America’s Wild West period, which lasted for relatively few years of the 19th century, has been the starting point for endless books and movies, full of tough men (and sometimes women), cattle drives, fist fights and, of course, the famous gunfights that inevitably led to someone ending up in Boot Hill.
Writers such as Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour and JT Edson fictionalized the romance of the times with hard, gritty stories, and legendary actors such as John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman and Robert Redford lent their skills to the silver screen Western genres.
When you look at the long roll call of movies and books about the Wild West era there are always some classic villains, many names well known as dangerous outlaws – men and women – constantly hunted by the sheriff and his posse in the dusty deserts and trails of states such as Texas and Kansas. So who were these outlaws, and what is known about them? Are they purely fictional?
Well, no. Some of their exploits may have been given a polish or two but these were real people whose legends still live on over 100 years after their deaths. Here are some of the greatest:
Billy the Kid
Once one of the most wanted outlaws in America, Billy the Kid, aka William H Bonney, was probably not much more or less violent than many men of those hard times. It’s true he killed many men, especially because he got involved in the Lincoln County War that sparked a number of gunfights, and by all accounts, Billy the Kid was a skilled gunfighter. He became notorious as a gunslinger – his reputation built up by newspapers – and together with the likes of Tom O’Folliard, his best friend, also got involved in activities such as cattle rustling. When he was killed by sheriff Pat Garrett at the age of 20, the Wild West lost one of its most colorful characters.
There used to be only one authenticated photograph of Billy the Kid, but recently a new Billy the Kid photo has emerged, showing him playing, of all things, croquet. This new photograph has been painstakingly authenticated and opens another window onto the short life of this most famous outlaw.
One of the few well-known female outlaws, Belle Starr became hooked on the outlaw life after the notorious James Gang holed up at her family’s farm when she was child. She was known for robbing banks and counterfeiting with her husband, Jim Reed – they went on the run after he shot a man – and was by all accounts normally dressed in buckskins with feathers in her hair and toting a pistol on each hip. She was killed in mysterious circumstances in 1889.
Rivaling other outlaws for notoriety, Jesse James was one of the major figures on the criminal scene of the Wild West. Often in tandem with his brother, Frank, and the Younger Gang, he carried out bank and train robberies as well as murders. Originally part of a guerilla movement during the Civil War, on the Confederate side, he allegedly learned his killing trade during that period. There are some who think that Jesse James was something of a Robin Hood figure but there appears to be no conclusive evidence that this was the case. In 1882 he was shot by a gang member who turned against him and killed him to try to get a reward that had been put on the outlaw’s head.
John Wesley Harding
A fugitive in his teenage years after killing a former slave, Hardin was known as a dangerous outlaw, frequently killing people and engaging in cattle rustling. He apparently had no compunction about killing anyone, including lawmen, and he was noted for his strange way of pulling his guns. The holsters were sewn into his vest with the pistol butts pointing inwards across his chest and he had to cross his arms to draw, claiming it was the fastest way to do so. He was finally arrested and served 17 years of a 25-year sentence before being released, when he was killed by a lawman in disputed circumstances in El Paso, aged 42.
The legends always linger
The movies have certainly given their all to romanticize the Wild West era, and the reputations of those named above, as well as iconic outlaws such as Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, Doc Holliday and the Apache Kid ensure that you cannot escape their influence on the telling of America’s history.