DALTONS! THE RAID ON COFFEYVILLE, KANSAS
IT WAS NO DOUBT Bob Dalton’s idea, that grandiose plan to rob two banks simultaneously in a little town in southeastKansas. He was, after all, the leader of the gang and probably the smartest member. Actually, gang member Bill Doolin mighthave been smarter, although it is not certain whether or not it was his “brains” that kept him from risking his neck with theothers in the raid on Coffeyville. In any case, Bob Dalton had more upstairs than his brothers Grat or Emmett, which isn’t muchof a compliment. “The Dalton boys,” writes author Robert Barr Smith, “were not, with the possible exception of Bob, verybright.” Those three Daltons rode into Coffeyville on October 5, 1892, along with Bill Power (often spelled Powers) and DickBroadwell. None of them rode out. Four of the gang died on the spot, as did four citizens of the town.
The raid on the First National Bank and the Condon Bank in Coffeyville can be seen as a foolhardy attempt to pull off anoutlaw “first.” The Dalton brothers’ mother, Adaline, was the aunt of Cole, Jim and Bob Younger, but the Younger brothershad never robbed two banks at the same time. Neither had Frank and Jesse James. In October 1892, Cole and Jim Youngerwere still in Minnesota’s Stillwater Prison, where they’d been since the James-Younger gang’s failed 1876 bank robbery inNorthfield, Minn. Bob Younger had died of consumption in that same prison in 1889. Jesse James had been dead for adecade, and Frank James was no longer a wanted man. The Daltons now had an opportunity to outdo those infamous outlawbrother gangs of the past. Not that anyone knows for sure that such considerations were running through Bob Dalton’s head atthe time, but Smith does write: “It may indeed have been Bob’s ego, not his brain, that spawned the Coffeyville raid.” In thepreface to his Daltons!: The Raid on Coffeyville, Kansas (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Okla., 1996, $24.95hardback), Smith is even more blunt: “It is hard to characterize the Daltons’ lack of planning and caution at Coffeyville asanything but just plain stupid. I shall make what case I can for the gang’s incompetence, and the reader may judge as he or shewill.”
Smith does make a good case that the Daltons were common hoodlums who tried to pull off an uncommon crime. Bob,Emmett and Grat Dalton were all born in Missouri, which had produced the Jameses and plenty of other Rebels who arguablyhad been driven to outlawry after the Civil War, but of those three Daltons, only Grat had even been born before the warended. True, their elder brother, Frank Dalton, was an honest U.S. deputy marshal killed in 1887 while attempting to make anarrest in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), and afterward, the trio did wear badges. “But the brothers were not madeof the same iron as their departed sibling,” writes Smith. “None of them lasted long at the peace-officer business.” Hecomments that “there was at least some reason to idealize the Jameses and Youngers,” but not the Daltons.
As numerous writers have found out in the past, trying to sort out the truths from the legends when it comes to the Daltons isabout as hard as trying to drink a cup of coffee while riding a bucking bronco. Some of those writers did not try real hard.Emmett Dalton, who surprised everyone by surviving his wounds from the Coffeyville fight and who later wrote about the raidin two books, has led astray many other writers who decided to use him as a reliable source. There are some, however, whohave made the big effort to separate fact from fiction, most notably Nancy B. Samuelson. Smith calls Samuelson’s 1992 bookThe Dalton Gang Story “an interesting adventure in indefatigable scholarship.” He also says he found most valuable Captain David Elliott’s long newspaper account of the raid in the October 7, 1892, edition of the Coffeyville Journal and LueBarndollar’s What Really Happened on October 5, 1892, which was published by the Coffeyville Historical Society 100years after the raid. There are still mysteries involving the Daltons and “facts” that can be disputed, but Smith seems to have agood handle on them.
Unlike most other accounts, and despite the title of his book, Smith emphasizes the role played on October 5, 1892, by thecitizens of Coffeyville. A book with “Daltons” in the title admittedly has a lot more sex appeal than, say, a book called TheCoffeyville Defenders, but Smith has a chapter on the “Men Who Did Their Duty Well,” and he dedicates the book “to all themen who rose up to shoot it out with a bunch of hoodlums intent on terrorizing their quiet country town,” especially the fourmen who died defending the town–Lucius M. Baldwin, Charles Brown, Town Marshal Charles T. Connelly and George B.Cubine. Among the fighting Coffeyville citizens, liveryman John Kloehr received the most attention afterward, and Smith sayshe deserved it. Of the 200 or so shots fired by Coffeyville’s citizens that morning, three of Kloehr’s rifle shots found themark–he killed Grat Dalton (who had shot down Marshal Connelly) and helped silence Dick Broadwell and Bob Dalton inwhat was to become known as Death Alley. Because of the public spirit and courage showed by the town defenders, theDaltons failed to outperform the Jameses or Youngers in the bank business. But you could say the Dalton gang’sdouble-robbery fiasco at Coffeyville was bigger than the James-Younger fiasco at Northfield 15 years earlier, since fourrobbers died in Kansas and only three bit the dust in Minnesota. In any case, of all the bank holdups in the Old West,Coffeyville and Northfield are probably the best remembered today, but in each raid, of course, the men who foiled therobbers have been all but forgotten.
Smith’s treatment of the “ordinary citizens who rallied without command or plan and pitched in to fight a band of heavily armedcriminals” helps set his book apart from most other works dealing with Coffeyville. But so does his fun, irreverent style, whichremains fresh no matter how familiar a reader is with it. And longtime readers of Wild West will recognize the style, since Smith has had about two dozen articles in this magazine, including a feature in the June 1988 premiere issue and a feature called”Dalton Gang’s Mystery Rider at Coffeyville” that appeared in the October 1995 issue. In the last chapter of his book, Smithgoes into more depth about whether or not there was a sixth man. Smith, a retired U.S. Army colonel, is a professor of law,director of legal research and writing and adjunct professor of military science at the University of Oklahoma. But you wouldnever guess that just by reading Daltons! Smith knows how to deliver a good yarn, and when he takes you on an exciting ride back to the Old West, you appreciate having a man of his experience and talents driving the stage.