By Ron Soodalter
On a black July night in 1892, three men, all masked and carrying revolvers, entered the Missouri Pacific Railroad station in Nowata, Indian Territory. One of the bandits, a slim teenager with straight black hair and dark piercing eyes, walked swiftly up to the ticket window, and - for the first time in what would be a nearly three-decades-long career of crime - barked his signature command, "Thumbs up and stand steady!" Within minutes, they were mounted and firing their pistols in the air, $1700 richer, as they sped off into the darkness.
The young man was a three-eighths blood Cherokee named Henry Starr, and he led one of the most remarkable careers in the history of what would become the state of Oklahoma. In the course of his 45 years, he twice escaped the gallows, spanned the course of crime from the days of the horse to the automobile, won the affection of President Teddy Roosevelt, wrote his autobiography, and co-produced and starred in his own feature film. But mostly, he robbed banks.
Henry was arrested for the Nowata hold-up, and bonded, conditional on his appearance in court for trial. The youth balked at the idea of giving up his freedom, however, and he jumped his bond. When Henry failed to appear, a $2,000 reward was placed on his head, and a party of lawmen set off in pursuit. One, an experienced man-hunter named Floyd Wilson, boasted, "We will bring him in alive - or dead." After a search of the area, he spotted Starr on the XU Ranch outside of Nowata, and opened fire. A gunfight ensued, in which Starr shot and killed the lawman.
A posse of hand-picked deputies, calling themselves the "Starr Militia," combed the Nations, without success. Meanwhile, Henry formed a gang and robbed several stores and banks, as well as a passenger train on the Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad line. Eventually, he was caught again, tried before District Judge Isaac C. Parker - the famed "Hanging Judge" of Fort Smith - and, predictably, sentenced to die. But Henry's attorney appealed to the United States Supreme Court, and won the young outlaw a stay of execution and a new trial. February 20, 1894 - the appointed date of his hanging - came and went, as Henry languished in the Fort Smith jail awaiting his trial date.
Meanwhile, another inmate, a nineteen-year-old who had also been sentenced to death, had no intention of awaiting his date with the hangman. His name was Crawford Goldsby, but he had built his reputation as "Cherokee Bill." Tall and thickset, Bill was also of mixed blood; as far as anyone knew, he was part Indian, part Mexican, part Anglo, part Black - and all killer. When Judge Parker condemned the young murderer to hang, no one mourned.
At the time, the lower floors of the Fort Smith jail were occupied by condemned murderers - 59 in all, including Henry Starr and Cherokee Bill. The Indian Territory of the 1880s and '90s harbored some of the most vicious outlaws in the history of the West; but, in the words of regional historian Glenn Shirley, "the most deadly and obstreperous killer the Indian Territory had yet produced [was] Cherokee Bill." He killed without hesitation or remorse.
Bill's lawyer, taking every possible avenue on his client's behalf, had appealed to the Supreme Court - and Judge Parker had granted a stay of execution. In July 1895, as Bill awaited word on the higher court's ruling, someone smuggled a pistol to him on Murderers' Row. The temperature inside the prison cells at this time of year was stifling, and the prisoners were allowed to mingle in the corridors until seven PM. On the evening of July 26, the inmates were ordered back to their cells, as usual, and the cell doors were closed. One of the inmates managed to jury rig a handle with which he threw the doors open, and when the turnkey and guard came by to inspect the cells, Cherokee Bill was calmly waiting, with six-gun in hand.
"Throw up your hands," he barked at the guard, a well-liked older man named Lawrence Keating, "and give me that pistol damned quick!"
When Keating attempted to draw his revolver, Bill shot him in the stomach, and as the guard staggered toward the stairway at the end of the corridor, Bill shot him again. Keating fell, and the turnkey - Geoffrey Eoff - ran down the hall, as Bill rapidly fired four shots at his back, without effect. Bill reloaded, and just as it looked as though the turnkey could not possibly escape death, three night guards arrived at the jail door. They fired at Bill, driving him back to the protection of his cell. Recognizing one of the officers, the mortally wounded Keating weakly pleaded,
"Kill the dog, Will, he has killed me."
By this time, the firing had attracted the marshal and some of his deputies, but Bill's cell was not visible to them, and their firing only ricocheted off the bars. Bill, on the other hand, could cover the corridor without endangering himself. Whenever he fired, he would gobble a sound "half between the bark of a coyote and the throaty cry of a turkey cock." Says historian Glenn Shirley,
"When an Indian 'gobbled' it meant sure death for someone within hearing, as much a threat to kill as if spoken in so many words."
Apparently, Bill had been secretly supplied with a substantial cache of shells, because he continued to fire and gobble his defiance at anyone he saw, including the two men who carried Keating's body away. By now, the corridor was filled with powder smoke, and visibility was poor. Prisoners hid under their bunks, while locals outside the jail screamed, "Lynch him! Hang him!" U.S. Marshal Crump called on Bill to surrender, to which Bill shouted back,
"I didn't want to kill Keating; I wanted my liberty. Damn a man who won't fight for his liberty!"
The stand-off continued. Suddenly, Henry Starr called out to Crump from his cell, offering to take the pistol from Cherokee Bill. A surprised Crump agreed, and Henry walked down the corridor, and into legend. Various historians have embroidered the account of how an unarmed Henry Starr put an end to the killings and the attempted jailbreak. The story needs no embellishment. In his autobiography, Thrilling Events, Henry is very matter-of-fact:
"I pledged myself to get Bill's gun if [Crump] would give me his word of honor that he would not shoot him when disarmed, which he did. I went at once to Bill's cell and told him that he could not possibly get out - that he might be able to kill a few more guards, but that would avail nothing, and to take my advice and give his gun to me, which he did, loaded all round. I walked to the end of the corridor and handed the gun to the guards."
Cherokee Bill was tried for Keating's murder, and this time, Parker's sentence of death stuck. He was hanged on March 17, 1896. When asked if he had anything to say, he replied, "I came here to die, not make a speech."
Henry was re-tried, and sentenced to 15 years. However, the National Council of the Cherokee Nation appealed directly to President Theodore Roosevelt, who always had a soft spot for Wild West characters, and was impressed with the story of Henry and Cherokee Bill. He wired Henry in prison, asking him one simple question:
"Will you be good if I set you free?"
Henry gave his word, and on January 16, 1903, he walked out of prison, went to work in Tulsa, married a schoolteacher, fathered a son whom he named Theodore Roosevelt - and within a few years, resumed his life as a bank robber. After a long career, his run finally ended when a retired bank president shot him down during an attempted robbery. Henry Starr lies in the Dewey, OK, Cemetery, under a recently installed headstone that features his dates, and quotes one of the last things he said:
The Cherokee Badman
Born Dec. 2, 1873
Died Feb. 22, 1921
"I've robbed more banks than any man in America"