Shooting Starr: The Banker and the Armed Robber

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Situation: Armed senior citizen ends the career of a cop-killer who proudly declared himself America’s most prolific bank robber.

Lesson: A fast-firing rifle is a good thing for good guys to have when facing multiple armed criminals, and bad guys should learn the error of their ways the first time they get shot by an armed citizen.

It’s a cold and nasty February morning in Harrison, AR, when an automobile pulls up in front of the bank under slate-gray skies dropping icy rain and sleet. The driver stays at the wheel of the getaway car as the three gunmen it disgorges smoothly and swiftly enter the bank.

Two of the robbers hold customers and tellers at gunpoint while the leader of the gang penetrates into the vault, a large revolver in one hand and a pillowcase in the other. With everyone in sight seemingly cowed into submission, the gang leader bends down into the cash vault, stuffing bundles of greenbacks into the pillowcase. He is oblivious to the old man behind him who stealthily reaches up for something the veteran bank robber hasn’t seen: the long gun suspended from two steel pegs behind him in the vault.

The roar of the gun reverberates through the vault room.

Violently jerking at the impact, the robber falls on his back, dropping his handgun. The gunshot has blasted into his right side and smashed his backbone, severing his spinal cord. He moans, “Don’t shoot me anymore,” and then, finding his command voice again he shouts, “I’m done for, boys! Don’t kill anyone! Get out!”

Fearing for the lives of employees and customers, the old man racks another round into the chamber and rushes into the lobby, gun raised, but the other two gunmen are already heading out the door of the bank. They jump into the getaway car, which careens away. The old man shoots at the fleeing vehicle and the gunmen return fire, but no one is hit on either side.

The car disappears across a nearby bridge.

Inside, bleeding and partially paralyzed, Henry Starr begins his long, slow demise. The year is 1921. Henry Starr will say some memorable things on his deathbed. One is he has robbed more banks than any man in America. And he is proud of it.

The Citizen Who Killed Starr

Researching William J. Myers, the 60-something man who dropped Starr, it’s easy to get confused. Various historians describe him as president of the bank, retired president of same, stockholder and clerk. American Handgunner went to the best source we could find: Toinette Madison at the Boone County Historical Society in Harrison, AR, the town where the incident occurred. It turns out Bill Myers was the former president of the bank Starr and his gang targeted, and was still a stockholder. He simply happened to be in the bank on the day and time in question.

More important, though, he had been heavily involved in building the bank a dozen years before. Having had previous experience elsewhere working in banks getting robbed, Myers had designed the vault with an escape door — and with an emergency firearm.

Here again some history writers have muddied the waters. At least one source says Myers blasted Starr with a shotgun. Toinette Madison confirmed a fact more historians got right: the gun Myers used was a Winchester Model 1873, caliber .38 WCF (Winchester Center Fire, aka the .38-40). He had planted the gun on wall pegs, loaded, when the bank was built. No one had cleaned, lubed, or checked it since, and Myers would later tell friends in the moments before he cut loose, he wasn’t sure whether the Winchester would go “click” or “bang.”

It turns out the Starr shooting wasn’t Bill Myers’ first experience as an armed citizen. In Baxter, AR the March 1, 1946 edition of Mountain Home carried the story that in Troy, TN in 1903, Myers “… was a stockholder in the Troy Bank and one night he was awakened by a blast he knew came from the Troy Bank.

He and his two brothers leaped out of bed, grabbed their guns and raced to the bank. Out came the bandits carrying the loot when the brothers arrived. They opened fire on the bandits, knocked down three and saved the money.”

The First Citizen

Just as the Harrison incident wasn’t the first time Bill Myers shot it out with bank robbers, it also wasn’t the first time Henry Starr got shot by an armed citizen. In Stroud, OK in 1915, Starr led a gang attempting to rob two banks at once. The incident was witnessed by a young boy named Ernest Nichols, who had come to town with his uncle Hamer to deliver some hogs. Many years later, Ernest’s daughter-in-law Kathleen Nichols published his recollections of that day:

“In the Stockyard in Stroud on that ‘infamous day’ of the robbery, Ernest Nichols age 10, and his uncle Thomas Hamer Godfrey were taking two loads of hogs to town (Stroud). Ernest recalled, ‘Frank Wigam bought the hogs, and told my uncle Hamer to put them at the depot, as he had a packing house at Bristow, OK. We got in to Stroud about 8:30 AM and began to back up to unload the hogs, but there were horses in the stock yard where our hogs were supposed to go. A man came up to Uncle Hamer and told him he could not put the hogs in the pen right now. He had a couple of guns on his hips, and told Uncle Hamer that the hogs would be okay, ‘We’ll get out of your pen soon,’ he had a couple of six shooters too and we weren’t going to argue with him. The man told my Uncle Hamer, ‘Henry Starr is robbing both the banks this morning.’ They saw Henry Starr walking toward the horses in the pen where they were waiting, he walked behind the bunch of men, and Henry Starr fell behind while walking. A man named Curry, had a grocery store and meat market, and he had an old .22 single shot gun, called it a hog rifle, there in the store. His son, Paul (aged 20) got the gun and got behind a wooden barrel and shot Henry Starr in the hip.... Starr fell to the ground. The other men went, got the horses and left. They captured Starr. Henry Starr had sent both banks a postcard the day before, telling them he was going to rob their banks. He’d rob the banks and feed the poor people. Starr said it was okay that the rest of the gang left, they agreed it would be every man for himself.” (1)

