Confessions of the Outlaw: The Lazarus Life of Emmett Dalton
Coffeyville, Kansas 1892
Trains brought people from nearby towns, who sliced keepsakes from his dead brothers’ clothes where they lay; clipped hair from the manes and tails of their fallen horses and cut the strings off their saddles. In the street, he was nearly picked over for souvenirs himself before he was carried upstairs, where only the coroner’s word that he would die prevented a lynching.
Now up in Doctor Well’s office the deathwatch was underway for the last and youngest of the Dalton gang. Emmett had suffered more than twenty wounds in that day’s shooting, and his name had already appeared with the published dead from the raid when a newspaper writer made his way into the room where Emmett lay under guard. He opened a notebook in which to copy down the young man’s last statement, noting “The physicians attending him say he cannot possibly survive.”
One by one the pawed-over bodies of the gang were carried to Emmett’s room, where he confirmed each corpse as it was presented — Grat Dalton, Dick Broadwell, Bill Powers — his poise breaking especially when they stretchered in his favorite brother, one pant leg cut to the knee by souvenir hunters. Yes, Emmett choked, “I identify that as my brother Bob Dalton.”
Clearly young Emmett wouldn’t live to stand trial, and so was free to give a full account of his twenty years of life, especially the two violent years riding with his older brothers before he followed them to their deaths. “The bandit told his story with great difficulty,” wrote the newspaperman, who found “nothing coarse, nor brutal, nor villainous looking about him.” Not everything he said could be trusted, of course, since he might still be worried about the lynch mob returning. But he was the only living witness from the gang. Of his brother Bob’s plan for that morning’s double robbery, Emmett said, “We tried to persuade him not to do it, and then he called us cowards. That settled it, and we started for the scene of the raid.”
After verifying the dead and giving his best account of the botched robbery and gun battle, of being shot from his saddle while reaching a hand down to wounded Bob, Emmett mumbled “something about his dead brothers,” noted the reporter, and began to cry. The sheriff waved everyone out of the room.
In the morning, Emmett’s newspaper confession ran coast-to-coast. The Dalton gang’s ‘extermination’ shared front pages across the country with the quieter death of the English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose famous Light Brigade rode to its own violent end. Nearly as remarkable as the story Emmett told was that he lived to read it.
In later years, Emmett had no illusions why people crowded around him in restaurants just to watch him eat his supper. He was a relic from what he called the “dangerously bright days” of the border outlaws; audiences came to his talks to hear a paunchy ex-bank-robber speak with a flourish of regret about his devilish times. Transformed by prison and the reckoning that claimed his brothers, he was a kind of Lazarus man. “The sea of time,” he lectured, “is strewn with wrecks, and most of these wrecks are caused by men and boys not following the true chart in the voyage of life.”
As he traveled the circuit, crowds loved to see the short film he had made about Coffeyville and imagine themselves dispatching bad men as those brave townspeople had done. Emmett lugged his big book of press clippings into each city’s newspaper office, hoping another reporter might write about the “pound and a half” of buckshot and bullets he carried inside him.
But he was a haunted curiosity. After educating packed houses in Waterloo, Iowa or in Janesville, Wisconsin, Dalton would cut loose in saloons, sometimes until he was dragged away by city police. He might start a fight over his speaking fee at a Bartlesville opera house, get clipped by an automobile while staggering across a Tulsa street, or brawl with officers who’d helped him back to his room in Rushville, Indiana; often he woke not in his hotel but parched and unshaven in a jail cell. He was newly discharged the night a crowd found him eating in Cherryvale, Kansas, where a reporter confirmed he looked stubble-cheeked and like he “hadn’t seen water recently.”
In the spring of 1912, a police sergeant spotted a dark-browed, middle-aged traveler dressed as a cowboy, weaving and looking a bit lost in the St. Louis Union Station. The cowboy and his walking companion, who seemed almost as far in the bag, were escorted to the train station’s police headquarters, where the sergeant asked the cowboy for his name and occupation to write in the blotter. His answer was adamant: “Emmett Dalton, sir, of Bartlesville, Oklahoma. My business? I am an ex-bandit, ex-train robber, ex-bank robber. I am showing St. Louis how I used to hold up banks.” The police sergeant was amazed to learn he had not only the last of the Daltons but the man standing unsteadily beside him was his older cousin Cole Younger, once of the James-Younger gang. Emmett was held for drunkenness, and Cole left his cousin sleeping on a jail bench in his cowboy clothes.
