Don’t let the wild enthusiasm of post-modern scholarship fool you: while what is generally considered the ‘Old West’ was hardly the stuff of John Ford and Robert Mitchum movies, it was every bit as violent as popular forms of entertainment would suggest. True, there weren’t a hell of a lot of pistol duels on Main Street at high noon, and most deaths occurred as a result of illness or trauma from falling off a wagon or horse. But you shouldn’t be mistaken, the region west of the Mississippi in the years after the Civil War until the dawn of the 20th century was a very, very vicious place. A combination of factors led to this. A large part of the new western-American dynamic grew out of State Supreme Court decisions in Ohio and Indiana in 1876 & 1877, which both held that an American had “no duty to retreat” from a dangerous situation. While English law demanded that a gentleman withdraw from conflict until absolutely necessary, the new American standard insisted that we have no such obligation, that in the United States of America, every man has the right to defend himself if attacked. In the “West,” a combination of inadequate courts combined with a growing class struggle between those settlers connected to a larger corporate apparatus and those that weren’t led to conflict that often escalated into armed combat. The men who engaged in this fierce struggle were often hard-hearted warriors that balanced a precarious set of factors that included skill and luck, and today we rank the ten scariest of that lot.
So we were talking post-Civil War, yet pre-20th century, and only for those people whose actions made them a terror west of the Mississippi River. This was by no means a limited category, and allowed for a whole heap of takers with a laundry list of terrible shit attached to their names. If this was a movie list, you better believe William Munney would be at the top, but alas, we’re sticking with the facts today. To get a spot below, the historical record had to be somewhat clear as to the person’s deadliness. Thus, while awesome in film, Butch and Sundance did not get a spot, for while history recorded that the pair were crackerjack thieves, the exact nature of their skills and personal dispositions eliminated them from contention. Also, as a general disclaimer, only the direct agents of terror were included. Essentially, this means that in order to make this list, the dude in question had to actually be pulling the trigger, not pulling the strings behind the scenes to see that things were done. Thus, no captains of industry were considered, for while men like George Hearst and Alan Pinkerton were indeed scary men, to run into either one-on-one in a dark alley didn’t do much to elicit a hell of a lot of fear. That certainly wasn’t the case with the #10 choice, a young man with a name synonymous with the period known as the ‘Old West,’ and with skills and a disposition to justify the reputation still maintained over 130 years after his death.
Though he wasn’t much to stand beside when compared to some of the human-wolverines on this list, the Kid was no slouch and certainly not somebody you would have wanted coming after you. Though much of his early life is shrouded in a fog of conjecture and poor record keeping, the best scholarship on the matter places Billy’s early childhood in New York City, with a relocation to the mid-West during his adolescence (likely Indiana). When the historical record caught up with him, it found him in jail early in adolescence, put in the shithouse for an overnight visit to teach the boy a lesson about petty crime. Showing that he wasn’t one to be screwed with, at any age, the Kid escaped from prison at a time when most modern boys are just picking up the finer nuances of Halo. Not long after, it’s said (though not entirely confirmed) that the Kid shot a man who had tried to bully the teenager, the bullet fired in self-defense in the midst of a public beating. Again, though not confirmed, the story does add up when taken in context of Billy’s actions shortly thereafter, when he turned up at a family ranch not long after, nearly dying of thirst and exposure. Likely still terrified of a lynching for his actions against the older bully, it was only by the grace of the Almighty that the Kid survived, yet by what grace this was intended is questionable. Though he seemed to have made an honest go of things for about a year, it wasn’t long before he turned up in Lincoln, New Mexico, and started in on the actions that would make him an American legend.
