Share This Article

Gunmen, Assassins and Drunk Murderers Are One Thing—Serial Killers Are Another
Although the line between the two can be as thin as a trigger finger

One Saturday I tuned in to the Western Channel to catch Stuart Whitman’s Marshal Jim Crown catching outlaws in the Oklahoma Panhandle in 1888. The show, Cimarron Strip, didn’t last long in the 1960s but holds up well, delivering a colorful look at one of the wildest spots on the closing frontier. On this particular morning, though, I got more than I bargained for in an episode called “Knife in the Darkness.”

No, it wasn’t a bowie knife, but there was darkness all right and enough haunting fog in Cimarron to make London jealous. One of the suspicious strangers in town was butchering women instead of steers, and Marshal Crown had to do what Scotland Yard had failed to do—nab serial killer Jack the Ripper. The ending has a nice frontier twist. I won’t spoil it, but suffice it to say, American Indians also know how to use knives.

That unusual episode got me thinking: Were there actual serial killers in spurs? There’s no easy answer. Experts disagree on the definition of “serial killer,” a term not even coined until the mid-1970s. When “Saucy Jacky” (as the Ripper was also known) was killing London ladies for real in 1888, multiple homicides were rare. Not so in the 20th century, and the press started calling them “stranger murders,” “mass murders” and “lust murders,” until the term “serial murders” (the work of serial killers) caught on like personal computers. One 1990s definition of serial murder reads, “Three or more separate events in three or more separate locations with an emotional cooling-off period between homicides.” Someone else suggested the three or more murders had to occur in “more than a 30-day period.” A 2008 FBI definition reads, “The unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events.” Other definitions specify that these murders are not for material gain, are compulsive with sadistic, sexual overtones, are cyclical, are fulfilling psychologically and are committed by “monsters.”

With that in mind, let’s consider several Wild West man-killers (unlike the infamous Jack of London, they rarely killed women). Exhibit A is Texas gunman John Wesley Hardin, who might have notched 40 killings, many of which he recounted in his autobiography, The Life of John Wesley Hardin, as Written by Himself. A reprint today might bear the title J.W. Hardin: Confessions of a Serial Killer. But does he qualify? Certainly he killed multiple people in separate events, with some cooling-off periods between homicides. But this “monster” named for the founder of Methodism was intelligent, a family man and late in life an attorney. His prejudices, temper and consumption of red-eye just got the best of him at times…lots of times. A psychotic killer? No argument. A serial killer? Debatable.

Exhibit B is “Killin’ Jim” Miller, who is said to have slain his grandparents and gone on to bushwhack perhaps as many men as Hardin. But also consider that he married, seemed like a good Methodist (thus his other nickname, “Deacon Jim”), served for a time as a lawman and then became a killer for hire (i.e., for material gain). Next up is boastful killer and liar Bill Longley, who sought even greater “success” than Hardin but failed. “Bloody Bill” later tried to disavow his boasts and also wondered why he was sentenced to the gallows while John Wesley only served prison time. In short, he was an overrated gunfighter who fell short as a “serial killer.” Billy the Kid was a rustler who killed for revenge. Harvey Logan was a robber who killed for revenge or self-protection. Jesse James was a robber who might have killed only one man. Others killed because they were problem drinkers, not serial killers.

In this issue we present the “Bloody Benders,” who kept Kansas bloody in the decade after the Civil War. You decide if they rate as serial killers. But consider that they owned an inn and were greedy. Maybe they only rate as the absolute lowest kind of Western entrepreneurs.