But it was while lecturing in Joplin, Missouri the following year that Emmett finally ran out of bail. After being hauled in for drunkenness four times in one week, he became trapped in the town’s jail, his sentence increased to thirty-one days. Dalton complained in the newspaper that Joplin’s facility was starker than the Kansas penitentiary where he had served. His complaint was read by a young miner living in Joplin named James C. Brown, who took a lifelong interest in the Daltons. His father had been a shoemaker in Coffeyville, Kansas in 1892, he told Joplin’s chief of police: “In the Coffeyville raid Emmett Dalton killed my father. I was just a little fellow, but I swore that I would some day avenge my father’s death.”
The father, Charles Brown, had been shot in the street after retrieving a Winchester from the hands of his fallen business associate. Brown aimed and was quickly shot down by the outlaws himself before he could fire. “I nursed an oath to kill Dalton for thirteen years,” young Brown told a reporter. “A few years ago I gave up the idea and now I want to do Dalton a good turn by getting him out of jail.” Brown offered to pay Dalton’s fine if it could be reduced, “I want to return good for evil.” According to jailhouse witnesses, Emmett teared up when he learned about the gesture by the shoemaker’s son, though he claimed it was Bob Dalton who’d killed the elder Brown.
‘Love of my brothers’
The Dalton gang had formed two years before their fatal raid. Of the fifteen children born to Adeline Younger and Lewis Dalton (originally a Kansas City, Mo. bartender) thirteen survived, and of these, four became outlaws: Bob, Grat, and the teenaged Emmett, while Bill Dalton eventually formed his own Doolin-Dalton gang. Emmett, the ninth son, was born in 1871, and at 16 left the family’s homestead to work as a cowboy in the Indian Territory that became Oklahoma.
The eldest, Frank Dalton, was a fatherly, heroic figure to his younger brothers, who followed him into the Marshall’s service. But after Frank was murdered by whiskey runners during an arrest in 1887, the bitter shock would color his grieving brothers’ experience as lawmen, and, along with the job’s infrequent pay, tempt them to cross the line.
Any story about the Dalton brothers and the Coffeyville raid is also about their older Missouri cousins the Youngers, bank-robbing nephews of Emmett’s mother Adeline Younger. Cole Younger had ridden with Jesse James and before that was a Confederate raider with Col. William Clarke Quantrill. Many of the outlaws of the latter 19th century had been bushwackers who never stopped raiding and killing after Appomattox. The Daltons were all born too late to have fought in the Civil War, and Bob Dalton, the gang’s leader, had wanted to best his bandit cousins when he planned to rob two banks at the same time in the fall of 1892, something never accomplished even by Jesse James.
In 1890, Bob, Grat, and Emmett quit their work as deputy U.S. Marshalls in the Oklahoma territory after not being paid for some months. (Just before quitting, however, Bob used his office to shoot a romantic rival dead in a suspicious arrest.) Bob was charged in March 1890 for selling liquor to Indians, but jumped bail, and Emmett’s oldest surviving brother Grat, impulsive even by outlaw standards, was arrested for horse thievery that September, a capital offense. The gang robbed four trains in Indian Territory from the spring of 1891 to July 1892, when Grat escaped custody and returned to the gang.
Bob targeted two banks in a town the brothers knew intimately, Coffeyville, having spent some years living on its outskirts in their parents’ house. Hitting banks in a place where they were known might be less risky than robbing yet another train, he explained to the others, but still they’d wear disguises. “Bob said that he could discount the James boys’ work and go up and rob both banks at Coffeyville in one day,” Emmett said in his statement after the raid. “I told them I did not want any of it at all.” His older brothers prevailed over his wishes for a last time. Though the scheme seemed like hubris, Emmett rode loyally on to Coffeyville “out of love for my brothers.”
