5 Deadly Gunfighters of the Old West

5 Deadly Gunfighters of the Old West

Matthew - March 9, 2017

Just mentioning the words “The Old West” conjures up images of gunslingers, outlaws, and lawmen battling for territory and honor on dusty streets in towns throughout the American frontier. Men headed west during the 1800s in search of riches and fame. Many of them lived short, violent lives and ended up on the wrong side of a revolver. This list is by no means a comprehensive one but is just a taste of some of the deadliest gunslingers who roamed the Wild West, leaving a trail of bloodshed and bodies behind them.

John Wesley Hardin

John Wesley Hardin was truly one of the most feared gunfighters of the Old West, killing dozens of men during his reign of terror. Hardin was born in Bonham, Texas in 1853. His father was a Methodist preacher, and the Hardin family traveled frequently throughout Texas before settling in southeast Texas in 1859.

5 Deadly Gunfighters of the Old West
John Wesley Hardin. True West Magazine

Hardin’s father established a school where the family settled, but just because he was the schoolmaster’s son, he didn’t stay out of trouble. When he was only 14-years-old, Hardin stabbed and nearly killed a classmate over a minor disagreement. The next, year, 15-year-old Hardin committed his first murder, shooting his uncle’s former slave to death. Hardin claims he then murdered three Union troops sent to arrest him, putting his body count at four before he even turned 16.

Hardin went on the run, well aware that he would probably hang for killing soldiers. Hardin roamed throughout Texas, killing anyone who got in his way. It’s rumored that he once shot a man’s eye out over a bet to win a bottle of whiskey. Hardin’s luck ran out for the first time when he was arrested in 1871 for the murder of a Waco city marshal. He was on the loose once again when he killed one of the men charged with returning him to face trial in Waco. John Wesley Hardin was still only 17-years-old at this point.

Following the advice of his cousins, Hardin ventured to Kansas to find work driving cattle. Although the newly converted cowboy did drive cattle, he also found time to kill anyone he had a disagreement with, whether over a card game or keeping cattle herds separated. On August 6, 1871, Hardin killed a man in Kansas for snoring too loud at a hotel.

From 1871 until 1877, Hardin led a murderous existence, disposing of men throughout Texas with who he didn’t see eye to eye. He was finally captured by authorities on August 24, 1877, on a train in Pensacola, Florida. Hardin stood trial for one murder (out of the many he had committed) and was sentenced to 25 years in prison in Texas. He served 17 years of his sentence and was released in 1894. Hardin studied law in prison, and, amazingly, passed the Texas bar exam and was certified to practice law in July 1894. He relocated to El Paso, which is where he met his demise. In August 1895, Hardin was shot and killed in a saloon by a man he had argued with earlier in the day. Hardin was 42-years-old at the time of his death.

5 Deadly Gunfighters of the Old West
The Famous People

Billy The Kid

Obviously, the most well-known Old West figure in history, Bill the Kid’s life has been shrouded in rumor and mythology since he was killed in 1881 at the young age of 21. Scant information is known about his early life. The man who became Billy the Kid was born Henry McCarty to an Irish immigrant mother in New York City in 1859. His mother, Catherine, moved Henry and his brother Joseph to Indianapolis when the boys were still young.

Catherine remarried in Indiana and the family relocated to Wichita, Kansas, and then finally to New Mexico, where Catherine died in 1874 of tuberculosis. Henry McCarty was now 15-years-old. It was not long before he embarked on a life of crime that would make him an outlaw and a hero throughout the world. McCarty had several brushes with the law from 1875 until 1877. He became a thief, stealing pistols, clothing, and food. His stepfather finally threw him out of the house, and McCarty made his way to the Arizona territory.

McCarty committed his first known murder in August 1877, a month before his 18th birthday. A disagreement during a poker game and a subsequent fight led to McCarty shooting and killing a man named Francis “Windy” Cahill in Arizona. McCarty fled Arizona and returned to New Mexico and started working for a rancher named John Tunstall. It was also during this time that Henry McCarty started to go by the name William H. Bonney.

Unbeknownst to Billy, he soon found himself in the middle of a battle between cattle barons in New Mexico known as the Lincoln County War after his new boss John Tunstall was murdered by a rival faction. Billy and his fellow cowboys vowed to avenge the death of their boss and caretaker. It was during the Lincoln County War that William H. Bonney became known in the press as the notorious “Billy the Kid.” Billy was handy with a pistol, and he killed several men during the conflict. He became a famous outlaw, and escaped from custody not once, but twice, further adding to his legend. Billy’s boisterous personality endeared him to friends, and his ability to speak Spanish allowed him to hide out in various villages throughout New Mexico while he was on the run from the law.

Billy was eventually hunted down and killed in Fort Sumner, New Mexico in July 1881 by Sheriff Pat Garrett. Since then, conspiracy theorists have speculated that Billy the Kid was not actually killed that night, and several men later came forward proclaiming they were indeed the infamous outlaw.

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5 Deadly Gunfighters of the Old West
Old West Daily Reader

“Killer Miller”

Jim Miller didn’t earn the nickname “Killer” because of his gentle nature. He was given the moniker because he excelled at one thing and one thing only; murder. Interestingly, Miller was married to a cousin of another infamous Old West outlaw; John Wesley Hardin. Miller was born in Arkansas in 1861, but his family moved to Texas when he was still an infant. When Miller was only 8-years-old, his grandparents were found murdered. The young boy was arrested but was not prosecuted for the killings.

