To escape the wrath of angry neighbors, Frank and John Reno enlisted in the Union Army when the Civil War broke out. Scamming, not patriotism, was their driving motive: the Reno brothers became serial bounty jumpers. Their modus operandi was to join a regiment to collect enlistment bonuses, which steadily grew as the war progressed, then desert at the earliest opportunity. They would then enlist in another regiment elsewhere, using fake names, collect more enlistment bonuses, then desert, and repeat the cycle.
Frank returned home in 1864, and with his brother John formed the Reno Gang. They were joined by horse thieves, safecrackers, counterfeiters, gamblers and other ne’er do wells, and began robbing Post Offices and stores in southern Indiana. Frank and two gang members were arrested but released on bail. One agreed to testify against Frank, but was murdered before the trial, and Frank was acquitted.
Frank Reno’s acquittal emboldened him and his gang. They grew more violent, and took over the small town of Rockford Indiana, whose Rader House hotel became their headquarters. It might have been America’s worst hotel: the Reno gang robbed and murdered unwary travelers who checked in. They soon expanded their reach and ambition, and committed history’s first peacetime robbery of a passenger train in 1866. They also expanded their repertoire by sticking up banks and raiding communities throughout the Midwest.
That first train robbery seemed to have gone smoothly enough at first, but later on, it turned out that a passenger had identified Frank’s brother, John, and two other gang members. The trio was subsequently arrested, but then the witness who had fingered them was shot dead. The other passengers got the message: they refused to testify and finger the arrestees as being part of the gang that had robbed the train, and the charges were dropped.
Frank Reno and his gang demonstrated their utter contempt for the law in 1867, when they attacked and robbed a county courthouse in Missouri. This time, the gang did not get away Scot free: Frank’s brother John was eventually tried and convicted for that crime and received a 25-year sentence behind bars. A vigilante group was formed to hunt down Frank and the rest of the gang, so in early 1868, they fled to Iowa.
There, they put their mark on their new stomping grounds by attacking and robbing two-county treasuries on successive days. The gang was eventually arrested, but they managed to break out of jail, and escape to Indiana, where they resumed robbing trains. One such robbery netted them $96,000, a significant chunk of money in those days, and made the Reno Gang famous in the US and around the world.
Pinkerton Agency detectives were tipped that Frank and his gang planned to rob another train, and staged an ambush. Soon as the gang boarded the train on July 9th, 1868, the Pinkertons opened fire. Most of the gang escaped, but a captured member fingered two comrades, and they were arrested. The train taking them to jail in Seymour, Indiana, was stopped by masked vigilantes, who lynched the three prisoners. Another three gang members were captured soon thereafter, and the train taking them to the Seymour jail was again stopped by masked vigilantes, who hung the prisoners from the same tree.
Frank fled to Canada, but was captured and extradited to the US, where he was held with three other Reno Gang members in the Floyd County, Indiana, jail. On the night of December 11th, 1868, scores of masked vigilantes marched on the jail and forced the jailer to surrender the keys. Frank Reno was then dragged from his cell in the early hours and lynched, along with the remaining gang members.
William “Brazen Bill” Brazelton’s (died 1878) began his criminal career as a conman. He was born in San Francisco, orphaned at an early age, and grew up as a street urchin. In 1876, he arrived in Prescott, Arizona, where he claimed that he would stage a show during which he would eat a wagon wheel. Brazelton got the good people of Prescott to pay in advance to attend, then left town to bring the rest of the show’s crew and stagehands. He never returned.
A year later, in September of 1877, Brazelton graduated from grifting to armed robbery and held up his first stagecoach. Wearing a mask, he 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 about eight more stagecoach robberies in Arizona and New Mexico.
On August 15th, 1878, following another stagecoach robbery, Brazelton’s horse threw a shoe as he fled the scene, leaving a distinct print that allowed pursuers to track it to a horse corral. The proprietor was arrested and offered to deliver the robber.
He disclosed that Brazelton planned to rob another stagecoach that night and that a meeting had been prearranged for the horse corral proprietor to deliver him supplies earlier in the evening, a few hours before the robbery. The posse left as if riding back home, then doubled back and snuck off to the meeting site to wait in ambush.
Brazen Bill Brazelton arrived cautiously at the site of the rendezvous with the horse corral owner, 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, unleashed by the posse that had been hot on his trail.
