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Day Of The Outlaw

Buck McGregg

Bad day at Blackwell, Oklahoma

For all their fame as resolute bands bent on tracking down violators of the law, Western posses occasionally covered themselves with more embarrassment than glory. One such episode - reconstructed the next day by an enterprising local photographer - took place on December 4, 1896, at Bert Benjamin's ranch near Blackwell, Oklahoma Territory.

Before dawn that day a posse slipped into position around a shack in which two men suspected of planning a robbery of the town's bank were holed up. When they emerged at sunrise, Deputy Sheriff Alfred Lund bellowed: "Throw up your hands!" Instead, the suspects reached for their guns. As the first shots rang out, three members of the posse - half the total force - took to their heels. Lund stood his ground, wounding one gunman, killing another - and inadvertently riddling one of Bert Benjamin's livestock.

The wounded man proved to be a hardcase named Ben Cravens, but the dead man seemed an even bigger prize. Since he was missing three fingers, the lawmen confidently identified him as the vicious outlaw Dynamite Dick Clifton, who had a $3,500 reward on his head and was said to have lost the same number of appendages during a gunfight. It turned out that the dead man "had been invested in a notoriety of which his corpse was unworthy," as a newspaper commented later. He was, in fact, only a petty thief named Buck McGregg. Despite this disappointment, the press managed to find a happy note; it reported that Blackwell's encounter with crime had caused "a marked advance in the local real estate market."

Few periods in American history have been more thoroughly chronicled than the Wild West. True stories of tough cowboys, courageous pioneers, and brave lawmen fill numerous books, while "western" movies have remained popular since the earliest days of Hollywood.

Along with the factual retellings, however, more prevalent (and arguably more interesting) is the folklore that grew from that era, whereby the lawmen became virtual superheroes in ten-gallon hats and saloon girls and prim schoolmarms became larger-than-life representations of a past, golden time.

Arguably the most susceptible to the creation of legends is the persona of the Wild West outlaw. Ironically, even though these men and women walked on the "wrong" side of the law, they appear often in the role of a folk hero. Jesse James and his gang were responsible for at least 15 killings, but time has painted a different portrait, and Jesse James's death by being shot from behind by a member of his own gang is lamented in folk songs. Jesse James can be viewed two ways: from one perspective, he was the resourceful victim of middle-class morality; from the other, he was a hell-for-leather desperado who made fools of the Pinkertons, a small army of sheriffs and marshals, possemen, more than one Missouri governor, bounty hunters, and informers.

The amazing part of the saga of this strange man is that while he busily perfected the technique of robbing trains and banks-his modus operandi was used by generations of later outlaws-he was able to avoid capture for sixteen years. His end came in a fashion to win him national sympathy despite the enormity of his crimes.

The interesting question of how this outlaw leader was able to last for so long is answered by a glance at the political climate of the time. To the pro-Confederate politicians who protected him he had become a romantic symbol of the South that never surrendered to the hated Yankees. Even those who hated him recognized that Jesse was a charismatic man whose fire, vigor, and courage were hard to resist; he was a born leader.

His skill at anonymity must also be considered: until he lay in the St. Joseph undertaking parlor in April 1882, he had long been a man without a face. Few of his hunters, even Clay County residents, knew what he looked like. He bared his soul to no man or woman. As Bob Ford said: "He let no one, even the old lady [his mother] know what he was doing or planning ... Jesse was good at keeping secrets."

The factual stories of his life and the lives of his men are at times incredible, more riveting than the distorted legends. For example: his storybook romance with the girl he wed while he was the most hunted man in the nation; the chronicle of the powder-burnt Northfield Raid, when he and his men met disaster from a straight-shooting citizenry; the capture of the Youngers, the fight for their freedom, and Jim Younger's tragic suicide over a broken love affair. Finally, the death of Jesse James, the stirring surrender of his Shakespeare-quoting brother, and Frank's dramatic trial.

Jesse cannot be classified as a simple highwayman whose exploits inspired the tall tales associated with arousing frontier. He and his band made a serious impact on the social life of the Middle Border and indirectly touched the national political scene. His deeds split the Missouri Democratic Party into pro-Confederate, pro-Union factions. The Republican Convention of 1880 charged that his bank and train robberies held back the flow of postwar capital and immigration into the Middle Border states and made Missouri the target of a contemptuous Eastern press that dubbed it "The Outlaw State."