Miller’s troubled life did not improve as he aged. In 1884, at the age of 23, Miller shot and killed his brother-in-law as he lay sleeping on his porch. He was arrested, tried, and sentenced to life in prison, but this was overturned on a small technicality. Jim Miller was once again free to roam the Lone Star State.

Miller then went on to become a deputy sheriff near the Texas-Mexico border. He quickly gained notoriety for killing Mexicans, many times claiming they were trying to escape over the border. Miller had a running feud with a fellow sheriff named Bud Frazer that found him on the wrong end of a gun in 1894. Frazer shot Miller several times in the chest and assumed he had killed his rival. It was revealed later that Miller was wearing a steel plate under his large coat, saving his life. The two had several more skirmishes, until Miller finally ended the feud on September 13, 1896, shooting and killing Frazer with a shotgun in a saloon.

Miller gained further notoriety by killing Hoe Earp, brother of the famous lawman Wyatt Earp. Miller then found work as a Texas Ranger, working at the outpost in Memphis. He returned to Texas in 1900, and he became a professional assassin, charging $150 for each murder he committed. Throughout the first decade of the twentieth century, Miller killed many men. Sheriff Pat Garrett, the man who had killed Billy the Kid, was gunned down in 1908 and “Killer Miller” was believed to be the culprit.

In 1909, Miller was hired for a contract killing in Oklahoma. The target was a former U.S. Marshal named Gus Bobbitt. Miller killed Bobbitt, but the man was able to identify Miller as his assassin before he expired. Eyewitnesses also placed Miller at the scene of the crime. Miller was arrested in Texas and sent back to Oklahoma to stand trial. On April 19, 1909, an angry mob broke into the jail where Miller was being held and dragged him and three other men to an abandoned stable. The four men were lynched by the mob. Apparently, Miller’s final words were “Let ‘er rip” before he was hanged.

5 Deadly Gunfighters of the Old West

William Brocius

Known as “Curly Bill,” William Brocius was born sometime around 1841. His exact birth date and place of birth are a mystery. Brocius ended up in Arizona in the late 1870s and immediately became known as one of the most feared killers in the territory. He had a short temper and was the type of outlaw most men go out of their way to avoid. Brocius was a member of an outlaw group known as the Cochise County Cowboys.

Brocius became involved in a rivalry with the most well-known lawman in the Old West; Wyatt Earp. In 1880, a drunken Curly Bill was accosted by the Town Marshal of Tombstone, Arizona, Fred White. During a struggle over Brocius’ gun, White was shot in the groin. Wyatt Earp was on the scene, and he pistol-whipped Brocius and arrested him. Fred White died of his injury two days later, but Brocius was ultimately acquitted of the murder. This would not be the last time Brocius had a run-in with a member of the Earp family.

Like many of his Old West contemporaries, Brocius had a tendency to shoot men while drinking and playing cards. This behavior led to Curly Bill shooting several men during the 1880s. He also shot men during robberies. In March 1882, Brocius ambushed and murdered Morgan Earp, Wyatt’s brother, while Earp played billiards.

Only six days after Morgan Earp’s death, Wyatt Earp and a posse happened upon Brocius and some of his criminal partners near Iron Springs, Arizona. A shootout ensued and Wyatt Earp killed Brocius with a shotgun blast.

5 Deadly Gunfighters of the Old West

Dan Bogan

Like many of his fellow Old West gunfighters, Dan Bogan was raised in Texas. He was born in Alabama in 1860 and relocated to Texas with his family as a young boy. Bogan learned the outlaw life from his older brothers, who stole cattle and horses. One of his brothers was shot and killed and the other was sent to prison for theft.

Bogan worked as a cowboy in the Texas panhandle. During a wage dispute, Bogan distinguished himself as a leader, but unfortunately, his actions resulted in him and his fellow cowboys being blacklisted. Work was hard to find for a cowboy with a bad reputation in Texas, so Bogan headed to Wyoming looking for work. He was rumored to have killed three men by the time he left Texas.

Bogan had several scrapes with the law in Wyoming and was known as a hell-raiser, but it wasn’t until January 1887 that he stepped over the line. On that date, he murdered Constable Charles Gunn, a former Texas Ranger.

Bogan was tried and sentenced to death for the murder of Gunn. In October 1887, he made a daring escape from jail. A bounty of $1,000 was placed on Dan Bogan’s head. Bogan made his way toward Utah, with men hot on his trail. A massive manhunt did not turn up the fugitive. Dan Bogan, the wily gunfighter, escaped and disappeared into thin air. Many rumors swirled about what became of Bogan. His last known correspondence was a letter from New Orleans. In it, Bogan told a friend that he was heading for South America, to live out his life in Argentina.

Rumors as to his fate include being killed in a gunfight in Mexico, and that he settled down in New Mexico under an assumed name. Dan Bogan’s whereabouts after his escape in 1887 remain an Old West mystery.


Sources For Further Reading:

History Collection – Remarkable Old Photographs from the Wild West Will Surprise You

History Collection – The Lawmen and Outlaws Who Built the Old West

List Verse – 10 Wild West Shoot-Outs That Made Gunslingers Famous

History Collection – The Notorious Men of the Wild West

History Collection – Photos Documenting the Settling of the Wild West

Grunge – These Wild West Outlaws Were Never Brought to Justice