Brazelton 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, where it publicly displayed in front of the courthouse, tied upright to chair, before it was buried a day later.
Sam Bass (1851 – 1878) was a go-getter. Before turning outlaw, he tried his hand at a succession of legal professions, and worked as a farmer, miner, cowboy, teamster, and saloon owner. Unfortunately, he was addicted to gambling, and not very good at it. His persistent losses in gambling dens and the race track eventually led him to try and make a quick buck by trying his hand at robbery.
Bass first gained fame as a member of the “Black Hills Bandits“, a gang that staged the biggest train robbery in the history of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1878 near Big Springs, Nevada. Bass and his crew netted about $60,000 in newly minted $20 gold coins from the express car, plus $1300 and gold watches from passengers.
Sam Bass began spending lavishly after the Big Springs heist. When some of his Black Hills Bandits colleagues were tracked down and killed by law enforcement, he formed his own gang in Texas. The new outfit robbed four trains and two stagecoaches near Dallas in 1878, but netted little and triggered a manhunt led by Texas Rangers.
Bass managed to evade capture, until one of his gang was pressured into turning informant, and told the Rangers of Bass’ plan to rob a bank in Round Rock, Texas. The Rangers reached the small town on June 19th, 1878, the same day as Bass.
While Sam Bass was casing Round Rock’s bank, he aroused the suspicions of local law enforcement. A sheriff’s deputy approached him and asked Bass if he had a gun. “Yes“, he replied, pulled it out, and shot the deputy dead. A firefight erupted, and the noise attracted the recently arrived Texas Rangers, who joined the shootout.
It ended with a dead outlaw, and a mortally wounded Bass jumping on his horse and fleeing town. The following day, he was tracked down and found beneath a tree, bleeding from a gruesome wound caused by a bullet that had entered his back above the right hip bone, and shredded his right kidney before leaving a gaping exit wound. Bass was taken back to Round Rock, but died the next day, June 21st, on his 27th birthday.
Robert Leroy Parker (1866 – 1908), better known as Butch Cassidy, was born in Utah to British immigrants who had arrived in the Beehive State as Mormon pioneers. He left home as a teen to work on a dairy farm, where he was mentored by a cattle rustler named Mike Cassidy, whose surname he adopted. A subsequent job as a butcher earned him the nickname “Butch”.
Cassidy’s first brush with the law occurred at age fourteen, when he entered a closed store and stole jeans and a pie, leaving behind an IOU. He was tried, but acquitted. By age eighteen, Cassidy had graduated to heavier duty stuff, working with horse thieves and delivering stolen animals to buyers. In 1889, Cassidy, with the help of three associates, robbed his first bank in Telluride, Colorado. He then fled to a remote Utah hideout known as Robbers Roost.
A year after robbing his first bank, Butch Cassidy 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 theft and extortion. Sentenced to two years, he was released and pardoned after a year and a half by Wyoming’s governor. In hindsight, the governor might have regretted his leniency.
Just a few months after the pardon, 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 of 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, during which a Sheriff and another lawman were killed.
19. Don’t Rob While Seeking an Amnesty For Robbery
Butch Cassidy tried to negotiate an amnesty plea with Wyoming’s governor, in which the Union Pacific Railroad would have dropped criminal charges. He blew up the negotiations by robbing another Union Pacific train in 1900, in breach of a promise made to the governor. Pressure mounted as posses tracked down and killed or arrested Wild Bunch members and associates, one after another.
In May 1900, Wild Bunch members rode into Moab, Utah, and killed the Sheriff and a deputy in retaliation for the 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, the gang broke up, and Cassidy fled to New York City in 1901 with Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, better known as the Sundance Kid. From NYC, they sailed to Argentina, where they bought a 15,000-acre ranch.
In February, 1905, Cassidy and Sundance robbed a bank in southern Argentina. Tipped off that a warrant was out for their arrest, the duo sold their ranch in May 1905, and fled to Chile. They returned to Argentina later that year and robbed another 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 Sundance robbed a Bolivian mining company’s payroll, 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 6th, 1908, the boarding house was surrounded. A firefight erupted, during which the duo were outgunned and shot multiple times. Grievously wounded, Cassidy shot Sundance dead to put him out of his misery, before turning his pistol on himself.
