As the Dalton brothers discovered in Coffeyville and the James-Younger Gang did in Northfield, crime didnʼt pay when the citizens of a targeted community took a stand.
Contrary to Hollywood myth, most townspeople didn’t walk the streets of their frontier com- munities packing a gun. As civilization spread west, “taming” towns in its path, citizens turned their attention to business, family, education and church. Even the local lawman might be unarmed, as was the case on October 5, 1892, when the Dalton boys rode into little Coffeyville, Kansas. But nearly everyone in those far-off days knew how to shoot, and few were likely to say, “I don’t want to get involved.” Their towns were their pride, and they had little tolerance for trigger-happy bandits who would threaten their lives and their life savings. If a local bank was hit, it could mean disaster for many solid citizens, since a benevolent FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Company) was far in the future. It’s no wonder, then, that some townfolk—whether from Coffeyville or Northfield, Minnesota, or Meeker, Colorado—were willing to fight back.
In the 1952 film classic High Noon, Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) must deal with four killers alone after the citizens of fictional Hadleyville either leave town or hide behind locked doors. Such craven and pathetic people no doubt existed in frontier settlements, but there are many examples of everyday people who responded to crises in their communities with courage and toughness. This is the way the Meeker Herald summed up the notable response of Meeker citizens to a local intrustion by badmen in 1896: “Thus was justice meted out to three bold outlaws who chose the wrong town in which to ply their villainous trade.”
One reason the Daltons tested Coffeyville is that, after undistinguished criminal careers holding up trains, they sought safer climes. Gang leader Bob Dalton had declared Oklahoma Territory too hot. With tenacious lawman Heck Thomas only about 24 hours behind them, they needed a stake, but quick. Bob was familiar with the southeast Kansas town, as years earlier the Dalton family had lived nearby.
Bob boasted the Daltons would hold up two banks at once, something even their cousins the Younger boys had never done. He rode north for Kansas with eldest brother Grat, 21-year-old Emmett and a pair of thugs, Dick Broadwell and Bill Powers. For reasons uncertain, he left behind part of his gang—the more experienced part.
Bob was so confident that he failed to even reconnoiter. And so it was, when the gang rode into Coffeyville that bright October morning, they found that someone had taken down the hitching rack to which they had intended to tie their horses. Leaving their mounts tied to a pipe in an alley (behind the judge’s house), they took their rifles and strolled into a plaza on which both banks fronted. Aside from sticking out in a town where nobody carried a gun, they were soon recognized by citizens who remembered their family.
Bob and young Em took the First National Bank, while Grat led Powers and Broadwell into the Condon Bank. Bob quickly extracted a good haul from his bank, but dense Grat wasted time collecting a sackful of silver; one estimate suggests it must have weighed some 200 pounds. Then a young bank employee bamboozled Grat, looking the robber innocently in the eye, insisting the vault remained on its time lock and inventing an opening time many minutes away.
Although the business day was well advanced, Grat bought this tale. “We’ll wait,” he said. Meanwhile, at two hardware stores also fronting on the plaza, the proprietors handed out rifles to all comers; there were lots of takers. As Bob and Emmett started out the door of the First National, someone opened fire. The pair turned and ran out the back of the First National, keeping buildings between them and the hardware stores; while fleeing, Bob killed three citizens and badly wounded another.
The townspeople then showered the Condon Bank with buckshot and rifle bullets, one of which badly wounded Powers. Leading the retreat, Grat foolishly headed out across the plaza, right into the teeth of those deadly rifles, instead of using the back door to a street sheltered from the citizens’ fire.
Grat, though wounded, lingered long enough to kill the town marshal, who had finally found a gun. But then he took a rifle bullet from livery stable owner John Kloehr that put him down for good. Powers also died in the alley; Broadwell managed to mount and ride a distance before falling to the street, dead.
Bob and Emmett reached the alley, but several bullets struck home, and Bob fell, still instinctively firing. Em, mounted and clutching the loot, had turned toward his fallen brother when town barber Carey Seaman knocked him from his saddle with both barrels of his shotgun.
Emmett clung to life, thanks in large measure to the town doctor, who ministered to the outlaw in his upstairs office. Enter a group of angry citizens with a rope, one end of which they intended to attach to Emmett, the other to a pole outside the window, before tossing the young gun from the window. The doctor intervened.
“No use, boys,” he said. “This man will die anyway.” A voice from the crowd: “Are you sure, doc?” “Hell, yes,” said the doctor. “Did you ever hear of a patient of mine getting well?”
