Henry Starr, born in Indian Territory, Oklahoma, on December 2, 1873, had mostly Cherokee blood running in his veins and a family history of banditry. He eventually succumbed to the family business but alternated between a life of crime and reform, at one point being pardoned by President Theodore Roosevelt and starring in a silent film of his exploits. But he died robbing a bank, with the distinction of having robbed more banks and netted more money than all of the other Old West gangs combined.
Henry Starr was born with a criminal pedigree that would have been hard for anyone to resist. Born near Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, on December 2, 1873, smack in Indian Territory, even the terrain was criminal-friendly. Known as the "Land of the Six-Gun" and sometimes called "Robbers' Roost," the rugged land was rife with natural hideouts for those on the lam from the law. Add to that his criminal lineage: Although Henry Starr's quarter-Cherokee mother, Mary Scott, was from a good Irish family, his father, George "Hop" Starr, a half-breed Cherokee, came from a family where being a bandit was the family business. Hop's brother was the notorious Sam Starr, whose wife Belle Starr was known as the "Outlaw Queen." Their father was Tom Starr, an outlaw Henry said was known as "the Devil's own."
But a change came to the family make-up when Henry was 13—his father died, and Mary, now a single mother of three, shortly remarried. Whether it was because Henry considered his stepfather, C.N. Walker, inferior because he was in no part Indian, or because Walker was abusive, Starr left home shortly after the remarriage.
Starr's first conviction was at 16, when deputy marshals arrested him for bringing whiskey into Indian Territory in a wagon from the ranch he was working on. He insisted he didn't know the whiskey was there, but pled guilty anyway. A second arrest came within five years, for stealing a horse. Although Starr insisted on his innocence, he jumped bail and decided that being a career criminal was in his stars.
Starr enthusiastically took up robbery in the summer of 1892, hooking up with a couple of colleagues and hitting stores and train stations in Indian Territory. Deputy marshals were in hot pursuit—Floyd Wilson opened fire on Starr and a bizarre duel ensued, with Starr prevailing with a shot through Wilson's heart. He then rode away to continue his spree of robbing stores and train stations in the Territory.
His first bank robbery was in March 1893. Starr and his accomplice upped their take from a few hundred on their usual hits to nearly $5,000 from the Kansas bank.
More hits and higher takes brought notoriety. In Hands Up!, author A.B. MacDonald said Starr "moved with an aboriginal grace, could dog-trot for half a day, had the Indian instinct for finding his way, and could live on roots, berries and nuts and sleep on the ground for months at a time, if need be." Starr's distinctive straight black hair, black eyes and high Cherokee cheekbones became instantly recognizable, which got him caught in Colorado. On July 13, 1893, Starr stood trial in Fort Smith, Arkansas, for highway robbery and murder. He was sentenced to hang for Floyd Wilson's murder, but the conviction was overturned twice. By the time the third trial was over, Starr's sentence had been reduced to manslaughter.
If freedom made Henry Starr a sinner, incarceration made him a saint: A heroic turn involving a fellow prisoner, Cherokee Bill, in a shootout trying to escape mitigated Starr's sentence, eventually earning him a pardon from President Theodore Roosevelt.
Released from prison on January 16, 1903, Starr got a shout-out in a Washington Post feature two years later as a "Western outlaw" bad guy turned good. By then he had married and had a son, named Theodore Roosevelt Starr.
But by 1908, Starr was back to his old tricks. Caught in Colorado again that November, this stint in prison gave him a chance to study law and write his autobiography, Thrilling Events: Life of Henry Starr. In 1913, with a promise to the governor that he wouldn't leave the state, Starr was set free. What followed was a stunning streak of 14 bank robberies with an overall take of more than $25,000. That earned Starr "Wanted: Dead or Alive" poster status and a $1,000 bounty on his head.
He was caught after robbing two banks on the same day and sentenced to Oklahoma's state penitentiary for 25 years, but astoundingly was paroled less than four years later after delivering speeches on the evils of crime and urging young people to earn their money legally.
Ever entrepreneurial, Starr tried selling real estate and performing a stagecoach-robbing act for a Wild West show. He even produced a silent movie, A Debtor to the Law, starring himself; it told the tale of his Oklahoma bank robbery and the crime's ignoble aftermath. A star turn in a couple more films earned him a Hollywood offer, but he turned it down for fear of being prosecuted for a previous California heist. He remarried on February 22, 1920, and settled down in Claremore, Oklahoma—for about a year.
His adventure-junkie nature then led him and a couple of accomplices to hold up a bank in Arkansas for $6,000. This time he had a Nash motorcar instead of a horse to get away, but he was shot in the back while filling his pockets with cash.
Death and Legacy
Starr was killed by William Myers, the former president of the last bank he robbed, who had set up a bandit trap: an armed shotgun in the vault. And although doctors removed the bullet from Starr's spine in jail, he died of his wound on February 22, 1921, with his wife, his mother and his 17-year-old son by his side.
Starr has the odd dual reputation of being both the most successful reformed outlaw, with movies, speeches and a heroic autobiography to his credit. But his claim as the most successful Old West bandit outshines that, with more banks and a dual bank robbery to his credit than any other outlaw or gang, as well as adhering to the outlaw code of never snitching on his accomplices. He became a legend, romanticized as the last of a breed of Wild West horseback outlaws, which gave way to a deadly breed of machine gun-toting outlaws without code or compunction.
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