The Outlaws: Tales of Bad Guys Who Shaped the Wild West, by Robert Barr Smith, TwoDot, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, Conn., 2013, $18.95
Robert Barr Smith, a former law professor at the University of Oklahoma and a retired U.S. Army colonel, has a thing for Western troublemakers, actually two things—dislike and fascination. In the last quarter century Smith has written about various thieves and killers in four books and close to 100 articles, many of them for Wild West. “There was nothing of Robin Hood about these criminals,” he writes in the introduction to his latest collection of good tales about bad guys. “They were the trash of the West and should be remembered as that and nothing more.” In Chapter 1, titled “Bad Men,” he states his intent to paint the bandits as they really were: “vicious, depraved and worthless.” In Chapter 2 he says there wasn’t anything good to say about the horseback bandits, whose “stock in trade was pure violence, intimidation, murder.” But even that’s not enough for Smith, who in his short afterword has this to say about robbers, then and now: “There is no redeeming social value to any of them, in spite of considerable romanticizing by book and article writers who ought to know better.”
So expect no romanticizing by this author, who agrees with the sentiment “the only good outlaw is a dead outlaw” but nevertheless remains too fascinated by guys with nicknames like “Bittercreek,” “Dynamite Dick” and “Curly Bill” to turn his back on them—or, fortunately for us, to stop writing about them. The hard cases featured on these 217 pages range from the infamous Dalton Gang and the lesser known Buck Gang to “Nevada psychopath” Ben Kuhl and “buffoons like inept, posturing Al Jennings and stupid, drunken Elmer McCurdy.” Smith also includes a chapter on “The Female of the Species” (think Belle Starr, Cora Hubbard and Pearl Hart) and even “The Lawmen” (think Heck Thomas, John Slaughter and one-armed Joseph Wiley Evans). Bad guys, though, are the main focus, even if many date from the post–Wild West era. As Smith knows all too well, the 20th century did not mark the end of troublemakers.