Famous Last Words: Outlaws of the Old West

Kathleen Rice Adams header

Bad boys of the Old West—they’re endlessly fascinating. Why is that? Maybe it’s because they lived such bold, flash-in-the-pan lives, as untamed as the land they roamed. Some have become such mythic figures, it’s difficult to tell fact from fiction. True or not, their legends live on…and in some cases, so do the last or near-last words that—in a strange, sad way—defined their short, reckless lives.

Bits and pieces like the ones below bring real-life villains to life and sometimes provide insight into the men behind the myths. Still, I often find myself wondering “who were these guys?” Had I been a contemporary, would I have seen the same life historians recorded? Or would the real person have been astoundingly different from what we think we know 100 years later?

All of the bad guys below had parents, grandparents, siblings. Some had wives and children. One, Deacon Jim Miller (also known as Killer Jim Miller) was a pillar of his community…when he wasn’t eliminating someone for money.

As an author of historical fiction, part of my job is to entertain, but I believe there’s another, equally important part, as well: getting the facts straight—or at least trying to hide the wrinkles. Of course, fiction isn’t fact, and no fiction author worth his or her salt lets facts get in the way of a good story. Nevertheless, studying the past and the kinds of people about whom we write is almost a sacred trust for many of us who write historical fiction. Only by familiarizing ourselves with the larger-than-life and the mundane can we give any authority or verisimilitude to the fictional lives we create.

As the writerly saying goes, “Even the villain is the hero of his own life story.” Maybe that’s why I spend so much time researching bad boys…and why the heroes in my stories so often are outlaws, even the ones who wear badges. After all, somebody has to tell the villains’ life stories, right?

Wild Bill Longley


“I deserve this fate. It is a debt I owe for my wild, reckless life.”
Wild Bill Longley, outlaw and mean-tempered bully, age 27. Hanged in Giddings, Texas, Oct. 11, 1878, for the murder of a childhood friend.



“Aw, go to Hell you long-legged son-of-a-bitch.”
—Tom O’Folliard, rustler and best friend of Billy the Kid, age 22. Spoken to Sheriff Pat Garrett shortly after Garrett mortally wounded him during a manhunt near Fort Sumner, New Mexico, Dec. 19, 1880.



“I’m not afraid to die like a man fighting, but I would not like to be killed like a dog unarmed.”
Billy the Kid, hired gun, age 21, in a March 1879 letter to New Mexico Governor Lew Wallace. Shot to death by Sheriff Pat Garrett at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, July 14, 1881.



“Can’t you hurry this up a bit? I hear they eat dinner in Hades at twelve sharp, and I don’t aim to be late.”
Black Jack Ketchum, train robber, age 37. Decapitated during hanging for train robbery, Clayton, New Mexico, April 26, 1901.



“Killing men is my specialty. I look at it as a business proposition, and I think I have a corner on the market.”
—Tom Horn, Pinkerton detective turned assassin, one day shy of 43. Hanged in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Nov. 20, 1903, for the murder of a 14-year-old boy.



“Let the record show I’ve killed 51 men. Let ’er rip.”
“Deacon Jim” Miller, age 42, professional assassin. Lynched in Ada, Oklahoma, April 19, 1909, for the contract killing of a former U.S. marshal.




“I love it [the bandit life]. It is wild with adventure.”
—Henry Starr, age 53, to a reporter shortly before he was shot to death during an attempted bank robbery in Harrison, Arkansas, 1921.



Image credits
Black Jack Ketchum: University of New Mexico
Tom Horn at the Cheyenne Jail, 1902: Wyoming State Archives
Henry Starr: University of Arkansas, Little Rock

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20 thoughts on “Famous Last Words: Outlaws of the Old West”

  1. Isn’t it odd how fascinating it is to try to understand the criminal mindset? Is it because it is so opposite of mine? Or is it because, given a different upbringing with a closer touch to violence or desperation, I might cross the line myself? These men all sounded so matter-of-fact about their lifestyles…

    • I suspect we’re fascinated by criminals for a bit of both reasons — plus just good ol’ morbid curiosity. I’m always both fascinated and appalled by the things bad people say, aren’t you?

  2. Hi, Kathleen. That quote by Tom Horn sent shivers down my spine. So cold-hearted. And to think he was a Pinkerton before turning assassin. Sounds like a plot from a movie. But it was the line about his last murder being a 14 year-old boy that really gouged me. I’ve got boys 13 and 15, so that one hit close to home. I have to admit, I’m rather glad they strung him up.

    • Tom Horn must’ve been a piece of work. Debate still rages about whether he was railroaded for killing that boy, but from what I’ve read he did enough other bad things to warrant at least a couple of prison sentences. It’s hard to believe someone can be that callous, isn’t it?

  3. Hi Kathleen! Love your post. You’re a woman after my own heart. I share your feelings about bad boys. They’re just more interesting to write about because of multi-layers in their character. Most have good in them but, depending on the circumstances, can unleash the bad in an instant and rain hell down on those who’ve done wrong. They stand up and fight for the weaker person and administer their brand of justice. I LOVE your bad boy heroes because you don’t pull any punches. I like that.

    I can’t wait for new book — the one with ghost in the title. I can’t remember the rest but it looks great. Hope it comes out soon.

    • Well howdy there, Linda, you ol’ sidewinder! Boy, do I know we share a love of bad boys — and the ones who are complex and tough as nails are the best, aren’t they? That’s what keeps me drumming my fingertips on the tabletop between your novels: “C’mon, Linda. Ain’t you finished with that new one yet? My must-read stack is witherin’ on the vine over here!” 😀 (Elisabeth Burke is another one who writes luscious bad boys.)

      The new book is Ghosts in the Shadows, and I’m hoping for an early 2016 release. Brit Moonchaser is bad attitude on legs. Sheriff Jake wears a white hat, but he’s a pretty tough hombre, too. 😉


    • Me too, Connie! That’s one of the many things I like about the fillies at Petticoats & Pistols: We’re all research fiends. You’d be surprised the kinds of things we turn up around here! 😀

  4. I’m never interested in “bad guys” unless they’re from the old Wild West. Obviously so are the men and women who write about them. Then too, the good guys are just as fascinating. It’s definitely the spin of romanticizing that we give to characters of the Old West. I never tire of this era–good guys or bad–and the best is the “bad female.”

    • Ooh — I like that perspective, Jesse! I’m with you: My bad boys have always been cowboys (with apologies to Willie Nelson). Contemporary bad boys just don’t do it for me. As for bad girls? Female villains are even more fascinating than their male counterparts. Maybe that’s because they’re more devious. I once read a book about a female bounty hunter, and I thought that was an interesting spin on the classic trope. She was one tough lady!

  5. I truly appreciate authors who strive for accuracy in their stories. Having read your previous posts on some of the men and the short version here, it seems the operated on a different plane than most of us. Either they didn’t feel what the were doing was really all that wrong or they just didn’t care. As Henry Starr stated “I love it [the bandit life]. It is wild with adventure.” It does make for a good foundation for a story. I, however, do prefer my heroes to be a bit less callus about how they treat their fellow man. There has to be more good buried in him than any of your listed bandits appear to have.

    • For an outlaw to be a hero, he must bear at least a tiny spark of something worth redeeming. That’s one of the things I like about fiction, both writing and reading: Bad guys can be redeemed, often by a good woman’s love, and go forth never to ride roughshod across the west again (hopefully). Sadly, that’s not true in real life — as the men above attest.

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