The tension broke, and Emmett survived to serve many years in prison. The rest of the gang was duly buried. Their only grave marker: the pipe to which they had tied their horses in that deadly alley.
Sixteen years earlier, the citizens of Northfield, Minn., had shown the same combative spirit as the Coffeyville defenders. “Stone ’em! Stone ’em!” cried the people amid the gunfire on September 7, 1876. Four angry citizens stood on a corner, hurling rocks—“big and formidable missiles,” reported a contemporary writer, “more fit for the hand of Goliath than for the sling of David.”
In addition to the rock throwers, a storekeeper and his clerk were firing on the outlaws from beneath a ground-floor stairway; across the street, a medical student home on vacation sniped from an upstairs window with an outdated, paper-cartridge carbine. At least three other citizens banged away with birdshot-loaded shotguns. Up at Carleton College, a teacher told her schoolgirl charges to take up axes “in order to make a good resistance.”
The opposition was formidable. Frank and Jesse James had come to town that fall day with three Younger boys —Cole, Jim and Bob—plus Sam Wells (alias Charlie Pitts), Clell Miller and Bill Stiles (alias Bill Chadwell). All were veterans of violence, stretching back to the bloody Civil War struggle in Missouri and Kansas.
Three of the gang walked into the First National Bank of Northfield. Inside were three employees: acting cashier Joseph Lee Heywood, Frank Wilcox and Alonzo Bunker. Gang members quickly forced both Wilcox and Bunker to their knees at the point of pistol barrels, according to Bunker, “about the size of a hat.” One outlaw pistol-whipped Heywood and threatened to slash his throat, but he gallantly refused to open the safe. Had any of this band of boobies tried the safe door, they would have found it already open. The cash drawer was also open, but a slipshod search by Bob Younger missed that too.
When the bandits first entered the bank, a suspicious storekeeper named Sim Allen had tried to follow them. Threatened at gunpoint, Allen bolted while shouting the alarm, and the battle of Northfield was on. The other hoodlums tried to “hoorah” the town, riding up and down the street while firing their pistols and shouting, “Get in, you sons of bitches!” They shot down a Swedish immigrant, who spoke little English and probably did not understand them.
But the citizenry was not about to “get in.” Clell Miller took a faceful of birdshot from resident Elias Stacy and a rifle bullet from medical student Henry Wheeler, shooting from his upstairs window. The latter round tore out Miller’s subclavian artery, dropping him from his horse to bleed out in the street. Hardware merchant Anselm Manning killed Bob Younger’s horse and then bounced a round off a post into Cole Younger’s thigh. He next turned to Stiles and put a bullet in his heart. Bob Younger, firing at Manning, made a fine target for Wheeler, who shot the outlaw in the elbow. About that time, another man hit Bob with a load of buckshot. Jim Younger had a shoulder wound, and Frank or Jesse James, perhaps both, may have received minor wounds.
The surviving bandits rode for it, two of their horses carrying double. They managed to get clear of Northfield, but their troubles were far from over. Bloody and exhausted, soaked by days of rain, they ultimately left their horses and fled on foot, with posses of as many as 1,000 men combing Minnesota for them. The James boys abandoned their comrades and escaped to parts unknown.
Near Madelia, Minn., a posse trapped the Younger brothers and Pitts (real name Wells) in a thicket. Seven possemen gallantly waded into the dense brush, and a roaring firefight erupted at point-blank range. The outlaws shot one posseman’s pipe from his mouth and grazed two others, but the posse’s return fire put five slugs into Charlie Pitts, whereof, in the quaint language of the day, he expired. Each of the others was also hit repeatedly, and at last Bob Younger called out, “They’re all down but me! I surrender.”
The Younger boys ended up in the state prison at Stillwater, Minn., where Bob later died. The state paroled Cole and Jim in 1901, but Jim committed suicide the next year. However, two of the Northfield robbers eventually were of some use to society. Wheeler, the sharpshooting medical student, shipped off the Miller and Stiles (aka Chadwell) cadavers to the University of Michigan medical school in barrels innocuously marked PAINT. Stiles’ bones eventually became the resident skeleton in then-doctor Wheeler’s office. The body of Pitts/ Wells went on display back in Northfield for a while, then at the state capital, until his body became “an unpleasant and disgusting spectacle.”
