Henry Starr’s Boldest Crime

…Was the Double Bank Robbery in March 1915 at Stroud, Oklahoma. The Indian Territory outlaw claimed to have robbed more banks “than any man in America,” which some say was at least twenty-one banks.

Henry George Starr was born on December 2, 1873, near Fort Gibson in the Cherokee Nation, Indian Territory, the son of mixed-blood Cherokee parents, George “Hop” and Mary Scott Starr. He was also a nephew by marriage to the infamous Belle Starr, better known as “the Bandit Queen.”Henry Starr-Alvin Rucker Collectionjpg.jpg

At age 42 Henry Starr almost lost his life while escaping with the cash from the Stroud bank when an 18-year-old grocery man, Paul Curry, pursued Starr and brought him down with a single rifle shot.

Although badly wounded, Starr eventually recovered and was sentenced to prison time for a fourth time in his life. He was paroled from prison in 1919 and quickly produced a silent movie about the Stroud robberies, starring himself and none other than his young apprehender Paul Curry. The theme of his movie “A Debtor to the Law,” was that crime does not pay. A self-educated man, Starr also authored his autobiography, “Thrilling Events, Life of Henry Starr.”

But Henry Starr never “walked the talk” as the expression goes. Newly married in 1920 to Hulda “Lucille” Starr, he soon encountered financial difficulties and returned to his life of crime. On February 18, 1921, Starr and three others robbed the People’s National Bank of Harrison, Arkansas. Starr was mortally wounded during the bank shootout and died four days later. He was buried at Dewey, Oklahoma, his headstone bearing the epitaph “The Cherokee Badman”

The following story was published in the Oklahoma Banker magazine and is part of the Spring Family Collection at the Oklahoma Historical Society. Mr. Harold Stanley Griffith, Sr. of Hugo, Oklahoma typed the story for his personal scrapbook “because of the fact that Eugene P. Gum, Secretary of the Oklahoma Bankers Association, has given to me, with the compliments of the C.S.A., the Winchester 32-40 rifle which Henry Starr was carrying at the time of the robberies.”

Henry Starr rifle OHS PhotoCollection
Author Glenn Shirley examines Henry Starr’s rifle from the Stroud robbery.

THE STROUD ROBBERIES

O. E. Grecian, president of the First National Bank, Stroud, Oklahoma, was standing with head bent over a counter in the rear of the bank figuring the discount on a note a customer was about to pay when he heard somebody say: “Hands up.”

Mr. Grecian smiled but did not raise his head; in fact he kept on figuring. So many jokes of that kind had been played since the recent bank robbery wave started that the banker paid no attention. In another instant he was disturbed by the customer who was crowding around the counter where Mr. Grecian was figuring.

“Hands up, I mean it — and be quick about it.”

Grecian was looking down the barrel of a short but powerful rifle and his hands went as straight toward heaven as the minaret of a temple.

Before reaching Mr. Grecian the three bandits who had quietly entered the bank had asked for the cashier, and on being informed that Homer Breeding was the officer sought, they ordered him to get the cash out of the safe at once. Others in the bank were lined up, ordered to keep quiet, and made to perform any little service the bandits wanted.

Cashier Breeding started to get out the gold and currency when a barber from a nearby shop walked around in front of the bank to see what was going on. One of the bandits drew down on him, and ordered him into the bank and to line up with the others, which he did.

During the few seconds while this was taking place, the cashier, with rare presence of mind, threw several packages of currency under the safe while the bandit that had a gun on him was looking the other way, and the robbers did not know that they were thus missing $2200 which they supposed was being placed in the sacks. Mr. Breeding earned that amount for the insurance company in about ten seconds.

Probably no tragedy ever occurred that was too serious to have its amusing side. President Grecian was standing with his hands straight up when one of the robbers started to empty a tray of silver, struck the corner of the tray against a counter and spilled the contents all over the lobby of the bank. Silver “cartwheels” rolled everywhere.

Pointing a gun at the bank president, one robber ordered, “Pick that stuff up and be quick about it.”

So Mr. Grecian spent the rest of the exciting time in picking up silver and putting it in the robber’s sack. He worked fast but there was a lot of it. When all the silver had been sacked, about $1,500, it was apparently a big load for somebody. Looking down the line, the leader of the gang said “I want the strongest man in the bunch to carry that sack for us.”

Then his eyes fell on the barber who had ventured in where devils feared to tread, and as the barber was a husky looking fellow, it fell to his lot to act as burden bearer, which he did. The entire party then marched out the front door, each of the bankers and others with a gun punching him in the ribs at every few steps.  

