Anthropology Friday: Outlaws on Horseback: Henry Starr, Gentleman Bandit

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we’re finishing up Harry Dago’s Outlaws on Horseback: The Organized Bands of Bank and Train Robbers Who Terrorized the Prairie Towns of Missouri, Kansas, Indian Territory, and Oklahoma for Half a Century.

I don’t normally read (or watch) Westerns, but I thought this was a great book. If the excerpts I’ve highlighted here pique your interest, I recommend you pick it up.

Since this is our last day, I have a series of short but interesting vignettes, ending with the story of Henry Starr, gentleman outlaw. As usual, quotes will be in “” instead of blocks for readability.

Ned Christie:

“Proof of the esteem in which Ned Christie was held in the community is found in the fact that when he was still in his early thirties he was elected to the Cherokee Tribal Council.”

EvX: I’m going to skip most of Christie’s story, though it’s interesting. He became an outlaw, was hunted by the marshals, and eventually he and his gang built a fort for themselves out in Indian Territory. The marshals tracked him down and began a dramatic battle involving dynamite and a cannon they had hauled through the wilderness.

“…the fort was demolished and only a twisted mass of logs remained. In the smoke and confusion, one of the Indians escaped. The other one was killed. Out of the ruins stepped Ned Christie, snapping his empty rifle. The marshals opened fire on him, and he toppled over and lay still. …

“The marshals had rid themselves of Ned Christie, but with little honor. If it had taken them so long to catch up with him, it was undoubtedly because there was something of robin Hood about Ned Christie. Most of his crimes were against white men. When he plundered an Indian it was usually a matter of robbing the rich to reward the poor.”

EvX: Local support for bandits/criminals/outlaws/pirates is a common theme running through these books–drug lord Pablo Escobar was popular among poor Colombians, pirate Jean Lafitte was popular among Louisianans, 450 men followed the outlaw Quantrill into Kansas, and even folks like Jesse James appear to have had some locals willing to protect and look out for them.

These are all cases where the bandits provided some services to the locals (such as smuggled goods) or at least weren’t targeting the locals. The next story is notably not one of these cases:

“There was nothing of Robin Hood in Rufus Buck, the young Yuchi (non-Muskhogean Creek) fullblood who, in his small way, was as vicious as Cherokee Bill and coupled with it a depravity rare even among Indian outlaws. He was born and raised near Okmulgee, in the Creek Nation. It was in that country that he committed his first robbery, minor crimes but so successfully carried out that three young Creeks… were attracted to him. A fourth man, Lukey Davis, by name, a Creek Negro mixblood, accepted his leadership.

“It was commonly believed that a mixture of Creek and Negro blood was a dangerous cross, and that the offspring of such a union was sure to be ‘mean.’ It was true enough in the case of Lukey Davis, but there would seem to be little reason to accept it as generally so. For several hundred years there had been a strong infiltration of Negro blood into the Creek tribe, more so than with the Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw. Few Creeks were a hundred per cent Indian. Undoubtedly intermarriage had some effect on Creek culture. That it worked any tribal character change or was responsible for the inflamed criminal instincts of some Creeks, such as those with whom Rufus Buck surrounded himself, must be dismissed as absurd.”

Members of the Creek (Muscogee) Nation in OK around 1877. They included men of mixed Creek, European and African ancestry.

EvX: These are two interesting claims: first, that Creeks are heavily mixed, and second, that some people believe this an inauspicious mix. (Our author makes numerous statements throughout the book to the effect of not believing that criminality runs in families.) This leads us down a long tangent that I’m going to save for Monday.

Back to Dago:

“U.S. marshal S. Morton Rutherford came out from Fort Smith with a brigade of deputies… It took them weeks to track down the gang. The outlaws were camped in a motte of live oaks, three miles south of Muskogee, when Rutherford and his deputies surprised them. A furious battle, in which several hundred shots were fired, began at once. There was a hill behind the camp. Rufus Buck and his companions retreated to its highest point and held off the attackers for hours. When their ammunition was exhausted, they had no choice but to surrender.

