Life on the open range could be a discomforting experience, what with outlaws popping out from behind the sagebrush without the slightest provocation, nesters “accidentally” mistaking a cattleman’s range for the quarter section they’d purchased, steers stampeding wherever they pleased, and wild animals running amok in settlers’ vegetable gardens—not to mention all those Indians to keep track of.
Things weren’t much easier for townies. For one thing, outlaws didn’t confine themselves to the countryside. Drunks stumbled out of saloons with reckless abandon, ladies of questionable virtue roamed the streets at will, and barbers pulled teeth or performed surgery like they knew what they were doing. Even church socials sometimes got out of hand.
At least folks in town could count on the law to keep things somewhat under control, right?
Finding a reliable lawman was anything but easy. El Paso, Texas, discovered that when it hired Dallas Stoudenmire as city marshal. Stoudenmire, a deadly gunman with a mean temper and a fondness for strong drink, insisted on starting fights and shooting people—some of them even criminals. As a young man, famed lawman Wyatt Earp stole horses. Between gigs as a county sheriff, town marshal, and city policeman, Earp ran faro tables, owned brothels, got arrested for a number of crimes, broke out of jail, led a vigilante group, and otherwise made a nuisance of himself. Pat Garrett may have been a straight arrow legally speaking, but he was unpleasant to be around. Even his fellow officers objected to his disposition: a refreshing mixture of arrogance and surliness.
Some men found a badge to be an excellent disguise for nefarious activities. Take these guys, for example:
In 1856, at the age of 24, Plummer became the marshal of Nevada City, Calif., the third-largest settlement in the state. In 1859, the marshal killed the husband of a woman with whom he was having an affair. Sentenced to ten years in San Quentin, he received parole in six months and immediately joined a gang of stagecoach robbers.
In January 1862, Plummer formed his own gang and began hijacking wagons transporting gold out of mining camps. When that enterprise petered out in January 1863, Plummer relocated to the newest gold rush in Bannack, Montana. There, he formed the Innocents, a network of road agents that numbered more than 100 men within a few short months.
In May 1863, Plummer lost a sheriff election and subsequently threatened his rival until the man high-tailed it, fearing for his life. Plummer took over the sheriff’s job and right away appointed two of his Innocents cronies as deputies. Oddly, crime dramatically increased. In about nine months, more than 100 murders occurred and robberies, assaults, and assorted other crimes reached unprecedented levels. All the while, Plummer—under the guise of cracking down on lawlessness—hanged witnesses.
On January 10, 1864, having had enough law enforcement for a while, fifty to seventy-five vigilantes rounded up Plummer and his two deputies and hanged them in the basement of a local store.
Burt Alvord and Billy Stiles
Burt Alvord, Yuma Territorial Prison, 1904
In the 1890s, Alvord and Stiles served as deputy sheriffs in Willcox, Arizona. Unsatisfied with their salaries, the two began robbing Southern Pacific Railroad trains to supplement their income. Emboldened by pulling a number of successful jobs, they undertook their most daring escapade on September 9, 1899, in what came to be known as the Cochise Train Robbery. Instead of clinging to tradition and stopping the train on a lonely stretch of track in the middle of nowhere, Alvord and Stiles had five members of their gang blow up the safe while the train was stopped in the town of Cochise. Alvord and Stiles, maintaining their law-enforcement decorum, were part of the posse that unsuccessfully attempted to apprehend the robbers in the Chiricahua Mountains.
About five months later, on February 15, 1900, the gang struck again, in broad daylight in the tiny town of Fairbank, Arizona. While the train was stopped at the station, the Alvord-Stiles gang approached the express car, guns drawn, only to find the messenger responsible for the safe unwilling to abide such rude behavior. During the gunfight that erupted, two of the five gang members were wounded and one ran away. The messenger, also wounded, hid the safe’s key before losing consciousness. Unable to find the key and without a single stick of dynamite between them, the rest of the gang vamoosed.
Fairbank, Ariz., railroad depot circa 1900
Once again, Alvord and Stiles rode with a posse to track down the outlaws, one of whom was injured so badly he had to be left behind about six miles outside town. Despite Alvord’s and Stiles’s attempts to misdirect the pursuers, they stumbled across the wounded man. Before he died, the outlaw fingered Alvord as the ringleader. Stiles confessed and turned state’s evidence, allowing him to remain comfortably outside the bars while Alvord cooled his heels inside. A short while later, Stiles broke Alvord out of the hoosegow and the two of them lit a shuck for Mexico.
The Arizona Rangers invaded Mexico and, in 1904, engaged the two now-expatriates in a gun battle. They captured Alvord, but Stiles got away. After a brief stint in the Rangers under an assumed name, Stiles was killed a few years later while working as a lawman in Nevada, also under an assumed name. Alvord did two years in Yuma Territorial Prison and took it on the lam for Panama upon his release.
Steam train, 1898
In 1898, Fort Worth, Texas, Assistant Police Chief Grunnels talked a gang of Oklahoma bank robbers out of robbing a local diamond merchant and into robbing a train in Saginaw, Texas, instead. Grunnels masterminded the operation, planning to apprehend the bandits after they made off with the money, then collect the reward and keep the loot.
The Apple Dumpling Gang might have performed the train heist with more aplomb. While crawling across the top of the coal tender to reach the engine, the gang’s leader slipped and accidentally discharged his pistol. His minions mistook the misfire as their signal to hop on the train and commence whatever mischief their roles required. Chaos ensued.
Meanwhile, Grunnels and a cadre of Fort Worth police officers not in on the plan raced to the rescue of a train that had yet to be robbed. The discombobulated robbers scrammed. The Fort Worth Police Department became suspicious when it discovered Grunnels reached the scene of the crime before the crime had been reported. Grunnels was fired and indicted, but he disappeared before trial.
The heroes in the two novellas that compose Robbing Banks, Stealing Hearts could give lessons in how to fail at outlawry to all of the compromised lawdogs above. So, here’s my question for this month: If you were going to commit a crime in the Old West, what crime do you think you could pull off? Bank or train robbery? Horse or cattle rustling? Murder for hire? Spitting on the sidewalk? Something else? I’ll give an e-book of Robbing Banks, Stealing Hearts to one of y’all who’s brave enough to expose your criminal dreams. 😉
Everyone should have career at which they excel. At failing to commit crimes, nobody is better than Laredo and Tombstone Hawkins. Maybe they can bumble their way into love.
The Worst Outlaw in the West
Laredo Hawkins has one ambition: to redeem his family’s honor by pulling the first successful bank robbery in the Hawkins clan’s long, disappointing history. Spinster Prudence Barrett is desperate to save her family’s bank from her brother’s reckless investments. A chance encounter between the dime-novel bandit and the old maid may set the pair on a path to infamy…if either can find a map.
Haunted by his kin’s tradition of spectacular failure, bank robber Tombstone Hawkins is honor-bound to prove his family tree produced at least one bad apple. When carnival fortuneteller Pansy Gilchrist tries to help, she accidentally summons a pair of dishonest-to-goodness ghosts. Getting into the spirit of a crime is one thing…but how do you get the spirits out?