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Charles "Black Bart" Bowles // Howcheng via Wikimedia Commons

5 Habits of Highly Effective Outlaws

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Charles "Black Bart" Bowles // Howcheng via Wikimedia Commons

By David Norris

Guns? Check. Masks? Check. Poetry book? If you're going to rob a stagecoach, here's how to do it with flair. 

1. IF YOU'RE A POET, SHOW IT.

Even if you’re a no-good, law-flouting bandit, it pays to mind your manners—and your meter. In California, between 1875 and 1883, Charles E. “Black Bart” Boles held up more than two dozen Wells Fargo stagecoaches. Even though he seemed to have an intense private grudge against the bank, he was always polite to its employees, asking stage drivers to “please” throw down the money. Stranger still, Boles often left poetry at his crime scenes. This poem was his most well-known:

I’ve labored long
and hard for bread,
For honor and for riches,
But on my corns
too long you’ve tread,
You fine-haired sons of bitches.

In 1883, Boles was wounded during a holdup and accidentally left a handkerchief at the crime scene. When Wells Fargo detectives traced it back to him, he was arrested and imprisoned, and although Boles’s career as a robber was over, his literary influence was just beginning. During his imprisonment, several copycat stagecoach robbers left truly dreadful bits of poetry at the scenes of their crimes.

2. SPIN THE MEDIA.

Jesse James spent as much time honing his public image as he did robbing people. In fact, James frequently wrote letters to newspapers, stressing that his gang never attacked innocent farmers, only corrupt banks and railroad companies. He also claimed lawmen hounded James and his brothers because they had been Confederate soldiers, which won the gang sympathy in the South. His letters were widely reprinted, even in The New York Times, helping turn the Missouri bandits into national legends.

One night in 1875, Pinkerton detectives threw a flare into the James family home. The agents were trying to light up the dark house so they could shoot at the outlaws, but the flare exploded in the fireplace, killing Jesse’s young half-brother and maiming his mother, who lost her right forearm. James made the incident seem even worse than it was in his letters to the press, falsely claiming the detectives had tossed a 32-pound military shell into his mother’s home. The public was horrified, and after the explosion, Pinkerton agents received little help from Jesse’s neighbors, who were often happy to provide the James gang with food, information, and hiding places.

3. ROB SMARTER, NOT HARDER.

In the early 1900s, automobiles were starting to replace stagecoaches, which meant that stagecoach robbers were a dying breed. One of the last havens for the bandits was Yellowstone National Park, because the park didn’t allow motor vehicles. On the lonely, isolated trails, robbers could loot stagecoaches with remarkable efficiency. On July 29, 1914, an ex-con named Ed Trafton chose a spot about eight miles from the Old Faithful geyser, where there was only one route for stagecoaches. With the aid of an armed accomplice who kept his victims from turning around to get help, Trafton held up 15 coaches, one by one, as though he were operating a drive-through bank.

4. GET IN TOUCH WITH YOUR FEMININE SIDE.

During the 17th century, English highwayman Tom Rowland menaced coach travelers with a string of holdups that lasted for 18 years, and the entire time, he was dressed like a lady. Rowland worked hard to keep up the charade, even riding sidesaddle when getting away from crime scenes. Caught and convicted in 1699, Rowland was hanged at Tyburn Hill, the historic place of execution for London-area criminals. 

5. WAIT FOR THE OTHER SHOE TO DROP.

Arizona stagecoach robber Bill Brazelton threw lawmen off his trail with a cunning horseshoe trick. Before committing a crime, he would place shoes on his horse normally, then once he’d stolen the goods, he’d quickly turn the shoes around. After he rode off, it would look as though there were two sets of tracks leading to the crime scene, but no tracks leading away.

Brazelton’s scheme worked until one day in 1878, when one horseshoe fell off his steed after a robbery. The horse left behind a bizarre set of tracks, with three shod hooves running in one direction and one bare hoof running in the other. A suspicious tracker traced the odd hoofprints to a corral near Tucson, where a posse laid an ambush for Brazelton, and he was killed in the attack. That thing about horseshoes being lucky? Not so much.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Get a risk-free issue!

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25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog
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According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

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How Urban Legends Like 'The Licked Hand' Are Born
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If you compare the scary stories you heard as a kid with those of your friends—even those who grew up across the country from you—you’ll probably hear some familiar tales. Maybe you tried to summon Bloody Mary by chanting her name in front of the mirror three times in a dark bathroom. Maybe you learned never to wonder what’s under a woman’s neck ribbon. Maybe you heard the one about the girl who feels her dog lick her hand in the middle of the night, only to wake up to find him hanging dead from the shower nozzle, the words “humans can lick too” written on the wall in the dog’s blood.

These ubiquitous, spooky folk tales exist everywhere, and a lot of them take surprisingly similar forms. How does a single story like the one often called “Humans Can Lick Too” or "The Licked Hand" make its way into every slumber party in America? Thrillist recently investigated the question with a few experts, finding that most of these stories have very deep roots.

In the case of The Licked Hand, its origins go back more than a century. In the 1990s, Snopes found that a similar motif dates back to an Englishman’s diary entry from 1871. In it, the diary keeper, Dearman Birchall, retold a story he heard at a party of a man whose wife woke him up in the middle of the night, urging him to go investigate what sounded like burglars in their home. He told his wife that it was only the dog, reaching out his hand. He felt the dog lick his hand … but in the morning, all his valuables were gone: He had clearly been robbed.

A similar theme shows up in the short story “The Diary of Mr. Poynter,” published in 1919 by M.R. James. In it, a character dozes off in an armchair, and thinks that he is petting his dog. It turns out, it’s some kind of hairy human figure that he flees from. The story seems to have evolved from there into its presently popular form, picking up steam in the 1960s. As with any folk tale, its exact form changes depending on the teller: sometimes the main character is an old lady, other times it’s a young girl.

You’ll probably hear these stories in the context of happening to a “friend of a friend,” making you more likely to believe the tale. It practically happened to someone you know! Kind of! The setting, too, is probably somewhere nearby. It might be in your neighborhood, or down by the local railroad tracks.

Thrillist spoke to Dr. Joseph Stubbersfield, a researcher in the UK who studies urban legends, who says the kind of stories that spread widely contain both social information and emotional resonance. Meaning they contain a message—you never know who’s lurking in your house—and are evocative.

If something is super scary or gross, you want to share it. Stories tend to warn against something: A study of English-language urban legends circulating online found that most warned listeners about the hazards of life (poisonous plants, dangerous animals, dangerous humans) rather than any kind of opportunities. We like to warn each other of the dangers that could be lurking around every corner, which makes sense considering our proven propensity to focus on and learn from negative information. And yes, that means telling each other to watch out for who’s licking our hands in the middle of the night.

Just something to keep in mind as you eagerly await Jezebel’s annual scary story contest.

[h/t Thrillist]

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