The Rufus Buck Gang, 1895

“Hands manacled and in leg irons, the prisoners were put in a wagon and taken to Muskogee. … news of the capture of the Buck Gang preceded their arrival in town, and when the wagon bearing them turned up North Third Street, an angry mob of several hundred armed men made a rush for it and tried to drag the cowering wretches away from the officers and string them up at once. It was a Creek mob, ninety-five percent or so. As it surged about them, held off only by the pistols of Rutherford and his deputies, Rufus Buck, Lukey Davis and the others knew only too well that their crimes had outraged their own people and that they could expect less mercy from them than from white men.”

EvX: This is quite something! Even mafia bosses and drug lords have little to fear from spontaneous violent lynch mobs. But the Buck Gang had gone beyond mere robbery, murdering innocent people just because they felt like it. At least two women died from their injuries after being raped by the gang. Quieting the mob took a speech from the Creek chief himself and Rutherford threatening to shoot them if they rushed the jail.

The gang went before Judge Parker, the “hanging” judge who’d vowed to clean up Indian Territory, and were sentenced to death. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court, failed, and they were finally hanged on July 1st, 1896.

An interesting story about Bill Dalton of the Dalton Gang:

“Bill Dalton… left Kansas to seek his fortune in the gold fields of Montana, possibly as early as 1885… he went on to California and established himself on a small ranch near the town of Livingston, in Merced County… and became active in “politics”–which meant throwing himself into the fight the ranchers of the San Joaquin Valley were waging against “The Octopus,” the Southern Pacific Railroad Corporation, and its avowed policy of creating and maintaining a monopoly of transportation in California, and of exacting “from that monopoly the utmost possible profit.”

“Footnote: This was the struggle that was to last for a decade and a half, snuff out the lives of a score of men, cover the Southern Pacific with such obloquy that the passing years have never completely erased it, and make the names of John Sontag and Chris Evans household words in California to this day.”

EvX: I have never heard of “The Octopus” but then, I don’t live in California. Can any of my California readers confirm if this is still a household story?

If you want the story of the Southern Pacific, Wikipedia has a page full of interesting information, including a great illustration of the “Octopus.” Leland Stanford–yes, the Stanford who founded Stanford University–was president of the Southern Pacific in 1885. (Leland Stanford also drove the golden spike that completed the transcontinental railroad and is the bearded fellow shaking hands on the left in this photo of the celebration.)

Worth in the Future:

In the Condon Bank the robbery was not proceeding as planned. There was $18,000 in the safe, but cashier Ball informed Grat and his companions that the time lock on it was set for 9:45 and that it could not be opened before then. It meant waiting three minutes. That could not have seemed like much of await to Grat. But those lost three minutes sealed the fate of the Dalton Gang. Had Grat known it, the safe had been open since eight o’clock. If he had given the steel door a tug, it would have swung free in his hand. …

EvX: In one of his papers Leeson argues that promising delivery of the goods in the future (“Yes, Mister Pirate, we can get those sheep for you down from the mountain next week,”) lets an otherwise helpless group switch mobile bandits to traders. This is a very short version of this strategy.

On the Town of Ingalls:

“I have before me a plan of Ingalls as it was on September 1, 1893, the day of the fight. it was on a surveyed townsite, with a population of about one hundred and fifty men, women and children, and among its places of business, in addition to the saloons, were Bradley’s general store, Perry’s grocery, Nix’s restaurant, two blacksmith shops, two livery barns, a shoe shop, a drug store, a third grocery, Mary Pierce’s hotel and around the corner on Second Street, George Ransom’s O.K. hotel, where, according to Dr. Pickering’s diary, the bandits “boarded” when they were in town. …

“It is also worthy of note that Ingalls had a new schoolhouse, costing twelve hundred dollars–no trifling sum for so small a community in those days. On the same street with the schoolhouse was the Methodist Episcopal Church, North. … And there was the post office–the first post office established in Oklahoma Territory.

