Historic Photos of Outlaws of the Old West

The romantic myth of the Western outlaw still remains central to American identity. If we are part Puritan, we also like to think of ourselves as the kind of anti-social cowboys who go out and manifest our own destiny. It’s no wonder that we have a tradition of valorizing outlaws like Billy the Kid, the Dalton gang, and Frank and Jesse James, transfiguring their bullying and theft into a kind of partisan resistance to hegemony. These men did not steal from the rich to give to the poor, yet we like to pretend that they were Robin Hoods. Turner Publishing’s new collection Historic Photos of Outlaws of the Old West presents 200 archival images of infamous (and not so famous) robbers, road agents, and rascals in the kind of gruesome detail that outlines just how awful these people really were. The Old West isn’t so romantic after all.

The book moves from the beginning of photography in the early 1850s to the unlikely end of an era, the 193os when the West Coast finally settled down and civilized (at least a little bit). Larry Johnson provides informative and unobtrusive text, letting the stark and often grisly photos convey the tone and emotion of the book. Simply put, this isn’t for kids. There are plenty of dead bodies, many hanging from nooses or laid out in a row, like this charmer of the Dalton gang–

Or how about Ned Christie, unfairly framed for the murder of Deputy Marshal David Maples in 1887, Oklahoma? This picture of Christie reveals that the emerging art/science of photography allowed for a certain fetishizing of the dead body–that the corpse, via mechanical reproduction, might somehow live on. Grisly.

We can see the same fascination with death in this famous image of Jesse James, who was shot in the back by Robert Ford while adjusting a picture. (Their complicated story is told in the brilliant revisionist film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, by the way).

There are less famous but equally intriguing figures as well, like Benjamin Hodges, a black Mexican cowboy who made his living as a con artist in Dodge City. Here is the confident confidence man–

The images in Outlaws of the Old West are both fun and unsettling, and Johnson never glosses over or sugar coats the ugly truths behind these images (he even points out that, though we see the shootout at the OK Corral as a kind of archetypal battle between good vs. evil, the Earps and their pal Doc Holliday were hardly angels). The pictures in this book gel more with the imagery we find in revisionist Westerns like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or Sam Peckinpah’s bloody films, which is another way of saying that they aren’t for the faint of heart–and I enjoy that about the volume. Check it out.

13 thoughts on “Historic Photos of Outlaws of the Old West”

  1. Interesting and informative review. I will look for this book. My dad met Clyde Barrow of later fame when he was a little kid.


    1. I’d like to chat with you sometime. My great great uncle was the town marshal that was killed in Alma, AR, after Buck and W.D. Jones robbed a store in Fayetteville, AR. Headed south, a call was made to my uncle the gangs car was headed south on hwy 71 at a blazing pace trying to make it back to the Midland Motor Court was in Fort Smith, AR where Clyde was tending to Bonnie’s wounds from the wreck.


      1. Some one or something has messed with my site, such that I hardly struggle with responding to Biblioklept any more, but still read and peruse it. Thank you for responding to my comments made in the past.

        Dad was born and raised in Pioneer, Louisiana, West Carroll Parish. When he was a boy, his father took him to a saloon and sat him on the bar. This was where he met the man. He was regaled by stories of days of manliness and adventure that day. This is all I know of that.

        I was raised in Georgia, mostly, so the connections of stories told by the men in camp were not made. Just unrelated, to me, recollections of Daddy and his brothers reminiscing at family get togethers. If you would like to communicate, my other email address is ccllyyddee@gmail.com

        Memory recedes sooner than the past fades, so I am afraid I have little of interest to offer.


  2. i have been trying to put the peices of the puzzles together on jesse james and that time line i find a book that has writing in it and is signed but cant find the person that wrote in it so i can make sure the rite person gets it it is signed bye a member of jesse family this book belongs with family i wish someone can just give me some ideal on who to contact over this


    1. Try Jesse James great grand son . go to Jesse James museum. I also have a photo of Jesse,Frank,Bob,and Charlie ford.so don’t give up.


  3. Truthfully, our Civil War produced the worst criminals and killers in American history; namely, Custer, Miles, Crook, Reno, Grant, Hancock. Wounded Knee, SD makes the Ok Corral look like a mild argument. The road from Appomattox led straight to the Little Big Horn. One Civil War veteran built warships for another veteran to attack Spain and invade the Philippines. Civil War veterans set America on the road to manifest destiny, to Pearl Harbor, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq. So be it.

    Liked by 1 person

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