The killing of James in St. Joseph by Bob Ford in 1882 helped to end the political careers of Governor Thomas Crittenden, who had had presidential ambitions, and the courageous Jackson County Prosecutor, William Wallace. Crittenden, who had been accused of "hiring killers" to do in Jesse, was refused nomination for a second term while Wallace, who had put Frank James on trial for murder, unsuccessfully ran for the United States Senate, the House of Representatives, and the governorship.

Perhaps because the outlaws came from the common people and they most frequently targeted banks (which were popularly perceived as faceless institutions owned by the wealthy), the outlaws were compared to Robin Hood rather than seen as the murderous criminals they often were.

Every century brings its heroes and its villains. Every now and then, however, a character lurches forth with a combination of the two; maybe because the world doesn't know whether to love or hate him or her, he or she becomes a milestone in the study of complex mankind. Nitty, gritty, but with the spirit of a conquering warrior.

A few of them attracted national attention in their brief lifetimes and became enduring legends from the moment of their own violent deaths. One frontier editor fumed at the celebrity that was accorded such gunmen. "There is a class of persons," he wrote, "who cannot restrain a sort of admiration for a stupendous criminal. One who has murdered many, and shown no mercy - who has hesitated at no deed of darkness and inhumanity - is sure to be admired as a sort of remarkable character who approaches the measure of a genuine hero."

Still, there was warrant for the fascination that they aroused. Each was his own kind of enigma, yet certain generalizations are possible. Killings were a common enough phenomenon in frontier America, but by and large the reasons for them could be understood if not commended. They appeared to lack any semblance of self-control, any means of cooling the passion to wipe other men off the face of the earth, any inner check that told them when to stop. They tended to regard their victims less as human beings than as mere impediments in their paths, to be outdrawn or - when stealth proved more expedient-to be gunned down from behind.

In his "Foreword" for The Wild West, Dee Brown describes the American character that came to life along with the new, raw country it was shaping ... comprised of "a people audacious and self-reliant and naïve, generous and stubborn, righteous but forgiving, humorous in a folksy way, violent, hospitable, contradictory."

These traits become, as one reads more and more about the taming of the West, obvious in most men and women, large and small, who settled there. A juxtaposition of personalities, maybe, but of a mandatory flexibility indeed. Such was the fiber of the American West, those good and bad men, both, who took Horace Greeley's advice to "Go West, young man, and seek fame and fortune."

Were the nation's and the world's favorite folklore figures: superheroes, moronic killers, cavaliers of romance. They were fallible humans. They loved their wives and children, were courageous, imaginative, pleasant, and had a sense of humor. They bled when they were wounded, grew depressed over shattered love affairs, and grieved when a comrade fell. Some believed in a personal God and Devil, and at least one carried a much-thumbed Bible.

Curiously, many detested whiskey, and nearly all respected the Victorian trinity of mother, father, and home. While accepting violence and sudden death as part of their profession, many refused to swear in the presence of women and would not allow others to do so. Yet they could also be ruthless and cold-blooded. They were never the figures of romance and myth who robbed the rich to feed the poor. Their lives were often empty and fearful.

It is impossible to defend a single crime they committed. They robbed banks - some holding the money of their neighbors - stole horses from the stables of friends, and steers from men who had befriended them. They shot down unarmed cashiers and express messengers, killed lawmen from ambush, and derailed trains - once scalding an engineer to death.

As the 19th Century drew toward its close, outlaws who could rob a bank or train and remain at large long enough to brag about it were becoming as rare as the buffalo. They had to contend not only with growing armies of peace officers but with daunting technological forces as well. Lawmen used the telegraph and telephone to disseminate descriptions of malefactors and gather information on their movements. Often the hunters pursued the quarry on trains, bringing along horses in boxcars for use in the final miles of the chase.

In the face of such crime-fighting advances, ordinary desperadoes like Charlie Pierce and Bitter Creek Newcomb were doomed. Members of the Doolin gang, they separated from their companions after a train holdup and went into hiding in a farmhouse near Guthrie, Oklahoma Territory, in May 1895. Deputy U.S. marshals, alerted to their whereabouts by wire, soon surrounded the lair. In moments, according to the Guthrie Daily Leader, Pierce "was transformed into a lead mine" with bullets "planted in his arms, legs and even the soles of his feet." Newcomb was also riddled.

Lawmen frequently followed up their triumphs by having the victims photographed - sometimes in lifelike poses -. for identification, as mementoes and, in the case of at least one bandit, to record a striking disguise. But such pictures served still another purpose: they gave graphic warning to would-be outlaws that, while gunfighting might pay well for a time, the ultimate wages were likely to be death.

The Old West. The Gunfighters. Time-Life Books Time Inc. 1976.

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