Famous Outlaws of the Olden Days
If you love watching old Wild West movies, you’re probably familiar with many of the well-known gunslingers of the past. Most of these ruthless bandits earned their reputations through robberies, murders, or both – and some of them even had a career as lawmen themselves. How many of their stories do you remember? Let’s take a look at some of the most famous outlaws of the olden days.
Billy the Kid
One of the most famous legends when it comes to American outlaws is Billy the Kid. As the story goes, he killed 21 people – one for each year of his life. Practical evidence shows that he probably only killed four people, but the more dramatic version certainly makes for a better story.
It’s said that he entered a life of crime out of necessity, but most information surrounding Billy the Kid is based on legend, so it’s hard to say what his life was really like. What we do know of him stems mainly from his reputation as a quick draw, skilled with a gun, but just as ready for a fist-fight if the situation called for it. Rumor has it that his favorite gun was the .44 caliber Colt “Peacemaker.” He died in 1881, when Sheriff Pat Garrett and his deputies shot him, after three months on the run.
You may have seen Doc Holliday portrayed in several movies, but the truth about John Henry “Doc” Holliday is still heavily debated. He had a degree in dentistry, but moved to the southwest after being diagnosed with tuberculosis, and became well-known throughout the region as a gunfighter and gambler. Though it’s not clear how many people he killed, he is best known for participating in the shootout at O.K. Corral. He died in 1887 of tuberculosis.
After the civil war, Jesse James and his brother joined up with the Younger brothers, to form the James-Younger Gang. This criminal group was well renowned for robbing trains, stage coaches, and banks. In 1869, James mistakenly shot and killed a clerk who he believed to be someone else – and then rose to fame by corresponding with the newspaper to claim his innocence. Although he worked with a gang, his death is a sharp reminder that in the world of crime, it really is every man for himself. In 1882, James was shot in the back of the head in his very own home, by one of his close friends who intended to collect the reward offered for James’ capture.
John Wesley Hardin
John Wesley Hardin was the son of a Methodist preacher, but his early life showed that he was destined for violence. At only 14 years old, he stabbed a fellow student for teasing him; and at 15, he shot and killed an ex-slave. He later went into hiding, and it’s said that Hardin killed 42 people throughout his life – although the newspapers only attributed 27 deaths to him. He ended up in prison for 16 years, where he spent his time studying law. He didn’t get a chance to put his new knowledge to use upon getting out; Hardin was shot and killed in El Paso, Texas, just one year after his release in 1894.
Butch Cassidy was born Robert LeRoy Parker, and learned to shoot at age 13 from his mentor Mike Cassidy. He later took Cassidy’s name as his own, and became known to the world as “Butch Cassidy.” He was most notorious for robbing trains and banks in the West. In 1889, he robbed the San Miguel Valley Bank and made it out with $21,000, the equivalent of over half a million dollars today. With his money, he bought his own ranch and later formed the Wild Bunch, a group of infamous criminals.
The Sundance Kid
The other famous member of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch was The Sundance Kid. Henry Longabaugh earned this nickname after being convicted of horse thievery in Sundance, Wyoming. Although he was known as a gunfighter, he may not have actually killed anyone in his escapades. He is best remembered for executing the longest string of train and bank robberies in American history. It’s said that he died in a shootout in Bolivia, but this was never confirmed.
James “Killer” Miller
He’s been known by several names – including Jim “Killer” Miller, James “Killin’ Jim” Miller, and Deacon Jim – but no matter which name you referred to, this man was easily recognized as one of the deadliest guns in the West. Working as both a lawman and a paid assassin, it was said that Miller would kill anyone for money; his signature method was to ambush his targets in the middle of the night with a shotgun. Rumor has it that he killed 50 people, but in reality, it was probably more like 14. He wore a steel plate under his clothing as a bullet-proof vest, but in the end, his undoing came not by gun but by rope. After killing a former Deputy US Marshal, an angry lynch mob dragged Miller to be hanged.
Raised as an honest man, Sam Bass originally pursued his passions as a Texas cowboy. While driving a herd of longhorns up north, he and his partner stole the $8,000 in profits from the job, and split it amongst themselves. The pair committed a number of stagecoach robberies, but Sam Bass was best known for making the largest theft of the Union Pacific by robbing the gold train and getting away with $60,000 (over $1.25 million today). He was shot and killed by Texas Rangers on his way to rob a small bank in Round Rock.
In 1881, while Dallas Stoudenmire was serving as the town marshal in El Paso, Texas – a town known for its violence at the time – he killed three men with two .44 caliber Colt revolvers. Just a year later, he had killed seven more men in gunfights. He earned himself a reputation as a lawman and gunslinger, reducing much of the crime in El Paso, but acquiring many enemies in the process. He was killed at the age of 36, in a violent shootout with the Manning brothers.
A lesser-known outlaw who was widely feared in the Wild West was King Fisher – who had already been in and out of prison by age 16. Known for his flamboyant style and intense violence, he wore brightly colored clothing and carried two ivory-handled pistols. Most notably, he killed three of his own gang members over a money dispute. He’s also notorious for a gunfight in which he took on and defeated four Mexican cowboys, supposedly single-handedly. He was ambushed and killed in 1884, by the friends of a man he had once killed.
The olden days of the Wild West were violent times, no doubt. We wouldn’t want to come face-to-face with any of these outlaws today, but it’s still fun and interesting to learn about the wild crimes committed back then – and discover which legends have been significantly embellished to sound more dramatic. Are you familiar with any of the outlaws above? Did we miss any you expected to be on the list? Share your thoughts in the comments below!