Thursday, April 1, 2010

Henry Starr: A Life of Crime (Pardon and Parole)

He started robbing banks on horseback in 1893 and he ended up robbing his last in an automobile in 1921. His led a gang of bank robbers before he was twenty-one years old and, on his death bed, proudly boasted that he had robbed more banks than any man in America. His grandfather was suspected of 20 murders and his uncle rode with the James Gang. In sum, Henry Starr a.k.a. the Cherokee Bad Boy was a perfect candidate for federal executive clemency.

Starr's first arrest was for horse theft. His cousin put up two thousand dollars for bail, but Henry failed to return for trial. While making an appearance on “Wanted” posters, Starr quickly joined two others in a string of railway depot and store robberies. In an attempted arrest, he shot and killed U.S. Deputy Marshall Floyd Wilson. The last three shots apparently came at close range and after Wilson was already suffering from the effect of a wound that was probably fatal. Starr hoped on the dead Marshall’s horse and calmly rode away. Starr later justified his actions as follows: “They started the fireworks.”

Starr then pursued a career in bank robbery. Newspapers celebrated the professional nature of his heists (there were few gun shots and injuries) and readers wanted to join the gang. On July 2, 1892, Starr was arrested in Colorado Springs. He told his captors that they were lucky to have seized him from behind. Otherwise, there would have been “some corpses around.”

Starr reveled in the publicity that newspapers like the Kansas City Star and the Oklahoma City Times gave him. But, he had a sense that things were not going to be easy as he was being returned to Fort Smith for trial.

Fort Smith housed the mother of all hanging judges, Isaac Charles Parker. Presidents occasionally sympathized with defendants in Parker’s court and pardoned them. In the charge to Starr’s jury, Judge Parker emphasized that Wilson’s murder was committed by a “fugitive from justice.” In a manner that would have pleased Johnny Cochran, Parker submitted to the jury, “if the law has been violated, it is to be vindicated.” When a verdict of “guilty” was returned, Parker instructed a hotel owner to reward the jury with a “good meal.”

On November 4, 1893, a packed courtroom heard Judge Parker sentence Starr. Parker said he did not believe Starr had “even begun to appreciate the enormity and wickedness” of his crime. He called Starr a “marvel of wickedness.” He described Starr as “full of hatred and vengeance” and “the very personification of the man of crime.” Starr was then sentenced to hang on February 20, 1894. Starr said nothing on his own behalf, but many newspapers immediately featured reports of how he rattled mean old Judge Parker with brave defiance and a good chewing-out. The New York Times almost seemed saddened by the thought that Starr would have to leave banks alone. A front- page headline on November 14 read: LAST OF A NOTED FAMILY. Starr was described in the story which followed as a “bold, fearless” man who was “willing” to kill other men. The story also noted Starr’s execution would “close the career” of a family that was notorious for its “leadership in all” that had been “evil.”

But, on May 14, 1894, Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller and the United States’ Supreme Court appeared on the scene. The Court reversed the decision of “learned” Judge Parker. Parker cancelled his vacation to prepare for a second trial. The trial began on September 15, 1895 and featured Starr testifying under oath. Judge Parker sent the second jury away with this nugget of jurisprudential wisdom, “the wicked flee when no man pursueth, but the righteous are as bold as a lion.” Starr was again found guilty and Parker suggested a trip to the gallows. This time, Justice Edward D. White and the United States Supreme Court found Parker’s trial “fatally defective.” The second reversal was handed down on January 4, 1897, just months after hanging judge Parker had passed away. Starr’s third trial would be before Parker’s replacement, John R. Rogers (a former member of Congress). A third trial began on October 6, 1897, and on January 15, 1898, Starr was sentenced to three years in the penitentiary for manslaughter. After his other convictions were added to the pile, Starr was off for a fifteen-year visit to the pen.

Starr’s mother made several efforts to have her son released. Eventually, she went to Washington and pleaded her case to President Theodore Roosevelt. The President was supposedly impressed with a story of how Starr had disarmed a gunman named Cherokee Bill. A telegram was sent to Starr in prison. It said: "Will you be good if I set you free?” Starr recognized the question as a critical step in a rigorous clemency decision making process and answered, “yes.” After the promise to be good, President Roosevelt commuted Starr’s sentence to end January 16, 1903. In his autobiography Starr wrote that he was “quite naturally” one of the “most ardent admirers of the Lion-Tamer.”

Henry returned to Tulsa, Oklahoma and worked in his mother’s restaurant. He married and named his child Theodore Roosevelt Starr. But, in 1908, Henry joined a gang for a bank robbery in Tyro, Kansas. Next, was a bank robbery in Amity, Colorado. Starr was captured in Oklahoma and returned to Colorado, where he stood trial. In November of 1909, Starr was convicted of bank robbery in Colorado and sentenced to seven to twenty-five years in Canon City Prison.

With little to do in prison, he wrote his biography, Thrilling Events: Life of Henry Starr. Without so much as a promise to be good, Starr was paroled on September 24, 1913. The following autumn, a streak of fourteen bank robberies occurred. Starr was recognized by some of the witnesses and was wanted “dead or alive” by authorities. The reward was one thousand dollars. Starr actually settled down in Tulsa, two blocks from the Tulsa county sheriff and four blocks from the Mayor. On March 27, 1915, he and six others robbed two banks in Stroud, Oklahoma. This time, Starr was shot, captured and sentenced to twenty-five years in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary.

On March 15, 1919, Starr was (amazingly) paroled. At the urging of friends, he entered the motion picture industry. He played himself in Debtor to the Law, a film about a double bank robbery in Stroud, Oklahoma. The movie was an immediate success. Starr played major parts in two more films before attempting his last bank robbery. On February 18, 1921, he and three others drove into Harrison, Arkansas, entered the People’s State Bank and walked out with six thousand dollars. The former president of the bank shot Starr in the back. On Tuesday, February 22, Starr died. In his final hours, he boasted to his doctors about his record number of bank robberies.

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