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Oklahoma Journeys

Henry Starr - Actor and Bank Robber

2010-02-06

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He was an author, a movie producer, and a star, and maybe because of genetics, he was an outlaw, a bank robber, and a murderer. Henry Starr, just before he died from gunshot wounds suffered in his last bank robbery, claimed to have robbed more banks than anyone else in America. Henry Starr, this week on Oklahoma Journeys from the Oklahoma History Center.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Journeys. I'm Michael Dean.

Around the turn of the last century, before we became a state, the eastern part of Indian Territory was a haven of outlaws and criminals. One of them was Henry Starr. Starr was born near Ft. Gibson in 1873. Early on he developed a liking for illegal activities and the lure of easy money. Starr maintained a lengthy streak as a bank robber and is considered one of the first transition outlaws, those that began on horseback but ended their careers using cars.

When he was 16 years old, Henry was working on a ranch near Nowata when he had his first run-in with the law. He was driving a wagon to town one day when two deputy marshals caught him with whiskey and arrested him for "introducing spirits into territory." He went to court and plead guilty to the offense, although he always maintained that he was innocent because he had borrowed the wagon and didn't know the whiskey was in it.

Back at Nowata, working as a cowboy, he had his next brush with the law. He was arrested for stealing horses, another charge he denied, and was thrown in jail at Fort Smith. His cousin paid his bail, but Henry jumped the bail. Now he turned to the life of an outlaw, joining with two other men, began robbing stores and railroad depots. Two U.S. Deputy Marshals were hot on the trail of Henry near Nowata again. In a shoot out with one of the marshals, Henry killed him and now was wanted for murder.

With the law on his trail, he started robbing banks, first in Caney, Kansas, then in Bentonville, Arkansas. Headed to California, Henry was captured in Colorado Springs and returned to Fort Smith to stand trail for killing the marshal. It was during this stay in jail in Fort Smith, awaiting trial, that one of the most amazing deeds was accomplished. A fellow prisoner, Cherokee Bill attempted a prison break with a gun smuggled him by a trustee. There was a gun battle in which one of the guards was killed. Henry was a friend of Bill's and offered to disarm him if guards would in turn promise not to kill Cherokee Bill. The promise was made, and Henry entered the cell where Bill was at and retrieved the weapon. Because of this, he was released.

A few years later, Starr, again in prison, wrote his autobiography. Again released from prison, in 1915 he and his gang went to Stroud and robbed both banks there at the same time, successfully. But Starr was wounded in a gun battle that ensued and was arrested. Again, he won parole. Starr moved to Tulsa, produced a movie about the Stroud bank robbery, and was offered a job in Hollywood. He seemed to have given up the life of crime, but he hadn't.

In February 1922, Starr drove into Harrison, Arkansas, to attempt to rob the bank there. He was shot, captured and died a few days later. It is believed that it was the first time a fast car was used in a robbery and the first time a machine gun was used in a robbery. Before he died, he boasted that no one had robbed more banks than him.

You can learn more about Henry Starr and crime in Oklahoma by visiting the Oklahoma History Center, on NE 23rd just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma Journeys is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to collecting, preserving and sharing our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.