The young man who shot Starr reportedly received a reward of $1,000, the equivalent of about $12,700 today. Historians disagree on some details of the shooting. At least one source insists Starr was downed that day with a .30-30 rifle. This creates some skepticism: a .30-30 wound in the hip, treated with the medical protocols of more than a century ago, would likely have left Starr permanently crippled, and I can find no indication he suffered such a handicap later in life.

Also in question is the age of the hero who shot him in Stroud; some postulate the armed citizen was as young as 15, while 17 is the most commonly quoted age. In any case, Starr was shot at many times in his life by prime of life males and never hit. He appears to have had poorer luck on the two ends of the age bell curve.

Captured and in custody, being treated for his gunshot wound, Starr asked the doctors what he had been shot with. Told it was a gun used in the nearby slaughterhouse for killing pigs, Starr famously replied, “I’ll be damned! I don’t mind getting shot. Knew it had to happen sooner or later. But a kid with a hog gun? That hurts my pride.”

Moments before Paul Curry shot him down, Starr had fared better against another armed citizen. Leaving the bank behind a human shield, Starr had spotted a citizen with a shotgun and fired at him with the Remington Model 8 he had just used to rob the bank, tearing the citizen’s clothing with the .35 Remington slug but missing flesh. (2)

Famous Last Words

Starr lingered for a few days before succumbing to his wound. It gave him ample time for quotable last words.

In a retrospective on this incident published in 1932 in the Baxter Bulletin, we find this: “Henry Starr is probably the only bandit in the country who ever spoke well of the man who dealt him his death wound. In speaking of Mr. Myers, he said, ‘I do not blame him at all. He was at one end of the game and I was at the other and he won. He had a cool hand and steady nerve. He is wasting his time in the banking business.’”

Six years earlier, Starr had occasion to meet the young man who had shot him in Stroud and tell him, “You are all right, boy.”

Pretty damn sporting of Mr. Starr, all things considered.

On his deathbed, Starr claimed, “I’ve robbed more banks than any man in America.”

Perspective

Henry Starr was neither the first nor the last “celebrity criminal,” but he was one of the most self-aggrandizing, and he literally made a career of it. At the time of his death — and even since — he was seen by many as a Robin Hood fighting back at an unfair system, stealing from the rich to give to the poor. One statement he made on his deathbed was interpreted differently by some who recounted it. According to one side, he proudly said he had never killed a man. Others heard, “I never killed anyone during a robbery.” Only the latter was true.

Born in 1873 in what was then known as the Indian Territories and is now known as Oklahoma, he was part Cherokee. Arrested and convicted at a young age for bringing prohibited alcohol into the territories and swearing — perhaps truthfully — that he didn’t know the booze was in the wagon belonging to someone else, he felt himself unfairly punished and decided to fight back by living outside the law.

That is what Robin Hoods are made from, but robbin’ hoods are something else. Those who thought him a hero didn’t see the stone-cold sociopathic side — the cop-killer side.
In 1892 U.S. Deputy Marshal Floyd Wilson attempted to serve an arrest warrant on Starr, who refused to accept it. Both men were on horseback and armed with rifles. Wilson dismounted and, Starr said later, fired first, but at least one witness said it was clearly a warning shot. Starr shot the deputy who fell, wounded, and drew his revolver when his rifle jammed. Starr shot the prostrate man two more times.

And then, Starr walked up to the severely wounded and now helpless deputy, and shot him in the heart from a distance so close the gunpowder seared the lawman’s garments. Starr’s claim of self-defense was inconsistent with the final execution shot to the heart. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to the gallows by famed “hanging judge” Isaac Parker. (3)

But life seemed to deal Starr more “get out of jail free” cards than a Monopoly game. His conviction was overturned by a court of appeals; his next trial resulted in another conviction and another successful appeal; and a disgusted judge who had replaced Parker finally settled for a manslaughter conviction with a sentence of only three years. In prison, Starr was a model inmate and convinced everyone from the warden to the Cherokee National Council he was completely reformed.

President Theodore Roosevelt reviewed the request for Starr’s pardon, and sent him a telegram asking, “Will you be good if I set you free?” With uncharacteristic naiveté, Roosevelt granted the pardon when Starr made the promise. Starr appreciated it enough to, not long thereafter, name his newborn son Theodore Roosevelt Starr.