Charles Earl Boles, AKA Black Bart (1829 – died after 1888) was born to English parents who emigrated to New York in 1831. He joined the California Gold Rush in 1849, and spent a few years prospecting before trekking back east and settling in Illinois. Boles enlisted in an Illinois regiment during the Civil War, and proved a good soldier, getting promoted to Company First Sergeant within a year. He was brevetted as a lieutenant before his discharge in 1865.
After the war, Boles returned to gold prospecting, but a run in with Wells Fargo agents in 1871 left him seething, and vowing vengeance. He changed his name to Black Bart, after a character from a dime novel, and took up a career as a highwayman, whose specialty was robbing Wells Fargo stagecoaches in northern California and southern Oregon.
Because of Black Bart’s politeness and air of sophistication, while plying his trade, he was viewed as a gentleman bandit. He robbed on foot, wielding a double-barreled shotgun and clad in a linen duster and bowler hat, his face concealed by a flour sack with eye holes cut into it. Halting the stagecoach, he would cover the driver with his shotgun while politely ordering him to throw down the strongbox.
He would then order the driver to move on, recover the strongbox, and flee. He never fired his weapon, and sometimes left behind handwritten poems, which further enhanced his notoriety and gained him the nickname “Black Bart the Poet“. All things come to an end, however, and the end for Black Bart’s highwayman career began in 1883, when a robbery went bad and he was shot in the hand. As he fled, he dropped some personal items.
As Black Bart fled from his last robbery, he dropped some personal items, including a handkerchief with a laundry mark. Wells Fargo detectives canvassed San Francisco, found the laundry using that mark, and learned the identity of the handkerchief’s owner. Under interrogation, Black Bart eventually confessed to robbing Wells Fargo stagecoaches, but only before 1879: he mistakenly thought that the statute of limitations had run out on robberies committed before that year.
The company pressed charges only for the last robbery, and he was convicted and sentenced to six years. He was released after four years in 1888 for good behavior. Ailing, Black Bart did not return to his family, but he did write his wife that he was depressed and wanted to get away from everybody. His last known whereabouts were a hotel in Visalia, CA, from which he vanished a month after regaining his freedom.
The part of Missouri where Jesse James (1847 – 1882) was born had strong Southern sympathies. So during the Civil War, he joined Confederate guerrillas led by men such as “Bloody Bill” Anderson and William Quantrill. They committed many atrocities during the conflict, in which Jesse and his elder brother Frank took part. Jesse was wounded twice, the second occurring at war’s end, when he was shot in the chest by Union cavalry while trying to surrender.
After recovering from his wound, Jesse and his brother Frank joined a gang led by one of their former guerrilla commanders. In 1866, they robbed a bank in Liberty, Missouri, that entailed the death of an innocent bystander. A few months later, they killed a jailer while freeing imprisoned fellow gang members. During an 1867 bank robbery, the gang killed the mayor of Richmond, Missouri, along with two others.
In 1868, Jesse and Frank James teamed up with Cole Younger to rob a bank in Kentucky, and formed with him the James-Younger Gang. In 1869, Jesse murdered a cashier during a robbery, after mistaking him for the man who had killed his former guerrilla commander, “Bloody Bill’ Anderson. The gang then went on a spree, robbing stagecoaches, trains, banks, and county fairs, from Texas to Iowa, and from Kansas to West Virginia.
During that period, Jesse allied with the editor and founder of the Kansas City Time, which opposed Missouri’s Republican governor, and portrayed Jesse as a Robin Hood figure driven by ideals and not just greed and bloodthirstiness. There is no evidence that the gang ever shared its loot with any outside their immediate personal circle, but the portrayal fell on receptive ears, particularly in the pro-Southern parts of Missouri.
The Pinkerton Agency was hired to go after the James-Younger Gang, only for the gang to kill a pair of Pinkerton agents. From then on, the agency’s founder, Allan Pinkerton, took it personal and turned the hunt into a vendetta. Soon thereafter, during a Pinkerton raid on the James household, a bomb was thrown that killed one of Jesse’s brothers and severed his mother’s arm.
In 1876, the gang attempted to rob a bank in Northfield, Minnesota, but it ended catastrophically when armed townspeople resisted. After a shootout and pursuit, only Jesse and his brother Frank escaped, with the rest of the gang killed or captured. The brothers then went to ground in Tennessee, where Frank settled down to an honest living. An honest living was not for Jesse, however: he returned to crime, and formed a new gang in 1879.