“Three doctors cared for the health of the town; Dr. J. H. Pickering, Dr. Selph and Dr. Call, the latter the stepfather of Rose Dunn, the fifteen-year-old girl who became the mythical “Cimarron Rose.”

EvX: A town of 150 people is about the same size as my immediate suburban neighborhood, though we are surrounded, on all sides, by more neighborhoods… And how many of us own a business at all? In Ingalls, most men likely worked for themselves; here most of us work for large corporations.

The Oklahoma Land Run:

“…in the spring of 1896, as has been stated, Perry was the rawest, toughest town of any size in the Territory, born on the first day of the great “run.” On the townsite, where there had been nothing at dawn, eight thousand frenzied men and women were crowded together by nightfall. A mile away to the north at Wharton station, where the Dalton Gang had staged their first holdup, the late trains were disgorging additional thousands. To establish some semblance of law and order in that seething madhouse where food and water were not procurable and fifty tent saloons were doing a roaring business, Marshals Tilghman, Thomas and Madsen were rushed up from Guthrie.”

Rose Dunn and Outlaw Women:

“Who was it that testified against Rose Dunn? They have never been identified. … And what was it they could have said against her? It must have been very damaging to have drawn from Judge Bierer that same sentence he had previously handed out to those two little she-wildcats, Cattle Annie (Annie McDougall) and Little Breeches (Jennie Metcalf) who were guilty of selling whisky to the Osages, stealing cattle and unmistakably acting as spies and lookouts for the Doolin Gang. They were no older than Rose, but the were range waifs, hard, vicious, ignorant, and always went armed with rifle and six-gun. When marshals Tilghman and Steve Burke finally cornered them at a ranch near Pawnee, they did their best to kill the two men. Even after they were disarmed, they fought with tooth and nail until they were subdued. Rose Dunn was none of those things. The worst that can be said against her is that she was the sister of Dal, George, and Bee Dunn, and the cousin of Will Dunn–all hard cases and suspected horse thieves.”

The Jennings Gang:

“Instead of returning to their old haunts, the [Jennings] gang headed south. Far down in the Chickasaw Nation, at a place named Berwyn, ten miles north of Ardmore, they had a try at another Santa Fe Train… Jennings always claimed that they got $35,000. Discounting his usual propensity for exagertion, one may estimate that it likely amounted to no more than $20,000. But it was a stake. They cut up the loot and scattered for a few months. Al [Jennings] and his brother Frank got passage on a tramp steamer at Galveston and landed in Honduras, from which there was no extradition.

“In the cantinas of Puerto Barrios they fell in with a shabby, overweight and congenial refugee from Texas who had fled his native country to escape an indictment for embezzling funds from an Austin bank. With pseudo-histrionic dignity, he informed them that he was William Sydney Porter. … The three of them embarked on a drunken carouse, lasting for weeks, and ending only when they ran out of funds.

“Penniless when they sobered up, Al says he suggested robbing the Puerto Barrios bank. Porter refused to have a hand in it. He was going back to Texas, he said, and face the embezzlement charge that he claimed had been brought against him to cover the speculations of the bank’ officers…. He was found guilty, however, and sentenced to five years in the Ohio State Penitentiary, where, under the pen name of O. Henry he began writing the short stories that were to make him world-famous.

[Eventually the Jennings Gang was arrested]

“All four served five-year sentences at Columbus, Ohio. Al had been sentenced to life imprisonment, but he came out with the others, freed on a presidential pardon. At Columbus, he was assigned to the dispensary, and there he met his friend from Honduras, William Sydney Porter …

“Whatever else he was, [Al] was an excellent storyteller, and his tales were seldom about himself. It has been said that O. Henry got some of his short stories from him. I know that I did–many of them. …

“Al was in his middle fifties when I became acquainted with him–a lean, wiry little man, with twinkling blue eyes in a grizzled face, and dyed red hair. He passed away in 1962, aged ninety-eight by his reckoning, projecting to the end the illusory image of himself that he had used for half a century and more to cancel out his frustrations.”