The centerpiece of Starr’s reinvention of himself as a criminal who had “turned his life around” took place in 1895 at the jail in Fort Smith, AR. Starr had become friendly with fellow inmate Crawford “Cherokee Bill” Goldsby, who was believed to have murdered some 14 people and was awaiting the noose. Cherokee Bill managed to get hold of a gun, murder a guard, and create a standoff situation. Starr, partly Cherokee himself, talked the killer into surrendering, thus sealing his own image as a reformed criminal.

In 1914 he wrote his autobiography, Thrilling Events, and in 1919 produced and starred in a silent film based on his life, Debtor to the Law. Starr had become a star, able to look good on a movie poster and projecting a commanding presence. One writer describes him as standing six-feet-seven. He had said publicly that crime didn’t pay: “I’m 45 years old, and I’ve spent 17 of those years in prison.” Yet the Stroud robbery subsequent to the book, and his final robbery in Harrison after the movie, showed how much he cared about his “debt to the law.”

The Guns Of Henry Starr

Those who knew him said Starr was a superb marksman. He wrote in his autobiography of riding and shooting daily to keep in practice. (4) If nothing else, he had good taste in firearms: Colt and Winchester primarily, but also Remington and Savage. The .35 caliber Remington Model 8 autoloading rifle he wielded in Stroud in 1915 was the same make, model and caliber legendary Texas Ranger Frank Hamer would use to take down Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in 1934. Researcher Lee Adelsbach (5) tracked down a fine .38 Special target revolver, a Colt Officer’s Model with 7.5" barrel, Starr gave to a lawman in gratitude for releasing him after an arrest. Starr appears to have preferred the Single Action Army revolver, usually in .45 Colt, but owned at least one documented SAA in .41 caliber.

The Model ’73 Winchester ending his life is on display at the Boone County Historical Society in Harrison, AR. I can’t find what became of the gun Starr himself wielded on his “last ride.” In most descriptions it’s simply “a heavy revolver” and the most precise description I can find is “double action .45 revolver.” That could be anything from a gate-loading 1878 Colt to one of the many .45 ACP Colt and S&W Model 1917’s brought home from WWI.

Starr was also known to use the 1899 Savage rifle, and therein lies a relevant tale. Those who succumbed to his “glamorous bad boy” image saw him as a Robin Hood, but the closest I can find to him stealing from the rich to give to the poor was one bank robbery in which he gave a little girl in the bank lobby a fistful of pennies to calm her down.
Toinette Madison in Boone County tells us after the final robbery in Madison, Starr’s three accomplices burned the getaway car and fled. They were arrested later. Sometime thereafter, a young man found a Savage 99, caliber .250/3000, hidden in a brush pile 50 to 75 yards from the site of the abandoned getaway car. During the Depression, many local folks borrowed that rifle from its new owner to shoot deer to feed their families. Long after, when it was being cleaned, someone removed the butt-plate and found a five point star cut into the butt. On the five points of the star were carved the letters H-E-N-R-Y.

And this may be the closest this so-called “Robin Hood” ever came to feeding the poor.

Oh, and about the getaway car. In some accounts, it’s described as a Model T Ford. Au contraire: Toinette Madison confirms it was a Nash touring car. Many sources (including the current Wikipedia entry on Starr) claim the Harrison raid was the first instance of “motorized bandits.” When I was in Tombstone, AZ for the Western History Symposium some years ago, I got to meet Marshall Trimble, a researcher whose diligence I have long respected. He wrote of Starr in the pages of True West magazine, “Although some credit Henry and his pals as the first bank robbers to use a car for his getaway, that honor goes to two California bank robbers (who) fled in their auto in a 1909 robbery in Santa Clara.” (6)

Lessons

Not once but twice, armed citizens aborted Starr’s robberies and shot down a man who in the past had cold-bloodedly murdered a peace officer.

If you can’t carry a defensive firearm on your person, at least have one or more strategically placed where you can reach it in a predictable emergency.

When introduced in 1873, the Winchester W.J. Myers used that day was the “assault rifle” of its time, with relatively high cartridge capacity and speed of fire. It allowed a lone sexagenarian to rout an entire four-man gang of heavily armed criminals and prevent injury or death to the innocent people within the mantle of his protection.

Charm and faux sincerity are the stock in trade of sociopathic criminals. Henry Starr was neither the last nor the first to play the “I’m a changed man” card, and those who gave him premature release into society again and again were certainly not the last to fall for it.

(1) http://www.skypoint.com/members/jkm/oklincoln/families/starr.html



(2) Adelsbach, Lee. “Henry Starr” in Guns and the Gunfighters, New York, NY: Bonanza Books (1982), p. 170;

(3) https://www.nps.gov/fosm/learn/historyculture/floyd_wilson.htm



(4) Starr, Henry. Thrilling Events: Life of Henry Starr. Tulsa, OK: R.D. Gordon, 1914;

(5) Adelsbach, op. cit.;

(6) https://truewestmagazine.com/outlaw-henry-starr/

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