While a poor historical representation of the facts, if you’ve seen Young Guns, you have a pretty decent idea of what happened next. The Kid joined up with a local cattle baron kind enough to take the buck-toothed orphan in, the baron (John Tunstall) got killed, and an unholy war of vengeful retribution followed. To this day, nobody is entirely certain why Billy took Tunstall’s death so personally: what is beyond question is the results, for after his boss’ death, Billy went kill-crazy. Though he was being hunted by half the U.S. Cavalry and most of New Mexico, Billy still held true to his outfit and pursued those he felt responsible for Tunstall’s death. Though he didn’t kill all the perpetrators, he didn’t do bad for a twenty year old with a hard heart full of hate and spite. After the Lincoln County War ended, Billy got captured, escaped while under guard, and only got himself killed because an old riding partner with intimate knowledge of his haunts got on his ass. By all accounts, Billy was a deadly shot with calm nerves, had an unusually sharp disposition for his age, and possessed unrivaled balls for anybody in his circle, young or old. Yet for as famous as he became, Billy never came close to matching the feat accomplished by the next man, a guy as obscure as the Kid is famous.
Historians like Richard Maxwell-Brown have outlined the ways in which the traditional western-American narrative has been obscured by the glamour of the gunfight. Indeed, most people take for granted the telling social and political battles that took place behind the scenes. For nearly every gunfight there was an undercurrent of Democrat vs. Republican partisanship, remnants of a painful Civil War just over a decade old always in play. In each town there was a governor, mayor, or sheriff connected with broader national concerns usually tied into railroad, ore, or water interests. For the ordinary citizens working independently, this was not usually a system that allowed for what was quickly becoming the “American” ideal. New notions connected to fancy terms like “Manifest Destiny” didn’t always apply to the hard-working and honest folks seeking a better life west of the Mississippi River. In 1878 in Mussel-Slough, CA, a group of settlers formed what they called “the Settler’s League” to give more voice to their cause. A handful of years before, they had moved into the King’s Valley area and homesteaded upon land valued at $2.50/acre. Through irrigation efforts over the course of many years the settlers brought the value of the land up nearly ten-fold at $22/acre!
Yet by this time the railroads wanted the land back, and the courts sided with them and ordered the settlers off their lands. What was worse, the judge ruled that the $2.50/acre prices paid to them was justification enough for reclamation of the region, and demanded the settlers sell at that price. Appeals were filed and in the intervening period night rides and terror tactics involving kidnapping and arson took place on both sides. By December ’79, Judge Sawyer of San Francisco (in the pocket of the railroad) ruled definitively against the settlers, and things started heating up quickly. Although the settlers and their railroad opponents both had plenty of guns, the latter group possessed one notable advantage: Walter J. Crow. Crow met up with a group of the settlers on May 11th, 1880 to discuss the impending relocations. As is the case with most gunfights, although what happened next is the source of a lot of contention, the aftermath is fairly straightforward. In the span of about a minute, Walter Crow killed five men single-handedly, the swath of his terrible wrath enough to get the remaining settlers to flee. Five. That’s more than Billy, Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill, or even Jesse James ever got in one sitting (J.W. Hardin’s claim to have killed five at once is still disputed). Unfortunately for Crow, he got shot in the back later that day and never got to enjoy the bragging rights associated with so manly a feat. Yet for an hour or so, the guy had excuse enough to brag, and while his name may not be among the hollowed western archetypes celebrated in television and film, Crow has cause enough to stand alongside any who is.
Horn made a name for himself early in life as a scout with the U.S. Cavalry under the legendary Al Sieber, a guy so hard that when they made a movie about one of his pursuits, they went ahead and got Robert frickin’ Duvall to play him. This kind of company infused the young Horn with the skills that would make him one of the most dangerous hired guns of the late-nineteenth century. Tom’s particular talent entailed renting himself out as a hired gun to the highest bidder and making people from rival factions dead with seemingly no leads. During Arizona’s Pleasant Valley War, Horn loaned himself out and very soon people started dying. The Pinkertons hired him around 1890, and in no time Horn developed a reputation as a man who could track anybody, anywhere. Seriously, if people were having a hard time catching a particularly nasty, elusive outlaw, all it usually took was a few weeks and Tom Horn on the case. The thing was, though, by all accounts Horn was an extremely bad tempered, dangerous individual who may very well of had psychotic tendencies. He was forced out as a Pinkerton Detective in 1894 for what many whispered to be his dangerous disposition, which is a nice way of saying ‘people were too afraid to ride with the maniac any longer.’
