The ‘Wild West’ is a term often used to describe the American frontier between the mid-19th and early 20th century. It is a period in history that has long captured the imagination of a global audience. A large part of this fascination stems from the fact that this period was a complete dichotomy of old and new.
The frontier was a melting pot of newly arrived immigrants, indigenous populations and fourth or fifth generation colonists. It was a period in which businessmen and farmers worked side by side, a time when steam trains competed with horse-and-cart, when the camera and electric light bulbs had been invented, yet so many could not afford to put food on the table. It was a civilised society in so many ways, yet so benighted and backward in others.
The term “Wild West”, however, has become synonymous with the “Outlaw”. In a time when no real judicial system existed and disputes were most often resolved by deadly duels, the frontier became a breeding ground for criminal gangs who robbed steam trains and banks, rustled cattle and killed lawmen. Whether or not they were morally corrupt and dishonourable, they have become the hallmark of the Wild Western Era.
Here are 10 of the most famous and notorious of these outlaws.
1. Jesse James
Jesse Woodson James was an American outlaw, bank and train robber, guerrilla, and leader of the James–Younger Gang. Born in 1847 and raised in the “Little Dixie” area of western Missouri, James and his slave-owning family maintained strong Southern sympathies.
As the leader of the James-Younger Gang, James played a pivitol role in their successful string of train, stagecoach, and bank robberies. Ironically, he was and still is often looked at as a sort of Robin Hood of the Old West, but there isn’t much proof he gave back to the poor community.
The James legend grew with the help of newspaper editor John Newman Edwards, a Confederate sympathiser who perpetuated James’s Robin Hood mythology. “We are not thieves, we are bold robbers,” James wrote in a letter Edwards published. “I am proud of the name, for Alexander the Great was a bold robber, and Julius Caesar, and Napoleon Bonaparte.”
In 1881, the governor of Missouri issued a $10,000 reward for the capture of Jesse and Frank James. On 3 April 1882, at the age of 34, James was shot in the back of the head and killed by one of his accomplices, Robert Ford, who was found guilty of murder but pardoned by the governor.
2. Billy the Kid
Usually a nickname like “the Kid” would not give someone such a rough reputation, but Billy managed to pull it off. Born Henry McCarty in 1859, likely in New York City, Billy experienced a turbulent childhood. His father died at the end of the American Civil War and his mother contracted tuberculosis around the same time, forcing him and his family to move out west.
His transition into the life of an outlaw began in 1877, when he drew his gun and shot a civilian blacksmith who was bullying him at Camp Grant Army Post in Arizona. Once again McCarty was in custody, this time in the Camp’s guardhouse awaiting the arrival of the local marshal. Before the marshal could arrive, however, Billy escaped.
Now an outlaw and unable to find honest work, the Kid met up with another bandit named Jesse Evans, who was the leader of a gang of rustlers called “The Boys.” The Kid didn’t have anywhere else to go and since it was suicide to be alone in the hostile and lawless territory, Billy reluctantly joined the gang.
After engaging in numerous felonies and later becoming embroiled in the infamous Lincoln County War, Billy’s name soon spread across tabloid newspapers. With a $500 reward on his head, the fugitive was eventually gunned down by New Mexico Sheriff Pat Garrett on 14 July 1881.
3. Butch Cassidy
Born Robert LeRoy Parker in Beaver, Utah on 13 April 1866, Cassidy was the first of 13 children. His Mormon parents had come to Utah from England in 1856.
It is likely that by 1884, Roy was already rustling cattle, however in 1889, he and three other men committed the first crime attributed to his name — a bank robbery, in which the trio made off with $20,000.
This robbery showed the trappings of what would become the “Wild Bunch” signature holdup – a well-planned attack. After this daring heist, Butch went on the run, travelling across the frontier.
The outlaws held up banks and trains in South Dakota, Wyoming, New Mexico and Nevada, and managed to bring home increasingly large sums of money – for example, an estimated $70,000 for the holdup of a Rio Grande train in New Mexico. However, by this point the good old days seemed to be over. The Wild Bunch had an extensive ally of law officers hunting them.
With the authorities hot on their trail, Cassidy and Longabaugh eventually fled to Argentina. Eventually, Cassidy went back to robbing trains and payrolls up until his alleged death in a shootout in 1908.
4. Harry Alonzo Longabaugh
Harry Alonzo Longabaugh (b. 1867), better known as the “Sundance Kid”, was an outlaw and member of Butch Cassidy’s “Wild Bunch” in the Wild West. He likely met Butch Cassidy after Parker was released from prison around 1896.
Longabaugh was reputed to be the best shot and fastest gunslinger of the Wild Bunch, a group of robbers and rustlers who ranged through the Rocky Mountains and plateau desert regions of the West in the 1880s and ’90s.
At the turn of the century, the Sundance Kid joined with Butch Cassidy and a girlfriend, Etta Place, and in 1901 drifted to New York City and then South America, where they set up ranching in Chubut province, Argentina. In 1906 he and Cassidy returned to outlawry, robbing banks, trains, and mining interests in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Peru.
