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8 Notorious Outlaws of the Old West

From gunslingers to highwaymen.

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  • Belle Starr and Deputy U.S. Marshal Benjamin Tyner Hughes in Fort Smith, Arkansas, 1886.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The legendary Old West was not as “wild” as the Westerns of Hollywood make it seem. For example, the period’s most infamous shootout, the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, lasted just 30 seconds and didn’t even take place at the OK Corral.

That’s not to say things were tame either. Though robberies and gunfights weren’t happening at all hours and on every corner, outlaws certainly did exist. And many were terrible enough—or at least memorable enough—to make history. Here are eight outlaws of the Old West whose legacies still fascinate us today.

John Wesley Hardin

Deadliest Gunslinger in the West

When Billy the Kid died at age 21, it was said that he had killed one man for each year of his life. By John Wesley Hardin’s 21st birthday, he had reportedly killed 27. 

He evaded the authorities for years; until 1877, when the Texas Rangers finally caught up with him in Florida. He was convicted of the murder of a deputy sheriff, which was a hanging offense. Instead, Hardin was handed a sentence of 25 years in prison, perhaps due to his widespread popularity.

Related: 8 Times Truth Was Stranger than Fiction in the Wild West

Hardin made excellent use of his time behind bars, reading theology books, studying up on law, and penning his autobiography. He was released after 15 years for good behavior, and was immediately admitted to the bar. He made a better outlaw than a lawyer, however, and spent most of his time gambling and drinking.

He was at the Acme Saloon one night, tossing back whiskey and shooting dice, when an El Paso lawman named John Selman walked through the door. Hardin had been overheard threatening Selman recently. Selman drew his gun and shot Hardin in the back of the head, killing him instantly. Hardin’s autobiography was published posthumously in 1896 and can still be purchased today.

The Rufus Buck Gang

The Most Wanted Young Men in the Indian Territories

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  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The Rufus Buck Gang weren’t together long—just 13 days during the summer of 1895. But they managed to make quite the name for themselves in that short period of time. The five teens started out stealing horses, selling illicit alcohol, and committing the occasional robbery throughout modern-day Arkansas and Oklahoma. 

As the United States government began seizing the land, Rufus and his gang set out on a violent rampage, hoping to spark an uprising against white occupation of Indian Territory. The young men were Black and Muscogee (Creek Indian).

Related: The California Gold Rush Redefined the Old West

They kicked off their tour of terror with the murder of a deputy who had been hot on their trail. They stole a cowboy’s money and clothing, firing at his heels as he ran off. They sexually assaulted girls and women, some of whom died of their injuries. Rufus and his gang terrorized people of all races indiscriminately, stoking outrage rather than the solidarity they had hoped for. 

A massive manhunt ensued, with lawmen finally catching up to them as they camped out in the mountains. The young men responded to the call for surrender with gunfire, sparking a shootout that lasted seven hours. The gang was apprehended, and the five teens were found guilty of rape and sentenced to death. Rufus Buck, the leader of the gang, is thought to have been about 18 years old when he died on the gallows.

Elmer McCurdy 

The Bumbling Brigand

As an outlaw, Elmer McCurdy left much to be desired. All of the robberies he took part in were abject failures, largely due to his ineptness with explosives. During his first attempt, he destroyed most of the booty along with the safe. A second blast took out an entire bank building, but left the safe standing. For his third and final robbery, he hit up the wrong train, walking away with just $46 and some whiskey instead of the $400,000 he’d set out for. Days later, he was shot dead by lawmen. And that’s just the beginning of McCurdy’s bizarre tale.

When no one claimed his body, the undertaker propped the embalmed McCurdy in a corner of the funeral home and charged a nickel per view. A few years later, carnies claiming to be McCurdy’s brothers took the body on the road as a sideshow attraction. McCurdy's remains were passed around to various amusements, eventually winding up covered in neon paint at an abandoned funhouse. The corpse was discovered in 1976 by a crewmember for a television series shooting on location. When the crewmember moved what he thought was a mannequin, McCurdy’s arm fell off, revealing human bone and tissue. 

With the help of historians and forensics, Elmer McCurdy was identified and finally laid to rest in 1976. He was buried in the Boot Hill section of Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Oklahoma, alongside other famous gunslingers of his day.

Pearl Hart 

The Girl Bandit

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  • Pearl Hart seated in a jail cell.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Often credited as the only woman robber in Arizona, Pearl Heart committed one of the last stagecoach robberies in the United States. Petite at just over five feet tall, she looked much younger than her 28 years, prompting the press to dub her “The Girl Bandit.” 

She was quite a sight for her time, dressed in male attire, her hair coiled up beneath a hat. Sitting in her prison cell, stroking the wildcat nestled in her lap, Pearl spun so many yarns for her audience of journalists and gawkers that historians today are still struggling to sort fact from fiction. 

According to Heart’s interview with Cosmopolitan magazine, she robbed the stagecoach’s passengers while her accomplice, Joe Boot, held them at gunpoint. Before taking off, she handed each of her victims a dollar as a “charitable contribution,” so they could buy themselves a bite to eat once they reached their destination. But the amateur robbers couldn't pull off the getaway, and were quickly caught, tried, and convicted.

Heart served just one year of her sentence before being pardoned. Some accounts contend that she became pregnant, and the only two men in contact with her during her imprisonment—the warden and Arizona’s Territorial Governor—were hoping to avoid a scandal. Others claim that prisoners were being evacuated due to a smallpox outbreak, or that the prison wasn’t equipped to house women. 

