People have been debating the legitimacy of many of the tales of the wild west for the past 100 years, whether the blood-thirsty outlaws of legend were real or just the product of dime novels and drunken lip smacking. The many legends of the west, and there are more than you can count, have all been tested, some debunked and some validated, what is known for sure is that this was a time of lawlessness, debauchery, gang banging and indiscriminate violence. Another reality of the wild west is that every one of its central figures ended their stories in a hail or bullets or with a rope taut around their neck.
1876 - 1896
Crawford Goldsby, better known as Cherokee Bill, was truly one of the final death twitches of the lawless west. His twenty year existence was comparable to that of Billy the Kid's, almost ten years of notoriety under his belt before finding himself on the knotted end of a rope. He had even been described as a "bloodthirsty mad dog who killed for the love of killing."
Though there are many similarities between the two, legend has it that Goldsby had killed his first man five years before the Kid, at the age of 12. Not only that, but Goldsby was justice fucked a year earlier than the Kid. His final words before getting the rope? "I came here to die, not make a speech."
Perhaps one of the most (in)famous outlaws of all time, Jesse James was the true innovator of organized crime in the wild west. Alongside his brother Frank, he formed The James-Younger Gang, and putting their confederate army training to use, they robbed just about anything they could carry. Despite being hailed as a Robin Hood figure, there doesn't seem to be any evidence to show that The James Gang shared their riches with anyone. Obviously the dime novels of the time took serious liberties and made a hero out of one of America's most notorious gangsters.
The law never managed to catch up with Jesse, ironically enough, it was his own associate, Robert Ford, that assassinated him in their hideout in order to collect the substantial bounty that had been placed on his head.
Wild Bill Hickok
1837 - 1876
Nope, Frank Zappa wasn't a lawman and as far as I know he had nothing to do with the gold rush in Deadwood, South Dakota. However, Wild Bill Hickok sure was and he sure did. While the legitimacy of many of Wild Bill's exploits are up for debate, and his body count greatly exaggerated, he has nonetheless become a huge part of American folklore, and like many heroes of the wild west, his candle was blown out before it could expire.
Wild Bill was your quintessential gunslinger, a talented marksman, a chronic gambler and a fish for whisky. Legend has it that Bill thrust nine inches of steel death into a cinnamon bear that had attacked him in his sleep. Impressive as it is to have walked away with your life in that grizzly scenario, Wild Bill eventually met his maker in a much less likely setting, the poker table. A notorious alcoholic and gambler, Jack McCall, or "Crooked Nose Jack", emptied his pistol into the back of Bill's head during a game. Hickok died with a handful of aces and eights, now known as "the dead man's hand".
???? - 1799
Back in January, I wrote a little bit about the murderous Harpe brothers (You can read it here), and to say that Micajah "Big" Harpe was a cold-blooded son of a bitch would be a huge understatement. The man was the prototype for the American serial killer and his murderous legacy is embedded deeply into the nation's folklore. To say as little as possible; Big Harpe enjoyed killing people, and he indulged himself every chance he could get. It has proven impossible to scrub away the stains that he and his cousin left on the soil of the American Midwest.
Big Harpe's death was as dramatic and brutal as his two year campaign of terror. A posse that had been tracking him and his family for days finally caught up with them and an all out horseback chase ensued. Harpe took a number of bullets during the chase and was eventually incapacitated. The late 1700s was a very disorganized time for law and order, the federal marshals hadn't long been founded and so dispensing justice was largely the responsibility of the public. In the case of Big Harpe, payback came in the form of decapitation. His head was left in a tree nearby a crossroads, which is to this day known as "Harpe's Head."