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Outlaw Emmett Dalton Went From Guns to Religion to Show Biz

July 15, 2001|CECILIA RASMUSSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He was a bad guy gone good, and naturally he ended up in Hollywood, where he shaped one of the film industry's most enduring genres, the Western.

Onetime gunslinger Emmett Dalton's fame rested on 10 minutes of rapid gunfire on a street in Coffeyville, Kan., but the legacy he wanted to leave behind was that of an outlaw who became a crime-fighting crusader, helping to keep boys out of prison and to keep villains from being glamorized as heroes.

The youngest brother of the notorious Dalton Gang, which robbed trains and banks in the late 1800s, was in his post-criminal life variously a Bible-quoting evangelist, real estate promoter, author, actor, technical advisor and prison-reform crusader who wanted Hollywood films to separate fact from fiction.

At a time when the frontier was closing and the Old West was fast becoming myth, the truth was often lost in the shuffle, and Dalton set out to make sure outlaws didn't go down in history in a blaze of glory.

Missouri-born in 1871, Emmett Dalton was one of 15 children brought up in Kansas by a devoted Sunday school teacher-mother and a drifter of a father. The Dalton boys grew up to be handsome, clean-cut and evidently polite young men who played harmonica, banjo and jew's-harp at square dances at their farm in Coffeyville.

In 1887, when Emmett was a teenager, his eldest brother, 28-year-old Frank, who had become a U.S. marshal, was killed trying to arrest someone.

Two brothers, Grattan and Robert, swore to avenge Frank, and signed up as marshals themselves. Emmett was too young to enlist but rode with his brothers anyway. In the course of their duties, Grattan and Robert uncovered crooked gambling involving powerful men, and were fired.

So all three Daltons jumped to the other side of the law, finding cattle and horse rustling more profitable than being marshals. Outlaws themselves now, they fled to California, where two of their brothers lived.

On Feb. 6, 1891, Grattan, Robert and 20-year-old Emmett had been drinking heavily in the saloons of Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo, and then tried to hold up a Southern Pacific train. They couldn't get the safe open, but they did mortally wound a railroad fireman, which got their pictures on wanted posters all over California.

All three were soon arrested. Emmett and Robert jumped bail and went back to the Midwest. Grattan was convicted and sentenced to 20 years at San Quentin, but managed to escape before he got there and rejoined his brothers.

By 1892, when the price on each Dalton head had risen to $3,000, the Dalton Gang was storming up and down the nation's midsection, holding up trains and banks in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. Four new recruits joined them; at least two of them wouldn't live long enough to spend their share of the loot.

The Dalton Gang was determined to outdo the notoriety of its predecessor, the Jesse James Gang. "We'll see Jesse and go him one better," Robert Dalton remarked.

On Oct. 5, 1892, the 19-month reign of the Dalton Gang came to an end where it had begun.

The three Dalton brothers put on fake beards to disguise themselves and, joined by two other members of their outfit, rode into the Daltons' hometown of Coffeyville. Two of the gang went into one bank, and three strode into the bank right across the street.

A passerby peering through the window of one bank noticed the guns and sounded the alarm. The townsfolk--including the barber--hurriedly ransacked the hardware store for guns and lined up in the street outside the banks, waiting. Cornered, the outlaws ran for their horses, into what was later called Death Alley.

After a prolonged fusillade, eight men were dead and four wounded. Four of the dead and three of the wounded were townspeople. Four of the five Dalton Gang members were dead. The sum of the loot they had gotten was $21.98.

The badly wounded Emmett Dalton escaped, taking a dying outlaw with him, but was quickly captured when he returned a few minutes later, leaning down from his horse to try to drag his brother Robert to safety. Two men, including the barber, emptied their shotguns into Emmett's back.

He recovered from his wounds and stood trial for robbery and murder. He had served almost 15 years of a life sentence when he turned to religion and was pardoned by the Kansas governor in 1907.

Emmett was a changed man, and he was determined to change others. The year he got out of prison, he married his childhood sweetheart, Julia Johnson. They would stay married for 30 years, until Emmett died.

He began making a living by trading on his single-barreled name, going into frontier show business with the traveling Pawnee Bill Wild West show. Then he came to Hollywood, the fledgling show-biz capital, where he tried his hand at writing about his personal experiences as an outlaw and worked in a variety of movie jobs behind the scenes.

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