Over a century ago, crime ruled the American frontier, with outlaws robbing banks and trains left and right. Old West towns were rampant with gunslingers and thieves, allowing lawmen and other respectable heroes the chance to step up in communities across the west. Over the years, some of the most dangerous criminals from that time have gained reputations as folk heroes, with legendary lives that have inspired countless books and films over the years. Somehow their criminal behavior has become romanticized. Don't get it twisted though; they were outlaws for a reason.
Here are 8 of the most notorious outlaws of the Wild West.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Robert Leroy Parker and Harry Alonzo Longabaugh have become two of the most famous outlaws in the history of the Old West. Butch Cassidy and his well-known associate, the Sundance Kid, gained a quick reputation for bank robberies, stealing horses, and train robberies. Their gang, the Wild Bunch, was full of colorful characters who frequently had the law on their tails. Eventually, Parker and Longabaugh fled the country with Longabaugh's romantic partner Etta Place, a time which is captured in the classic film starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. The trio traveled from Argentina to Bolivia, where it is believed they were finally brought down by the Bolivian Army, though firm details of their deaths are unknown. Some believe Cassidy escaped capture in Bolivia and lived under a pseudonym for the rest of his life, a theory explored in the Sam Shepard film Blackthorn.
Billy the Kid
One of the most remarkable things about Billy the Kid gaining such an infamous reputation is his age. He was just a teenager when he was orphaned and turned to a life of crime to survive. Born Henry McCarty but also known as William H. Bonney, Billy's name spread through New Mexico and Arizona thanks to his crimes, which ranged from cattle rustler to killer to thief. He was a talented gunslinger; he's believed to have shot eight men before he was killed by lawman Pat Garrett at the age of 21. Garrett had been hunting down Billy for a while after he escaped his initial capture. Over the years, there was speculation that Garrett, believed to have shot Billy in the dark with no witnesses, made up the story because they were friends. There have also been many men who have come forward claiming to be Billy himself, but historians tend to follow the original story that Garrett killed him at the age of 21.
Missouri native Jesse James gained a quick reputation in the outlaw community as the leader of his own gang, the James-Younger Gang. Joined by his brother, Frank James, Cole Younger, and more eager criminals, Jesse led train, stagecoach, and bank robberies throughout the Midwest. After a failed robbery of the Northfield First National Bank, the James-Younger Gang fell apart. A few years later, Jesse put together a new posse which unfortunately included Robert Ford, an outlaw who would turn on Jesse and ultimately shoot him in the back.
There weren't too many female outlaws in the Wild West, but Belle Starr was easily one of the most prominent. Known as the "Queen of the Oklahoma Outlaws," Starr actually gained her reputation after her violent death was covered by National Police Gazette. She settled down with her first husband, James Reed, in Texas, where she got involved in illegal activity with James and some of her friends from the James-Younger Gang. After James died, she married a Native American man named Sam Starr, and they continued their illegal exploits, including bootlegging and horse thievery. They were arrested by Bass Reeves, and both served time before getting released again and, of course, resuming their outlaw ways.
Belle was mysteriously murdered at the age of 41 when she got ambushed on her horse and suffered multiple shot wounds. There were no witnesses and no murder convictions to explain what happened, so it remains an unsolved death to this day.
John Wesley Hardin
Texas outlaw John Wesley Hardin was a skilled gunfighter who first killed at the age of 15, claiming at the time it was self-defense. He boasted over 40 kills by his early 20s, though historians estimate it was closer to 27. He had a reputation for tall tales and taking credit for kills that had no witnesses. He had a run-in with Wild Bill Hickok while he was working as a marshal down in Kansas but was eventually arrested at the age of 23 and was sentenced to serve 25 years in prison. Shortly after his release, serving 17 years of his sentence, he actually passed the bar and was prepared to practice the law. Before the world got to see whether or not he had really changed his ways, he was killed by El Paso lawman John Selman.
Sam Bass and his friend Joel Collins formed a cattle drive for ranchers in Texas all the way up to Deadwood in North Dakota. They gambled away all of the money they had made, so fell into a life of crime, robbing trains and stagecoaches to make a profit. They are best known for successfully robbing the Union Pacific Railroad gold train that was running out of San Francisco. Intercepted in Nebraska, they managed to steal $60,000...the equivalent of well over a million today.
Following his big win, Bass went down to Texas to form a new gang where following a string of stagecoach robberies, they gained the attention of the Texas Rangers and the Pinkerton Agency. The gang was finally caught by the authorities in an attempt to rob a Texas bank, and though he initially survived the major gunfight that ensued, he was found injured in a nearby field and died in custody.
Bill Doolin's Wild Bunch gang was actually who inspired Butch Cassidy. Known as the Wild Bunch or the Doolin-Dalton Gang, Doolin's group gained a reputation throughout Arkansas, Kansas, Indiana, and Oklahoma as stagecoach and train robbers. Following a train robbery, Doolin was injured and retreated to Ingalls, Okla, to heal and evade capture. 14 US Marshals came to town a few months later to apprehend Doolin and his gang members in a shootout that became known as the Battle of Ingalls. Doolin escaped and managed to avoid capture for a while, but thanks to the hard work of the Three Guardsman, most of his gang was wiped out. Doolin himself was eventually shot by one of the Guardsmen, Deputy U.S. Marshal Heck Thomas.
READ MORE: The Ultimate Old West Road Trip: From Tombstone to Deadwood
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