Bentonville Bank Robbery as told by the Robber, Henry Starr
From the book "Hands Up!" - Stories of the Six-Gun Fighters of the Old Wild West (1926) As told to Fred E. Sutton and written down by A. B. MacDonald
Starr's first big robbery was of the People's Bank in Bentonville, Arkansas. Years afterward I visited in him in the penitentiary in McAllister, Oklahoma, where he was serving a term for another robbery, and he gave me an account of the Bentonville raid, which I will give in his own words, as closely as I can recall them.
"The one great obstacle was that after we held up the bank we would have to ride fifteen miles through open country, in daylight, before we could reach cover, and probably that ride would have to be made with an armed mob after us. But, I was in love with a girl, she wouldn't marry me unless I gave up the bandit game and settled down at honest work, so, here was a chance to make a stake that would enable me to take her away to South America or China and start up in business.
"Of course, that was no excuse for robbing a bank, and I am not making excuses; it was outlawry, plain and clear, but as I walked up and down past that bank, looking at the heaps of money, I had just that one idea in my mind, to risk everything for the girl I was daffy over.
"I stayed a week in that town, planning the robbery, studying the habits of the men in the bank, seeing when they opened it and laid the money out, acquainting myself with every street, alley, store, house and vacant lot. When a man rides into a town of that size in broad daylight to rob a bank he does not know what may happen and he must plan in advance for every possible emergency. He may plan to run out one way, and that way may be blocked; then he must know the next best way out of town. It may be impossible to get out of town at all, and then he must know the best building to take his men into as a fort in which to fight the mob off until dark.
"I rode out over the fifteen miles from the bank to the first hills and trees a dozen times and noted every feature of the route. I got acquainted with the town marshal and studied his habits. I located the hardware stores and where they kept their firearms and ammunition. It might be that we would need to raid those supplies. I'll venture to say that after a week in that town I knew it better than any man in it. I planned every detail of the robbery and the get-away. I would lie awake far into the night, thinking of it, trying to foresee any possible disaster and how to get around it. Then I rode back to camp and laid the plan before my men.
"We sat all one night around the camp-fire, talking it over. At first they agreed that it couldn't be done. The ride of fifteen miles to cover was impossible. But I urged it and said if they would follow me and do exactly what I said the chances were nine in ten that we would make it. At last we tossed up a dollar, heads to go, tails to stay out, and heads came up.
" 'Boys,' I ordered, before we started, 'there is to be no killing here unless we have to kill to get away. No reckless taking of life. But, if it is necessary don't hesitate a second and don't waste a shot, shoot to kill, every time.'
"Of course that's murder. Every bandit is a potential murderer. No man ever robbed at the heel of a gun without murder in his heart, and he deserves no pity nor sympathy.
"Going into town Frank Cheney and I rode ahead in a buggy, with our horses led behind. The buggy was necessary to smuggle our rifles in. Our six-shooters were under our coats. There were seven of us. The other five rode on horses, strung out behind so as not to excite suspicion.
"Every move had been planned ahead and rehearsed over and over again around the camp-fire. We stopped the buggy behind the bank, got out and hitched the horses, and by that time the others had come up and dismounted, and Happy Jack gathered the bridle reins of the seven saddled horses and held them. The other six of us grabbed our rifles from the buggy and each ran to his assigned position and work. Bud Tyler and Hank Watt stood between the bank door and the horses to keep the way open. Link Cumplin stood watch at the bank door. I, with Kid Wilson and Frank Cheney at my heels, ran into the bank.
"It was two-thirty o'clock in the afternoon. I chose that hour because there would be most money in sight then, and it would be only six hours until dark, and we might need the cover of darkness before getting into the clear. Cheney and Wilson leaped the counters, Cheney went into the vault, Wilson swept the money from the counter, I held up the six men in the bank and stood them in a row against the wall.
Photo of the reenactment of the Bentonville Bank Robbery during Sugar Creek Days
"The bank was on a corner of the square. Scores of people saw us enter and knew us for bandits. Shooting began the moment we entered the bank. I heard the shots, slap, bang, at Link, who was walking up and down in front, shooting at every head that showed. Every second of time now might mean the difference between life and death for each man of us. The plan was if Link was shot down Tyler was to run up and take his place.
"It seemed to me we were an hour in that bank, but it couldn't have been more than a minute or two before Cheney and Wilson sprang over the counter with the money in a sack. To the six men against the wall I said:
" 'You men do exactly as I tell you and you won't get hurt. Try any tricks and I'll kill you. Don't try to run .'
Photo of the reenactment of the Bentonville Bank Robbery during Sugar Creek Days
"I meant to use the six men as a screen to march behind as we went to our horses, but when we got out, fifteen or twenty men were shooting at us; it was as dangerous for them to stay with us as it was to run, and they just melted out of sight like snowflakes in a puddle.
" 'Shoot to kill, boys,' I ordered, and we did so, as we backed to our horses. I saw four men fall, and many more were wounded, but none was killed.
"Link was shot almost to rags. One eye was shot out. An arm was shot through twice, and there were eight bullet wounds in other places, but still he stood his ground at the bank door and with his six-shooter in his good hand he was blazing away when I came out. I put one arm around him and helped him to his horse. I heard the blood mushing in his boots as he walked.
" 'Can you make it, Link? I asked him as I put him on his horse.
" 'Sure. I'm all hunkey,' he answered with a grin.
" 'Then light out. I'll be behind you all the way.'
"We tore out, all seven of us, not a man lost. A posse of hundreds chased us and thousands of bullets volleyed after us, but I never did think that posse tried very hard to get within gunshot distance of us. To make a long story short we got away, safely.
"The sack was stuffed with enough money to choke an elephant, but there was only eleven thousand dollars, only a little over fifteen hundred dollars apiece, trifling pay for such a desperate venture, not enough to let me quit the game and marry, and I never did marry that girl, luckily for her."
"And what became of those six men?" I asked Starr.
"Frank Cheney was killed by a marshals a year later. He was a daring fellow and very witty, and in times of greatest discomfort or danger he would tell a funny story or crack a joke. Once a posse cornered us in a thicket. We lay on our stomachs, a blanket spread out on the ground in front of us, a hundred of more cartridges strewn over the blanket within easy reach, our rifles ready, expecting a charge, and probably death for some of us, at any minute.
"The posse was not quite a hundred feet away. One man in it was unusually tall and lanky. Cheney's rifle was trained on him, and he turned his face towards me, lying next to him, and whispered:
" 'That hombre is so thin if he shut one eye he'd look like a needle.'
"I had to clap my hand over my mouth to keep from laughing out loud.
"Link Cumpelin went to Alaska, tried to hold up an express messenger and was killed. Happy Jack was killed by marshals a few months after the Bentonville robbery. Kid Wilson was arrested with me later in Colorado Springs, went to a penitentiary in Brooklyn, was paroled, went back to banditry and was killed. Bud Tyler was the only one of the six who died in bed. All the others died with their boots on. "
Three years after the Bentonville raid, Starr was captured and taken to Fort Smith, where fourteen indictments for robbery and one for murder were awaiting him. He was sent to the Columbus, Ohio, penitentiary as a Federal prisoner, was pardoned by Roosevelt on his promise to reform, married, entered the real-estate business at Tulsa, prospered for five years, then went back to robbing banks again.
"Why didn't you stick to honest work?" I asked him, after he had been captured again, and he told me this story:
"After I robbed the bank in Bentonville the authorities there indicted me and kept that indictment alive all through the years I was in prison and after I came out. When I went into the real-estate business in Tulsa it was in the Indian Territory and Arkansas could not extradite me, but they watched me as a cat would a mouse. I was determined to go straight, and when Oklahoma became a state and elected its first governor, I took my boy, Roosevelt, down to Guthrie to see him inaugurated, and I lifted little Roosevelt up on my shoulder and said to him:
" 'Roosevelt, you listen to what I am going to say to you, and don't you ever forget it as long as you live. You see that man up there, talking? He is the first governor of Oklahoma. The people elected him because he was a good man and never did anything wrong. There will be many more governors in the years to come, and you may be one of them if you never do a thing that is wrong. I want you to promise me.' And little Roosevelt put his arm around my neck and said, 'Daddy, I promise, and I'll be the governor some day.'
"As soon as the new governor got settled, Arkansas applied for my surrender. I sent a friend to see the governor to tell him how for five years I had been going straight, and to beg him not to let the Arkansas wolves get me. I did not know what the governor might do, but I was determined not to go to Arkansas, for there I would have been sent up for life. So I hid out in a home of a friend in the Osage hills, and my friend in Guthrie was to watch for the governor's decision and telephone the very moment it was made. One day the phone rang and the message I got was: 'He has granted it.'
"I stayed in hiding. Within a month several banks were robbed in Oklahoma. I had nothing to do with them, but the newspapers printed scare-head stories saying that I had got off the reservation again, with forty kinds of war paint on, and was robbing in daylight in my old style.
"Well, what could I do? I was a fugitive. I had the name of robbing the banks. I might as well have the game. So I decided to touch up a bank or two to get enough money to leave the country. I did that and I and my bandit friend started on horseback for California.Passing through Colorado, we came the town of Amity, and there was a bank that looked so easy to rob it was a shame to pass it up. I was caught and I went to the penitentiary in Canyon City for twenty-five years.
"But, what a fiddler is fate! After I landed in the penitentiary in Colorado I learned that my friend did not telephone me 'He has granted it'; but his message was 'He hasn't granted it'; and my fateful failed to hear aright made me a bandit again."