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