The Notorious Men of the Wild West

The Notorious Men of the Wild West

Khalid Elhassan - December 4, 2019

Although the Wild West was never as wholly anarchic and wild as Hollywood likes to depict it, it was wild enough. In an era before widespread and effective law enforcement, there was plenty of room for violent men to engage in, and often get away – at least for a while – with criminal acts that would have seen them safely locked up, or even more safely executed, in the more settled parts of the country. Following are forty fascinating things about some of the wildest men of the Wild West.

The Notorious Men of the Wild West
John Wesley Hardin. Criminal Hall of Fame

40. The Deadliest Gunslinger?

John Wesley Hardin (1853 – 1895) might have been the Wild West’s deadliest outlaw and gunslinger, with dozens of victims – including a man whom he shot for snoring. According to his own claims, which might or might not have been exaggerated, he killed 42 men. Contemporary newspapers verified 27 killings that were attributed to Hardin.

The son of a Methodist minister and a member of a prominent Texas family that included a judge and a legislator, Hardin was a bad ‘un from early on. His violent career started in 1867 with the stabbing of a schoolmate, and a year later, at age fifteen, he shot and killed an uncle’s former black slave in an argument over a wrestling match.

The Notorious Men of the Wild West
Cowboys on the Chisholm Trail. YouTube

39. Piling Up the Bodies…

With Texas’ Reconstruction government hot on his tail, John Wesley Hardin fled to Sumpter, Texas. He claimed to have killed three Union soldiers there in 1868, when they tried to arrest him. Within a year of that triple homicide, Hardin killed another soldier.

In 1871, the fugitive Hardin decided to try his hand at becoming a cowboy on the Chisholm Trail. He killed seven people en route, including two men in a card game, and an Indian “just for practice“. He killed another three men when he got to Abilene, Kansas. Later that year, he walked up to two black policemen who were looking for him, and shot them both, killing one and wounding the other.

The Notorious Men of the Wild West
John Wesley Hardin. True West Magazine

38. … And More and More Bodies

Hardin carried his pistols in holsters sewn into his vest, with the butts pointed inwards across his chest. He crossed his arms to draw, which he deemed the quickest way to get his pistols into action, and he practiced his draw technique every day. He also kept on steadily piling up the corpses, and on his 21st birthday in 1874, he quarreled with a deputy sheriff and shot him dead.

Killing a lawman led to a $4000 “Dead or Alive” reward getting put on Hardin. Choosing discretion over valor, he fled Texas with his wife and daughter, and settled in Florida as a businessman, using an assumed name. That peaceful interlude lasted until 1877, when Texas Rangers caught up with Hardin on a train in Pensacola, Florida. He tried to draw his pistol, but it got snagged on his suspenders, and the Rangers pistol-whipped him into submission.

The Notorious Men of the Wild West
Constable John Selman, who shot and killed John Wesley Hardin. Alchetron

37. Prison and a Violent End

In 1878, Hardin was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 25 years. He made numerous escape attempts, including a tunnel into the prison armory, but they all failed. He eventually settled down, studied law behind bars, and was put in charge of the prison’s Sunday school.

Hardin was pardoned in 1894 after serving 17 years of his sentence. Upon his release, he took and passed Texas’ bar exam, and became a licensed lawyer. He moved to El Paso in 1895 to start a law practice but got into trouble when he quarreled with John Selman, a lawman who had arrested a prostitute friend of Hardin. Heated words were exchanged, and that night, as Hardin was playing dice in a local saloon, Selman walked up to Hardin from behind, shot him in the back of the head, then pumped three more bullets into him as lay on the ground.

The Notorious Men of the Wild West
Deacon Jim Miller. Wikimedia

36. The Deadly Deacon

Jim Hardin could be seen as a representative of the early era of Wild West outlaws. Bookending the close of that era are the likes of James Brown Miller (1861 – 1909), also known as “Deacon Jim” because he neither smoked nor drank, and regularly attended the Methodist Church. Another of his nicknames was “Killer Miller“, because, well… for a seemingly straitlaced teetotaler, Miller sure killed a lot of people.

Deacon Jim put on an air of respectability, and liked to go about impeccably dressed. However, he was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, having killed a dozen people in gunfights. He reportedly gunned down many more during a violent career in which he was an outlaw, a lawman, a Texas Ranger, and a killer for hire.

The Notorious Men of the Wild West
Killer Miller with his family. Pintrest

35. Killer Miller’s Early Start

Jim Miller’s family moved from Arkansas to Texas when he was a year old, and settled in Austin, where his father worked as a stonemason. The father died when Miller was a child, and somewhere along the line, something went wrong with young Jim. At age eight, according to some accounts, he killed his own grandparents, although no conclusive proof has emerged to support that.

