• Blog
  • July 24th, 2017


By Joel M. Vance

In school, I l learned that my home, Missouri, became a state in 1820, along with many other facts of history that in no way have changed or illuminated my life. But what they didn’t teach me was that Missouri through the years, has produced or been host to a legion of legendary bad boys and girls.
Maybe it’s appropriate to take a look back through history, this being the hundredth anniversary of the end of the James and Younger brothers gang. Cole Younger last of the surviving brothers of that infamous clan cashed in his chips in 1916, after a long life of brigandry. Allegedly, he was perforated some 17 times during the during the gang’s ill-fated assault on Northfield, Minnesota.
Proving that Missouri’s production of bad people was not limited to guys, a trio of Missouri bred women broke the glass barrier in outlawry. Martha Jane Canary was not a songbird unless you count a soiled dove as a songbird. A native of Princeton in north central Missouri, she wound up as a hooker in Deadwood, South Dakota, enamored of Wild Bill Hickok, who got his start as a shootist by gunning down a guy on the Springfield square in Southwest Missouri. He also wound up planted in Deadwood after an equally unsavory character put a bullet in the back of his head, during a poker game. Wild Bill was holding pairs of aces and eights, forever after to be known as dead man’s hand.
One biographical note about Martha Jane known as Calamity Jane, described her as comely. But photographs pretty much portray her as being as ugly as 40 miles of bad road. She wore men’s clothing and it would have been hard to tell her from the rowdies she hung around with. She was a part-time whore and it doesn’t say much for the sensibilities of her clientele that she even had a clientele. She swore she was married to wild Bill, who in his wildest days probably never considered marrying a worn out whore, considering that he already was married.
Calamity was one of several Missouri bred bad ladies, and of the group probably the most innocuous. Far worse was Belle Starr, native of Carthage in southwest Missouri who was a gun totin’, rootin’ tootin’ authentic outlaw. There is a studio portrait of Ms. Starr, which presumably is the way she wanted to be remembered. She’s holding a pistol in one hand and another tucked into a shoulder holster . Not a woman to be trifled with. Although, according to rumor, she and Cole Younger did trifle to the point where she bore him a child, although Younger denied that.
She wasn’t without love, however. She married an uncle of Cole Younger’s for three weeks and finally married a Cherokee Indian, Sam Starr, who ultimately was killed in a gunfight. Belle did nine months for stealing horses and wound up the last several years of her life having affairs with various men, including the infamous Cherokee Indian, Blue Duck., who is most famous as the baddest of the bad men in Larry McMurtry’s Western saga, Lonesome Dove.
The old saying is that, “those who live by the gun, died by the gun.” It’s true in Belle Starr’s case, although no one knows who was on the other end of the gun that killed her. She was in Oklahoma at the time and would have been 41 years old two days after a person unknown nailed her with a shotgun. Typically she had been fooling around with a couple of guys and the story is that one of them took umbrage at her flirtation and shot her when she stopped to give her a horse a drink. (Of water, not booze).
Speaking of bad ladies who enjoyed being photographed wearing guns, there was Bonnie Parker, not a Missourian but a tourist, who celebrated her visits to Missouri by engaging in shootouts with the police, first in Joplin, later in Platte City. At the end in company with her boyfriend Clyde Barrow, she would be shot to doll rags on a Louisiana rural road. She and Clyde and their gang had a hide out in Joplin and after they escaped the Joplin hideout, following a violent gun battle where they killed a couple of cops, police found a roll of undeveloped film which included a photograph of Bonnie smoking a cigar and carrying a pistol. However, both were born in Texas and were only in Missouri to hide out from the law and practice shooting Missourians.
After the Joplin shoot out they migrated north to Platte City where they once again attracted the attention of police and engaged in another violent shootout. Buck Barrow, Clyde’s brother, received what proved to be a mortal head wound. It was the beginning of the end for the Parker/Barrow gang, and on May 3 23rd, 1934, a posse of lawmen shot Bonnie and Clyde at least 25 times each.
