By David Dean
I begin with an apology: For reasons beyond my ken, I have been unable to upload photos for my last several postings--sorry; I just don't understand it. It used to be no problem at all.
Here's a pop quiz for you. What do Jesse James, Cole Younger, Louis Dalton, Bill Doolin, Bill Cook, Henry Star, Al Spencer, Frank Nash, and Pretty Boy Floyd all have in common?
If you answered, "They were all criminals," you get half credit. You're on the right track, but it's not the answer I'm looking for. The correct answer is cunningly concealed in the title of this post--there's a line that runs through the careers of these outlaws that begins during the Civil War with Quantrill's Raiders and extends right into 1933 with the Kansas City Union Station massacre. How do I know these things? Let's just say that having been a crack police officer that I've got my sources ...
Okay, I read a book--a very well-researched and fascinating history of American outlawry by Paul I. Wellman titled, "A Dynasty of Western Outlaws," and published by Bison Books. It's a great read for those interested in crime and its practitioners, and their effect upon our society. While telling some fascinating stories along the way, Mr. Wellman details the human chain that entends, link by link, from that era to the stunning massacre in 1933 of four law enforcement officers, and their prisoner, in a failed escape plot that signaled the beginning of the end of one of America's most notable crime waves.
As I've written in an earlier posting titled "Criminal Fashion," a lot of the tactics employed by modern criminals were originated during the Civil War by guerrilla fighters. These "irregular" cavalry were employed by both sides during the conflict and operated mostly in the western theatre of Missouri and Kansas. Their methods were harsh and bloody, employing ambush and sudden raids against both military and civilian targets (mostly civilian) and frequently involved the liberation of money, goods, and effects from the "enemy".
One of the most successful, and notorious, of these hard-riding units was William Quantrill's Confederate raiders. They are the ones that conducted the infamous raid on Lawrence, Kansas. They are also the ones that had Jesse and Frank James amongst their riders, as well as Cole Younger and his brothers. These fellows learned their trade well and when the war ended in their defeat, refused to come in from the cold and resume what passed for normal lives at that time.
The James-Younger Gang became their very own crime wave, originating the practice of both bank and train robbing that would become the standard for decades. During the lengthy career of this bloodthirsty band, which continued from 1865 until Jesse's assassination at the hands of turncoat, Bob Ford, in 1882, many members came and went; learning their violent trade from the James brothers. Several of these graduates went on to have their own less notable, if no less violent, careers. One such example being Bill McCarty, who taught his younger brothers the art of armed robbery, and went on to provide training and experience to novice Butch Cassidy of whom you may have heard.
But the next important link in the chain was more tenuous, being the aunt of the Younger brothers and a cousin to the Jameses, Adeline Younger. It was she that gave birth to the Dalton boys that grew up vowing "to beat Jesse James" whose legend they had been fed on since their nursery days. And they certainly took a good whack at it, engaging in numerous hold-ups and shoot-outs. Their careers culminated (and ended) in a final attempt to beat the James-Younger Gang at their own game, by attempting to rob two banks at once in Coffeyville, Kansas. This division of forces ended no more happily than it had for Custer at the Little Big Horn. An outlaw by the name of Bill Doolin would likely also have died in this fiasco had his horse not gone lame on the ride in. Young Mr. Doolin survived to found the next link in the criminal chain--The Doolin gang.
Taking his experience with the Daltons, Bill and his long riders went on to terrorize Oklahoma and the Indian Territory during the 1890s, quickly proving themselves the equal of, if not better, than their predecessors. Interestingly, one of the surviving Daltons, Bill (yes, there seem to be a lot of outlaws named Bill), was a member of this new outfit, but did not contest leadership with Doolin. Perhaps the fate of his brothers dissuaded him from a leading role.
The Doolin boys committed one bank heist in a manner that may strike you as startlingly modern--they kidnapped the teller from his home and had him open up the next morning, as was usual, then hand over the cash to the gang. After tying him up and gagging him, they rode out of town without having drawn the least suspicion. This was an exception to their more usual method of guns drawn, and often blazing, during the course of a robbery. And it was in this manner that nearly every member of the gang met their fate. All, save one--Little Dick West (I don't make up these names).