Bob promised the Coffeyville job was rich enough to be the gang’s “last trick.” So, on a clear morning, October 5, 1892, after breakfasting on biscuits and hardboiled eggs camped in a thicket outside town the Dalton gang donned beards and side-whiskers and headed out. Along the way they passed “the old farm home of our parents,” Emmett wrote. “The big light-green house and the red weathered barn stood out clear and remembered in the still autumn morning.” According to later reports, what witnesses there were took these five purposeful riders to be a deputy U.S. Marshall and his posse returning from a mission to the nearby Cherokee Nation.
David Stewart Elliott had been a civil war colonel and newspaperman back in Pennsylvania before he moved to Kansas and became the editor of the Coffeyville Journal. Col. Elliott knew a Dalton when he saw one and they knew him, since in his other business as a lawyer he had handled a divorce proceeding for their mother. He saw most of the fighting that day, and soon after produced a commemorative anatomy of the bloody raid. As the men rode in that morning, “No arms were visible on any of them,” he wrote. “Their coats were closely buttoned and their broad-brimmed black slouch hats set forward on their foreheads. Reaching the junction….the horses’ heads were turned east, and the animals urged into a brisk, swinging trot.”
The Daltons had planned to use a particular hitching rail they remembered in town to conceal their approach to the banks. But they discovered their hitch replaced with a pile of rocks dug out for a new curb and gutter, forcing them to tether their horses in a more public spot. As they nervously walked across the town plaza, Emmett remembered, “Our appearance was not unusual although each of us had our revolvers at our side and all carried Winchesters.” Three of the gang (Grat Dalton, Dick Broadwell, Bill Powers) entered the C.M. Condon & Company Bank while Bob and Emmett walked toward the First National across the street. The gang’s disguises quickly proved useless when a wagon driver named Charlie Gump saw men pointing rifles at employees inside the Condon Bank and guessed pretty easily what was happening.
Almost no one in Coffeyville was armed when the gang rode in that morning around half-past nine — even the Marshall had left his firearm at home. But, while not carrying weapons, they knew where to get firearms and how to use them. The town’s two hardware stores functioned as militias that day, the proprietors arming the town, starting with Gump, uncasing rifles and ammunition as soon as word came of the attack on the banks. Gump left his wagon to grab a Winchester inside the Isham Brothers & Mansur hardware store, shouting, “There go the Daltons!” loud enough, he boasted later, “they could hear me in Nowata — and that’s twenty-four miles.” As word flew around the square that a robbery was on, “Men and women came running with shotguns and pistols and pocket knives.” Gump became the first person shot when Bob Dalton fired his rifle at his gun hand. Gump fell in pain, his new gunstock shattered, and was dragged back inside the store by friends.
Then the cashier of the Condon Bank, Charles Ball, told a risky lie that turned the Daltons’ raid into a battle. When asked hotly by Grat Dalton to unlock the Condon Bank vault Ball claimed that it was on a timer that wouldn’t open for ten more minutes; in fact, it had been unlocked since eight o’clock. (He may have read how the brave cashier at Northfield, Minnesota stalled Jesse James by saying something similar in 1876.) Ball’s lie gained time for those outside the building to secure guns and train them on the bank’s front windows and open fire. The Condon Bank later showed 80 bullet marks.
From Emmett’s later wistful perspective Ball’s maneuver had cost lives on both sides by giving the town time to arm and making it a battle. If the Daltons had just been allowed to leave clean with the money no one would have been hurt. With three of the gang under siege at the Condon Bank, the other half of the double-robbery went closer to plan. But, upon hearing the shots outside, Bob and Emmett still had to escape from the back door of the First National into an alley, where they waited, Emmett holding a sack filled with $23,000 cash. A clerk named Lucius Baldwin appeared about fifty feet from them, holding a new revolver from Isham’s, and walked skittishly toward the brothers, who may or may not have commanded Baldwin to halt before Bob Dalton fired his Winchester into his chest. He died three hours later. As the two turned the corner from the alley, they saw George Cubine, who had once made boots for the Dalton boys, standing before his shoe shop holding a rifle. One of them killed Cubine with a single shot before the shoemaker Charles Brown, whose son would pay Emmett’s bail years later, stooped to retrieve Cubine’s gun. “As he rose up Bob fired again,” Emmett claimed. “Brown fell dead.”