Compared to Bonnie Parker and Belle Starr, Calamity Jane was nothing more than a outlaw groupie, whose main desire was to be not only married to, but buried with Wild Bill Hickok, at least one of which ambitions she realized. Today, their graves are side-by-side in Deadwood, although it is questionable whether either one of them actually is buried there. Tourists love this seedy love story, however.
As disreputable as Jane, Belle, and Bonnie were perhaps the most fearsome of the Missouri connected ladies was Zerelda James, the mother of Jesse and Frank. She comes across as a grouchy old dragon with the disposition of a dyspeptic badger.
Actually James was the name of her first of three husbands, ironically an evangelical minister who, after the birth of their fourth child together (Frank was the first, the second died as an infant, Jesse was the third, and a daughter Susan was the final child) took off for California to preach to gold miners. He died there and his grave site is unknown.
Meanwhile, Zerelda married a second man who didn’t like Frank and Jesse, not hard to understand, given their subsequent homicidal history, and she left him when he was thrown by a horse and broke his neck.
The third marriage was to Dr. Reuben Samuel with whom she had four more children. After Jesse was murdered by “that dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard” Zerelda had him buried in her front yard near Kearney, Missouri, and made money by selling pebbles from the grave to tourists, along with rusty guns that she bought here and there and which she claimed had belonged to Jesse.
Now to the distaff side. It seems like every time parents in 19th century Missouri had more than one male child the brothers became outlaws. Think of the Jameses. The Youngers. The Daltons. The Fords.
Take them in order. We all know what happened to Jesse after a lifetime of psychopathic murder, starting with his involvement in the Civil War as a bushwhacker, belonging to the William Clarke Quantrill gang which seemed to specialize in killing residents of Kansas. Quantrill tutored both the James boys and the Youngers in the art of murder which they carried on into their postwar careers.
The barbarity of the Quantrill band and that of his subsequent understudy Bloody Bill Anderson is almost beyond belief. It was Quantrill who led the infamous raid on Lawrence, Kansas, where his outlaw band slaughtered an estimated 180 men and boys and left the town in ruins.
Later on, Quantrill’s acolyte, Bloody Bill Anderson and his merry band shot and killed 22 Union soldiers at Centralia, Missouri, leaving one man alive to tell the tale. The story is that Arch Clement, a complete psychopath, lined up several Union soldiers and fired a bullet into the first one to see how many he could kill with one shot. Little Arch as he was known, prone to scalp the Union soldiers he killed. Fortunately he only lived to be 20 years old before he was gunned down in Lexington, Missouri.
Regardless, slaughters was typical of the senseless brutality of the guerrillas and if anyone is upset today about the removal of Confederate monuments around the country, consider that Quantrill is buried at the Confederate Soldiers Memorial in Higginsville, Missouri, a state historic site.
Neither Quantrill or Anderson survived the Civil War. Both died by bullet, Quantrill by a bullet in the back at Louisville, Kentucky, and Anderson by a bullet behind the ear at Albany, Missouri. Both men were in their 20s when they bought the farm. Not so most of the James and Younger brothers, who survived the war and took their finely honed skills for mayhem into the wonderful world of crime.
There were 14 Younger children, a considerable pool from which to choose criminals. But it was John, one of the youngest, who was the first to die. Too young for the Civil War, he stayed home with Bob, to take care of their mother. After the war when his older brothers had formed the James and Younger gang, he eagerly joined up. In 1874, only 23 years old, he and brother Jim engaged in a shoot out with a deputy and a couple of Pinkerton private eyes and John lost.
That left Cole, Bob, and Jim to ride north with Frank and Jesse James to seek fame and fortune in Northfield, Minnesota, a lovely town which, today, is far more hospitable to tourists than it was September 7, 1876, when the gang tried to rob the local bank. They managed to kill the bank teller and an innocent bystander before the townspeople rallied and started shooting back. All three Youngers were wounded and later captured, but the James boys managed to escape and make it back to Missouri.
Bob died of tuberculosis in prison, Jim survived to 1901 when he was paroled and committed suicide a year later. Cole soldiered on. With his three other brothers shot up and shut up and shot dead only Cole was left. While the Younger brothers were decimated the family connections continued. Their aunt was the mother of what became the infamous Dalton Brothers gang.