Still dangerous as shit and valuable to anybody with enough money to hire some serious muscle, Horn rented himself out to participate in the Johnson County War, then got himself tried and acquitted twice in the span of six weeks for two separate murders. Obviously well connected to wealthy interests in control of the courts, Horn was free (though widely despised). He spent the last few years of the century loaning himself out to various interests, most of them looking to eliminate small-time rustlers chipping away at larger herds. Having killed so many people, by 1902 Horn was at the top of a great many shit-lists. A detective decided the best thing for the world was to get Horn drunk, and to see if he could get the guy bragging about anything incriminating. When this didn’t work, the deputy started asking direct questions about a murder that Horn likely didn’t commit, yet as drunk as Horn was, he didn’t see any harm in copping to it (hell, he’d killed so many, what’s the difference, right?). You got to almost chuckle at this guy. Though he was convicted of a crime that he may very well have committed, it’s entirely possible that the whole thing was a trumped up charge assembled to get rid of the mean old bastard once and for all. Horn was included on the list even though he wasn’t executed until after the break of the 20th century, because actions in the 19th century more than qualified him for a spot. Besides, if ever there was a man who deserved to get hanged, right or wrong, it was this guy.
Okay, so, technically this guy wasn’t what most would consider a dangerous person in ‘the West,’ for by all accounts, Holmes never wore pistols and lived most of his life along the east coast and Chicago. When arrested, however, Holmes had a criminal record that stretched from Boston to Fort Worth, Texas, including stops along the way in St. Louis, so by proximity to the western-U.S., and because he was so unforgivably evil, Holmes got a nod today. Ever heard of Dr. Holmes? No? If that’s the case, more power to you, for this demonic son of a bitch was as evil as anything produced in the 20th century. When it comes to villainy and crime, one gets the distinct impression that Holmes simply couldn’t help himself! When in medical school in the 1880s, he specialized in the theft of bodies so that he might file and collect upon insurance claims put in place after he had disfigured the corpses. Throughout his life, he was an unapologetic bigamist, marrying several women while still legally tied to others. It wasn’t until 1886 that he took his game up a notch, though. After gaining the trust of an elderly drugstore owner, Holmes bought her business and then killed the woman. Holmes told all the lady’s friends that she had moved to California, which surprisingly was enough to bate suspicion while the good doctor started work on his “hotel.” To find the closest thing in recent history to properly match what he did next, one would have to look to the SAW films, for this is pretty much how the guy rolled.
Using a series of independent contractors who all worked on separate portions of what was referred to as Holmes’ ‘castle,’ the doctor had a giant torture chamber constructed, replete with homemade gas chambers, false walls, trap doors, stairs to nowhere, and vats full of caustic acid. The opening of the hotel/castle coincided with the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, which provided seemingly endless victims who were visiting Chicago and had days to go before anybody realized they were missing. Still greedy, Holmes collected life insurance on many of his victims, and sold the remains of others who he was unable to grift. It was the trusty western police agency, the Pinkertons, that finally caught up with him, and after the evidence started piling up, the doctor’s fate was sealed. It’s hard to pin down just how many people Holmes killed, as the best modern estimates range from anywhere between 9 and 200. Because the guy was an admitted serial killer with a habit of destroying the remains of his victims, it will almost certainly never be known just how many people Holmes killed. The literal embodiment of cruelty and terror, H.H. was a special kind of scary, ahead of his time both in tactics and the execution of his crimes.
When it comes to ‘Old West’ bad-assery, Wild Bill is a tough cookie to beat. A Union scout during the Civil War, Bill had plenty of experience riding hard and fast between sheets of lead by the time he got to the frontier and started giving Native Americans and unscrupulous trappers what-for. After the war, Hickok killed a man named Dave Tutt in what is considered the first “classic” western showdown. Standing in the middle of a street in dueling position, both men drew simultaneously, Wild Bill’s shot landing true and killing Tutt. Hickok scouted for Custer a bit before breaking off and surfacing again in Kansas in 1869 to act as sheriff of Hays. During his first month on the job, Hickok killed two men, then later dismantled a couple of cavalrymen who tried to ambush the sheriff in a saloon. After a nasty scrape in Abilene which saw Bill take down a feared gunslinger (Phil Coe) along with one of his own deputies by accident, Hickok made for South Dakota. He had tried his hand at acting, accepting an offer to tour with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, yet the performance was famously terrible, the universal condemnation of the man’s acting skills rarely seen before or since. Obviously too hard for anything except the most rough and tumble of circumstances, he ultimately found himself in one of the most dangerous towns of the day: Deadwood.
