Crime streak to silver screen

After a life on the lam, Western outlaw Emmett Dalton of the Dalton gang took on Hollywood.
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After a life on the lam, Western outlaw Emmett Dalton of the Dalton gang took on Hollywood.
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Emmett Dalton (1871–1937) was born in Westport, Mo., the youngest boy of 15 children. His father worked as a horse trader and saloon manager in town until the family moved to Coffeyville, Kan., in 1886. At 16, Emmett signed on as a cowboy at the Bar-X-Bar Ranch in Triangle Country, where he worked until his brother, Deputy Frank Dalton, was killed by horse thieves in November of 1887. Hoping to vindicate their brother’s death, Bob and Grat Dalton became U.S. Deputy Marshals. Emmett was too young to enlist, but rode with them as a posseman. Soon after their appointment, the Dalton boys uncovered an illegal gambling arena run by powerful government men and were immediately fired.

Disillusioned with the law, the Dalton brothers made an impromptu, intoxicated attempt to rob a Southern Pacific train on Feb. 6, 1891. They couldn’t open the train’s safe, but their botched effort left one fireman mortally wounded. Sketches of the gang were soon plastered on wanted posters across the frontier, though Emmett later claimed that he and his brothers were falsely accused of the failed robbery and blamed their subsequent notoriety for condemning them to a life outside the law. Whatever their reasons, within a year the “Dalton Boys” became the most famous train robbers in the West.

Their crime streak ended in their hometown of Coffeyville on Oct. 5, 1892, when they orchestrated a double robbery of two banks at once. The town got wind of the gang’s plans and groups of armed citizens quickly surrounded the banks. In the shootout that followed, four townsmen and four members of the Dalton gang were killed. Emmett escaped on horseback but was captured when he returned for his brother Bob. Emmett was the only gang member to survive, despite sustaining 26 gunshot wounds in the fight.

Emmett served 14 years in the Kansas State Penitentiary before receiving a pardon based on his rehabilitation and newfound religiosity. He returned to society a changed man, immediately marrying his childhood sweetheart, Julia Johnson, and settling down to live a life on the straight and narrow. Emmett did, however, capitalize on his infamy by traveling with the Pawnee Wild West Show, writing books about his experiences as an outlaw, and acting in Hollywood Westerns. He even portrayed himself in a film based on his book, Beyond the Law. Emmett Dalton died peacefully in Los Angeles at the age of 66.

For more outlaws and lawmen—literary, cinematic, and real-life—check out Legends: Outlaws and Lawmen, an American Cowboy Collector's Edition. Purchase your copy at HorseBooksEtc.com.