12 Notorious Wild West Outlaws
12 Notorious Wild West Outlaws

12 Notorious Wild West Outlaws

Khalid Elhassan - September 9, 2017

12 Notorious Wild West Outlaws
Johnny Ringo. Frank’s Realm

Johnny Ringo

John “Johnny” Ringo (1850 – 1882) was born in Indiana, and his family moved to Missouri in 1858, and thence to California. He is known to history as an associate of the Cochise County Cowboys, an outlaw group in Tombstone, Arizona, and of the corrupt Tombstone Sheriff’s office. He is best known for his hostility to and adverse run ins with lawman Wyatt Earp and his associates, which eventually spelled Ringo’s doom.

In the 1870s a young Ringo moved to Texas, and by 1875 had joined a gang and participated in its depredations during a period of lawlessness and revenge killings between factions of German settlers and natural-born Americans in Mason County, Texas, that became known as the “Mason County War“. Arrested, Ringo escaped from jail and fled to Arizona.

In 1878, Ringo offered whiskey to a man seated next to him in a bar, but when the man declined, Ringo shot off his ear. Soon thereafter, he arrived in Tombstone, where he joined the Cochise County Cowboys and began an antagonistic relationship with Wyatt Earp and his associates. The Earps suspected Ringo’s involvement in an 1881 ambush that left Virgil Earp crippled, and in the murder of Morgan Earp on March 18, 1882.

Soon thereafter, Wyatt Earp, a deputy US Marshall, formed a federal posse to hunt down those deemed responsible for shooting his brothers. Ringo was deputized by Tombstone’s corrupt Sheriff in an attempt to shield him from the Earps by making him a lawman. Within weeks, many of Ringo’s friends had been killed or fled the area, and Although he denied any involvement in the shootings of Virgil and Morgan Earp, Ringo deemed it advisable to leave Tombstone until things calmed down.

In April, the Earps had left Tombstone, and by June, Ringo had returned. A month later, his body was discovered beneath a tree with a bullet hole in the head. The death was ruled a suicide, but many suspected that Wyatt Earp had surreptitiously returned to exact vengeance – a theory confirmed years later by Wyatt’s widow, who wrote in her memoirs that her husband had killed Johnny Ringo.

12 Notorious Wild West Outlaws
Clay Allison. True West Magazine

Clay Allison

Clay Allison (1841 – 1887) was born and raised in Tennessee, and fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. After the war, he moved west and quickly gained a reputation as a dangerous man and lethal gunslinger. He first garnered attention in 1870, when he led a mob that broke into a New Mexico jail, seized a deranged man suspected in the murder of a number of people, including his own daughter, and lynched him.

His fame grew in 1874, when a notorious gunman tried to kill him while the two were dining together in a saloon, but Allison drew faster and shot him dead. His reputation was further enhanced during a range war in New Mexico between established settlers and new titleholders who accused the settlers of squatting, known as the “Colfax County War“. Allison sided with the settlers, and took part in the lynching of a pro-landowner gunslinger.

The lynched man’s family vowed revenge, but when an uncle of the victim cornered Allison, the latter proved quicker on the draw and shot him dead. Allison was arrested for murder, but charges were dropped after an inquiry determined that he had acted in self-defense.

In 1876, Allison’s refusal to surrender his pistols to a constable in Las Animas, Colorado, who informed him that it was illegal to carry guns within the town limits, led to a gunfight that left the constable dead. Allison was charged with manslaughter, but charges were dropped because the constable had fired first. Surprisingly, for a man so violent, he died in a routine accident in 1887 when he fell off a wagon, and its wheel rolled over him and broke his neck.

12 Notorious Wild West Outlaws
John King Fisher. Texas State Historical Association

John King Fisher

Born and raised in Texas, John King Fisher (1853 – 1884) turned bad at an early age. Aged 15, he was sentenced to two years imprisonment for horse theft but won early release because of his youth. Soon thereafter, he joined bandits who raided across the border into Mexico, and adopted adopting a flamboyant persona, dressing in flashy clothes, such as a black Mexican jacket embroidered with gold, a red sash, a wide sombrero, and sporting silver-plated and ivory-handled pistols.

He styled himself a gunslinger, and proved himself one when a dispute over sharing the loot triggered a shootout during which a teenage Fisher killed three fellow bandits. After the gunsmoke dissipated, Fisher took over as gang leader, and over subsequent months, defended his leadership claim by killing seven more bandits.