As misery loves company, the next development was a cause of gratification at least. Down the street from the Stroud National Bank, located three blocks away, came Lee Patrick, vice president, and J. B. Charles, Jr., assistant cashier.

They reached the First National Bank just as the gang marched out. Neither Patrick nor Charles had his hands up but each was accompanied by a guardian and a third was along for extra. The guardians had commanded them not to put up their hands, to avoid attracting attention, as they marched through the main part of the city. This is what had been happening [at the Stroud National Bank] while the First National was being looted:

Lee Patrick was at the window of the bank and Charles was working on the books when three men entered and the leader, who afterwards proved to be Henry Starr, inquired for the cashier.

“The cashier, Mr. Seaton, is in Arkansas,” said Mr. Patrick, giving the facts.

With an oath Starr commanded the bank officers to quit lying and ordered Mr. Charles to open the big safe.

“I do not know the combination and can’t open it,” replied Charles.

“You open it at once or I’ll blow your head off,” said Starr.

Henry Starr - A Debtor To the Law

Here, Mr. Patrick, who was cool as a cucumber throughout, interrupted Starr’s threats to say: “That boy told you the truth. He doesn’t know the combination on that safe and can’t open it.”

Just then a strange thing happened. A little girl, the daughter of a customer, pushed open the door of the bank and ran laughing in.

Starr turned to her and said; “Here, little girl, you musn’t be in here. Run on out.”

But the girl paid no attention, only to laugh more. She ran around behind the counter and climbed up on one of the stools. Disconcerted at this new witness of events, Starr grabbed a handful of pennies off the counter and handing them to the child asked her to hurry home. She climbed down off the stool, took the pennies, and climbed back again. So Starr had to give up trying to get her away.

Turning to Patrick again, Starr demanded; “You know the combination on that safe. Open it at once or I’ll blow your head off.”

With remarkable coolness, the banker replied: “I know the combination but I can’t open the safe. The time lock is on and the safe can’t be opened until twelve o’clock. If you want to wait until that time, I will open it for you. If not, you might as well begin blowing my head off right now.”

Unable to tell whether the banker was bluffing him or really couldn’t open the safe, Starr commanded Charles and Patrick to get all the money out that was not in the safe, and they did so, about $1,600. (There was $13,000 in the safe.)

With their loot, the three bandits and the two bankers started up the main street of the town in a bunch. Patrick and Charles had no idea the other bank was being robbed and couldn’t figure out why the robbers were taking such chances in marching through the center of the village. But when they say Grecian, Breeding and others coming out of the First National with their hands up, they understood.

The two bodies met at the door of the First National, joined and were about to start toward the cattle pens where the horses were being held by a seventh man, when CRACK — the roar of a gun sounded only a few feet away.

Across the street, not more than 150 feet distant, stood a man with a double barrel shot gun watching the performance, in full sight, He had not tried to shoot, evidently was just looking on. But when the bandits saw him and his gun, they jumped at the conclusion that he had fired the shot and they opened fire on him. One bullet cut through his coat in two places and grazed the skin, but did not hurt him.

Another bullet — and this is worth remember­ing — passed through a plate glass window, struck a roll of heavy linoleum, and cut its way through twenty-six thicknesses of the linoleum before it stopped. That will illustrate the power of the guns used by these outlaws. As for the man with the shot gun, he disappeared like a streak of lightning and was glad to get away with his life.

The truth was that nobody, who knew the bandits were in town, had fired the mysterious shot. In a close by hardware store a man was examining an old, rusty gun, and it went off at the psychological moment. That accidental discharge, which bored a hole in the store floor, came near costing several lives.

Having disposed of the shotgun watcher, the amalgamated order of bandits and bankers started up the street, and as they neared an alley, a citizen walked out onto the sidewalk. Seeing the motley brigade with uplifted hands, he paused to observe, and failed to heed the call of their leader to fall into line. He was standing there with stretched out neck still bent on seeing the whole show when another shot rang out, this time from a robber’s weapon. The bullet passed through the onlooker’s clothes about a thousandth part of an inch above the shoulder, and he disappeared down the alley, quite content without seeing any more.

These numerous shots served to awaken the populace and the alarm quickly spread. Paul Curry, a boy of 18 who works in his father’s grocery near the First National Bank, grabbed a rifle and, running to where he could see the rapidly moving body of men, drew down and fired.

Henry Starr, who was bringing up the rear, fell to the ground, one leg pierced at the thigh. Nearest to him was the bandit Bates, and he turned to help Starr, but as he did so, young Curry’s gun rang out again and with certain aim, the ball struck Estes on the collar bone, glanced downward and entered the lungs.