The Dalton brothers hailed from Jackson County, Missouri, and had an outlaw career that was short-lived, as were they. Ambitious types, they decided to rob two banks simultaneously in Coffeyville, Kansas, not far from the Missouri border. The oldest brother Frank actually was a deputy US marshal, a law man. Younger brothers, Grat, Bob, and Emmett started out as law officers, but decided that crime paid better, a fatal mistake as it turned out.
They robbed several trains in Indian territory and then, inspired by the exploits of the James gang, decided to relieve Coffeyville of its bank assets. They wore fake beards, like something out of a silent movie comedy, but still were recognized by somebody in town and by the time they hit the two banks the townspeople, like those in Northfield , were armed and angry. Grat and Bob Dalton and another gang member all wound up dead and Emmett somehow survived 23 bullet wounds. After being pardoned he wound up in California as a real estate agent and movie actor.
Proving that experience is not necessarily the best teacher, another brother, Bill Dalton continued on a life of crime and wound up being killed by a posse near Ardmore, Oklahoma in 1894 two years after his brothers bit the dust.
The last of the so-called outlaw moms was Arizona Barker, mother of Herman, Lloyd, Arthur, and Fred. Known as Ma Barker, she has gone down in history as the matriarch and brains of an outlaw band, but apparently she was more of a confused and incompetent old lady whose major misstep was that she gave aid and comfort to her nefarious kids. The boys started as early as 1910 when Herman not only committed highway robbery, but ran over a kid while trying to make a getaway.
Herman committed suicide in 1927 the only one of the Barker boys who offered a public service. It’s astonishing and certainly no tribute to law enforcement that the other brothers repeatedly were arrested for violent crimes and subsequently released from prison to rob and kill again. Fred and Ma were gunned down by the FBI Florida in 1935. Arthur made it to 1939 when he was killed trying to escape from Alcatraz prison. Lloyd served in World War II and actually got a good conduct medal, but didn’t do so well on the home front— his wife killed him.
Thus ended the era of the family hangs. But Missouri was not done with bad guys and girls.
There was Vivienne Chase, who was associated with several robbers and also involved in a famous kidnapping and who was found dead in a car in 1935, of course in Kansas City, one of Missouri’s murder capitals. Then there was Stella Dixon wife of Benny who helped him rob a bank in South Dakota. Benny was killed by the FBI in St. Louis and Stella made out better than most of the molls of the era— she only got 10 years in the pen.
Esther Farmer was married to Herbert Allen “Deafy” Farmer. Both were involved in an infamous plot to free Frank “Jelly” Nash in January, 1935. The result was a wild shootout at Kansas City’s Union Station allegedly involving one of the greats of the era’s gangsters, Pretty Boy Floyd. Floyd was in Missouri at the time but there is much doubt as to whether he actually was involved in the shoot out which resulted in the murder of four law enforcement officers and Jelly himself.
Innocent or not, Floyd was living on borrowed time as were all of these gangster guys and gals. After a long life of crime involving murder and bank robbery and prison time, Pretty Boy was tracked to Wellsville, Ohio, where local police and the FBI gunned him down. Although there have been many criminals and crimes since the wild 1930s, none has approached the wild West atmosphere of Missouri for that three quarters-plus of a century between about 1860 and 1940.
Popular literature, movies and television have attempted to glamorize many of these historic outlaws, but the fact is they all were sociopathic criminals, not worthy of praise or remembrance. None were modern Robin Hoods— they were just hoods and almost to a man or woman they got exactly what they deserved which was a fatal bullet.

Read More

Leave a Reply


By Joel M. Vance Think of yourself as a herring. Visualize a crowded city street, thronging with people. Or rush hour on the access ramps. Wall to wall people, all crowded together. Now think of giant alien whales from outer space circling the city, gradually herding you and your fellow human herrings into a tighter, […]

Read More
View the Blog »


By Joel M. Vance I knew a man who loved blackberry cobbler above all else. He cleared out a huge ...


By Joel M. Vance I was rummaging around in my computer the other ...