H.H. Isham was a transplanted New York businessman and marksman and senior partner at Isham’s Hardware, which looked out on the Condon Bank. Isham settled in with a rifle at a second floor window waiting for his shot and was joined upstairs by several other shooters under his command. As the three robbers fled the Condon bank a barrage from Isham’s snipers hit Grat Dalton and Bill Powers before they’d gone twenty steps, Col. Elliott noted, and “The dust was seen to fly from their clothes.” Powers desperately tried a storefront door that proved to be locked, then made his way to his horse, where he was shot dead trying to mount. Grat Dalton was already wounded when he spotted Marshall Charles T. Connelly in front of him, glancing away toward the outlaws’ tethered horses. Grat shot the distracted Marshall in the back, killing him, but Grat and the remaining gang were now trapped in what would be called ‘Death Alley.’ “All the time, I had expected the firing to die away,” wrote Emmett, “to feel myself on the back of my horse plunging away…But there was no let-up.”
A Bavarian immigrant liveryman named John Joseph Kloehr aimed a new Winchester from Boswell’s hardware and shot Bill Broadwell as he tried to ride away down the alley. Broadwell hung on long enough to die a half-mile outside of town. Then Kloehr hit Grat Dalton twice, the second time through the throat. “The bullets, as they passed up the alley…had the peculiar ‘zip’ that accompanies a minie ball,” admired Col. Elliott. Grat died still wearing his false whiskers and carrying the Condon bank’s eleven hundred dollars inside his vest. Also wounded by the Isham’s shooters, Bob Dalton rested against some piled curbstones near the city jail, where John Kloehr finally shot his third member of the gang at the same moment a town barber named Carey Seaman hit Bob with a load of buckshot.
Though wounded now in his hip and with a broken arm from another bullet, Emmett Dalton climbed on his horse with the sack of money. But instead of following Dick Broadwell out of town he turned back to ride through the gunfire toward the plaza to reach Bob, who lay unbearded and dying on the ground. He reached down one hand to pull his brother onto his saddle with the moneybag. As he did, Carey Seaman fired both barrels again, blasting Emmett from his horse with a full load of shot in his back. He fell, along with the sack of money.
“Then came darkness and quiet,” Emmett wrote. “The popping of the guns died away. The brightness of the sun ceased and all was still.” On the ground, he surrendered his two pearl-handled pistols to Col. Elliott, who had been decent to his mother. The battle had lasted roughly twelve minutes from first shot to last and left four townspeople dead as well as four of the five robbers — two Dalton brothers (Bob and Grat) and the gang’s two other bandits (Powers and Broadwell). The outlaw corpses were left for a time sprawled where they’d fallen or stood up singly for ghoulish portraits while the coroner was telegrammed for an inquest.
Dalton spent five months in the hospital before he had recovered enough to be tried for the gang’s crimes. Given a life sentence, his prison behavior impressed his wardens enough that the Kansas governor commuted his term after almost fifteen years. He emerged in 1911 furious over all the “weird, bloody, catch-penny, yellow-backed novels” pitching lurid fables about his brothers, especially those libeling the noble Frank Dalton, who had died as a lawman before the gang was formed. After Emmett’s release, he married his boyhood sweetheart, Julia Johnson, and made a return visit to Coffeyville, where he was largely welcomed to make his three-reel movie evoking the gang’s last moments. People liked being reminded of their triumph over the gang.
Emmett appeared on double-bills with “the world’s most noted feudist,” the murderous patriarch Devil ‘Anse’ Hatfield, whose own brief film about the Hatfield-McCoy war Emmett had produced and sometimes introduced on alternate nights with his Dalton lecture. In 1918, Emmett finally published his own book about the Daltons, Beyond the Law, and took it to Hollywood, where Emmett sensed there was a great demand for “good, snappy Western historical pictures, built on facts.”