EvX: 1962! (Wikipedia claims 1961.) It is amazing to think of all the decades a man’s life might encompass–a man born during the civil war, a train robber and bandit, who witnessed the rise of cars, highways, and airplanes, World Wars I and II, industrialization, electricity, television, and the first man in space.

Henry Starr, Gentleman Outlaw:

Henry Starr

“Though perhaps not justified, I have always entertained a sentimental regard for Henry Starr. To me, he is the classic example of the man lost to outlawry who should have been saved for something better. He had the intelligence and personal charm to have taken him a long way. …

“He was born at Fort Gibson on December 2, 1873, and attended the Indian school at Tahlequah. He was remarkably abstemious, never using liquor, tobacco, tea or coffee. He made friends easily, many of whom remained loyal to him after he was steeped in banditry. Everybody seems to have liked handsome, soft-spoken Henry Starr. The U.S. marshals, whose business it was to run him down, respected him, even befriended him at times. They knew he was “absolutely without fear, that he would fight like a wildcat if cornered.” …

“Though Henry Starr robbed a score of banks and faced the gunfire of marshals and irate citizens many times, it is a tribute to his coolness when the chips were down that only one killing appears on his record.”

EvX: Like many outlaws and criminals, Henry Starr was married, to a girl named Mary Jones, a mixed-race Cherokee.

But Starr was caught:

“Henry Starr faced a number of indictments, one of them for the slaying of Deputy Marshal Floyd Wilson. It was on the murder charge that prosecutor Clayton brought him to trial.

“It was the only time he faced the famous Hanging Judge. He was convicted and sentenced to die on the gallows. …

“The date set for Starr’s execution was February 20, 1895. He was still very much alive when the day passed. His lawyer had appealed to the Supreme Court, which then was possible, to set aside the verdict. … In the meantime, Henry Starr remained caged in the overcrowded, vermin-infested hell-hole that was the Fort Smith court’s prison. He was still there on the evening of July 26, when Cherokee Bill killed Turnkey Eoff and set off the riot. For his bravery in going into Cherokee Bill’s cell and disarming him, the charge against him was reduced to manslaughter, and he was sentenced to fifteen years in the Ohio State Penitentiary.

“At Columbus, with fifteen years of confinement ahead of him, he began the self-education that he was to pursue for the est of his life. In his thirst of learning, his reading took him into widely unrelated fields–political science, ancient history, criminology and the science of firearms, phases of the last, such as the velocity of discharged missiles, windage and trajectory, requiring some knowledge of mathematics to be understandable. …

“When he had served five years, the warden was convinced that Starr could safely be returnee to society. He instituted proceedings for his pardon. President Theodore Roosevelt Granted it.

“On his return to the Territory, Starr found his wife and embarked in the real estate and insurance business… His son was born, and he named him Roosevelt for the man who had pardoned him. …

[Some technical stuff happens and he gets pulled up on an old robbery charge, so he decides to flee to California]

“On the way, he passed through the little town of Amity, Colorado… Its one bank, patronized almost exclusively by farmers, looked so easy to rob that, in his words, it seemed a shame to pass it up.

“He collected several thousand dollars and continued on his way, but was captured by a sheriff’ posse east of Lamar and sent to the Canon City penitentiary for twenty-five years. …

“At Canon City, Henry Star was once more an exemplar prisoner. He was made a trusty and put in charge of a road gang of a hundred convicts. At the end of the prescribed five years, the warden signed his application for parole. It was granted, with the provision that he was to report to the parole board once a month and was not to leave the state of Colorado He was no sooner at liberty than he hurried back to Tulsa to find his wife. [She had meanwhile divorced him.]

