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Famous Outlaws

Who were the famous Wild West Outlaws?

The most famous outlaws in the Wild West were bank robbers, for the most part, and old west outlaws occupy a special place in the American story.  The most famous outlaws were men like Jesse James, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Billy the Kid.  In the lawless old west, “outlaw” was almost a badge of honor among many, and the most famous Wild West outlaws, such as Jesse James, gained notoriety even within their lifetimes for their exploits.

Why were they famous?

Every era needs its romantic, heroic figures; even in their own time, the Wild West outlaws were media figures, and commanded front-page headlines in the newspapers of the American West.  They were given names like Sundance, or Billy the Kid, and turned into famous figures throughout the country.  Many editors and journalists sought to portray the American outlaws as heroic Robin Hood figures, but as we shall see, that was often not a very accurate picture.  Nonetheless, their fame traveled far and wide, and their reputations and nicknames often preceded them, and added to the aura of invincibility that many western outlaws seemed to possess. 

Were they like what we see in the movies?

Inevitably, the movies have a tendency to romanticize the Wild West outlaws out of all proportion to their real exploits.  The truth is that most American outlaws were ruthless and sometimes bloodthirsty men – willing to kill, let’s not forget, merely to steal money.  Many movies tend to give their famous outlaw heroes noble and glamorous deaths – but, while many western outlaws did indeed die violent deaths, they weren’t always very heroic.

However, many western outlaws were heroes in their own lifetimes, big names in the media of their day – so it’s hardly surprising that they have been turned into legends in modern folklore, over a hundred years after most of them died.

Did they elude the law for long?

Some of the most famous Wild West outlaws survived a long time without being caught, and succeeded in robbing banks and continuing their gun-slinging exploits for many years.  However, it’s noticeable when reading about the western outlaws how many of them died young, and violently.  They led lives that were exciting and occasionally glamorous, but the law did tend to catch up with them in the end – although not everyone believed that they had died…

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Bank Robbers

Butch Cassidy – Wild West outlaw

Butch Cassidy started small; thieving a pair of jeans was no real hint that he would become one of the most famous of the old west outlaw breed, and celebrated in literature and film to this day.  His gang, known as the “Wild Bunch,” is often romanticized as non-violent, but in reality, they killed a number of people during their spree of bank robberies, which earned him a reputation as one of the most ruthless and successful of western outlaws.

Butch Cassidy stole many thousands of dollars throughout his career as a bank robber; he may have been one of the most successful of all Wild West outlaws.  He is said to have died in a shootout in South America in 1908, but his body has never been found, and some say that he returned to the United States and lived to a ripe old age.  We will never know the truth about this famous outlaw.

Bonnie and Clyde – they died as they lived

Like Butch Cassidy, Bonnie and Clyde are most famous nowadays thanks to the Hollywood movie of the same name.  The famous outlaws terrorized the central USA during the Great Depression, robbing banks throughout the area and making many thousands of dollars in the process.  Controversy rages about just how big a part the diminutive Bonnie (she was only 4’11” tall) really played in their reign of terror.  What is not in doubt, however, is that these two American outlaws died in a hail of bullets on May 23rd, 1934, immortalized as renegades and famous outlaws both together and in their own right.

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Jesse James

The start of his career in crime

Jesse James was born in Missouri, and became arguably the most famous outlaw in the old west.  His father was a preacher and minister, and during the period before the Civil War, Jesse and his brother Frank and their siblings grew up in comfortable surroundings in the Confederacy.  During the Civil War, Jesse fought in a guerilla group against the Union forces, and was wounded while trying to surrender after the war had ended.  His cousin Zerelda Mimms nursed him back to health and they eventually married.

In 1868, Jesse joined Cole Younger to form the notorious James-Younger Gang, and they began their career as American outlaws by robbing a bank at Russellville in Kentucky.

The famous outlaw

Jesse James quickly gained notoriety; in 1869 he shot a cashier whom he wrongly believed to be behind the shooting of his former commander in the Civil War, “Bloody” Bill Anderson.  This tale of revenge became front page news, and Jesse James, outlaw, soon became the standard label applied to him.

The James-Younger Gang robbed banks all over the Wild West and beyond, from Iowa to West Virginia and Texas.  In all, they netted many thousands of dollars, and Jesse James himself is thought to have shot and killed some 15 people throughout his career as a Western outlaw.

A newspaper editor named John Newman Edwards, who was sympathetic to the exploits of the bank robber, and keen to turn Jesse James, outlaw, into a Robin Hood figure, did more than anyone to popularize James during his lifetime, and ensure his status as a famous outlaw for all time to come.  But, was he really such a romantic figure? 

Later exploits and death of Jesse James

Even a famous outlaw doesn’t live forever.  The Pinkerton Detective Agency was engaged to hunt the brothers down, but succeeded only in killing James’ half-brother and maiming his mother.  However, their luck was clearly on the turn.  A subsequent robbery in Minnesota went horribly wrong and several gang members were either killed or captured.

With a $10,000 bounty on his head, the days of Jesse James, outlaw, were numbered. Brothers Bob and Charley Ford were men that Jesse thought he could trust, but unknown to the famous outlaw, Bob had been negotiating with the governor of Missouri to capture Jesse James dead or alive.  On April 3, 1892, Bob Ford shot the western outlaw dead.  He was 34, and his legend only grew as a result of his untimely end.

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