By this time, Bill’s fame had begun to overtake his prowess, and skills once sharpened to a razor’s edge had rapidly begun to deteriorate. This was most distressing for the man, who was more and more at the center of a new cultural celebrity that overshadowed even the most genuinely spectacular moments of his already-amazing life. Still as mean as ever and with his Navy Colt 1851’s in the cross-draw position at his waist, it didn’t take long for his reputation to overtake his presence in the crime-rich town. Shot in the back of the head because nobody dared face the man in a fair fight, even half-blind and crippled with disease, Wild Bill went down quietly and with little drama. It is a testament to how dangerous the guy was, however, that despite many attempts to get the job done, it took Bill sitting with his back to the door for maybe the first time in his adult life to take the fella down. And speaking of colossal warriors robbed of future glory by cowardly back-shooters, we’d be remiss to pass up on a little discussion of…
Native American history is a very complicated, rich tapestry drawn from centuries of oral histories passed in-person from generation to generation. Thus, what is known about Crazy Horse by contemporary historians with little-to-no experience speaking Sioux is limited to what work other scholars and Native Americans have done on the subject. From the white side of things, what is known is that Crazy Horse was in his early 30s when he started making a name for himself by fucking with the U.S. Cavalry in the Wyoming and Dakota territories. Already fairly well respected amongst his own people for acts of bravery in battle against other tribes, Crazy Horse really hit the big-time when he ran off with another guy’s wife. Though the dynamics of a Native American divorce are somewhat complicated to a modern culture that demands alimony and the like, it appeared as if the new couple was justified in their elopement. The new wife’s –ex felt differently, however, and went ahead and shot Crazy Horse in the mouth after tracking him and the wife down. Convinced that killing the shit out of the guy was against the best interests of the people, Crazy Horse went away and started killing white people instead.
In 1866 he executed what many consider to be his military masterpiece, and drew about 80 U.S. soldiers into a trap he and six others deftly sprung at the perfect moment. Using just half a dozen guys, Crazy Horse trapped the pursuing 80 cavalrymen in an all-out massacre. The victory was enough to convince the United States government that fighting was a bad choice considering the foes they faced, and quickly got to work putting a treaty together. Such success would never again be realized by Native Americans, the ensuing peace (albeit short-lived) the only instance where Native military forces won a peace from the Union. Even his marquee victory over Custer at Little Bighorn would not bring Crazy Horse such spoils, and though he was at the center of the action by most accounts, both white and Native, it was an errant shot in the back that brought the mighty warrior down after he had willfully surrendered. Like Wild Bill, Crazy Horse was just too damn hard to get killed in a fair fight, something the next Native American could relate to…
If you want to know something about this guy, you need look little further than his name. The story goes that a Mexican raiding party fell upon Geronimo’s village and killed his wife, children and mother while he was away, in town, selling goods. Robbed of everything in his life that meant anything to him, Geronimo dedicated most of the next thirty or so years to killing so as to satiate what had quickly become a very hard heart. His first act was to link up with another warring Apache tribe so that he could get his revenge on the people who had slaughtered his family. This he did, and in a manner that would give pretty much anybody on this list a moment of pause. In the battle where he got retribution, it is said that Geronimo fearlessly leapt into the fray numerous times, and with knife in hand gutted the Mexicans he was fighting. They say that the Mexicans were so terrified by the maneuver that they started screaming in terrified prayer to St. Jerome, an utterance so akin to ‘Geronimo’ that the handle stuck. He spent the next twenty-five or so years dealing death to pretty much anybody who dared to encroach upon his territory, starting first with the Mexicans that had seemingly ruined his life, then on to the Americans who appeared intent on gobbling up every inch of land between New Mexico and California.