Little Dick was to provide the gravitas required for a band of extremely unlikely, and spectacularly unsuccessful, bandits--The Jennings Gang. The brains of this operation was one Al Jennings, attorney-at-law, a poor lawyer and a worse outlaw. What possessed this scion of a family of lawyers to abandon his practice and throw in with the likes of Little Dick will probably never be fully understood. What is known is that he was a rather weak-willed and histrionic character who relished notoriety. This he would attain...but not much else other than a prison term. The brief, almost comically inept reign of the Jennings gang lasted but two years, during which they accomplished little more than becoming impoverished and hunted fugitives. Even lucky Little Dick West grew so embarrassed by his association with this amateur troop, that shortly before their capture, he mounted up and rode away--lucky once again. But his luck ran out when two lawmen got the drop on him while he was grooming his horse. Game to the end, Little Dick went for his guns and was killed.
Though it may appear the through line of outlawry would have come to a close with the death of Little Dick, this would not be true. In order to pick up the thread that continues the chain of connections, it is necessary to return to Cole Younger for a moment. Cole of the roaming eye and reported good looks, and a young courtesan by the name of Belle Shirley, later and more famously known as Belle Starr--the last name of one her later amours. For it is through Belle and and Sam Starr that the Belle Starr Gang originates, undoubtedly having benefited from association with the seasoned Youngers and Jameses. And it is through this line that we arrive at a descendant, Henry Starr, who having practiced his trade of robbery and murder with the Cook Gang (contemporaries of the Doolin boys), forms his own little band of wealth redistributors. Amongst those stalwarts was a young fellow by the name of Al Spencer, the outlaw destined to bridge the gap between the revolver-wielding, horse-riding bandits of the previous era with the automobile driving, machine gun artists of the next.
In 1921, Henry Starr, known for his good looks, refined manners, and a sense of restraint when it came to violence, was nonetheless visited with it, having his handsome head blown off with a double-barrelled shotgun during a bank robbery gone wrong (or right, depending on which side of the counter you were standing at the time). And so young Mr. Spencer, having survived his association with Henry and graduated with honors, so to speak, took his trade into the new and exciting industrial age; there to meet one Frank Nash. Nash, well-respected planner of heists, and now number two in Spencer's gang, is the last, save one, of the more important figures of Wellman's narrative. It is Nash who provides the flashpoint for the next great crime wave after the lawlessness of the Reconstruction era.
Nash went on to head up his own gang after the death (yes, another one bites the dust) of his one-time boss, Spencer. In fact, after learning a few tricks of urban banditry from an old Fagin named John Callahan, he set up in Kansas City and became wildly successful as a 30's style gangster. Yet, in spite of the spiffy face work he had received from an underworld doctor, Frank was recognized by a lawman while vacationing at Hot Springs, Arkansas and arrested. The officer, along with two of the newly minted FBI agents, loaded him on board a train bound for Kansas City's federal court and a reckoning with justice. Enter Pretty Boy Floyd (any relation, John?).
Sadly, for Frank, Pretty Boy and his two associates, all three of whom knew Nash through the Moriarity-like, Callahan, were tapped to act as his rescuers. Their coming into the unfolding events surrounding Nash occurred less than twenty-four hours prior to his up-coming demise, and was hastily organized. Not known for extensive planning (totally unlike the man they were told to rescue), the three apparently did what they did best: they showed up with guns as the police were placing Frank into the back seat of a car and shouted, "Up! Up!"
The result was not a happy one: Pretty Boy and crew managed to kill both the person they were supposed to be breaking out, and four of the officers transporting him. Additionally, two other officers were wounded, and Pretty Boy took a round through the shoulder. The gang escaped and were never identified at the time to stand charges for their crimes. Pretty Boy Floyd, however, like almost every other human link in this chain that ran from the bloody days of Quantrill's raiders to the Kansas City massacre, met his end in a hail of bullets, brought down at last by the law they all hated.
In keeping with the old adage that, "It is an ill wind that blows no good," out of the carnage at Union Station a new era in law enforcement was born. The public's reaction to the cold-blooded brutality shown by Pretty Boy, and his fellow gangsters of the time (Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly, etc, etc...) was swift and mostly unanimous--they demanded action. The government rapidly enacted new laws granting the FBI actual arrest powers (they were largely advisory up to this point) and arming them. Bank robbery and kidnapping became federal crimes when state lines were crossed, freeing the officers to pursue their quarry anywhere they might flee. The murder of federal agents also became a federal crime. Once enacted these laws forecast the end of the roving bandits that had plagued America for over seventy years, and brought to a close a long, bloody era of lawlessness and violence that had begun in the "Bloody Kansas" of the Civil War.