The Notorious Men of the Wild West
Deacon Jim Miller. Legends of the West

Whether or not he did in his grandparents, Miller grew into a violent young man, and one of his earliest documented killings was of his brother-in-law, whom Miller detested. On July 30th, 1884, the brother-in-law was killed with a shotgun blast while he was sleeping. Miller was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to life behind bars. However, the case was appealed, and the conviction was reversed on a technicality.

The Notorious Men of the Wild West
Jim Miller gambling. Wikimedia

34. Turning Into a Lawman

Upon his release, Jim Miller became a hired hand in a ranch owned by a cousin of John Wesley Hardin. His boss was killed by Ballinger’s City Marshall in 1887, and soon thereafter, the Marshal was ambushed by somebody wielding a shotgun and was severely wounded. The Marshal survived, but lost an arm to amputation. Miller was the prime suspect, but there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him for the attempted killing.

Miller then relocated to the Texas-Mexico border, where he became a deputy sheriff in Reeves County, then town marshal of Pecos. He was a killer cop, and gained a reputation for murdering Mexicans, claiming that they were trying to escape. In 1894 he got into a feud with the county sheriff, who shot him in the arm, the groin, then emptied his six shooter into Miller’s chest. He survived, because he had been wearing a steel plate over his chest.

The Notorious Men of the Wild West
Pat Garrett, who was reportedly murdered by Killer Miller. Wikimedia

33. Texas’ Most Corrupt Ranger

Jim Miller got a job as a Texas Ranger, and began to advertise his availability as a killer for hire. Charging $150 per murder, he used his Ranger authority to get away with literal murder. As his reputation grew, so did his fees, until he was eventually charging thousands of dollars per killing. He had no scruples about killing lawmen, including Pat Garret, who had killed Billy the Kid.

In 1909, Miller was hired to kill a popular rancher from Ada, Oklahoma, named Allen Bobbit. Miller shot Bobbit, but he lived long enough to name his killer. Miller and three accomplices were arrested, but the evidence seemed weak, leading many Ada residents and friends of Bobbit to fear that his killers might get acquitted. So they formed a mob, broke into the jail where the accused were held, and lynched Miller and his accomplices in the early morning hours of April 19th, 1909.

The Notorious Men of the Wild West
Frank Reno. Wikimedia

32. The Church Boys Who Went Bad

The parents of Frank Reno (1837 – 1868), who was raised in Jackson County, Indiana, were strictly religious types. They made sure that their kids observed all the strictures, never missed church and spent all day Sunday reading the Bible. It backfired with Frank and his younger brother, John, who rebelled and turned bad early on.

By their early teens, the Reno brothers were notorious delinquents, drinking, brawling, cheating travelers in crooked card games, and were suspected by the community of horse theft and of committing a series of arsons around the county. Things got so bad that, to escape a backlash, their father was forced to flee, taking Frank and John and two other sons, to live in Missouri for a few years. They eventually returned to Indiana in 1860, but their earlier shenanigans had not been forgotten.

The Notorious Men of the Wild West
Photo believed to be of the Reno Gang. Indiana Genealogy Trail

31. From Bad Boys, to Bad Soldiers, to Bandits

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.

The Notorious Men of the Wild West
History’s first passenger train robbery. CBS News

30. The Criminal Kings of Rockford

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.

The Notorious Men of the Wild West
John Reno. Indiana Genealogy Trail

29. Robbing a Court

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.

The Notorious Men of the Wild West
New Albany jail. Indiana Genealogy Trail

28. The End of the Road at the End of a Rope

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.

The Notorious Men of the Wild West
Brazen Bill Brazelton in action. True West Magazine

27. From Grifting to Robbing

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.

The Notorious Men of the Wild West
A stagecoach robbery. Pixels

26. The Fatal Horse Shoe

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.

The Notorious Men of the Wild West
Posed photo of Bill Brazelton’s corpse. Pintrest

25. “I Die Brave, My God!”

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.

The Notorious Men of the Wild West
Sam Bass and some of his partners in crime. We Denton Did It

24. The Go-Getter Bandit

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.

The Notorious Men of the Wild West
A Sam Bass wanted poster. Rusty Accents

23. Tracked by the Texas Rangers

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.

The Notorious Men of the Wild West
Sam Bass. Buzworthy

22. Shootout in Round Rock

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.

The Notorious Men of the Wild West
Butch Cassidy’s mugshot from Wyoming’s Territorial Prison, in 1894. Encyclopedia Britannica

21. The Mormon Kid Gone Bad

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.