In 1872, he bought a ranch on the Mexican border and used it as a base of operations for cattle rustling raids into Mexico. The Texas Rangers eventually raided the ranch and arrested Fisher, but released him upon his promise to cease raiding. He then tried his hand at legitimate cattle ranching, but ranch operations were frequently impeded by his violent temper.

In 1878, he escalated an argument with two Mexican cowboys by crushing the head of one with an iron rod, and shooting the other dead when he tried to draw his pistol. He then shot dead two other Mexicans who had been sitting on a fence and simply watching. Nothing came of it, nor did anything come of other instances when Fisher was arrested for violent acts and attempted murders, only to be released when witnesses refused to come forward or disappeared.

Although a notorious troublemaker, Fisher was liked in the community, and by the 1880s had transitioned from bandit to lawman, serving briefly as acting sheriff of Uvalde County in 1883, during which service he tracked down a stagecoach robbing duo, shooting one dead and bringing in the other. The following year, Fisher went to see a play with a friend in San Antonio, but was killed when a quarrel between his friend and the theater owner ended with Fisher and friend ambushed in their theater box and cut down in a hail of bullets.

12 Notorious Wild West Outlaws
Frank Stillwell. The American Cowboy Chronicles

Frank Stillwell

Born in Iowa, Frank Stillwell (1856 – 1882) ended up in Arizona in 1877, where he had his first recorded run in with the law: a new cook served him tea instead of coffee, and Stillwell shot him dead. In 1879, he staked a claim and worked a mine in Mojave, Arizona, when he got into a dispute with a fellow miner over claim-jumping. Stillwell settled the dispute by grabbing a rock and smashing in his rival’s face until he was dead. He was arrested for murder, but charges were dropped for lack of evidence.

He was hired as a Cochise County sheriff’s deputy in 1881, but was fired soon thereafter for “accounting irregularities”. A few months later, he robbed a stagecoach near Tombstone, Arizona, and was tracked down and arrested by lawmen Wyatt and Virgil Earp. Charges were dropped however for insufficient evidence, and after Stillwell produced alibi witnesses. The Earps, in their capacity as US Marshals, then charged Stillwell with the federal crime of interference with a mail carrier, which created a perception that Stillwell was being persecuted, and led soon thereafter to the assassination of Wyatt’s brother, Morgan Earp.

Witnesses reported seeing Stillwell fleeing from the scene, and a Coroner’s jury listed Stillwell among the suspects in the assassination. Wyatt Earp then formed a posse and went after the suspects in the murder of his brother Morgan and the earlier shooting of his other brother, Virgil. Two days after Morgan’s assassination, Wyatt Earp received information that Stillwell planned to murder his brother Virgil in Tucson when the train carrying him and Morgan’s coffin to California stopped there. Wyatt formed an escort to accompany Virgil, and on March 20, 1882, spotted Stillwell and two associates waiting in ambush near Tucson’s train station. Stillwell and his friends ran for their lives when they spotted Wyatt, but Stillwell stumbled. By the time he got back on his feet, Wyatt Earp was upon him.

I ran straight for Stilwell,” he later recounted. “It was he who killed my brother. What a coward he was. He couldn’t shoot when I came near him. He stood there helpless and trembling for his life. As I rushed upon him he put out his hands and clutched at my shotgun. I let go both barrels, and he tumbled down dead and mangled at my feet.

12 Notorious Wild West Outlaws
Charlie Bowdre. Pinterest

Charlie Bowdre

Charles Bowdre (1848 – 1880) was born in Georgia and moved with his family to Mississippi as a child. He left the family farm to become a wanderer, and by 1874 had arrived in Lincoln County, New Mexico. Over the following years, he joined posses that chased cattle rustlers, and lynched those captured. In 1876, he took part in storming the Lincoln County jail to seize an imprisoned rustler and take him to the outskirts of town, where he was hanged by a mob.

In 1878 Lincoln County erupted into violent civil strife between competing factions of cattle interests and merchants, which became known as the “Lincoln County War“. Bowdre sided with the faction that included William H. Bonney, AKA Billy the Kid, and rode with him as a member of the “Regulators” – a gathering of small ranch owners and cowboys commissioned as a posse by a local justice of the peace, who set out to avenge the murder of one of their faction’s leaders.

Armed with warrants for the apprehension of accused murderers and factional opponents, Bowdre assisted the Regulators in tracking down and killing a number of men for “resisting arrest”. However, the territorial governor decreed that the justice of the peace who had commissioned the Regulators had been illegally appointed, and thus lacked the authority to issue the warrants enforced by the Regulators – transforming them overnight from a legal posse to outlaws.

