In spite of all the major changes which took place in Western America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, stories about outlaws seem to be the ones that we remember the most. The actions of these bandits have been the inspiration for many books and films, along with the relationships they had with the lawmen that pursued them. Their infamous deeds ranged from mayhem and robbery to murder, as they plagued saloons, towns and cities. Despite their horrendous acts, many of these outlaws have become idolised since their years of running wild and people are still fascinated by their ability to thrive during a rough period in US history.
Billy the Kid
Henry McCarty, aka Billy the Kid, was born on September 17, 1859, in Manhattan, New York. He committed his first recognised crime one day before his 16th birthday, when he stole some food. Ten days later McCarty, along with a friend, robbed a Chinese laundry taking clothes and two pistols. They were both jailed for this offense but Henry escaped in just two days, beginning his life as a young fugitive.
He fled to Arizona, where he began working as a rancher and gambling frequently. On August 17, 1877 McCarty shot a poker rival, Francis Cahill, who died the following day. The town’s residents captured and held the outlaw, but he escaped before the law could arrive. Henry McCarty began calling himself William H. Bonney, and subsequently Billy the Kid. He continued committing crimes, including killing a sheriff, and on December 13, 1880 Governor Wallace put a US$500 bounty out for his capture.
This sum became an incentive for lawman Pat Garrett, who recruited a posse and began searching for Bonney. He was captured along with several other criminals and taken to Santa Fe, to stand trial for the murder of Sheriff Brady. Despite sending several letters to Governor Wallace seeking clemency, Billy the Kid was tried for murder in New Mexico in April 1881, found guilty, and sentenced to hang until he was ‘dead, dead, dead.’
While he was awaiting his execution, which was scheduled for May 13, Bonney was kept in the town’s courthouse. On April 28, 1881 he escaped after planning a surprise attack on the single deputy who was with him at the time. During his escape the bandit shot and killed two deputies, before using an axe to break his chains.
The governor had no choice but to once again place a bounty on Billy the Kid, dead or alive, and Pat Garrett swore that he would be the one to bring him to justice. During his investigation into Billy’s whereabouts, Garrett unexpectedly found him at a friend’s home in Fort Sumner. Recognising Bonnet’s voice, even though it was dark, Garrett shot and killed him on July 14, 1881. As a result of the public’s outrage at what they claimed was an unfair death, Garrett co-wrote, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, which has been used by historians as a reference book to the life of Henry McCarty, aka William Bonnet, aka Billy the Kid.
Born on September 5, 1847, Jesse James and his brother Frank were both recruited into the Civil War, from their family home in Missouri. During the war Jesse received a near fatal injury and moved into his uncle’s home, while he recovered. Here he fell in love with and courted his cousin Zerelda ‘Zee’ Mimms, while she took care of him.
After he healed, Jesse and Frank James began their legendary criminal career by becoming bank robbers. The first robbery where they could be positively identified took place on December 7, 1869 in Gallatin, Missouri. Jesse reportedly shot and killed the cashier, because of a case of mistaken identity. He and Frank became publicly labelled as outlaws and a reward offered for the capture of either, or both, brothers.
The James brothers joined forces with other outlaws, including several Younger brothers, and together they became known as the James- Younger gang. The members of the gang enjoyed the attention associated with being well-known criminals, and many of their robberies were daringly performed in front of large crowds. Due to his overwhelming popularity, and the fact that his followers normally robbed large companies James got a reputation as Robin Hood, even though there is no evidence that he shared him wealth with anybody except the members of the gang.
Over time many of the members of the James-Younger gang were killed, captured or deserted and in 1879, James formed a new gang in order to continue his reckless looting. The governor began to put pressure on lawmen to capture the James brothers and in 1881, Jesse returned to Missouri intending to give up crime. By this time Charley and Robert Ford were the only people that he trusted and for added security they all moved in together, while his brother Frank went to Virginia believing that he was safer in that environment.
Robert had already betrayed Jesse by making arrangements with the Missouri governor to capture him, in response to the railway companies putting a bounty of US$5000 on each of the brothers. On April 3, 1882 an unarmed Jesse James was shot in the back of the head by Robert Ford, while at their home. His body was identified due to the position of two previous bullet wounds, and the absence of his middle finger. Charley and Robert Ford were charged with first degree murder, but pardoned by the governor after pleading guilty.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Robert Lee Parker, aka Butch Cassidy, was born on April 13, 1866 and became infamous as a train and bank robber. He formed the Wild Bunch Gang between 1896 and 1897, for which he recruited Harry Longabaugh, who everybody referred to as The Sundance Kid. The Wild Bunch would avoid lawmen by separating after they committed a crime, and meeting up later at a previously arranged time and place. On June 2, 1899 the gang committed a robbery which resulted in one of the largest manhunts to take place in the 19th century, but they still managed to evade capture. Their story inspired a film based loosely on the events that happened before and after this robbery.
As several members of the gang were lost, for various reasons, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid disappeared from lawmen’s radar. On November 3, 1908, in Bolivia, couriers were attacked by two masked men who stole their cargo and ponies. When the men checked in at a nearby lodging house the owner became suspicious, because they were travelling with a pony instead of horses, and reported their location to the authorities. Three soldiers, the sheriff and several others surrounded the house intending to surprise and capture the outlaws. As they were approaching shots were fired killing one soldier and injuring another. This began a standoff between the bandits and the lawmen, which lasted through the night. During a break in fire, screams were heard coming from the lodge; a shot was fired, followed by silence and then one final gunshot sounded in the otherwise silent night.
The following morning when the sheriff and his men entered the house, they found two dead bodies both riddled with bullet wounds in the arms and legs and a single head shot. They concluded that one of the men had shot his fatally wounded partner, before ending his own life with his last bullet. The Bolivian authorities buried the bodies in a nearby cemetery, but historians have still not been able to find the remains in order to compare the DNA with the living relatives of either Cassidy or Longabaugh.
John Henry, aka Doc Holliday, was born in Georgia in 1951, and studied to become a dentist. After he developed a chronic cough, as a result of a battle with tuberculosis, he moved to Texas and began gambling excessively. In addition, his love for alcohol during his poker matches resulted in many gunfights. After being accused of murder he moved to Tombstone, where he became friends with well-known lawman Wyatt Earp.
Doc Holliday was also accused of several train robberies but there was no proof for any of them. He was arrested after his wife signed a statement implicating him in hijacking a train, but because of his influence with the lawmen Holliday was released on bail and pardoned by the governor. He continued a cycle of committing crimes, getting arrested and then being released until his death at the age of 36 from complications resulting with his earlier tuberculosis infection.