REVIEW: Outlaws of the Wild West (2021)

A book by Terry C Treadwell

NOTE: I received a free preliminary, and likely unedited copy of this book from Netgalley for the purposes of providing an honest, unbiased review of the material. Thank you to all involved.

I’ve had this book on my Netgalley shelf for a while, so I figured that there was no better time than now to read it. I’m currently on a local history tour, and have visited a few of the very places that are mentioned in this book, so this has definitely come in handy. I have a passing interest in outlaws and Old West gunslingers simply due to being a history buff, and especially the fact that I specialize in Missouri history. However, what keeps me away from deep-diving into a lot of these figures, is that I find a lot of the mythicism centered around a lot of them to be ridiculous at times. I live in the town that Frank James is buried in, and am within a stone’s throw from most of the sites of formative years of the James Gang in general. I wouldn’t even start to count all of the people that are supposedly related to Jesse James that I know, and I’ve heard my share of conspiracy theories about how he faked his death, was actually a spy, lived in Mexico for 40 years etc. I’m amazed that he isn’t still alive and hanging out with Elvis on a UFO.

Thankfully, for better or worse, Outlaws of the Wild West by Terry C Treadwell drops all of that nonsense for a “just the facts” reporting style. While this lacks the nuance I’m used to when reading books about figures such as William Quantrill written in Western Missouri or by specialized Civil War historians, not having the legends creep in is welcome. Being a writer based out of the UK, I was worried that Treadwell would base all of his information from things like films, but thankfully this book is well researched and gives solid information as a starter point for anyone wanting to do a deeper dive. Yeah, he sort of goes through a list of a number of the more famous outlaws, which coincidentally have movies based on them, but that was never his intention for this to be a “movie vs real life” sort of book.

“The ‘Wild West’, or American Frontier as it is also known, developed in the years following the American Civil War. However, this period of myth-making cowboys, infamous gunslingers, not always law-abiding lawmen, and saloon madams, is as much the product of fiction writers and film makers as reality. The outlaw came into his, or indeed her, own in the mid to late 19th century. Some of these individuals, men such as Billy the Kid, William Clarke Quantrill, Butch Cassidy or Harry Longabaugh, better known as the Sundance Kid, became household names. Many of those who roamed America’s West in the period between 1850 and 1900 often appear as colourful, romanticised, legendary characters. This includes the likes of Frank and Jesse James, who had stepped outside the law due to the harshness of life after the Civil War or under circumstances beyond their control. The majority of outlaws, though, were anonymous common criminals. In 1877, for example, the State Adjutant General of Texas, published ‘wanted posters’ for some 5,000 outlaws and bandits in the Rio Grande district alone, almost all of whom have since vanished into the mists of time.”

Each chapter highlights a specific outlaw, with a general history of how they started out, notorious crimes they committed, and information about them usually being captured or killed. Noteworthy members of their respective gangs are highlighted, and in some cases equally notorious lawmen that were after them are discussed. The book is full of photographs, and In some cases they can be pretty morbid. The only surviving photograph of some of these guys are their “death photos” taken after they were hauled in and tossed on a slab after losing a gunfight or being double-crossed. This makes the book have a bit of a procedural true-crime sort of tone that was interesting.

My only quibbles are the aforementioned lack of nuance that isn’t expected in a book like this that lists names. Also, some of the chapters repeat a bit, an example being a chapter on William Quantrill, followed immediately by a separate chapter about his wife Sarah that used some of the same information. this is by no means a deal breaker or anything, but it makes the book feel like a series of essays.

The highlight of the book for me were all of the names I was unfamiliar with. I mentioned earlier that I don’t read about outlaws much, so a lot of the more westerly ones were very interesting. This book gives me a number of ideas of who I need to look up to read more about in the future. One that was really interesting for me was Henry Starr, a man that kept getting hassled for crimes he didn’t commit, making him eventually say “well I guess I better do crimes now”. Then, no matter how many times he said he was going to repent and turn his life around, he would be robbing another bank months later. The man eventually starred in movies about himself until he realized outstanding warrants may make that impossible, so he went back to his passion – robbing banks. I may try to read a book about him alone in the future.

Solid book that I would definitely recommend. Despite my issues, it was worth a read, and it gives me ideas of future things to both visit and read about. I’m not sure I’ll dive headfirst into outlaw books or anything, as I’m still weary of all of the “he was the kindest man around, no matter that he was a mass murderer” sort of thing, but perhaps in this context I may enjoy the topic more.

This review is part of my 2021 series History Boy Summer, which you can read more of following this LINK. If you would like a copy of this book check HERE.

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