While the South has produced its fair share of fine, law-abiding citizens, it’s no secret that some of the most notorious criminals in history were born south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Their mere existence left a dark spot in Southern history, albeit an interesting one worthy of good story telling. They’ve become household names, Hollywood movies, and history lessons. They were thieves and murderers. They’re the most infamous names in the South.
- Bonnie and Clyde—Dallas, Texas Bonnie and Clyde’s car was shot more than 100 times, killing them both instantly
Bonnie Parker was only nineteen-years-old when she met twenty-one-year-old Clyde Barrow. It was 1930, and the Great Depression had settled into the lives and spirits of the American people. While most already held some hostility and anger against the government, it comes as little surprise that the story of Bonnie and Clyde would be romanticized for decades to come.
Their crime spree began in 1932, after both served stint in prison for burglary. During their reign of terror they were linked to thirteen murders and countless kidnappings, burglaries, and attempted murders, often with the help of Barrow’s brother, “Buck.” But even they could not keep up with the pace they had set, and the FBI soon put an end to their deadly games.
On May 23, 1934, the two were ambushed by law enforcement in Louisiana, led by Texas Ranger Frank Hamer. Both Barrow and Parker were killed instantly when the officers opened fire on the stolen Ford V-8 Sedan. More than one hundred bullets pierced the car. Onlookers rushed the scene, all hoping to retrieve a piece of living history. But it was the end of the road for Bonnie and Clyde.
- Jesse James—Kearney, MissouriJesse James was shot in his family’s Missouri home, betrayed by Bob Ford for reward money
Jesse Woodson James was born in 1847 into a farm family with a Baptist minister father. When the Civil War broke out, both James and his brother Frank sided with the Confederacy and joined the deadly guerilla force under the command of William Quantrill. Among other things, they were known for killing unarmed Union soldiers.
It seemed the violence suited the James brothers, and following the war they began their lives in crime. They organized bank, train, stagecoach, and store robberies with the aid of the Younger brothers—Cole, Jim, John, and Bob—and others who joined them in their crimes along the way. Even though the robberies has much negative impact on the community as business and government, those especially angry after the War liked to think of James as a sort of Robin Hood. This sentiment seemed to stick over the years, despite the innocent people robbed and killed by the James-Younger gang.
But even legends die, and James met his end on April 3, 1882. Betrayed by Bob and Charlie Ford for reward money, James was in his own home when shot in the head by Bob Ford. Jesse James, the man and the legend, died instantly.
- Belle Starr—Carthage, Missouri Nicknamed the Bandit Queen, Belle Starr often rode in velvet skirts and plumed hats
Not all outlaws of the American West were men, as proved by Belle Starr. Born Myra Belle Shirley in 1848 to a middle-class family, her future was changed when the Civil War broke out and her father’s business went under. After the loss of her brother to the war, her family moved to Texas for a fresh start. And a fresh start she got.
As a young woman, Starr had a preference for outlaw men and married the infamous Jim Reed in 1866. Starr rode at her husband’s side robbing money and stealing cattle. Possessing an affinity for fashion, she rode in velvet skirts with a plumed hat, which earned her the outlaw nickname of the “Bandit Queen.”
In 1874 Reed was shot and Starr moved toward the Oklahoma Indian Territory to evade the law. There she met Sam Starr, a young Cherokee who later became her common-law husband. For nearly ten years they avoided capture until both were arrested in 1883 for horse theft. After serving a mere five months, the couple was loose and at it again.
But a happily-ever-after life of crime was not in the Bandit Queen’s future. In 1886 Sam was shot, and Belle was on her own once again. Shortly after his death, she once again partnered with an outlaw. It was during her time with Jim July, a Creek Indian nearly fifteen years younger, that Starr ended her long line of outlaws and thievery. But not by choice.
Starr had accompanied July most of the trip to Fort Smith, Arkansas, where he was to face charges, before she turned to head back home. But she never made it. Along the way, Starr was shot twice in the back with a shotgun. No one was ever charged in the death of the Bandit Queen.
- Pretty Boy Floyd—Adairsville, Georgia Following the Kansas City Massacre, Pretty Boy Floyd became Public Enemy Number One.
Receiving the nickname later in life from a girlfriend, “Pretty Boy” Floyd was born Charles Arthur Floyd in 1904. While he started his adult life farming, the Depression was especially unkind to farmers, and Floyd turned to crime as his source of income.
Floyd became a hired killer for bootleggers in the early thirties before moving on to bank robberies with other gangster associates. Known to wield a tommy gun, Floyd’s most infamous crime was the Kansas City Massacre. In an attempt to free his friend, Frank Nash, from the authorities, Floyd and two accomplices opened fire on Nash’s guards on June 17, 1933, at the Union Railway Station in Kansas City, Missouri. Nash, two officers, the police chief, and an FBI agent were all killed.
Now Public Enemy Number One, Floyd eluded the authorities for more than a year under the alias Mr. George Sanders. But on October 22, 1934, Floyd was spotted outside Wellsville, Ohio. He fled, but was found in a cornfield in East Liverpool. Floyd was shot, and died fifteen minutes later. Pretty Boy Floyd’s last words were, “I’m done for. You’ve hit me twice.”