For the better part of twenty years, the entire might of the United States military couldn’t get a lasso on this guy, and the Natives who rode with him believed he had powers just shy of a walking god. Seriously, Geronimo was so feared in battle that the Apache that rode with him genuinely believed that he couldn’t be killed by bullets. Indeed, all evidence at hand supported the notion, for in scrape after scrape Geronimo rode recklessly toward death (and wicked glory), and never seemed the worse for wear. While the U.S. Cavalry came close to getting a handle on the guy after an initial surrender, it wasn’t until 1886, when Geronimo felt like giving up, that he actually did. Indeed, though the combined resources of the United States of America tried to, they never succeeded in capturing Geronimo, the Apache warrior giving in only after he decided screwing with whites simply wasn’t worth the trouble any more. Fearless, mean, resolute, and absolutely terrifying to everybody he came anywhere near (and many who didn’t), Geronimo lived to the ripe old age of 79. Still undefeated up to the moment of his death, Geronimo lived out his remaining years on reservations, milking the tourists who came to get a piece of a true American legend. Unlike Geronimo, the next entrant on the list died before he could cash in on his legacy, something a friend of the gambler certainly didn’t miss out on…
Doc was a special case, even 120 years ago. Racked with tuberculosis and a wet cough that ranged from frequent to constant, he wasn’t a fella most people liked to keep around. Besides his debilitating, highly-contagious medical condition, he was by all accounts a ferociously mean drunk with a short temper. This should not fool you into believing that the guy was brave, however: no. Doc had a fairly justified reputation as a back-stabbing murderer in the most literal sense (he almost always carried a very sharp knife, and was reportedly fond of cutting the shit out of people with it). To the residents of Tombstone, AZ, his appearance at the OK Corral gunfight was remarkable for two reasons. First, because it was the first time many in the town had seen Doc in the light of day, and second, because the man was actually approaching a foe face to face. Perhaps what was most striking about the man, and probably why he has remained with us for so long, was the finality of his existence. The guy knew he was dying, and from the evidence at hand, it would appear as if he was either trying to speed things up or had absolutely no concerns whatsoever for his well being.
Whatever the reason, his ‘don’t-give-a-fuck’ outlook on life made him a very dangerous person to get involved with. In the mid-1870s he got into a gaggle of scrapes with local gamblers and saloon keepers which saw him arrested a lot, but jailed surprisingly little. The shock of his infrequent incarceration lessens when considering the logistics of keeping deputies and other prisoners locked in a confined space with a coughing disease-bag. As far as his resume was concerned, Doc was as deadly as almost anybody in the region, his kill-count disputed, but believed to be anywhere in the range of 4-15. Fiercely loyal, he wasn’t above throwing himself into the line of fire for a friend, especially since it meant a faster ticket to the grave. That he hooked up with this next guy only increased the potency of his presence, and assured that if you were screwing with one of the two, then a combined whirlwind of unprecedented hell would be coming your way.
Forget everything you’ve seen in the movies, all the quiet intensity and brooding, the black coats, heavy mustaches and fancy pistols. Take the meanest, biggest, most intimidating person you’ve ever encountered, then try to imagine what it would take to scare the unholy shit out of them. Imagine the kind of person it would take to push around the gnarliest biker or angriest gangster you’ve ever seen, and you’re starting to get close to what you’re dealing with when talking about Wyatt Earp. This guy’s specialty was rolling into lawless towns that were being dismantled by rowdy cowboys, and dick-slapping the bunch of them into submission. And it’s not like the guy had a lot on his side when pulling this kind of shit. If a lawman was lucky, he might have had two, maybe three deputies to help out on a given night, but for the most part towns operated with just one on-duty peace officer. If a guy like Earp had to go up against a crew of a dozen or so men to keep things in order, it usually meant going at it alone, and this often meant engaging in an act that bordered on suicide. Earp had a handy way of dealing with that problem, however: he simply knocked the hell out of people. Seriously, Earp was famous for his ‘buffalo’ technique, which was essentially pistol whipping the shit out of somebody from behind.