Sometimes the good citizens of a frontier town just helped out the law, joining the fray as lawmen drove off the bandits. So it was in Round Rock, Texas, on a blistering July day in 1878, when Sam Bass and company rode into town to rob the bank. Forewarned, Texas Rangers were waiting for them, along with a couple of local lawmen. When the shooting started, the citizenry joined in, including the livery stable owner and the owner of a nearby saloon; even a one-armed man got into the fight, either resting his rifle on a fence or using the pistol of a fallen officer, depending on which version of the fight one reads.
Outgunned, the outlaws ran for it. One bandit dropped in the street and never moved. Bass took a round in the gut, which tore into one kidney and left fragments near his spine. Covered by a comrade, he made it out of town, but lawmen found him the next day, dying. The third man got clean away.
Sometimes one tough townsman formed the heart of the resistance, as in Delta, Colo., in fall 1893, when veteran outlaw Tom McCarty, his brother Bill and Bill’s son Fred robbed the Farmers and Merchants Bank. It was September 7, curiously the anniversary of the James-Younger Gang’s disastrous raid on Northfield, when they made the mistake of murdering cashier A.T. Blatchley. Although Blatchley had courageously yelled for help, no one had heard him due to high winds. What townspeople did hear was the shot that killed him, prompting some to grab their guns.
Ray Simpson, working in the hardware store across from the bank, got his .40 Sharps and ran outside in time to see the McCartys gallop from the alley behind the bank. Simpson pulled down on Bill McCarty with the big rifle and blew off the top of his head, hat and all. The bandits were riding hard, rapidly extending the range, but the Sharps boomed again. Fred McCarty stayed on his horse a short distance, though he was dead before he hit the ground. Tom McCarty got away, and it was quiet by the time other citizens got their weapons.
Such bank raids usually caught townspeople by surprise, of course. Another one occurred in August 1896 in Nogales, Arizona Territory, when the Christian boys stopped in at the local bank. Bob and William “Black Jack” Christian were Oklahoma hard cases who had murdered two lawmen and robbed a series of little country stores before that territory got too hot. One engaging tale of the Nogales bank robbery suggests the back door slammed in the wind, startling the hoodlum brothers into wild flight. Another account has it the bandits fled in the wake of gunfire from an upstairs room, where the bank’s directors were meeting. The more likely cause was teller Frank Herrera, who produced a pistol and blazed away. Bank president John Dessart ran for help, despite suffering a belt in the head from a Winchester barrel. One of the bandits came out limping as the gang fled the bank and galloped out of town, sped on their way by gunfire from at least six citizens. Customs collector Frank King even borrowed a horse and pursued them for a mile or two.
The Christian boys were the heart of the gang called the High Fives (or the Black Jack Gang), though after Nogales their luck was mostly bad. A shotgun-wielding lawman cut down gang member Code Young during an attempted train robbery at Rio Puerco trestle, over in New Mexico Territory. Another fell during a lawman’s ambush, while leader Bill Christian died in still another brush with the law.
The hardworking Western townspeople in such places as Northfield and Nogales benefited from the fact that most outlaws arrogantly underrated those they intended to rob. Take the citizens of Braggs, down in Indian Territory. Into that tiny town one March day in 1895 rode a group of confident bandits, intent on robbing Cherokee Tom Madden’s general store. In those days, such little stores were popular targets, for they carried supplies, booze and clothing, generally had something in the cash drawer and sometimes also served as rural post offices, another possible source of loot. Leading the Braggs invaders was a thug named Sam McWilliams, who called himself the “Verdigris Kid.” (Such handles were common in those days, enabling a nonentity to reinvent himself; there were a couple of Black Jacks, at least two Bitter Creeks, a Black-faced Charlie, Dynamite Dick and Dynamite Jack, and a whole galaxy of “kids”—one somewhat obscurely called the “Narrow-gauge Kid.”) With the Verdigris Kid that day were a couple of punks named George Sanders and Sam Butler; evidence suggests as many as six more bandits may have participated.
Arriving in town, they herded together all the townsmen they saw, and while Butler kept a pistol on them, the other bandits went into Madden’s and began looting. They tried on suits of clothes and selected new boots and silk handkerchiefs, posturing and having a ball. Madden, at home with his spyglass, saw a group of people standing about the store with their hands in the air. Heeding his wife’s advice not to go charging down there, Madden rode out to alert Johnson Manning and Hiram Stevens, two tough Cherokee deputy sheriffs. The three rode into town, and the shooting started.