He supposedly was shot and killed alongside Butch Cassidy in Bolivia in 1908 – although this has been challenged by historians.
5. John Wesley Hardin
Born in 1853 in Bonham, Texas to a Methodist preacher, Hardin displayed his outlaw nature early. He stabbed a classmate as a schoolboy, killed a black man during an argument at 15 and, as a supporter of the Confederacy, claimed to take the lives of multiple Union soldiers soon after. This violent act stemmed from Hardin’s strong hatred of freed slaves.
Only a few weeks later Hardin murdered three more men. These were soldiers who had attempted to take him into custody. Hardin then moved to Navarro County where he became a school teacher. This was followed by work as a cowboy and poker player, but this resulted in him killing another player in a gambling row.
More than a dozen killings later, he surrendered in 1872, broke out of jail, joined the anti-Reconstruction movement and kept on killing. Fleeing capture with his wife and children, he was caught by Texas Rangers in Florida and sentenced to 25 years for the murder of a deputy sheriff.
After prison time and miraculously being admitted to the Bar, Hardin hired assassins to murder one of his clients, with whose wife he was having an affair. On 19 August 1895, constable John Selman, one of the hired guns, shot and killed Hardin in the Acme Saloon, ironically, it is believed, because he had not been paid for the hit job.
6. Belle Starr
It’s not often that a rich girl abandons her comfortable city life to become an outlaw, but Belle Starr was far from ordinary. Born in Missouri to a well-to-do, Confederate sympathising family, Myra Maybelle Shirley Starr, later known as Belle, and eventually the “Bandit Queen”, was only a teenager in 1864 when outlaws Jesse James and the “Younger Gang” used her family’s home as a hideout.
In the years that followed, Starr married three outlaws. Jim Reed in 1866, Bruce Younger in 1878; and Sam Starr, a Cherokee, in 1880.
It was from this point Belle was said to act as a front for bootleggers and harboured fugitives. Starr’s life of crime ended when she was shot in the back as she returned from a general store to her ranch. She died on 3 February 1889. Though suspects included an outlaw with whom she was feuding, a former lover, her husband, and her own son, the killer of Belle Starr was never identified.
7. Bill Doolin
William “Bill” Doolin was an American bandit outlaw and founder of the the Doolin-Dalton Gang.
Born in Arkansas in 1858, William Doolin was never as hardened a criminal as some of his companions. He went west in 1881, finding work in Oklahoma at the big ranch of Oscar D. Halsell. Halsell took a liking to the young Arkansan, taught him to write and do simple arithmetic, and eventually made him an informal foreman on the ranch. Doolin was considered to be trustworthy and capable.
By the last decade of the 19th century, Doolin involved himself in bank and train robberies. He was known as a meticulous planner, and so he was never caught in the act or seriously wounded. Doolin and his newly formed gang went on to perform more daring heists until 1895, when increased pressure from law enforcement forced them into hiding in New Mexico.
In 1896, when a posse finally caught up with him at Lawton, Oklahoma, Doolin apparently decided he was not going to be captured alive. Badly outnumbered, Doolin drew his gun. A rain of shotgun and rifle fire instantly killed him. He was 38 years old.
8. Sam Bass
Born in Mitchell, Indiana, on 21 July 1851, Sam Bass became an iconic 19th century American Old West train robber and outlaw.
He left his home at age 18 and drifted to Texas, where in 1874 he befriended Joel Collins. In 1876, Bass and Collins went north on a cattle drive but turned to robbing stagecoaches. In 1877, they robbed a Union Pacific train of $65,000 in gold coins.
Bass was able to elude the Texas Rangers until a member of his gang turned informant. Whilst planning to rob Williamson County Bank in 1878, they were noticed by the County Deputy Sheriff A. W. Grimes. When Grimes approached the men to request that they surrender their sidearms, he was shot and killed. A gunfight ensued and as Bass attempted to flee, he was shot by Texas Rangers. He would die later in custody.
9. Etta Place
Etta Place was a member of the Butch Cassidy’s ‘Wild Bunch’ and became involved with Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, the “Sundance Kid”. She was a woman of mystery – historians are unsure of her real name or time or place of her birth.
Sundance Kid and his fellow outlaw, Butch Cassidy, decided to start a new life in South America. On 29 February 1902, Etta Place and the two men left New York City aboard the freighter, Soldier Prince. When they arrived in Argentina they purchased land at Chubut Province.
It is not clear what happened to Etta after that. One story says she moved to Denver whereas another claimed she returned to South America and was killed, along with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in Bolivia.
10. Jim Miller
James “Jim” Brown Miller (b. 1861) was one of the worst of the many violent men of the Wild West. Miller was a Texas Ranger turned outlaw and professional killer who was said to have killed 12 people during gunfights.
It is likely Miller’s real body count was somewhere between 20-50 men. He was a psychopathic hitman. His bloody deeds are said to have begun when he murdered his grandparents at the age of 8 (although he was never prosecuted). He went on to leave a trail of death and grief across Texas and surrounding states.
He was eventually lynched in Ada, Oklahoma, in 1909 along with three other men, by a mob of residents angry that he had assassinated a former deputy US marshal.