“It was at this time that a wealthy stockman, who still had faith in him and believed he could get straightened out if he got away from his Oklahoma environment, took him up to St. Louis, bought him expensive raiment and got him a job. All went well for a time, until Starr was invited to a party in Webster Groves, a suburb. By chance, he got off the trolley car in front of the bank. Once again it was a case of a bank looking easy to rob. A week or so later it was held up by a lone bandit in typical border fashion. Starr disappeared from St. Louis.”

EvX: Some men “fall off the wagon” into alcohol. Starr fell off the wagon into bank robbery.

“In the course of the two years that followed, a score of small banks were robbed, all daylight jobs, and always by a lone bandit. The cry went up that Henry Starr was responsible. At Stroud, Oklahoma… on March 27, 1915, its two banks were robbed in spectacular fashion, the twin robberies being accomplished in less than a quarter of an hour. …

“Henry Starr jogged into Stroud with five armed companions whom he had recruited in the Verdigris Valley and the Osage Hills, the breeding ground of outlaw and horse thieves for half a century. They were “unknowns” in the world of banditry at the time: Lewis Estes, Bud Maxfield, Claude Sawyer and Al Spencer, an undersized young punk who survived to become one of the F.B.I.’s mot wanted Public Enemies in the era of “automobiles and automatics” that was soon to follow. Very likely the fifth man who rode into Stroud that day was Spencer’s borther-in-law, Grover Durrell, a future Spencer mobster. …

[Everyone gets away except for Starr, who has been shot. He is captured and Marshal Tilghman arrives:]

“‘Henry, I’m becoming convinced that you are going to live and die a criminal,’ Tilghman recalled having told him. ‘You’ve broken every promise you ever made me. You told me you were through robbing banks, and here I find you pulling a double-header.’

“‘Mr. Tilghman'” he said, ‘when I came to Stroud to look thing over, I saw it was just as easy to rob two banks as one, so I decided to kill two bird with one stone.” …

“When Starr was able to stand trial, he was found guilty and was sentenced to twenty-five years at McAlester. …

“McAlester was reputed to be a tough prison, but Starr had no trouble there. He behaved himself and soon was given many privileges. Friends on the outside worked for his release. He appeared to be Contrite. He was forty-seven, his health broken. in December 1920, he was released on parole, having served only five years and six months.

“In all, he had been sentenced to sixty-five years in prison, but he served only slightly more than fifteen.

“He returned to Tulsa but had no luck finding a job. … Oklahoma was booming, and he was a relic of the past who had outlived his time. Automobiles were everywhere, and hard-surfaced roads were shooting out across the prairies in every direction. Oil was making millionaires of dirt farmers almost overnight. ….

“And then on February 18, 1921, he was back in the headlines. Accompanied by two armed men, he walked into the bank at Harrison, Arkansas, a hundred mile east of Bentonville, where he had cracked his first bank, and informed William J. Myers, the cashier, and a bookkeeper that it was holdup.

“Myers was prepared for just an emergency. When Star ordered him and his bookkeeper to back into the vault, he consented readily enough, for just inside the vault door was a double-barreled shotgun… as he followed Myer into the vault, the shotgun roared and Starr crumpled to the floor. …

“Henry Star, who had been among the first, and certainly was the last, of the noted horseback outlaws was dead. Waiting in the wings, ready to take over, was a new crop of bandits of a deadlier breed, mad dogs who killed without compunction. Armed with automatics, submachine guns and bombs, using speeding automobiles to make their getaways, they were to terrorize the country as the James-Youngrs, the Daltons, the Doolins and the Henry Starrs never had. …

“Starr’s body was brought to Tulsa and given a Christian funeral and burial.

“It was the end of the era of the outlaw on horseback.”

EvX: I find this transition, both from horseback outlaws to car-driving mobsters and from basically pre-industrial to industrial society, absolutely fascinating. What was it like for the people who lived through it?

We won’t be reading about Prohibition Era mobsters, interesting though they are, though we will be reading about outlaw bikers (who feel more like the spiritual heirs of the horseback outlaws) next and Donnie Brasco’s The Way of the Wiseguy about the Mafia after that.

I hope you have enjoyed this series. I sure have.

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