A cattleman and one of his cowboys were in the dining room of the town’s little hotel, enjoying lunch, when stray bullets smashed through the walls and shattered the crockery on their table, spoiling their repast. Irked, they grabbed their guns and got into the action. So did other citizens, and the outlaws suddenly had a major battle on their hands. The Verdigris Kid dropped dead on the spot, prompting those outlaws who remained vertical to fall back toward their horses. Sanders, hit repeatedly, also died on the dusty street. Butler made it out of town, leaving a blood trail; he lived long enough for a lawman to catch him at home and kill him.
There may well have been additional outlaw casualties. One citizen reported five dead. Another saw the dead laid out on the Braggs railroad platform and commented, “The first two I saw…” implying more than two. However many outlaws started the day, none survived it.
If the Verdigris Kid was a short-lived unknown, Henry Starr won fame by robbing more banks than anyone else in history, including Choc Floyd (aka “Pretty Boy” Floyd). Starr’s other claim to fame was that he started his outlaw career on horseback and finished in the days of the automobile.
Starr was related by marriage to Belle Starr, the vastly overrated “Bandit Queen.” Like her, he had quite a reputation; unlike Belle, an unsuccessful horse thief, Henry did pull off many successful jobs. Until Stroud, Okla., that is, where on March 27, 1915, the populace rose up in wrath and opened up on Starr and his gang. One of the Stroud defenders was 17-year-old Paul Curry, armed with a sawed-off Winchester “hog rifle” the town butcher used to slaughter pigs. Starr went down with a slug in his left thigh, and Curry—or maybe another citizen—nailed outlaw Lewis Estes with a round in the lung. Estes made it out of town, only to collapse from his horse and fall into custody; he received a five-year prison sentence. Starr, on his best behavior, served less than four years.
In Arkansas on February 18, 1921, Starr led three men into the People’s National Bank in little Harrison, near Bentonville. Herding bank personnel and customers into the vault, Starr didn’t count on 68-year-old William J. Meyers, a director and onetime president of the bank, who picked up a Winchester stashed at the back of the vault and put a round into Starr. “Don’t shoot!” yelled the bandit. “Don’t shoot a man who is down.”
Starr’s accomplices ran for it, chased from town by the doughty Meyers and a collection of citizens. But this time Starr would stay put. It took him days to die, and he remained a braggart, repeating his boast to have robbed more banks than any other man. He added that he was anxious to “make my peace with God.” He should have thought about that earlier.
Some outlaws couldn’t escape retribution even by fleeing abroad. The best known case is that of Wild Bunch graduates Butch Cassidy and Harry Longabaugh, the Sundance Kid, killed in South America by the Bolivian army in November 1908 following a citizen’s tip. Less glamorous was odious “Dirty Dave” Rudabaugh, who also met his fate south of the border—in a Mexican town.
Rudabaugh, whom one writer said had the look “of a man who enjoyed sleeping in his clothes,” not only stank, robbed and killed but also sold out his own cohorts to the law. He had his first taste of citizens’ wrath during a bungled January 1878 train holdup near Kinsley, Kan. Rudabaugh and associates’ plan went wrong when the express messenger started shooting instead of dutifully opening the express car. Before they could solve that problem, a batch of tough Kinsley citizens showed up, some of them pumping to the rescue on a railroad handcar.
Sheriff Bat Masterson soon caught up to Rudabaugh in Dodge City, but the slimy outlaw squealed on his associates for immunity. In New Mexico Territory, he joined a gang led by Hoodoo Brown and also rode with Billy the Kid. In Arizona Territory, he became part of the Cowboy faction in the Tombstone area. Wyatt Earp claimed Rudabaugh was present at the March 1882 fight at Iron Springs, where Wyatt exterminated Curly Bill Brocius. Rudabaugh then moved on to the town of Parral in Chihuahua, Mexico.
Despicable Dirty Dave went on behaving like the frontier trash he was, until February 18, 1886, when he got crossways with some locals in a cantina. Irritated at losing big at cards, Rudabaugh reportedly killed a couple of fellow players, emptying the place muy pronto. Later, as Dave left, he couldn’t find his horse, so he headed back to the cantina, but townsmen were waiting. The occasion turned into an ad hoc fiesta, as locals parted Rudabaugh’s head from the rest of him and paraded it around on a pole. On this occasion, Parral was definitely the wrong town for an American outlaw to visit.
Such was the case 10 years later up in Meeker, Colo. The town bank looked like an easy payday, but Jim Shirley would have done better to go robbing someplace else. He arrived there on October 13, 1896, with a mean, stupid outlaw, inappropriately named George Law, and a third bandit, probably named Pierce but better known as “the Kid,” who was perhaps 21 years old. The bank operated inside a store building, as many small banks did. Shirley planned to surround himself with hostages, using whatever local citizens might be handy.