In 1881, the James brothers, Jesse and Frank, left Tennessee for safety reasons. Soon thereafter, Frank moved to Virginia. For protection, Jesse asked his girlfriend’s brothers, Charley and Robert Ford, to move in with him.
It turned out to be a bad choice, as Robert Ford had been negotiating with Missouri’s governor to betray Jesse. In 1882, while Jesse was dusting a picture hanging on a wall, Robert Ford shot him in the back of the head.
Born in Georgia, Charles Bowdre (1848 – 1880) 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, Bowdre 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 murders and factional opponents, Charles 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.
The governor’s decree meant that the justice of the peace had lacked the authority to issue the warrants enforced by the Regulators. As a result, Charles Bowdre and the rest of the Regulators were transformed 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 the Rustlers, they were tracked by a posse, which surrounded their hideout during the night. The following dawn, Bowdre emerged from the house to feed the horses, and was immediately shot multiple times. He 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 and charged out the door, to be met by another hail of gunfire that instantly killed him.
John King Fisher (1853 – 1884) turned bad at an early age. Born and raised in Texas, he was sentenced to two years imprisonment at age fifteen for horse theft, but won early release because of his youth. Soon thereafter, he joined bandits who raided across the border into Mexico. He adopted 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 led to a shootout. It ended with a teenage Fisher killing three fellow bandits. After the gun smoke dissipated, Fisher took over as gang leader, and during the ensuing months, he defended and held on to his leadership claim by killing seven more of his criminal underlings.
In 1872, John King Fisher 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 stop 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 smashing the skull of one with an iron rod, and shooting the other dead when he tried to draw his pistol. He then shot 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 disappeared or refused to come forward.
Although John King Fisher was a notorious troublemaker, he was well-liked in the community. So well-liked, in fact, that by the 1880s he had transitioned from bandit to lawman. In 1883, he served briefly as acting sheriff of Uvalde County, during which stint of service he tracked down a stagecoach robbing duo, shooting one dead and bringing in the other.
A year later, Fisher’s end came when he went to see a play with a friend in San Antonio, and a quarrel erupted between his friend and the theater owner. It ended in gunfire, with Fisher and his buddy ambushed in their theater box and cut down in a hail of bullets.
Clay Allison (1841 – 1887) of Tennessee fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. After the war, he moved west, where he gained a reputation as a dangerous man and lethal gunslinger. His first brush with fame – or infamy – occurred in 1870, when he led a mob that broke into a New Mexico jail, seized a deranged man accused of murdering numerous people, including his own daughter, and lynched him.
Allison’s fame grew in 1874, when a notorious gunman tried to kill him while the two were dining together in a saloon. Allison drew faster, and shot him dead. His reputation was further enhanced during a range war in New Mexico, known as “The Colfax War“, between established settlers and new titleholders who accused the settlers of squatting. Allison sided with the settlers, and took part in the lynching of a pro-landowner gunslinger.
The lynched man’s family vowed revenge on Clay Allison, 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, a constable in Las Animas, Colorado, informed Allison that it was illegal to carry guns within the town limits. The result was 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, Allison died in a routine accident in 1887 when he fell off a wagon, and its wheel rolled over and snapped his neck.
In 1877, a cook in Arizona served Frank Stilwell (1856 – 188) tea instead of coffee, so Stilwell shot him dead. In 1879, he staked a claim and worked a mine in Mojave, Arizona, and got into an argument with another miner over claim-jumping. Stilwell ended the argument by grabbing a rock and smashing his rival’s face until he was dead. He was arrested for murder, but charges were dropped for lack of evidence.
In 1881, Stilwell was hired as a Cochise County sheriff’s deputy, but was canned for “accounting irregularities”. Soon thereafter, he robbed a stagecoach near Tombstone, Arizona, and was tracked down and arrested by lawmen Wyatt and Virgil Earp. Stilwell produced alibi witnesses, and the charges were dropped for lack of evidence. The Earps, in their capacity as US Marshals, then charged Stillwell with the federal crime of interference with a mail carrier. It created a perception that Stillwell was being persecuted, and led soon thereafter to the assassination of Wyatt’s brother, Morgan Earp.
Stillwell was seen fleeing the scene of Morgan Earp’s shooting, and Wyatt Earp formed a posse to hunt the suspects. Soon thereafter, Wyattlearned that Stillwell planned to murder his other 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 20th, 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.”
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading