6 Famous Outlaws of the Wild, Wild West

Soapy Smith
Outlaw con man Jeff "Soapy" Smith stands at a bar in the frontier town of Skagway, Alaska, where he would be killed in a shootout on July 8, 1898. Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress

Jefferson "Soapy" Smith, so named because of his legendary “Prize Package Soap Sell” scam, was a well-known confidence man and swindler, a heavy drinker with a bad temper, a penchant for violence and an iron fist. After moving around the mining camps of the old West, surviving off a series of spectacularly successful swindles, he and his gang eventually moved into and took control of the frontier town of Skagway, Alaska. Soapy was killed in a shootout on July 8, 1898, before a meeting of the citizen group that had been organized to shut him down and run him out of town.

Yes, a violent end for a man who lived his life behind the barrel of a gun.

During their lifetimes, most of the worst outlaws of the Wild West were considered criminals and desperadoes, law breaking enemies of the state, every one. Today they are known as larger-than-life heroes with cooler-than-cool nicknames, the subjects of countless books, movies and outrageous tales, all chock full of blown-up details of their lives and criminal exploits. In popular folklore the stories of all famous outlaws pretty much share the same three qualities:

  • They were mostly Robin Hoods, stealing from the rich for the sole purpose of giving to the poor.
  • Although they "officially" died violent deaths, most somehow escaped at the last second, changed their names and survived into old age.
  • They all, invariably, stuck it to The Man.

Folklore has its own truths, but we'll leave those alone to focus on what historians tell us. When we do that, the following commonalities emerge: thievery, guns, more guns, violence and early death.

Here are the stories of how six of the most famous outlaws of the wild, wild west — five men and one woman — lived and died.