Law and Lawlessness in The Wild West

The enmity between bandits and lawmen is, of course, the stuff of legends…but it’s also the stuff of history, as captured in John Guntzelman’s foray into The Wild West in Color, which infuses color and new life into black-and-white images of America’s westward expansion.

Infamous outlaws of the Wild West included individuals such as Jesse James, Black Bart, and Billy the Kid, as well as notorious outlaw gangs like the Dalton Gang or the Wild Bunch. Some of these outlaws were products of Civil War violence, such as Jesse James who had ridden with Quantrill’s Raiders, a group of Confederate “bushwhackers,” or guerilla fighters who went up against Union soldiers and loyalists. Others were merely opportunistic misfits and drifters who roamed the Wild West avoiding the law.

In an attempt to hide from the law, outlaws often used the advantages of the open range, remote countryside, and badlands for hideouts. Some frontier settlements and towns actually became known as “outlaw towns” because they chose to shelter law breakers. Other towns would form posses to drive gangs away or try capturing them.

While outlaws found countless opportunities to rob pioneer families and homesteaders of their possessions, the few underfunded lawmen had great difficulty arresting, holding, and convicting bandits. Realizing that combatting bandits was a growing business opportunity, Allan Pinkerton ordered his National Detective Agency, which he founded in Chicago in 1850, to open branches out West. The Pinkerton Agency thereby got into the business of pursuing and capturing Wild West outlaws.

Billy the Kid

68_Billy_the_Kid_The_Wild_West_in_Color
Photo: The Wild West in Color / Circa 1879. Photographer unknown

WILLIAM HENRY MCCARTY was born on September 17, 1859, but he was far better known as Billy the Kid or William H. Bonney, Jr. He was a legendary gunman who supposedly killed twenty-one men, but that number is now believed to be much inflated. He did, however, kill Sheriff William J. Brady in New Mexico in 1878. He was arrested for it by Sheriff Pat Garrett and his men in 1880 and sentenced to death, but he managed to kill two guards and make his escape. New Mexico’s governor Lew Wallace (also known for authoring the bestselling novel Ben Hur) put a bounty on his head, and newspapers started reporting on his exploits as an outlaw, turning him into a crossover between villain and folk hero. He was eventually tracked down and killed by Sheriff Garrett in 1881.

This tintype was responsible for the long-held belief that Billy was left-handed. The tintype process, however, produces a mirror-image and detailed examination has proven that he was indeed right-handed. This is the only image of the Kid that scholars can agree is an authentic photo of the outlaw.

Jesse James

Photo: The Wild West in Color / May 22, 1882. Photographer unknown
Photo: The Wild West in Color / May 22, 1882. Photographer unknown

JESSE WOODSON JAMES, infamous outlaw, robber, gunfighter, and leader of the James–Younger Gang, was born on September 5, 1847, in the state of Missouri. When the Civil War broke out, his brother Frank joined a group of Confederate guerrillas, known as bushwhackers, and Jesse soon followed his lead, joining a different band that supposedly brutalized Union soldiers. After the war, the brothers formed various gangs that robbed banks, stagecoaches, and trains. Jesse was eventually shot in the back and killed by Robert Ford, a member of his own gang who hoped to collect the sizeable bounty that Missouri governor Thomas Crittenden had placed on Jesse’s head. This betrayal led to Jesse becoming something of a folk legend.

The Younger Brothers Gang

This 1889 picture shows, from left going clockwise, Robert, Henrietta, Cole, and James Younger. Photo: The Wild West in Color / September 1889. J. M. Kuhn, photographer
This 1889 picture shows, from left going clockwise, Robert, Henrietta, Cole, and James Younger. Photo: The Wild West in Color / September 1889. J. M. Kuhn, photographer

THE YOUNGER BROTHERS were probably the most notorious outlaw gang in the Wild West. The gang was composed of men who had known one another as bushwhackers during the Civil War. When the war ended, these men seemed unable to fit into society any longer, so they took to robbing banks to support themselves. They were not very organized at first, but the gang started to grow and learn from their individual mistakes. At the height of their activities, their ranks included the notorious Jesse and Frank James, as Cole and Frank had met during their bushwhacking days. The Younger Brothers marauded throughout the South and Midwest, robbing an estimated dozen banks, seven trains, and four stagecoaches, leaving behind at least eleven dead.

The Dodge City Peace Commission

“The Dodge City Peace Commission.” Back row, left to right: Will Harris, Luke Short, Bat Masterson, William Petillon. Front row: Charlie Bassett, Wyatt Earp, Frank McLain, and Neal Brown. Photo: The Wild West in Color / June 1883. Charles A. Conkling, photographer
“The Dodge City Peace Commission.” Back row, left to right: Will Harris, Luke Short, Bat Masterson, William Petillon. Front row: Charlie Bassett, Wyatt Earp, Frank McLain, and Neal Brown. Photo: The Wild West in Color / June 1883. Charles A. Conkling, photographer

In April, during the cattle season of 1883, Lawrence E. Deger, the newly elected mayor of Dodge City, Kansas, passed sweeping ordinances to suppress prostitutes as well as punish the wild town’s undesirable gamblers, both of which promised ruin for the cow town’s seasonal boom. Specifically, the ordinances aimed to close down Luke Short’s Long Branch Saloon, which rivaled saloons owned by Deger’s backers. Short was forced out of town but gathered lawmen of his own, many of whom are pictured here, to go back to Dodge City and reopen his business by force of gunfire if necessary. Despite the great threat of violence, what the papers called the “Dodge City War” ended without any bloodshed as both sides made compromises. Short reopened the Long Branch Saloon, and gambling and prostitution moved out of the light and into back rooms throughout the city. Short and seven of his men posed for what has become one of the most iconic Wild West historic photos, which was immediately dubbed the “Dodge City Peace Commission.”

Wyatt Earp

Photo: The Wild West in Color / Circa 1870. Photographer unknown
Photo: The Wild West in Color / Circa 1870. Photographer unknown

WYATT BERRY STAPP EARP was born in Monmouth, Illinois, on March 19, 1848, and is probably the best known Wild West lawman. Like many men of his time, he held a number of jobs working on the railroads, in law enforcement, as a buffalo hunter, and also as a saloonkeeper, gambler, miner, and bouncer. Wyatt Earp began his work as a lawman when he replaced his father as constable of Lamar, Missouri. After his wife died, he moved around, eventually landing in Wichita, Kansas, where his brother had a brothel. There he worked as a police officer, found it to his liking, and then made his way up to city marshal of Dodge City, Kansas (a few years before the Dodge City War). But Earp didn’t stay in one place long, and the end of 1879 found him with his brothers in the silver boomtown of Tombstone, Arizona, where he was joined by his good friend Doc Holliday. There, the Earps clashed with a loose federation of outlaws known as The Cowboys.

The conflict escalated over the next year and culminated on October 26, 1881, when the Earps and Holliday got into the most famous gunfight in the history of the American West, the shootout at the O.K. Corral, against a group of the outlaw cowboys lead by Ike Clanton. All of Clanton’s men were killed, including his brother Billy, and all of Wyatt’s men were injured with the exception of Wyatt himself. The shootout left Clanton bloodthirsty, and he and his men went after Wyatt’s brothers, killing Morgan and seriously injuring Virgil. In retaliation, Wyatt went on his famous “vendetta ride” with Doc Holliday and a posse in search of the Cowboys who murdered his brother.

Doc Holliday

Photo: The Wild West in Color / Date and photographer unknown
Photo: The Wild West in Color / Date and photographer unknown

JOHN HENRY “DOC” HOLLIDAY was a gambler, gunfighter, dentist, and a good friend of Wyatt Earp. In 1872, at age twenty, Holliday earned a degree in dentistry from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery, but he wasn’t practicing for long before he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He moved west to Dallas, Texas, hoping the drier climate would help him, but soon found that he was a better gambler than dentist. His reputation at cards and fighting grew as he wandered the Wild West.

In 1877, while dealing cards at a saloon in Fort Griffin, Texas, he met Mary Katherine Harony, a dance-hall girl and prostitute, known as Big Nose Kate for her prying reputation. Holliday found her “tough, stubborn, and fearless” and she became the only woman Doc supposedly ever had a relationship with. The next year, Holliday saved Wyatt Earp’s life from some outlaw cowboys that Earp was arresting. Doc and Wyatt became good friends and were together for the legendary shootout at the O.K. Corral.

The Pinkertons

Photo: The Wild West in Color / Circa 1880. Photographer unknown
Photo: The Wild West in Color / Circa 1880. Photographer unknown

THE PINKERTON AGENCY was started in Chicago in 1850 by Scottish immigrant Allan Pinkerton and quickly expanded to a nationwide, independent police force. They battled spies in the Civil War and outlaws in the Wild West. Pinkerton and his agents became legendary for their relentless pursuit of infamous criminals such as Jesse James and the Younger Gang, the Dalton Brothers, and Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch. Shown here are director William A. Pinkerton (son of Allan) with railroad special agents Pat Connell and Sam Finley.

Butch Cassidy

Photo: The Wild West in Color / 1900, John Swartz, photographer
Photo: The Wild West in Color / 1900, John Swartz, photographer

Born April 13, 1866, Robert Leroy Parker, known as Butch Cassidy, was a notorious gang leader of the Wild Bunch, known for robbing banks and trains across the Wild West. After leaving his large Mormon home in Utah, he worked ranches and soon took his nickname from a horse thief he admired. Despite his extensive criminal career, Cassidy was known for keeping his word, and it’s believed he may have never actually killed anyone. At the turn of the century, he was heavily pursued for his robberies, and he and the Sundance Kid, along with the Kid’s girlfriend, Etta Place, fled to South America. Some accounts say they went from country to country, robbing banks and trains and were then trapped by the Pinkerton Agency in Bolivia, where the Sundance Kid was mortally wounded and Cassidy took his own life, while others say they were shot during a robbery in Uruguay, and still others hold that Cassidy made it back to the United States, where he drifted until dying in obscurity in 1937.

Sundance Kid

Photo: The Wild West in Color / Circa 1900. Photographer unknown
Photo: The Wild West in Color / Circa 1900. Photographer unknown

A New York studio portrait of Harry Longabaugh, known to the world as the Sundance Kid, and his longtime girlfriend, Etta Place, in one of only two known images of her. The Sundance Kid got his nickname for the Wyoming town where he was jailed at the age of seventeen for horse thievery. From there he went to the infamous Hole-in-the-Wall hideout where he teamed up with Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch. In the 1880s and 1890s, this enormous, loosely affiliated gang of cowboy outlaws was responsible for the most train and bank robberies in American history. They were pursued so doggedly by law enforcement and the Pinkerton Agency that, in 1901, Sundance, Place, and Cassidy fled to South America.

Black Bart

Photo: The Wild West in Color / 1888 or earlier. Photographer unknown
Photo: The Wild West in Color / 1888 or earlier. Photographer unknown

CHARLES EARL BOLES, also known as Black Bart, was a stagecoach robber who became famous for the poetic messages he left with the coach drivers of two robberies. It is thought he was once a gold miner who was driven from his claim by some Wells Fargo men. He then turned outlaw, robbing an estimated twenty-eight stagecoaches between California and Oregon. Ironically, Boles was afraid of horses, making all of his robberies on foot. Boles was invariably polite, dressed in a long duster coat and bowler hat, using a flour sack with holes cut for his eyes as a mask. He brandished a shotgun, but throughout his years as an outlaw, he never once used it. On August 3, 1877, he left this, his most famous verse:

I’ve labored long and hard for bread,

For honor, and for riches,

But on my corns too long you’ve tread,

You fine-haired sons of bitches.

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Re-explore the Wild West, where America’s legends and myths were made, for the first time with fully-colorized images by bestselling author and cinematographer, John Guntzelman.

The lure of the Wild West has been a driving force in the American experience. Originally the stuff of dreams, dime novels, and Wild West shows, the fascination continued in motion pictures such as The Great Train RobberyHigh NoonThe Magnificent Seven, the so-called spaghetti westerns of Clint Eastwood, and hundreds more. Whether through the appeal of wide-open spaces, the control of our own destiny, or just the desire for a better life, the Wild West still strikes a chord that resonates within.

Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, the country expanded westward ready to grow–and grow it did. The evocative landscapes of these unexplored lands ­­were recorded by a number of excellent photographers: John C. H. Grabill; Edward S. Curtis; John K. Hillers; and Timothy O’Sullivan, the famed Civil War photographer. Many of their striking images survive and continue to inspire us today. These iconic and incredibly evocative photographs from another era capture the reality and immediacy of that time and only require the careful addition of color to make them far more accessible, believable, and meaningful to present-day readers.

The Wild West in Color includes over 200 of the best black-and-white photographs from that time, fully colorized to bring this lost world back to life! It offers a new glimpse into a period of the American experience that has inspired countless books, motion pictures, and stories–a time that continues to resonate and inspire us to the present day.

John C. Guntzelman has been a professional cinematographer and director for forty years, with a strong interest in period photography’s ability to capture forever an actual moment of time. He is the author of The Civil War in Color (2012, Sterling Publishing).