Hollywood was obviously the next place for his educating work about his days with his brothers. The era Emmett had known as a border outlaw was being translated to the screen, its myths largely intact. It was natural that Emmett would come to Los Angeles with his book about his brothers,where he met the lanky, long-faced silent film star William S. Hart, known for the authenticity of what he called “horse operas”. Hart happily added Emmett to his group of Western friends.
In the resulting film, Beyond the Law, Emmett played himself as a young bandit and appeared across the country, frequently narrating multiple showings at each movie house. But he couldn’t appear everywhere to support the film, which ended up with a disappointing box-office. Emmett also starred as the “Man of the Desert,” in which a mysterious rider on a dark horse appears out of the hills to aid settlers in trouble. With his wife Julia he settled in a modest stucco house in the Hollywood hills, did other acting work, sold scenarios and increasingly involved himself in real estate.
Apart from his own screen work, Emmett remained skeptical of much Western storytelling, especially the flashy conventions of movie gunfights: “Personally I have met hundreds of bad men, hard men, shooting men, killers, both peace officer and outlaw, and I have yet to see the first notch on any of their six-shooters.” Never had he seen anyone ‘fan’ his pistol, nor shoot from the hip or “waste precious ammunition by using two guns simultaneously.” However, his objections had little effect. Audiences liked to be told what they were watching was authentic, but they enjoyed trick-riding stunts and twirling gunplay more.
Emmett finally sued a studio over a film that too closely resembled the life of his brothers. But it was too late: the Daltons’ story had become too well-known (from his hard work) to be considered legally unique. In 1925, Emmett also brought a million-dollar libel suit against the publisher of True Confessions Magazine for running stories about his criminal career whose source was a man who regularly posed as Emmett Dalton. In death as in life, people loved to read about the Dalton gang’s escapades, true or not.
During the Prohibition years, Dalton jealously watched as new criminal gangs of received folk-hero treatment in newspapers. He claimed there was no such national ‘Crime Wave’ as J. Edgar Hoover alleged, just more new laws being broken. “Those fellows gunning around here now aren’t outlaws,” he told a reporter in 1931. “These gangsters today, they even have bodyguards….Imagine Jesse James or one of the Dalton boys with a bodyguard.”
As an answer to the new era of Dillinger and Capone he produced a slicker, more romantic book about the Daltons, whom he now called “the most spectacular and widely roving band of border outlaws”. When the Daltons Rode describes its author unapologetically as “an outlaw of the old school” whose life had seemed to peak riding with his brothers when he was nineteen: “I can still hear the echo of my horse’s drumming feet as I careened out of a hectic New Mexico mining camp, a posse at my heels and the protesting yelp of guns in my ears.”
Emmett remained a professional ex-bandit in Hollywood to the end, but returned to Coffeyville in 1936 to break bread with Charlie Gump, who’d sounded the alarm that day and got wounded for it by Bob Dalton. Gump had stayed on in the town and was the last living of its heroes who’d brought down the bandits. The two surviving combatants, shot on opposite sides in the battle, got together over that Thanksgiving. Newspapers billed the meeting as a burying of long-held grudges, but according to Gump, “I always thought kindly of Emmett. He was the young one and his brothers dragged him into it.”
Emmett died of a stroke the next year, having felt the pull of his lost brothers to the end, at 66. His wife announced his wish to the newspapers to have his ashes sent from Hollywood back to Coffeyville to be interred among the gang, taking his place beside Bob, whose idea the double-robbery had been. But the ashes were sent instead to his pious sister Leona in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, who buried them in the Dalton family plot discreetly after dark, and requested there be no marker until after her own death. When Emmett’s wife Julia died in 1943, Emmett’s marker at last went up, bearing a hopeful declaration the last of the Dalton boys might not have chosen for himself, HERE I LAY SLEEPING/ BUT NOT TO REMAIN/ I LOOK FOR THE COMING OF JESUS AGAIN.
But she might just as well have quoted Emmett himself: Outlaw fashions change, but lawlessness runs on forever.