Time Before Now – February 1892 – One of the White House’s lesser lights, Ohio attorney Benjamin Harrison, served as the 23rd president. Historic “foundings” included The Women’s Christian Temperence Union in Boston, the Coca Cola Company in Atlanta and the accidental creation of society’s “400” with Mary Astor’s guest list for her extravagant New York City ball. And then there was the defection of the celebrated French artist, Paul Gaugain, to Tahiti. The 44-year-old painter married 13-year-old “Taha amona” in January. He went back briefly to Paris the following year. After returning to Tahiti he never saw Tah amona or their child again.
February 4, 1892
On this day horse thief, bank robber, convicted murderer, hero, author and movie producer, Henry Starr, was was on the lam again after killing sheriff’s deputy Floyd Wilson.
Born in Oklahoma’s Cherokee Nation, perhaps no other outlaw appeared to try harder to reform. Pardoned by President Teddy Roosevelt for heroism during an attempted jail break, he was heralded by the media as the poster boy for rehabilitation. Unfortunately, Henry’s “good me” never seemed to last.
A criminal record running to pages, his pedigree as part of the notorious Starr Clan made it nearly inevitable. The family business had already produced a list of famous bandits and horse thieves for several generations by the time Henry’s aunt, The Bandit Queen, Belle Starr (left) went to prison, along with his uncle, Sam Starr. His grandfather, Tom Starr, often referred to as “the Devil’s own,” had been shunned and branded an outlaw by the Cherokee Tribe for stock rustling.
Born in the rugged outback near Fort Gibson known as “Robbers’ Roost, the area was protected territory for criminals. In a familiar frontier backstory, Henry lost his father at just 13. When his mother married a non-Native named C. N. Walker, the teenager left home and didn’t have far to go before bumping into bad guys eager for an apprentice.
Rendering of Fort Gibson, circa 1872
Young Starr’s first arrest came three years later in 1889, for running whiskey into the Territory. It was an offense federal marshals found unduly heinous and easy to prosecute. Starr pled guilty while declaring his innocence, feeling the odds were against him anyway.
By 1892 he and several cohorts began robbing train stations and a year later upped the anti, robbing a bank in Kansas. Tried for a murder while committing another robbery, he was sentenced to hang. His conviction was overturned twice. He left the courthouse with a reduced charge of first degree manslaughter and inadvertently became a hero in the process.
While Starr was doing time in Fort Smith, Arkansas, Crawford Goldsby, a.k.a the outlaw Cherokee Bill, (right) made an ill-fated attempt to escape with the aid of a crooked trusty. The deadly event cost jailer Lawrence Keeting his life before Starr intervened, convincing the 19-year-old Goldsby to surrender, returning him to his captors unarmed. The episode made Starr famous and won him a pardon from President Teddy Roosevelt. As for Goldsby, he was tried for the murder of the jailer and hanged eight months later.
Released in 1903, Starr married Martha Llewellyn Hulda Starr. She was the daughter of Ellis Starr, a member of the far-flung Cherokee family. The couple’s only child, Roosevelt, was named for the man who had given Henry his freedom.
Five years later he was arrested for misdeeds in Colorado. His prison sentence gave him time to pen an autobiography aptly titled “Thrilling Events: Life of Henry Starr.” Even though he had only a sixth grade education, he was perhaps one of the Wild West’s most erudite crooks, having read most of the classics and studied law nearly sufficient to become an attorney.
His autobiography did the trick. Starr was released by Colorado govenor John Shafroth (left) by promising he wouldn’t leave the state, cross his heart. He quickly robbed 14 banks, accumulating a haul of $25,000, somewhere in the neighborhood of a quarter million today, a “wanted, dead or alive” poster and a $1,000 bounty.
Caught again in Oklahoma trying to hold up two banks the same day, he was sentenced to 25 years and, ta da, paroled less than four years later, rewarded for making stirring speeches on the evils of crime.
The euntrepreneurial Henry turned his hand to selling real estate and enacting pseudo robberies at a Wild West show before producing and starring in a silent movie, “A Debtor to the Law.” (Right) He appeared in several other pre-talkies but turned down an offer in Hollywood, fearful of being prosecuted for an earlier California robbery.
Remarreying in 1920, he returned to Oklahoma and settled down in Claremore, hometown of Will Rogers. It was the bucholic setting for the Rodgers and Hammerstine 1943 musicasl, “Oklahoma.” Once again, redemption eluded Starr, entering into the history books as the first bank robber to forsake a horse for a Nash motorcar.
Alas, he’d apparently used up all his nine lives. He was shot in the back by a booby traped shotgun in the bank vault. Dying of his wounds, four days later, February 22, 1921, at the age of 47, his wife, mother and teenage son were at his bedside. He was laid to rest at Dewey, Oklahoma, as the the nation’s most successful reformed outlaw, believing he’d robbed more banks than Jesse James and the Youngers combined. To date, nobody has bothered to validate his claim.