What famous Old West characters lived long enough to be filmed?

atm-logoWhat famous Old West characters lived long enough to be filmed?

Greg Travis
Farmington, New York

More than you might think. Movies portray the real-life showman Buffalo Bill Cody, George Armstrong Custer’s widow, Libbie, famed lawman Bill Tilghman, and bad guys Emmett Dalton, Al Jennings and Henry Starr (see movie stills on opposite page). Some of them produced their own flicks.

Tilghman was filming his biographical story, Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaws, in 1915 when he heard that Henry Starr was robbing two banks in Stroud, Oklahoma. In what might have been the first reality show, the film crew packed the gear and headed there, hoping to film a real bank robbery. The movie also featured real-life lawmen Chris Madsen, Bud Ledbetter and E.D. Nix, and former Doolin Gang member Roy “Arkansas Tom” Daugherty.

Starr tried his own hand at Hollywood when he got out of prison in 1919. He starred as himself in A Debtor to the Law, a silent film about how crime doesn’t pay. Apparently, acting didn’t pay either; in 1920, Starr robbed two banks in Oklahoma. A year later, he was mortally wounded during a stickup in Arkansas.

Lawyer-turned-robber Al Jennings may have been the most incompetent outlaw in the Old West, but that didn’t matter when it came to telling his story on the silver screen. After serving five years in prison, he went Hollywood and spun wild tales of his life as a train robber. Starting in 1908, Jennings acted in and served as technical advisor for several shoot-’em-ups. In 1951, his fabricated life story was turned into a movie, Al Jennings of Oklahoma. Jennings began to believe his own whoppers; he went to his grave in 1961 convinced he was one of the Old West’s greatest train robbers.

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Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian. His latest book is Wyatt Earp: Showdown at Tombstone.  If you have a question, write:

Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327 or e-mail him at marshall.trimble@scottsdalecc.edu