Bowdre wound up on the losing side of the conflict, and the Regulators, now led by Billy the Kid, became a cattle thieving gang, appropriately renamed the “Rustlers”. In 1880, Bowdre joined the Rustlers in a failed attempt to assassinate lawman Pat Garrett. A gunfight ensued, and Bowdre and the surviving Rustlers fled to an isolated stone house hideout. Unbeknownst to them, they were tracked by a posse, which surrounded the hideout during the night. The following dawn, Bowdre emerged from the house to feed the horses, and was immediately shot multiple times and fell back into the house, mortally wounded. Urged by Billy the Kid to “take a few of them with you when you die“, Bowdre staggered to his feet to charge out the door, where he was met by another hail of gunfire and instantly killed.

12 Notorious Wild West Outlaws
Butch Cassidy, far right, The Sundance Kid, far left, and other members of the Wild Bunch gang. Wikimedia

Butch Cassidy

Born in Utah to British immigrants who had arrived in Utah as Mormon pioneers, Robert Leroy Parker (1866 – 1908), AKA Butch Cassidy, left home as a teen to work on a dairy farm. He was mentored by a cattle rustler named Mike Cassidy, whose surname he adopted, and a subsequent job as a butcher earned him the nickname “Butch”.

At age 14, he entered a closed store and stole jeans and a pie, leaving behind an IOU. He was tried, but acquitted. By age 18, Cassidy was working with horse thieves, delivering stolen animals to buyers. With three associates, Cassidy robbed his first bank, in Telluride, Colorado, in 1889, then fled to a remote Utah hideout known as Robbers Roost.

The following year, he bought a ranch in Wyoming, near a notorious bandit hideout known as Hole in the Wall. In 1894, he was arrested and convicted of horse stealing and extortion. Sentenced to two years, he was released and pardoned after a year and a half by Wyoming’s governor. Within months, Cassidy formed the “Wild Bunch” gang and robbed an Idaho bank. Soon thereafter, he recruited Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, AKA The Sundance Kid.

In 1897, Cassidy robbed a coal company’s payroll of $7000. In June 1899, the Wild Bunch robbed a Union Pacific passenger train in Wyoming, which led to a massive manhunt, during which a Sheriff was killed in a shootout. A month later, Cassidy directed a train robbery in New Mexico, which entailed a shootout in which a Sheriff and another lawman were killed.

Cassidy tried to negotiate an amnesty plea with Wyoming’s governor that would have entailed the Union Pacific Railroad dropping criminal charges. He torpedoed his chances by robbing another Union Pacific in 1900, while the negotiations were ongoing and in breach of a promise he made the governor. Pressure mounted as posses tracked down and killed or arrested Wild Bunch members and associates, one by one. In May 1900, Wild Bunch members rode into Moab, Utah, and killed the Sheriff and a deputy as payback for the earlier killing of two gang members.

In September, 1900, Cassidy robbed a Nevada bank of $33,000, and in July, 1901, Wild Bunch members robbed a train in Montana, netting $60,000. Under mounting pressure, however, the gang broke up, and Cassidy and Longabaugh fled to New York City in 1901, and from there sailed to Argentina, where they purchased and settled in a 15,000-acre ranch.

In February, 1905, Cassidy and Longabaugh robbed a bank in southern Argentina. Tipped off that a warrant had been issued for their arrest, the duo sold their ranch in May, 1905, and fled to Chile. They returned to Argentina later that year and robbed a bank, then fled back to Chile. In 1906, they moved to Bolivia, and worked as guards for a mining company.

In November, 1908, Cassidy and Longabaugh robbed a mining company’s payroll in southern Bolivia, then fled to a small town where they lodged in a boarding house. They aroused the proprietor’s suspicions, and he notified a nearby Bolivian army unit. On the evening of November 6, 1908, the boarding house was surrounded. When soldiers approached, the duo opened fire, and in the ensuing firefight, were shot multiple times. Grievously wounded, Cassidy shot Longabaugh dead to put him out of his misery, before turning his pistol on himself.

12 Notorious Wild West Outlaws
William Brazelton’s corpse tied upright to a chair and displayed in front of Tucson courthouse. Find a Grave

William “Brazen Bill” Brazelton

William “Brazen Bill” Brazelton’s (died 1878) was born in San Francisco, orphaned at an early age, and grew up as a street urchin. In 1876, he arrived in Prescott, Arizona, and claiming that he would stage a show in which he would eat a wagon wheel, conned people into paying in advance to attend. He then left town to bring the rest of the show’s crew and stagehands, and never returned.

