The Glory Days of Wild West Outlaws

There were more outlaws than there were lawmen in the Dodge City days, including the likes of Jesse James, John Wesley Hardin, and the vengeful Clay Allison. 

Tom Clavin, Author of Dodge City
5-minute read
Episode #48


Dodge City was the glory days of not only Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the other lawmen that patrolled the dusty streets of Dodge City in the 1870s, but also the outlaws who passed through the town. In my book Dodge City, I wanted to tell the stories of these outlaws too because they were very much part of the fabric of the frontier.

Two of the outlaws that came through Dodge City were Frank and Jesse James—they didn’t come to Dodge City to do any mischief, they were mainly passing through, and Frank and Bat Masterson hit it off, becoming friends. In fact, Frank and Bat would go on to become correspondents, writing letters back and forth until Frank’s death decades later.

As for Jesse James, most of his story is well known—he passed his time robbing banks and trains, but what may not be too well known is Jesse James was one of the early explorers of the public relations world. He came up with the idea for a train robbing that his gang committed in 1874. When Jesse and company had finished getting what was in the safe and taking what the passengers had—jewelry, money, and so on—Jesse handed the conductor a piece of paper and asked him to give the paper over to the next newspaper town they came to and have it printed.

Jesse James had written a press release in advance that described the robbery that he and his gang had just committed on that train. Sure enough, the next town that the train came to that had a newspaper, the conductor produced the press release and it was published. People around the country were reading about Jesse James’s adventures as written by Jesse James.

John Wesley Hardin was another outlaw known for having all kinds of notches in his gun. He was a rather indiscriminate killer—anybody got in his way, he killed them. Hardin started killing in this manner when he was still a teenager. He’s associated with the expression “I never killed anybody who didn’t need killing.” To say the least, he must have met a lot of people who needed killing because his guns were busy.

John Wesley Hardin was another outlaw known for having all kinds of notches in his gun.

When he was finally tracked down and arrested, he was sent to jail. Hardin was arrested in Florida after fleeing Kansas, Texas, and a few other places that were looking for him. He was able to hide out successfully for a few years, but was eventually tracked down and caught by the Texas Rangers. Hardin spent many years in prison and when he was finally released he went back to Texas and he became, of all things, a lawyer. Yes, he studied and passed the Texas Bar examination to become a lawyer.

John Wesley Hardin was intending on going straight and was even married for a time. His marriage didn’t last too long, however, probably because at the time he was in his mid-to-late forties and his bride was a fifteen-year-old girl. There were obviously some differences there and she eventually left him.

Hardin went about his business and was visiting another town for a trial, likely giving some evidence. After the trial, he was in a saloon telling a story to another patron when a man walked up behind him, put a gun to his head, and pulled the trigger—that was the end of John Wesley Hardin. Strangely enough, the guy who killed him was a man named Slaughter.

Finally, Clay Allison was one of my favorite outlaws from the book Dodge City. Clay Allison had a terrible reputation—great reputation if you’re an outlaw, but a terrible reputation as a human—for killing people he was known as a shootist, which is what they called people who were gunslingers then. One day Allison came to Dodge City with the express purpose of killing Wyatt Earp.

Now why? One story goes that Wyatt had shot a friend of Clay Allison’s, a man by the name of George Hoy. Wyatt shot George, but it wasn’t the shot that killed him—he eventually died of gangrene. Other accounts say that there was a bounty on Wyatt Earp’s head and that Clay Allison came to town to collect that bounty. In any case, Allison showed up with three or four Texas cowboys. He was going to make sure that his plot went well and instructed the cowboys to wait in a certain doorway nearby. If Clay Allison made his move and killed Wyatt Earp then they could just go on their way, but if it seemed like it was going to be more of a shooting standoff or, worst came to worst, Wyatt Earp killed him, those cowboys were to burst through the doorway and shoot Wyatt Earp down.

Wyatt had no idea about this plan, though he was tipped off when Clay Allison rode into town. When Clay Allison was in town, the chances were he wasn’t there to do anything nice. But Wyatt Earp was never someone to avoid a confrontation, he believed in taking care of these things head on. Not necessarily shooting it out, but he wasn’t going to go skulking around, waiting for somebody to find him. So he went down the Dodge City streets and confronted Clay Allison.

Bat Masterson had also heard Clay Allison was in town and assumed right away that this was not for any charitable purpose, so he got his shotgun out and went down another street in order to come up behind the confrontation. Sure enough, as Masterson snuck around the street he saw the Texas cowboys lurking in the doorway.

Clay Allison and Wyatt Earp were meeting in the middle of the street and Allison was surprised. He was used to staring at a lawman and that stare alone the lawman would cause the lawman to say “you know what, I’m out of here.” But Wyatt Earp was a different breed.

Earp was taller than Clay Allison and Allison was not used to looking up to anybody. Wyatt had these steely blue eyes that could get very cold when he was staring at somebody, especially an outlaw, and Allison could see that there was not an ounce of fear in Wyatt. He started to wonder that he might not have a lifespan that would be very much longer than that particular day in Dodge City in 1878.

So Clay Allison decided he would leave. He said to Wyatt that he was going to leave town, mosey away and bid Earp a good day. Wyatt Earp replied that it sounded like a good idea, maybe they’d meet again, not trying to provoke anything. And that would have been it, except Clay Allison calls out to the Texas cowboys “Okay, fellas, we’re leaving,” and another voice shouted out “You bet you are!” Who was it? Of course, it was Bat Masterson, who was in the doorway with his shotgun trained right at the cowboys.

Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West is now available in paperback! Pick up your copy from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, Books-a-Million, or iBooks—or if you prefer to listen, check out the audiobook on Audible.