When people think of the Wild West, they often recollect stories of stagecoach-robbing bandits and violent outlaws dueling it out in the streets over botched card game scams, pilfered flapjacks and the like. The reality, unfortunately, is a lot tamer than you’d expect. There weren’t many crazy shootouts or gun duels and, while there were rogue bandits of outlaws and train robbers roaming the West, they really weren’t as prevalent as Red Dead Redemption makes them out to be. Nevertheless, that’s not to say the West didn’t have its share of rootin’ tootin’ motherfuckers. Here are the six baddest real-life outlaws from America’s Wild West. Photo: Getty Images/DLILLC/Corbis/VCG
1. James “Killer” Miller: Not the kind of cowboy America fantasizes about, James Miller was a notorious murderer-for-hire who was reputed to have killed upwards of 50 people throughout his illustrious career in the game. He was so good at it, in fact, that he was given the nickname Killer. Seriously, the dude’s nickname was Killer. After Killer was famously caught and placed in an Oklahoma jail, a lynch mob stormed the jail, took him and then strung him up in a barn somewhere. Best of all, do you know what the bastard’s last words were? “Let ’er rip!” God damn, ya gotta respect that!
2. Wyatt Earp: One of the most notorious outlaws of the Old West wasn’t actually an outlaw at all. In fact, he was a fucking cop. Wyatt Earp was one of the most feared gunslingers of all time and was feared and respected by even grimiest and most dangerous criminals of the time period. It’s almost unfair to call him a law enforcement officer, because he himself was at times a gambler and keeper of a brothel. In fact, he was arrested numerous times in his life for stealing horses and for various other petty offenses. Nevertheless, he was a central figure in real-life historical events like the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (One of the few true shootouts in the Old West), as well as the infamous Earp Vendetta Ride, in which he is reputed to have killed at least 30 men in connection to the murder of his brother Morgan.
3. Henry “Billy the Kid” McCarty: The history books portray Billy the Kid as a terrible and notorious murderer, but he was actually considered by the people who knew him best to be someone who was loyal, brave and even funny. Nevertheless, Billy the Kid is famous for allegedly having killed 21 people—one person for every year of his life—and that he killed his first man when he was just 18 years old over a dispute in an Arizona saloon. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Billy the Kid didn’t get his rocks off on robbing trains or banks. He was a gunfighter through and through and, at one point, he was even the most wanted man in the West.
4. Jesse James: When people think about the notorious outlaws of the Old West, Jesse James is usually first on the list, which is funny because he wasn’t a hardened murderer and he didn’t lay waste to every man who opposed him. In fact, when a little girl was accidentally shot while he and his gang robbed the Kansas City Exposition in 1872, James wrote an anonymous letter to the papers apologizing for shooting the girl, and saying that if the parents would give him their address, he’d send them money to cover her doctor’s bill. What solidified James’ position in history books as one of America’s toughest outlaws was that he and the rest of the James-Younger Gang were so good at being bad. They robbed everything from trains and stage coaches to brick and mortar banks, and they were doing it so often that, at one point, someone finally hired the infamous Pinkerton National Detective Agency to stop them. And even then, the gang eluded them for so long (and killed so many of their agents), that Allan Pinkerton, the agency’s founder, took the case on personally. Additionally, the public appreciated the James-Younger Gang because they never robbed regular people—only corporate/company-owned safes.
5. Sam Bass: You may not know him by name, but to this day, Sam Bass and his gang are famous for having committed the largest (and most lucrative) successful train robbery of all time, after they robbed the Union Pacific gold train on its way to San Francisco. The best part about his story is that he actually started as a very honest person who dreamt of little more than moving to Texas and being the best cowboy he could be. Unfortunately, when he actually got out there and actually started doing it, he discovered he totally fucking hated it. So, instead, he started robbing banks and stagecoaches. He basically just said, “fuck it,” flipped the switch and started doing outlaw shit. Bass died on his 27th birthday after being wounded by a couple rangers while trying to rob a small bank in Round Rock, Texas.
6. John Wesley Hardin: The epitome of short-fuse-having, shoot-first-ask-questions-later old school outlaw dogma, John Wesley Hardin was just 14 when he first stabbed a kid for taunting him. When he shot someone in self-defense and was told the law was coming after him, rather than flee, he stayed and killed all three of the policemen that came after him. He once shot someone to death for snoring too loud in a hotel. Throughout his career, Hardin personally claimed to have killed 42 men but, officially, he’s “only” been linked to 27 dead bodies, give or take. He was involved in a multitude of famed gunfights throughout his life, over half of which he was outnumbered in. Hardin died an outlaw’s death after being shot in the back of the head while playing dice in an El Paso saloon—allegedly for smacking the shit out of somebody with his pistol earlier in the day.
7. Charles Earl Boles: Viewed in history as one of the most gentlemanly outlaws to ever hit the Old West, Charles Earl Boles only started robbing stagecoaches after a run-in with Wells Fargo agents back in 1871. The event left him so soured that it was right then and there he decided to spend the rest of his days exacting his revenge. He changed his name to Black Bart, and so began his career as one of the Old West’s most notorious stagecoach thieves. He never killed anyone (he actually never once fired his double barreled shotgun), and he only robbed Wells Fargo stagecoaches. Perhaps his weirdest quirk: He later became known as Black Bart the Poet because he’d sometimes leave handwritten poems after completing a robbery. Far as outlaws go, he was about as honest as they come.