A year later, he graduated from grifting to armed robbery, and held up his first stagecoach in September 1877. Wearing a mask, Brazelton forced the driver to get down and secure the lead horses by the bit. He then ordered a passenger to throw down the express box, break it open with an axe, and hand him the contents. Over the following year, Brazelton committed at least another 8 stagecoach robberies in Arizona and New Mexico.

In the aftermath of his last robbery, on August 15, 1878, Brazelton’s horse threw a shoe, leaving a distinct print that allowed pursuers to follow the track to a horse corral. The proprietor was arrested, and offered to deliver the robber, disclosing that Brazelton intended to commit another robbery that night, and that a meeting had been prearranged for earlier that evening to deliver him supplies. The posse left as if riding back home, then doubled back to the meeting site to wait in ambush.

Brazelton arrived cautiously, and as he began to collect the supplies, something aroused his suspicion. Before he could react, the night was lit by a shotgun blast, followed by flashes from a fusillade of pistol shots. He shouted “you son of a bitch!” as he fell, then lay groaning “I die brave, my God! I’ll pray ’til I die!” On his body were discovered his trademark mask and some loot from previous robberies. His corpse was taken to Tucson, and displayed while tied upright to chair in front of the courthouse until burial the following day.

12 Notorious Wild West Outlaws
Rufus Buck, center, and his gang. Harvard Magazine

Rufus Buck

Born in the Indian Territory in today’s Oklahoma to a Creek Indian father and an African American mother, Rufus Buck (1877 – 1896) formed a multi-ethnic gang of teenagers – all Indians, African Americans, or mixed race. A zealot with nebulous ideas of triggering a Native American uprising, Buck led his gang on a depraved rampage of robbery, rape, and murder, that terrorized white settlers, Indians, and African Americans alike.

Buck’s gang started stockpiling weapons in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, and on July 28, 1895, began their rampage by shooting and killing a deputy US Marshal. On the way back, they raped a middle-aged widow. They then robbed a man of his horse, and killed him when he resisted. A few days later, they robbed a salesman, stripped him naked, and offered him a chance to escape. When he unexpectedly succeeded in escaping, they killed his assistant in frustration. They then raped and murdered two women and a 14-year-old girl. On August 4th, they raped a woman in front of her husband, whom they held at bay with rifles. At least two of their rape victims died of their injuries.

Posses of Indian Police and white settlers were formed to apprehend the gang, but while the posses combed the countryside, Buck and his gang brazenly rode into Okmulgee and robbed three stores. Whenever they encountered somebody riding a horse they liked, they offered to trade, and shot the rider if he declined. On the outskirts of Eufala, they came across a black child, and just to see him twitch as he expired, shot him dead.

On August 10, 1895, US Marshals came across the gang in a hideout near Muskogee. After a furious firefight, they were forced to surrender when they ran out of ammunition. Taken into Muskogee, the gang barely escaped lynching by a Creek mob, which dispersed only after a tribal chief pleaded with them, and the US Marshals vowed to shoot the first man who tried to seize their prisoners. Taken to Fort Smith for trial, the gang was found guilty of rape, murder, and robbery, and sentenced to death by “hanging judge” Isaac Parker. After appeals were exhausted, Rufus Buck and his gang were hanged on July 1, 1896.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

History Collection – The Notorious Men of the Wild West

Smithsonian Magazine – Gun Control Is as Old as the Old West

University of Nebraska – Finding Law & Order in The Wild West

The Independent – The Culture of Violence in the American West: Myth versus Reality

Gold Bug Park – Black Bart: The Gentleman Bandit

Herald Democrat – Sam Bass Stood Out in the Wild West

Texas Archive – Texas Outlaw Sam Bass

History Collection – America’s First Serial Killers and Many More Deadly Historic Figures

History Channel – Vigilantes Yank Train Robbers from Jail and Hang Them

Smithsonian Magazine – How the Reno Gang Launched the Era of American Train Robberies

Civil War on the Western Border – Jesse James and Frank James

History of Yesterday – The Robin Hood of America

WBUR – What Drove Wild West’s Jesse James to Become an Outlaw?

Medium – The Strange Death of Johnny Ringo

History Net – Clay Allison: ‘Good-Natured Holy Terror’

True West Magazine – How was Morgan Earp killed?

True West Magazine – Wyatt Earp A Murderer Or?

Legends of America – Charles “Charlie” Bowdre – Unlucky Friend to Billy the Kid

Buffalo News – The Real Story of Butch Cassidy, The Sundance Kid and Their Wild Bunch

History Collection – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s Escapades, and Other Lesser-Known Historic Events

History Channel – The Mysterious Deaths of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid