The Wild, Wild West

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In between robberies and murders, they occupied themselves variously. When Cole Younger, for example, hid out in Texas in 1868, who should he find down there near Dallas but li’l ole Myra Belle Shirley ! Why, the last time he saw Myra Belle, back in Jasper County, she was just a scrawny kid in pigtails ! But before long she was the mother of his illegitimate daughter, a girl she named Pearl Younger. And when Jim Reed came south in 1870, also on the lam, Myra Belle took him also into her house, and she cleaved unto him and presented him also with an illegitimate child, a boy she named Ed Reed. For his part, Jim Younger whiled away the time between robberies by serving as deputy sheriff in Dallas.

But the acknowledged leader of “The Boys,” as they were fondly called, had no use for such tom-foolery because, we are told, he was too pious. Jesse James was baptized and added to the strength of the Kearney Baptist Church near his home in 1868 (soon after he had killed a man in a bank robbery at Richmond, Missouri). He sang in church choirs; he even organized a group of the faithful and taught hymn-singing (a few months after murdering the cashier of a bank in Gallatin, Missouri). His Bible, we are assured, was well-thumbed ; but apparently he skipped the chapters in Exodus where are listed the Ten Commandments, for he continued to kill and to steal, and at least twice he did not remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, but rather used it as the occasion for a train robbery.

By 1874 Jesse’s crimes were a chief issue in Missouri’s gubernatorial campaign: whether or not to suppress outlawry so that “capital and immigration can once again enter our state.” But nothing was done ; his raids continued.

By 1881 the baying was so close at Jesse’s heels that pious or no, he likewise took off for Myra Belle’s recherché resort for the criminally inclined. She had removed to a country place on the Canadian River in Oklahoma, which for nostalgic reasons she called Younger’s Bend. Belle, having by now given the boot to such sometime outlaw-lovers as Jack Spaniard, Jim French, Jim July, John Middleton, and an Indian known as Blue Duck, had actually gotten married to a Cherokee named Sam Starr. She was in consequence now known as Belle Starr, and could Jesse have known that she would one day be celebrated all over the country as the Bandit Queen, or the Female Jesse James, he might have cursed a tiny curse, pious man that he may have been notwithstanding. But he was dead before then, shot in the back of the head by “the dirty little coward,” Bob Ford.

 
 
 

Myra Belle Shirley, horse thief, cattle thief, suspected robber of stagecoaches, constant concubine and protector of desperate criminals, was shot in the back and killed near Eufaula, Oklahoma, on February 3, 1889. A neighbor, Edgar Watson, was accused of her murder, but the charges against him were dismissed. It was rumored that she was slain by her son, Ed Reed, with whom she had had incestuous relations. He was angry with his mother, for she had whipped him after he rode her favorite horse without her permission. So it went, out in the glamorous, romantic Wild West. Scarcely a day passed without some gay and gallant gun slinger shooting his way into the affections of future generations.

Her old neighbor Jesse James lies under a small stone near the site of the Kearney Baptist Church. The stone is all that has been left by souvenir hunters of what was once a pretentious monument, on which had been carved this inscription:

In Loving Remembrance of My Beloved Son JESSE JAMES Died April 3, 1882 Aged 34 Years, 6 Months, 28 Days Murdered by a Traitor and Coward Whose Name Is Not Worthy to Appear Here.

His mother and stepfather lie in graves on either side of his. On her stone is carved MOTHER, and on his is carved PAPPY.

But had Jesse really been killed in 1882? There were folk in Clay County—and elsewhere, too—who whispered that the murder had been staged, that Jesse still lived and would ride again. He “couldn’t” have died. The flood of dime novels about him, the plays, the six motion pictures contrived by Hollywood, this was not enough : the gullible still swore that Jesse lived. Naturally, this being the case, men claiming to be Jesse began to appear one after another. But at length time ran out on them. The last claimant bobbed up in 1948, which meant that he had to act 101 years old, an irksome role. This scalawag at least had the wit to take an appropriate alias. He asserted that he had lived through the years as Frank Dalton, a name which, since it recalled the Dalton gang of the 1890’s, fitly closed the circle of Wild West outlawry.

It is time to turn to our next exhibit. Here we have two men mounted on the same pedestal, standing shoulder to shoulder; pals, pards till hell freezes. Each is expressionless, poker-faced; each is clad in black broadcloth and white linen; each affects a handlebar moustache; each has hard blue-gray eyes; each wears a star; at each hip hangs a six-gun. Clearly we are now confronting the men who tamed the Wild West. Sure enough, for their labels read