The trio tied up their horses in an alley beside the J.W. Hugus general store. Business was brisk. The robbers threw down on store manager A.C. Moulton, as well as customers C.A. Booth, Victor Dykeman, Ed Hall, Joe Rooney and at least one other man. The robbers herded them together, with hands raised. One hostage said later that the bore of the weapon aimed at him “looked big enough to sleep in.”
Assistant cashier David Smith was helping Rooney, clerk of the Meeker Hotel, when he felt a “heavy hand on his shoulder” and turned to the sight of a revolver muzzle poking through the teller cage bars. Smith had little option but to stand and deliver. Enter Uncle Phil Barnhart, an aged stage driver, who stumbled drunk out of nearby Willis’ saloon and noticed the robbery in progress through the front window of Hugus’ store. “Boys, get your guns!” he shouted. “They are robbing the bank!” A passing lady assumed the worst of Uncle Phil and scoffed at his warning to get out of the street. “Go on in, lady,” Uncle Phil replied, “and get your butt shot off!”
Finally, a youngster ran to Simp Harp’s livery stable, crying out, “They are holding up the bank!” Charlie Duffy, sitting on a box in front of the stable, went to investigate and came back running. “Where’s your gun, Simp?” Duffy asked. “When I got down there to the bank, I stepped up to the door, and a fellow said, ‘Hands up!’ and I said, ‘I don’t have time.’”
Then a gunshot rang out from the store, so startling a workman at the Meeker Hotel that he fell from his scaffolding. Law, covering the cashier, had been stupid enough to fire a warning shot to speed things up and then, compounding his foolishness, fired again. Shirley, unaware of the stirring hornet’s nest outside, wasted enough time for citizen Ben Nichols to “run home twice for guns.” Townsmen rallied quickly. Harp, Barnhart, Tom Shervin and Jo Hantgen all grabbed weapons and converged on the bank.
The outlaws dumped some $1,600 into an old sugar sack, but they could not get into the safe. And then, oblivious to the probability someone had heard Law’s shots, the outlaws collected all the rifles for sale in the store, loaded three for their own use and broke the stocks off the rest. The local paper later estimated the outlaws had squandered five precious minutes bashing rifles.
It was finally time to get out. The outlaws pushed their hostages down the alley toward their horses and started to untie their mounts. The town seemed deserted, but then Shirley saw someone waiting in ambush behind a warehouse. Shirley shot him, panicking one hostage and prompting the others to bolt. One later said they simply got tired of holding their arms in the air.
The Kid was “shooting promiscuously,” by one account, and hit several hostages, but none stopped running. Meanwhile, citizens’ bullets poured in from all directions, repeatedly hitting Shirley and his men. Firing from behind a board fence, Harp and Hantgen nailed the Kid no fewer than seven times, ending his short life in the dirt, face to the sky. The Kid carried a small brand book in one pocket, and he reportedly took “two holes through that brand book and plumb through him.”
Shirley took a bullet to the lung, dropped his rifle, then pulled his revolver, spasmodically emptying the weapon as he lay on the ground, hitting only his own hat brim. Law also took a bullet to the lung and another to his left leg. He lasted about an hour. Curling up on the ground, he asked someone to remove his boots; like so many Western hard cases, he didn’t want to die with his boots on. His last words, according to the local paper, were, “Oh, mother.”
Dykeman was probably the worst hurt of the citizens. Both town doctors were away, so Dykeman sought basic medical treatment from the bartender at the Meeker Hotel—a full glass of whiskey. “Drink this,” the barkeep said, “and you will feel better.” “I did,” Dykeman wrote many years later, “and it put me to sleep.”
The annals of the West are replete with tales of ordinary townspeople who rose to the occasion. They may have been afraid, but that didn’t stop them from standing up for their fellows. In Northfield, Coffeyville, Braggs, Meeker, Nogales, Parral and dozens of other little towns, the citizenry fought back…and usually won.
Robert Barr Smith, who has been writing for Wild West since the premiere issue in June 1988, is a law professor at the University of Oklahoma and a retired U.S. Army colonel. For further reading, see his 2007 book Tough Towns: True Tales from the Gritty Streets of the Old West, his 1996 book Daltons!: The Raid on Coffeyville, Kansas, and John J. Koblas’ Faithful Unto Death: The James-Younger Raid on the First National Bank, September 7, 1876, Northfield, Minnesota.
Originally published in the October 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.