US 19TH CENTURY HISTORY
St. Martin's Press
November 7, 2023
ISBN 9781250282385; 288 pages
In the Wild West, lawmen sometimes became outlaws to earn more money. And outlaws sometimes became lawmen or bounty hunters so they could track down fugitives and collect rewards for their capture or death. There were also many lawmen who remained dedicated to law enforcement and risked their lives to stop criminals who robbed banks, trains, and stagecoaches and killed people.
Tom Clavin’s new biography, The Last Outlaws: The Desperate Final Days of the Dalton Gang is fascinating and entertaining reading from beginning to end. This well-written book spotlights the much-feared, Missouri-born Dalton brothers who had been law enforcers before deciding in 1890 to start robbing trains and banks. The three siblings soon found themselves nationally famous but also pursued, Clavin writes, by “a whole array of sheriffs, deputy marshals, railroad detectives, and straight-out bounty hunters on the lookout for the Dalton Gang.”
The lawman who most worried the Daltons, however, was their nemesis, Heck Thomas. As a railroad detective from Fort Worth, Thomas had already encountered the Sam Bass Gang and several other outlaws. Now he was a Deputy U.S. Marshal, operating out of Fort Smith, Arkansas, busily serving legal papers, investigating crimes, arresting or killing fugitives, and transporting prisoners. He had a special knack for “man hunting.” And, he had met the Daltons and even shared meals with them. After their oldest brother, Frank Dalton, a respected deputy marshal, had been killed while trying to make an arrest in 1887, Heck Thomas had helped search for Frank’s killer.
Certain events and changing attitudes, led three Daltons—Bob, Grat, and Emmett—to turn to crime in 1890. And, as their notoriety grew, Heck Thomas became determined to help stop their deadly spree.
The Last Outlaws also highlights the Daltons’ infamous cousins, the Younger brothers. Four of them had ridden in a gang with Jesse James in the 1870s before ending up in prison or dead after committing crimes in multiple states, including Texas.
The Dalton and Younger families both had intriguing connections to a range of American historical figures. And brothers in each family took part in bloody holdups that made national headlines. The two gangs were also helped by a changing cast of gunslingers and thugs who were not family members. Some of these outlaws had Texas connections and became Wild West footnotes after their deaths.
The author shows how the Daltons pulled off daring and sometimes deadly bank holdups and train heists in Kansas, California, the Oklahoma Territory, and Indian Territory. But their reputations caught up with them in 1892 when they attempted to hold up two banks at the same time in Coffeyville, Kansas. Some alert citizens recognized them and sounded the alarm. In the ensuing gunbattles, two of the three Dalton brothers, Bob and Grat, were killed, along with two other gang members. Four townspeople also died. Emmett Dalton, meanwhile, was wounded, captured, and sent to prison.
The remaining Dalton brother, Bill, apparently had not taken direct roles in his brothers’ crimes. But he soon joined up with another famous outlaw, Bill Doolin, to form the Doolin-Dalton Gang, which became known as “the Wild Bunch.” One of their heists, the 1894 robbery of a bank in Longview, Texas, also turned into a deadly shootout with local law enforcement and armed citizens. One gang member and at least two townspeople died as the robbers escaped. But soon, Heck Thomas would play a pivotal role in stopping the Wild Bunch for good.
“The end of the Dalton Gang and its spin-off the Doolin-Dalton Gang,” Clavin writes, “was further and arguably final confirmation of the end of the Wild West. With few and less notorious exceptions, bands of bandits would not roam the back roads of Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, and beyond. It would be left mostly to the writers of books and the directors of movies to keep the Wild West alive.”
Eye-opening surprises pop up in the epilogue to The Last Outlaws. The author shows that several surviving outlaws and lawmen from the Dalton Gang days found unique ways in early Hollywood to profit from their Wild West days. Who did what and how well they fared provide an entertaining finale to this well-researched, expertly crafted biography.
TOM CLAVIN is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and has worked as a newspaper editor, magazine writer, TV and radio commentator, and a reporter for The New York Times. He has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, and National Newspaper Association. His books include the bestselling Frontier Lawmen Trilogy—Wild Bill, Dodge City, and Tombstone—and Blood and Treasure with Bob Drury. He lives in Sag Harbor, NY.