Western Life

Outlaws – The Greatest Surviving Legends of the Old West

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 idolized 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 recognized 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 gambled 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. Recognizing Bonney’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 Bonney, aka Billy the Kid.

Jesse James

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.

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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 of the 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 his 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.

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