By Kathleen Rice Adams
Life on the open range could be a discomforting experience, what with outlaws popping out of the woodwork without the slightest provocation, nesters “accidentally” mistaking some cattleman’s range for homesteading turf, steers stampeding wherever they pleased, and wild animals running amok in settlers’ vegetable gardens—not to mention all those Indians to keep track of.
Things weren’t much easier for townies. For one thing, outlaws didn’t confine themselves to the countryside. Drunks stumbled out of saloons with reckless abandon, ladies of questionable virtue roamed the streets at will, and barbers pulled teeth or performed surgery like they knew what they were doing. Even church socials sometimes got out of hand.
At least folks in town could count on the law to keep things somewhat under control, right?
Finding a reliable lawman was anything but easy. El Paso, Texas, discovered that when it hired Dallas Stoudenmire as city marshal. Stoudenmire, a deadly gunman with a mean temper and a fondness for strong drink, insisted on starting fights and shooting people—some of them criminals. As a young man, famed lawman Wyatt Earp stole horses. Between gigs as a county sheriff, town marshal, and city policeman, Earp gambled, owned brothels, got arrested for a number of crimes, broke out of jail, led a vigilante group, and otherwise made a nuisance of himself. Pat Garrett may have been a straight arrow legally speaking, but he was unpleasant to be around. Even his fellow officers objected to his disposition: a refreshing mixture of arrogance and surliness.
Some men found a badge to be an excellent disguise for nefarious activities. Take these guys, for example:
In January 1862, Plummer formed his own gang and began hijacking wagons transporting gold out of mining camps. When that enterprise petered out in January 1863, Plummer relocated to the newest gold rush in Bannack, Montana. There, he formed the Innocents, a network of road agents that numbered more than 100 men within a few short months.
In May 1863, Plummer lost a sheriff election and subsequently threatened his rival until the man high-tailed it, fearing for his life. Plummer took over the sheriff’s job and right away appointed two of his Innocents cronies as deputies. Oddly, crime dramatically increased. In about nine months, more than 100 murders occurred and robberies, assaults, and assorted other crimes reached unprecedented levels. All the while, Plummer—under the guise of cracking down on lawlessness—hanged witnesses.
On January 10, 1864, having had enough law enforcement for a while, fifty to seventy-five vigilantes rounded up Plummer and his two deputies and hanged them in the basement of a local store.
Burt Alvord and Billy Stiles
Yuma Territorial Prison, 1904
About five months later, on February 15, 1900, the gang struck again, in broad daylight in the tiny town of Fairbank, Arizona. While the train was stopped at the station, the Alvord-Stiles gang approached the express car, guns drawn, only to find the messenger responsible for the safe unwilling to abide such rude behavior. During the gunfight that erupted, two of the five gang members were wounded and one ran away. The messenger, also wounded, hid the safe’s key before losing consciousness. Unable to find the key and without a single stick of dynamite between them, the rest of the gang scrammed.
|Fairbank, Ariz., railroad|
depot, circa 1900
The Arizona Rangers invaded Mexico and, in 1904, engaged the two now-expatriates in a gun battle. They captured Alvord, but Stiles got away. After a brief stint in the Rangers under an assumed name, Stiles was killed a few years later while working as a lawman in Nevada, also under an assumed name. Alvord did two years in Yuma Territorial Prison and beat it for Panama upon his release.
|Steam train, 1898|
The Apple Dumpling Gang might have performed the train heist with more aplomb. While crawling across the top of the coal tender to reach the engine, the gang’s leader slipped and accidentally discharged his pistol. His minions mistook the misfire as their signal to hop on the train and commence whatever mischief their roles required. Chaos ensued.
Meanwhile, Grunnels and a cadre of Fort Worth police officers not in on the plan raced to the rescue of a train that had yet to be robbed. The discombobulated robbers vamoosed. The Fort Worth Police Department became suspicious when it discovered Grunnels reached the scene of the crime before the crime had been reported. Grunnels was fired and indicted, but he disappeared before trial.