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For over 150 years the image of western bad men has thrilled readers and filled movie screens. Who hasn’t heard of Jesse James, the Dalton Brothers, Black Bart, or Belle Starr? They are as much a part of American folklore as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.
There’s something about the west that has brought out the best, and the worst in mankind. The funny thing is, a cult following has developed around many of these bandits, making them out to be something they weren’t.
The legend that grew up around Joaquin Murrieta was that he was just a normal guy who moved from Mexico to California, and tried to strike it rich during the gold rush. What he discovered instead, was a big sign that read, “No Mexicans Allowed.” His supporters say, that because of the Foreign Claim Tax, he was forced off his land, and into a life of outlawry. And, then to support that claim, a whole legend has been built up, about how he stole from the rich, and shared his wealth with poor Mexican families. The only problem is the facts don’t support that interpretation.
The same stories developed around Jesse James. Legend has it, Jesse only stole from rich bankers and railroad men, and the reason he could disappear into thin air after pulling a bank job or train robbery was because he shared the booty with poor Missouri families. As with Murrieta, that probably never happened. Jesse James was a thief. He stole money wherever he could get his hands on it. He robbed stagecoaches, banks, trains, and you-name-it.
And, last, but not least, there’s Belle Starr, one of the most badass female robbers on record. Belle called her pistols her “babies,” and ruled an outlaw kingdom based out of her home in Indian Territory. She lived by the gun, and she died by the gun.
The outlaw life was almost always portrayed as a glamorous life, filled with loose women, blazing guns, and saddlebags overflowing with gold, silver, and greenbacks.
What a life!
The only thing is, all the movies, books, and TV shows painted a distorted portrait of life in the old west. James Dodsworth lived the outlaw life for six weeks while riding as a spy with the Doolin-Dalton Gang. He said the gang was constantly on the move. They rarely spent more than one night in any one place. Dalton and Doolin, both worried they’d end up like Jesse James—shot in the back.
At night, the gang always posted at least one man on watch duty. The rest of the gang slept with Winchesters by their sides, and pistols under their heads. Every one of them were ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice.
And, as for those saddlebags overflowing with riches, more often than not, they were like a Charlie Brown Halloween special—filled with rocks rather than gold.
Sometimes the gang would cut off the wrong car during a train robbery, and end up riding away empty handed. Sometimes a posse would chase them off a little too soon, before they could grab their booty. Other times, it was slim pickings, and there was nothing to take.
The first train job the Dalton Gang pulled went totally awry. The Express man got away before they could convince him to open the safe, and in their haste to rob the Atlantic Express the boys forgot to bring dynamite to blow the safe. Black Jack Ketchum, and his gang, made off with $100,000 in unsigned bank notes. Pearl Hart’s fame rests upon a single stage coach robbery that netted her under $500, and several years in the caboose after she was captured.
The sad truth is most outlaws led a short life that ended, either at the end of a rope, or with a bullet in the brain. Only a lucky few survived into the new century—Frank James, Cole Younger, and Emmett Dalton, to name a few.