealing clothes from a Chinese laundry, Henry reportedly climbed the prison chimney and escaped, eventually heading to southeastern Arizona.
READ MORE: 9 Things You May Not Know About Billy the Kid
In 1876 he joined an Arizona gang known for stealing horses. In 1877, after being charged with murdering a blacksmith, he fled home to New Mexico and joined another band of thieves. In 1878, he joined a group called the Regulators who were taking revenge for the murder of a rancher in what was called the Lincoln County War. In 1880, his name spread in the tabloids.
“Billy has become the symbol of the American loner: the little guy who fights against all odds; the misunderstood youth who fought the corrupt government and business forces, bent on its destruction, ”Markley wrote. “Everyone wanted to be associated with Billy the Kid – he stayed on their ranch or he stole one of their horses.”
With a reward of $ 500 on his head, the fugitive was shot dead by New Mexico Sheriff Pat Garrett on July 14, 1881.
READ MORE: How Billy the Kid Died
Born into a well-to-do and sympathetic Confederate family, Myra Maybelle Shirley Starr – later known as Belle and ultimately the “Bandit Queen” – was a teenager in Scyene, Texas, in 1864, when Jesse James and the Younger Brothers used his family’s home as a hiding place.
In the years that followed, Starr married three outlaws: Jim Reed in 1866, who ran with the Younger, James and Starr gangs and was killed in 1874 by police; Bruce Younger in 1878; and Sam Starr, a Cherokee, in 1880.
After Belle and Sam Starr were charged with horse theft, a federal offense for which she served time, she was again charged with horse theft in 1886. This time, due to her legal skills, she was charged with stealing horses. been acquitted. But in the meantime, her husband and an Indian policeman shot each other to death.
Starr herself was murdered on February 3, 1889, at the age of 40, near her Oklahoma cabin in the Cherokee Nation. Some suspect her son, Ed Reed, whom the Texas State Historical Association claims to have recently beaten for mistreating his horse. The crime was never solved.
Two days after his death, The New York Times called her “the most desperate woman to ever be on the border.”
But according to Glenn Shirley, author of Belle Starr and her time: literature, facts and legends, the only truth in the report was the fact that she was deceased.
“Almost overnight, Belle Starr’s name became a common word across the country,” he wrote. “She had been raised to a seat of immortal glory like a sex mad hellion with the morals of an alley cat, a host and wife of horse and cattle thieves, a little blackmailer who meddled in all crimes. , from murder to the dark sin of incest, a Robin Hood who stole from the rich to feed the poor, an exhibitionist and intelligent demoniac on horseback and leader of the most bloodthirsty rogue group in the American West. All this despite the lack of a contemporary account or court record to show that she ever detained a train, a bank or a stagecoach or killed anyone. “
READ MORE: 6 daring train flights
Born Robert LeRoy Parker in 1866, in Circleville, Utah to devout Mormons, the famous outlaw who later adopted the nickname Butch Cassidy grew up in poverty, one of 13 children. As a teenager, working on a nearby ranch to help feed his family, legend has it that he met Mike Cassidy, a cattle thief and mentor, who taught him, according to Time, “how to make a better life, even if it is clearly dishonest.”
Landing in the Gold Rush town of Telluride, Colo., Cassidy, along with three other men, on June 24, 1889, committed the first crime attributed to her: a bank robbery, in which the trio managed to win $ 20,000.
Adopting his new name (some say “Butch” comes from his time working as a butcher) and hiding in Wyoming, he began adding outlaw cowboys to his gang, known in the press as of “Wild Bunch”. They included Harry Longabaugh, aka the Sundance Kid.
READ MORE: 6 Things You May Not Know About Butch Cassidy
After spending 18 months in prison for horse theft in 1894, in 1896 Cassidy’s Wild Bunch robbed a bank in Montpelier, Idaho, stealing $ 7,000. The gang then committed several other thefts in the Southwest, including a $ 70,000 haul on a Rio Grande train robbery in New Mexico.
With the authorities on their trail, Cassidy and Longabaugh eventually fled to Argentina. Eventually Cassidy returned to theft of trains and payrolls until her presumed death in 1908.
Now, about that death: Most historians say Butch and Sundance, immortalized in the Robert Redford / Paul Newman film, died in a shootout in Bolivia, but others theorize the couple escaped, living their lives under pseudonyms.
READ MORE: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: Their Biggest Heists
John Wesley Hardin
Did he kill 20 men? Forty? Fifty? The total body count may not be clear, but according to John Wesley Hardin they all deserved it. “I never killed anyone who didn’t need to be killed,” he said.
Clearly, Hardin was one of the most dangerous guns in the American Southwest. “Compared to John Wesley Hardin, Billy the Kid was a rank lover,” Lee Floren wrote in his book John Wesley Hardin: Texas Gunfighter. “By the time Wes Hardin reached his 21st birthday, he was credited with the murder of 27.”
Born in 1853 in Bonham, Texas, to a Methodist preacher, Hardin early showed his nature as an outlaw: he stabbed a classmate as a schoolboy, killed a black man in a argued at 15 and, as a supporter of Confederation, claimed to take life. of several Union soldiers soon after, according to the Texas State Historical Society.
Over a dozen murders later, he surrendered in 1872, got out of prison, joined the anti-reconstruction movement and continued to kill, the company reports. Fleeing capture with his wife and children, he was caught by the Texas Rangers in Florida in 1877 and sentenced to 25 years for the murder of Charles Webb, a deputy sheriff. During his prison term, he repeatedly tried to escape, read theological books, served as the prison’s Sunday school principal and studied law, according to the company. He also wrote his autobiography. Hardin was pardoned on March 16, 1894, then admitted to the bar.
But the life on the right track did not last long. According to the company, Hardin hired assassins to murder one of his clients – with the woman he was having an affair with. And on August 19, 1895, Constable John Selman, one of the rental pistols, shot Hardin in the Acme Lounge – ironically, it is believed, because he had not been paid for the blow.