Whatever the reason, Pearl Heart walked out of Yuma Territorial Prison in 1902. What happened to her after that remains a mystery.

Big Nose George

The Outlaw Who Wouldn’t Die

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  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Known as “Big Nose George” on account of his sizable schnoz, George Parrot dabbled in horse theft, cattle rustling, and highway robberies. Until a near-robbery of a train in 1878 led to his downfall.

Railroad crewmen spotted George and his gang removing spikes from the rail and warned the oncoming train. The would-be robbers fled, and a posse formed to round them up. George slaughtered two of his persuers, adding murder to his list of crimes. The law caught up with him two years later, and he was convicted of murder.

Related: Stagecoach Mary: The Postal Worker Who Became A Legend of the Wild West

While awaiting execution, George attempted to escape, knocking a guard out with his shackles. He was thwarted by the jailer’s wife, who sounded the alarm. An angry mob stormed the jail, dragged George outside, and strung him up from a telegraph pole.

Understandably, George refused to jump from the box they stood him on. They tried pushing him off, but the rope broke. They forced him up a ladder, but he wrapped his legs around the pole and refused to let go. Eventually George tired out, and the townsfolk got their lynching.

Local doctors claimed the body to examine the brain for anomalies that might explain George’s penchant for violence and crime. One of the doctors gifted the skull cap to his assistant, who went on to become the first woman doctor in Wyoming. The other had a pair of shoes made from George’s skin, which are still on display at the Carbon County Museum in Rawlins, Wyoming.

Belle Starr 

The Bandit Queen

Belle Starr was born Myra Maybelle Shirley, a member of a wealthy family who lost everything during the American Civil War. Confederate sympathizers, the Shirleys headed southwest to Texas after the war, where their home served as a hideout and refuge for outlaws like Jesse James and the Younger Brothers. 

Starr married outlaw and accused killer Jim Reed in a ceremony that allegedly took place on horseback. After Reed was gunned down, she married Sam Starr, and the two established a cattle rustling gang that quickly gained infamy. When Sam died in a gunfight, Belle Starr took up with Bruce Younger and notorious outlaw Bluford “Blue” Duck, among other questionable characters.

A crack shot with a pistol and an excellent horsewoman, Starr is said to have committed robbery, theft, and murder on multiple occasions, and regularly harbored fugitives. She carried two revolvers and wore cartridge belts and high-topped boots, but always insisted on behaving like a lady—even riding sidesaddle. In fact, her ladylike charm is thought to have saved her from the gallows when she was brought before “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker for horse theft.

Just days shy of her 41st birthday, Starr was ambushed on her way home from accompanying her lover, Bill July, to Fort Worth to face criminal charges. The “Petticoat Terror of the Plains” was discovered the next day, face-down in the mud. Several suspects were named—including her own son—but the killer was never brought to justice. A tombstone engraved with a bell, a star, and a horse marks her grave at Younger’s Bend in Stigler, Oklahoma. 

Joaquin Murrieta 

The Robin Hood of the West

Notorious robber and murderer Joaquin Murrieta was the scourge of the newly formed state of California. The governor at the time is said to have established the California Rangers for the express purpose of eliminating Murrieta and his gang. 

According to legend, Murrieta was an upstanding Mexican-American man and hard-working miner, constantly bullied by the white settlers and miners flooding California. Murrieta finally broke after a gang of ruffians beat him, raped his wife, and murdered his brother. In retaliation, he declared warfare on everyone and everything American.

Related: 10 Fascinating Ghost Towns Around the World You Can Visit

Murrieta and his gang, the Five Joaquins, were blamed for numerous brutal robberies and killings, and were wanted by the state of California. In July 1853, Henry Love, captain of the California Rangers, claimed that he and his men killed four of the gang’s members, including Murrieta and his sidekick, “Three-Fingered Jack” Garcia. The Rangers needed proof of the killings to claim the $5,000 reward, but there were no photographers in the area to snap pictures of the bodies. So the men cut off Murrieta’s head and Three-Fingered Jack’s hand, preserving them in an alcohol-filled tin.

The head and hand were put on display until 1906, when they are said to have been destroyed during an earthquake. 

Black Bart 

Gentleman Outlaw

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  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

No one in San Francisco suspected the dapper old gentleman in the tweed suit, cravat, and elegant bowler hat of being a notorious stagecoach robber. Yet the man known in town as Charles E. Bolton, gold miner, was none other than Black Bart, gentleman outlaw. 

In the span of eight years, Bolton robbed some 28 Wells Fargo stagecoaches. Wearing a long, white linen coat and a flour sack over his head, he would brandish his rifle and politely advise the driver to halt. “Please throw down the box,” he’d say, and the driver would oblige. Black Bart would then relieve the strongbox of its riches, leaving behind a poem with the signature “Black Bart, the Po8.”

During his final robbery, Bart dropped his handkerchief in his haste to escape when an armed hitchhiker took him by surprise. A determined detective tracked the culprit through the laundry service identification marker printed on the handkerchief, and arrested the perpetrator at a boarding house.

Bart was given a light sentence of six years in prison, possibly due to his age (he was likely in his mid-50s at the time), or because of his courteousness to his victims and the fact that he never harmed any passengers. He was released after four years for good behavior and never heard from again.