ksm-notoriousArtwork: Torren Thomas

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, criminals often broke the law on the Kansas plains, but some were rebels with a cause – and others were outlaws

Manifest destiny, a term created by John Lewis O’Sullivan in 1845, was the idea that God destined the United States to stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This philosophy drove 19th-century U.S. territorial expansion and brought floods of people to Kansas. Some came for noble reasons, others simply for gain. For these colonizers of the mid- and late-1800s, setting up a new life on the prairie was no less daunting than traveling across the ocean to new lands. Some Euro-American settlers would do almost anything, including robbery and murder, to survive.

Boomtowns and the sparsely populated frontier became breeding grounds for violent crime. Gunfights sometimes became a way to settle all types of disputes. For some of the first settlers of Kansas, breaking the law became a way of life, and the line between upholding and breaking the law became clouded. Outlaws and lawmen blazed away at each other with revolvers, carbines, and shotguns. Which gunman would go to jail was determined simply by who was—or wasn’t—wearing the badge.

Outlaws of Kansas didn’t fit a specific mold. Many outlaws started as lawmen and found low pay; many needed second jobs to survive. As a result, it was not unusual for outlaws to put on a badge, nor for admired lawmen to stray across the line and thus considerably raise their standard of living.

Kansans love an underdog who stands against perceived tyranny. Some of our state’s most notorious outlaws have long been glorified as daring robbers and swashbuckling killers, their narratives shaped in dime-store novels to reflect frontier ideals of rugged individuality and the pioneer spirit. As a result, retellings might overlook the crimes of the outlaws and see only the romance of the rebel.

So, who were the worst outlaws of the Kansas Wild West? There are plenty of candidates. Kansas was filled with some of the meanest, most devilish and notorious characters you could encounter. Here are some of the worst of the worst.


Edna “Rabbit” Murray “The Kissing Bandit,” 1898–1966

Born in Marion, Martha Edna Stanley moved as a child to Oklahoma and then as an adult to Kansas City, Missouri, where she associated with criminals and participated in a bank robbery—allegedly bestowing a kiss on one of the victims to earn her “Kissing Bandit” nickname. Her nickname “Rabbit” came from her remarkable ability to escape jail, leading to a crime spree across several states that ended with an arrest in Pittsburg in 1935.


Jim Curry, 1841–1899

Born in County Clare, Ireland, Curry arrived in New York at a young age and became a railroad fireman before joining the Union Army and engaging in some of the Civil War’s bloodiest campaigns, such as Antietam. Arriving in Hays City after the war, Curry worked as an army scout, joining battles against Native forces and having numerous crimes attributed—rightly or wrongly—to him. Among those were killing innocent men and boys in the streets of Hays and participating in the 500-shot gun battle between Hays residents and Buffalo soldiers. Curry left in 1879 for Ellsworth, where he killed two men and two women in a dance hall, then to Wichita where he shot his former mistress and another woman. He ended up in Texas, working as a railroad detective and gunning down others, including two more seemingly innocent victims in 1879.


“Texas” Billy Thompson 1845–1897

Born in 1845 in England, Thompson immigrated to the States in time to fight for the Confederacy. His first known peacetime victim was a Union soldier he killed in an Austin, Texas, brothel in 1868. After gunning down a second victim, Thompson fled to Ellsworth, then often referred to as the wickedest town in Kansas. He set up as a gambler, was involved in shoot-outs and accidentally—by most accounts—shot his friend, Sheriff C.B. Whitney. He was captured, jailed, and acquitted before leaving Kansas to rustle cattle and stand trial for a previous murder in Texas and getting involved in more shootouts in Nebraska. Against all odds, he died of natural causes in 1897.


Henry Brown 1857–1884

Henry Brown was born in 1857, orphaned at an early age, raised by relatives in Rolla, Missouri, and would die at the hands of an angry mob in Medicine Lodge when he was just 27. His first known murder was in 1876 in the Texas Panhandle. A year later, he was riding with Billy the Kid in New Mexico territory and participating in a series of gunfights between rival commercial interests and law authorities known as the Lincoln County War. That year, Brown continued raiding camps, shooting rivals, and stealing horses across New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle. In Texas in 1881, Brown became deputy sheriff of Oldham County and the marshal of Tascosa. In 1882, he became the deputy marshal and then the marshal of Caldwell, where he gunned down criminals and rustlers until—facing rising debts—he decided to rob the Medicine Valley Bank in Medicine Lodge. Though Brown shot the bank president dead, he and his group still managed to botch the robbery, and Brown was fatally wounded trying to escape justice.


