Monday, May 12, 2014

Outlaw Lawmen

By Kathleen Rice Adams

Life on the open range could be a discomforting experience, what with outlaws popping out of the woodwork with the slightest provocation, nesters “accidentally” mistaking some cattleman’s range for the quarter section they’d purchased, 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?

Not always.

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:

Henry Plummer

Henry Plummer
In 1856, at the age of 24, Plummer became the marshal of Nevada City, Calif., the third-largest settlement in the state. In 1859, the marshal killed the husband of a woman with whom he was having an affair. Sentenced to ten years in San Quentin, he received parole in six months and immediately joined a gang of stagecoach robbers.

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

Burt Alvord, Yuma Territorial Prison, 1904
In the 1890s, Alvord and Stiles served as deputy sheriffs in Willcox, Arizona. Unsatisfied with their salaries, the two began robbing Southern Pacific Railroad trains to supplement their income. Emboldened by pulling a number of successful jobs, they undertook their most daring escapade on September 9, 1899, in what came to be known as the Cochise Train Robbery. Instead of cleaving to tradition and stopping the train on a lonely stretch of track in the middle of nowhere, Alvord and Stiles had five members of their gang blow up the safe while the train was stopped in the town of Cochise. Alvord and Stiles, maintaining their law-enforcement decorum, were part of the posse that unsuccessfully attempted to apprehend the robbers in the Chiricahua Mountains.

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
Once again, Alvord and Stiles rode with a posse to track down the outlaws, one of whom was injured so badly he had to be left behind about six miles outside town. Despite Alvord’s and Stiles’s attempts to misdirect the pursuers, they stumbled across the wounded man, who fingered Alvord as the ringleader before he died. Stiles confessed and turned state’s evidence, allowing him to remain comfortably outside the bars while Alvord cooled his heels inside. A short while later, Stiles broke Alvord out of the pokey and the two of them lit out for Mexico.

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.

H.D. Grunnels

Steam train, 1898
In 1898, Fort Worth, Texas, Assistant Police Chief Grunnels talked a gang of Oklahoma bank robbers out of robbing a local diamond merchant and into robbing a train in Saginaw, Texas, instead. Grunnels masterminded the operation, planning to apprehend the bandits after they made off with the money, then collect the reward and keep the loot.

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.

The hero in my new short story could give lessons in how to fail at outlawry to any of the compromised lawdogs above. It’s due out any day now in the Prairie Rose Publications anthology Lassoing a Groom.

“The Worst Outlaw in the West”

Laredo Hawkins has one ambition: to redeem his family’s honor by pulling the first successful bank robbery in the Hawkins clan’s long, disappointing history. Spinster Prudence Barrett is desperate to save her family’s bank from her brother’s reckless investments. A chance encounter between the dime-novel bandit and the old maid may set the pair on a path to infamy…if either can find a map.


  1. On Plummer, I was in Bannack a few years back (before the flood closed it) and the take on whether he was an outlaw or hung by the outlaws is still argued. One thing that wasn't is that the road agents continued operating after his hanging. I've also written about him before as in the difficulty of defining hero in reality versus how we can in our fiction. Real life is rarely so tidy-- not with any of them ;)

  2. Yeah, Rain, there does some to be some controversy about whether Plummer was done in by vigilantes or Innocents. I understand that after his death, "someone" rounded up a bunch of other accused Innocents and hanged them, as well. I also understand that both sides of that feud ran a bit hog wild afterward, terrorizing the countryside for quite a while.

    Real life is anything but tidy for all of us! :-D

    HUGS, sweetie!

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  4. The interesting thing for me was what they wrote on houses or in warnings to tell those they saw as outlaws to leave or else was 3-7-77. It's on the Montana Highway Patrol's emblems today. what it means. :) what it means

  5. Wow, Rain -- thanks for that link! I've read about the 3-7-77 sigil, but I've never seen all those potential explanations. The Masonic theory gets bandied about quite a bit among conspiracy theorists -- because, of course, the Masons are a clandestine society at the root of all evil in this country. ;-)

    I do think it's cool that the Montana Highway Patrol adopted 3-7-77 and gave it new significance. Those kinds of traditions are always fascinating, aren't they?

    Thanks, sweetie! :-)

  6. Tex,

    The Alvord and Stiles story cracked me up! It's like an Apple Dumplin' Gang scenario, especially the fact they rode on the posses chasing their gang. LOL!

    I can always rely on your posts for some great information.


  7. Thanks, Rustler! I figgered you'd enjoy these capers. Alvord and Stiles were nervy, I'll give 'em that. According to reports, the county sheriff at first didn't believe the dead gang member's accusation, because Alvord had been the noisiest and most gung-ho member of the posses! It took Stiles's confession to convince the sheriff. What a mess! :-D

  8. Kathleen,

    A lot of research there! Good stuff!

    It appears these fella's didn't have very strict Mom's!

    Charlie Steel

  9. Charlie, I'd say that's probably true! Think a few good spankings might have set these fellas on the straight-and-narrow? ;-)

    Thanks for dropping by, sweetheart. Your compliment on the research just warmed me all over, considering you are one of the most diligent researchers I know. :-)

  10. Well, better late than never, Tex! You kept this post a secret, didn't you? I never saw it advertised, but I hunted you out, you varmint! What a lot of wonderful research you put in to this blog post! I loved the pictures, too. Very interesting, and I especially loved the 3-7-77 tidbits. Never heard of that before.

  11. Actually, I DID promote this post all over the place: FB, Twitter, Pinterest, G+ etc. The tweets got good play, but the FB posts disappeared so fast, even I didn't see them. :-D

    I'm really glad Rain stopped by and gave us a link to that 3-7-77 explanation. Can you believe all the people who knew how the sigil came to be took the secret to their graves? Just try keeping something secret these days!

  12. Even so, Kathleen, you had 108 pageviews and mine before you got only 89. I didn't see it on FB, but I've stopped trying to figure out FB.
    It was a good post. I found it interesitng that mine before you was about Rachel Plummer Parker...Plummer..I'd never heard the name, and here we had back-to-back posts with the name.

  13. Kathleen, your posts are always fun and interesting. I'm looking forward to the release of your next story.

  14. Celia, "Plummer" is an uncommon spelling, isn't it? I've given up trying to figure out FB, too. I think it lives to toy with all of us. :-D Your post about Rachel Plummer Parker was another interesting one, but you always find the neatest things to post about. :-)

  15. Caroline, thank you for the kind words. You're always such a sweetheart (no pun intended); you leave sunshine everywhere you go. :-)

    I'm looking forward to the release of LASSOING A GROOM, too. Jacquie Rogers and Kirsten Arnold both contributed stories overflowing with sly humor. Tracy Garrett, Kristy McCaffrey, and Linda Hubalek's stories are more dramatic. I think this is the best PRP anthology yet, and I'm eager to hear what others think. May 20th is sneaking right up on us! :-D


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