The western side of the United States was not called wild in the past for no reason. It used to be known for its cowboys, lawlessness, and the untamed and unruly nature of the territories during the country’s frontier period. The Wild West period lasted from 1865 until 1895. Soon, films that romanticized daring robbers and killers began sprouting, with the crimes being overlooked due to the extraordinary, rebellious spirit that these characters portrayed. The reality, of course, was much more different. The 19th-century outlaws were far from admired for their boldness, and their violent crimes were frowned upon.
Here are three well-known outlaws:
James was born in Clay County, Missouri, on September 1847 to a family of avid Confederacy supporters and slave owners, having seven in total. As a teenager, James and his brother Frank became part of a guerrilla group behind the murder of many Union soldiers.
One of the instances was on September 27, 1864, when some 80 men raided Centralia, Missouri. The guerrillas, which James was part of, terrorized the town and slaughtered the unarmed Union troops in what is now called the Centralia Massacre. A few hours later, they went on killing and mutilating around a hundred soldiers from the 39th Missouri Infantry, US Volunteers, with James credited for the death of Major Andrew “Ave” Johnston, a Union commander.
When the Confederates lost, James was so furious that he decided to make a career of robbing banks, trains, and stagecoaches. At one point, he believed that he was a modern Robin Hood: robbing the Reconstruction supporters who were politically progressive to give the money to the poor, supposedly to avenge the poor treatment that they, including his family, received from Union soldiers during the American Civil War.
Between 1860 and 1882, James’ gang operated from Iowa to Texas and was believed to have committed more than 20 bank and train robberies, with a total stolen amount of around $200,000.
He loved the attention he gained, even writing a letter with the help of a newspaper editor and Confederate sympathizer, John Newman Edwards, saying, “I am proud of the name, for Alexander the Great was a bold robber, and Julius Caesar, and Napoleon Bonaparte.”
In 1881, the governor of Missouri issued a $5,000 reward for each captured member of James’ gang. On April 3, 1882, James was shot dead by one of his accomplices. He was 34.
Billy, the Kid
Henry McCarty was born to parents of Irish Catholic ancestry in New York City. He was orphaned at 15 and, at 16, was caught and arrested for stealing food. Ten days later, he was arrested again for robbing a Chinese laundry, but he managed to escape. This was the beginning of his outlaw life. He then fled to Arizona Territory and began calling himself “William Bonney” instead.
In 1876, he became a part of an Arizona gang known for stealing horses. Just a year after, he was charged with murdering a blacksmith. In 1878, he joined an armed group called Regulators, who were set on revenge for a cattleman’s murder in what will be known as the Lincoln County War. People would often claim that Billy the Kid stayed at their ranch or stole one of their horses, wanting to be associated with him.
A $500 bounty was released on his head. Then, at the age of 21, he was shot down by a sheriff from New Mexico named Pat Garrett.
Born Robert LeRoy Parker in Beaver, Utah Territory, he was the first of 13 children of Mormon English immigrants. LeRoy, who later adopted the moniker Butch Cassidy, grew up poor. He worked on a nearby ranch as a teen to help feed his family. Then, according to legend, he met Mike Cassidy, who influenced and taught him how to better his life with his dishonest ways.
On June 24, 1889, Cassidy, along with three other men, arrived in the gold rush town of Telluride, Colorado. There, he committed his first crime: bank robbery. He then hid in Wyoming, where they began adding more outlaw cowboys to their gang that the press called the “Wild Bunch.”
In 1896, Wild Bunch robbed a Montpelier, Idaho bank, where they successfully stole $7,000. But, perhaps, one of their biggest hauls was when they robbed a Rio-Grande train in New Mexico and stole $70,000.
The authorities pursued Cassidy, who then fled to Argentina. After a few years of hiding, he returned to his old ways until he died in 1908. Although, there were some rumors that he did not die until 1937.