Estes abandoned his effort to help Starr, and the other bandits ordered the prisoners closer together and proceeded at a more rapid pace toward the stock pens. Messrs. Grecian and Miller, the latter a director in Mr. Grecian’s bank, were forced by Estes to help him along.

Curry could not fire again without great danger of hitting somebody other than the bandits, and no one else fired a shot. Estes was bleeding profusely but was determined to get away. At the stock pens some of his companions helped him onto his horse and he rode off after the others, all going as fast as they could.

Starr lay on the street, flat on his back, after the others were gone. His rifle had been thrown to one side. With fine judgment for a youth, Paul Curry called to Starr, “Throw away your other gun or I’ll kill you.”

Starr reached inside his coat, drew out a revolver, and threw it several feet away. It is re­ported that he stated afterwards that he could easily have killed Curry if he had wanted to do so, but few take any stock in such assertions. From the time he was hit by Curry’s bullet, Starr was at the mercy of the youth. He might have fired at Curry, but the chances are he would have missed his mark, and also before he could have shot, Curry would have ended Starr’s career. Starr didn’t shoot because he knew he would be killed if he did shoot, and the sickly senti­mentalism that lauds this terrible criminal for not “making a graveyard of the town” is nauseating to any man of sense.

Of course nobody knew that Starr was the man hit or even if he were in the gang until he himself told his name. Then many doubted, but in a few hours his identity was established beyond question.

Henry Starr 1915 at Doctor's Office
Henry Starr recuperating at doctor’s office in Stroud.

Estes, the other robber shot, stuck to his horse about two miles out of Stroud, then fell, faint from loss of blood. He was unconscious when discovered. Estes’ home is in Neosho, Mo.

There is no clue available now to the identity of the five bandits who escaped with about $5,000. The loss on the First National was $4,300, but most of the money taken from the Stroud National was recovered from Starr and the loss there was slight. A diamond pin which Starr took from Lee Patrick was returned after Starr was shot.

Paul Curry has claimed the reward of $1,000 offered by Governor Williams for the arrest of Starr, and the Governor and public generally feel that the youth is entitled to the money.

The O. B. A. secretary called up the governor’s office about eleven o’clock the morning of the robbery — perhaps a half hour after the actual occurrence — and gave the news of the crime including the capture of Starr.

“That’s queer,” said Colonel Leecraft, the governor’s secretary, “we just received a letter from Starr written in Nevada stating that he has not been in Oklahoma in three years and asking the governor to withdraw the unjust reward offered for him.”

Undoubtedly Starr had this letter written to throw the officers off the track after the Stroud robbery was committed. If he had not actually been caught in that crime, it is easily conceivable that his influential friends would have sent up a cry of “persecution” and tried to get the governor to withdraw the reward.

Starr is a lifelong criminal. He was convicted of murdering a United States deputy marshal at Ponca City in 1893, was sent to the pen, but pardoned by President Roosevelt through the influence of Jack Abernathy and Zach Mulhall. He was convicted of bank robbery in Colorado four years ago, and again sent to the pen but paroled because of good behavior. He is believed to have participated in a large number of recent bank robberies and his capture will do more to break up the gang that has been operating than would the capture of any other one man.

With Starr were other men of equal nerve, daring and disregard for human life. Some of them were well dressed, well-educated, and businesslike in every appearance and act. The Stroud bankers can testify to that. These rely largely on the prejudice against bankers in this state to help them out when they got into trouble, and on the big fund they have raised and can quickly raise again by robbing banks.

Paul Curry is receiving and deserves much credit for his bold act and the results accomplished. But five of the seven bandits are still at large, and there are others of the same kind lying in wait. Bankers should continue to take every precaution against robbery, and in our opinion the governor should offer as heavy rewards at the law allows for the capture of those now at large. He has offered $500 for cash of the escaped Stroud robbers.

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***YAHOKE, ikana! Thank you, friends. Much GRATITUDE for spending time on a Choctaw Journey with me.***
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Sources:

Starr, Henry,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture.

Obituary “Henry Starr’s Career,” The Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma), Wednesday, Feb 23, 1921, Page 2

Scrapbook from The Spring Family Collection, Oklahoma Historical Society Research Division

Photos

  • Henry Starr photo – photo #19589.117.1; part of the Alvin Rucker Collection, Oklahoma Historical Society Research Division
  • Henry Starr, wife and child – photo 8668; Oklahoma Historical Society Photograph Collection, Oklahoma Historical Society Research Division
  • Author Glenn Shirley with the Henry Starr rifle – photo 10540; Oklahoma Historical Society Photograph Collection, Oklahoma Historical Society Research Division

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