As a lawman, he was untouchable: literally. The guy was in law enforcement for the better part of fifty years in the most dangerous time and place in American history for that occupation, and he never took a bullet. Which isn’t to say that Earp didn’t get involved in some pretty serious business during his life: no. Besides the OK Corral and after the vendetta ride, Wyatt went ahead and got involved in pretty much every dangerous venture he could get his hands on. He was the referee of a fight in San Francisco that was so intensely watched and scrutinized that Earp was essentially run out of town, threatened with death for the call he made during the bout. After that, he probably figured that life was getting boring, so he went ahead and moved to Alaska to try his hand at gold mining and hard arctic living. Known in his own lifetime as one of the toughest men on the planet, his reputation as a bad mother fucker has only grown since his death at the age of 80. Yet as mean and genuinely frightening a man as Wyatt was, he was still (mostly) a lawman, and thus tied to a few basic rules about civilized society and justice. Though Earp certainly dabbled on the other side of the law at times, this is nothing compared to the unchained villainy of…
This was a very, very bad man. Sure, H.H. Holmes and others might have killed more people, but nobody did it quite as recklessly as Hardin, and nobody was as dangerous in a one-on-one situation as this guy. Seriously, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Earp: among those I’ve mentioned today and many I didn’t, any of them would have been a little unsettled around this guy. Put simply, Hardin killed more people than anybody else of the period so far as records allow, and did so with a reckless attitude that bordered on psychosis. Sure, Geronimo might have killed more than fifty people in his lifetime (indeed, it’s entirely likely that he did), but neither he nor anybody else of the era did so with such cruel and reckless abandon. A person could die somewhat peacefully at the hands of Crazy Horse, Earp, or even Geronimo, knowing that there was probably something they did to deserve death at the hands of these men. Be it trespassing settler or reckless criminal, you likely had it coming one way or the other if you ran up against one of those guys on a bad day. Not J.W. Hardin, though: no. With Hardin, you were just as likely to die by standing next to him as you might if sharing an enclosed space with a Bengal Tiger. Sure, the tiger might not attack, indeed, if trained, it probably won’t. Yet would you still be nervous? Shit, yeah!
It wasn’t a hell of a lot different with Hardin, who had a very justified reputation for killing the hell out of anybody that didn’t particularly please him. Hardin was the real deal, folks. When they make western these days, and a villain is cast that is the epitome of faceless, indiscriminate evil mixed with savage pistol-prowess, all of them wish they were as scary as this guy was in real life. By the age of fifteen, it’s reported that he had already killed four men: three of them officers that came to arrest Hardin for murder. He spent the next half decade of his life racking up about a dozen more kills, most of them cold-blooded retaliatory assassinations. Probably the most nefarious act from Hardin’s life came about in Abilene, Kansas, when he later admitted that he had indeed shot and killed a man through a hotel wall for snoring too loudly. By all accounts, Hardin was himself shot at least three separate times in his life, yet with the exception of the final bullet through his brain, nobody seemed to be able to kill the bastard. The law finally caught up with Hardin, and miraculously he was not sentenced to hang, but rather to serve 25 years in prison. Though he spent the first few years in the shithouse terrorizing inmates and guards alike, and tried multiple times to escape, he was little more than a red-hot pain in the ass for his captors.
It seems he got bored with this after a few years and instead dedicated himself to education, proving himself reformed enough that he actually got out after serving just under sixteen years. A lawyer in Texas after his release, it didn’t take long for alcohol and his natural disposition to take back over. Hardin got into a feud with a local constable by the name of John Selman, Sr., one which ended with Selman rolling up behind Hardin and emptying his revolver into the back of his head. Though records were anything but exact back in the day, modern scholarship puts Hardin’s verified kill-count at 30-50. The meanest men on this list could confirm maybe ten to fifteen kills by all modern records (again, Native American history is problematic in this regard): Hardin could brag about thirty and still call the estimate conservative. Although the Earps and the James brothers get most of the press, one should not overlook the meanest, deadliest Caucasian ever to roam the ‘Old West,’ a salty bastard just as likely to kill you as to let you keep walking.