The Notorious Men of the Wild West
A posse assembled to hunt down The Wild Bunch in 1900. Wikimedia

20. The Hole in the Wall

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.

The Notorious Men of the Wild West
The Wild Bunch, including the Sundance Kid, seated front row, left, and Butch Cassidy, seated front row, right. Wikimedia

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.

The Notorious Men of the Wild West
The Sundance Kid, his wife Ethel, and Butch Cassidy, in front of their cabin in Argentina. Daily Beast

18. Robbing in South America

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.

The Notorious Men of the Wild West
Contemporary reporting on the activities of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in Argentina. New York Herald

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.

The Notorious Men of the Wild West
Black Bart. Wikimedia

17. Don’t Mess With Boles

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.

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A Black Bart wanted poster, with a reproduction of one of his handwritten poems. US History Store

16. Black Bart the Poet

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.

The Notorious Men of the Wild West
Black Bart. San Francisco Gate

15. Tracking Down the Outlaw Poet

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.

Related: Black Bart the Stagecoach Robber Escapes the Law in California (1883)

The Notorious Men of the Wild West
‘A Rebel Guerrilla Raid in a Western Town’, by Thomas Nast, 1862. Yale Press Blog

14. From Guerrilla Bands to Criminal Gangs

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.

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A young Jesse James. Wikimedia

13. The James-Younger Gang

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.

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The Northfield Raid. Western Legend Photo Gallery

12. The Pinkerton Grudge Match

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.

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Jesse James, circa 1882. Wikimedia

11. Don’t Turn Your Back on the Wrong Guy

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.

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Charlie Bowdre. Galerie Sakura

10. The Regulator

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.

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Charlie Bowdre. Pinterest

9. The Sudden Shift From Lawman to Outlaw

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.

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The building where Sheriff Pat Garrett surrounded Charlie Bowdre, Billy the Kid, and the rest of their outlaw outfit. True West Magazine

8. From Regulator to Rustler

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.

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John King Fisher. Michael Schreck

7. The Bad Young ‘Un

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.

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John King Fisher, left. Charles C. Chaney Index

6. The Cattle Rustler

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.

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John King Fisher. Texas State Historical Association

5. From Outlaw to Lawman

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.

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Clay Allison. Find a Grave

4. Killer Clay Allison

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 Notorious Men of the Wild West
Clay Allison. True West Magazine

3. An Unlikely End

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.

The Notorious Men of the Wild West
Frank Stilwell. Wikimedia

2. The Psychopath

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.

The Notorious Men of the Wild West
Statue in the Tucson Depot, at the spot where Wyatt Earp, in the company of Doc Holliday, killed Frank Stilwell. Wikimedia

1. Wyatt Earp’s Vengeance

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

History Extra – How wild was the Wild West?

Charles C. Chaney Index Page – John King Fisher: Texas Gunslinger, Outlaw, and Lawman

Daily Beast – The Secret Story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s Last Tango

Encyclopedia Britannica – Butch Cassidy

Historic Nebraska – Sam Bass and the Big Springs Robbery

History Junkie – Charlie Bowdre Facts

History Net – Clay Allison: Good Natured Holy Terror

Indiana Genealogy Trail – Jackson County Indiana: The Legend of the Reno Gang

Legends of America – New Mexico Bad Boy Clay Allison

Legends of America – James Miller, Hired Killer of the Old West

Legends of America – Reno Gang & the 1st Big Train Robbery

National Geographic History Magazine, January 17th, 2019 – Jesse James: Rise of an American Outlaw

Northfield Historical Society – The Bank Raid

Spartacus Educational – Frank Reno

Texas State Historical Association – Fisher, John King

Texas State Historical Association – Hardin, John Wesley

True West Magazine, May 2nd, 2008 – Brazen Bill Brazelton Shot to Blazes

True West Magazine, January, 2016 – Charlie Bowdre’s Wardrobe Malfunction

Wikipedia – Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch

Wikipedia – Frank Stilwell

Wikipedia – Union Pacific Big Springs Robbery

Wild West Org – Wild West Outlaws and Lawmen

The Grunge – The Crazy Real-Life Story of John Wesley Hardin

History Net – Deacon Jim Miller: Killing in Deacon’s Clothing

History Collection – 5 Deadly Gunfighters of the Old West

Texas Hill Country – Man in the Long Black Coat: Jim Miller, the Old West’s Deadliest Psycho

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

True West Magazine – Did John Miller Was Killed Pat Garrett?

The Ada News – 1909: Four Men Lynched, No One Convicted

The Oklahoman – Ada Citizens Recall Tales of Hangings

Daily Telegraph – Reno Gang’s Great Train Robbery of 1868

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