Luke Short 1854–1893

Born in Arkansas and growing up in Texas, Short traveled through Colorado and Arizona and worked as a farmer, cowboy, whiskey peddler, army scout, dispatch rider, gambler, and saloon keeper. He got in gunfights and killed at least one man before landing in Dodge City and getting in a gunfight in 1883. His last known crime was shooting down a man in 1887 in Fort Worth, Texas.


Robert Reddick Dalton  1869–1892

Born in Cass County, Missouri, in 1869, Robert Reddick Dalton crossed the border to live first in Indian Territory and then within a few miles of Coffeyville in 1882. Six years later, Dalton had been working as a lawman, sometimes serving under his older brother Frank and for the Osage Indian Nation. He killed a wanted outlaw in Coffeyville, and then the son of another outlaw. Accused of abusing his position, Dalton left his post and formed the Dalton Gang with two of his brothers. From 1890 to 1892, they robbed trains and banks and stole horses in New Mexico, California, and Oklahoma. Returning to Coffeyville to pull off a double bank robbery in October 1892, Robert and his brothers were identified and pinned down by civilians. Robert died in the shootout.


Stella “Sure Shot” Mae Irwin Dickson 1922–1995

Born in Topeka in 1922, Stella Dickson’s crime spree was short and closely associated with her husband, Bennie Dickson, whom she married when she was 15. The couple celebrated her 16th birthday in 1938 by pulling off a bank robbery in South Dakota, a caper they would successfully repeat at another South Dakota bank two months later, on Halloween. Their back-to-back robberies as a couple brought some fame and the attention of federal authorities, who chased them into Topeka and then to Michigan. On one of the chases, Dickson shot out the tires of a pursuing car, earning her the nickname “Sure Shot.” But the couple’s luck ran out. Bennie was captured in St. Louis, and Stella was picked up by federal agents in Kansas City, Missouri, in April 1939. Stella was released from prison when she was 26, and she lived in Missouri until she was 72.


William L. “Bully Billy” Brooks 1832–1874

Born around 1832 in Ohio, Brooks was believed to have killed several men in gunfights at different locations before becoming the marshal of Newton in 1872. He was wounded defending the town from two Texas cowboys, an act that helped him get hired that same year as the lawman of Dodge City, where he gunned down criminals and civilians, including the Santa Fe railroad yardmaster and a saloon keeper. After losing a standoff to Buffalo hunter Kirk Jordan in 1873, Brooks fled to Caldwell where he was believed to have been involved with a gang of horse and mule thieves. He was lynched by a mob while being held at the Caldwell jail.


David “Dirty Dave” Rudabaugh 1854–1886

Born in Illinois, Rudabaugh moved with his family to Eureka in 1870. Six years later, he robbed the Santa Fe Railroad construction camp, and then in 1878 he tried to rob a train in Kinsley (only to be captured by Bat Masterson). By 1879 he was a hired gun for the Colorado Railroad Wars and lived out of Dodge City before heading to New Mexico to rob trains. He killed a deputy sheriff and rustled cattle in New Mexico before being captured along with Billy the Kid in 1880. In 1881, he made two jail escapes, shooting and killing a man on his first attempt. For a while, little was heard from Rudabaugh though it as reported he was involved in a gunfight and wounded a man in Chihuahua before being ambushed and killed in 1886.  


David Allen “Mysterious Dave” Mather c. 1851–unknown

Born in Connecticut in 1851, Mather is believed to have traveled and held various jobs before showing up as a cattle rustler in Sharp County, Arkansas, in 1873. The next year, he was wounded in a knife fight over a card game in Dodge City. Five years later, he appears to have been recruited as a hired gun by the Topeka and Santa Fe Railway before heading out to New Mexico, working as a lawman while also possibly robbing trains (though he was acquitted). Returning to Dodge City, Mather took up the post of assistant marshal, then began running a saloon. In 1884, he shot dead a rival saloon owner, was acquitted of the crime, and fatally wounded a cowboy over a card game. He wound up in Ashland a year later, killing another man during a card game, jumping bail and then disappearing.


Notorious: Rebels for a Good Cause