On October 5, 1892, five dusty horsemen walked their horses through the bustling streets of Coffeyville, Kansas. Dick Broadwell and Bill Powers were professional bandits. The other three men were brothers, Bob, Grat, and Emmett Dalton. All five had bank robbery on their minds.
Bob and Grat had been lawmen briefly, and their elder brother, Frank, had been a well-known U.S. deputy marshal, killed in 1887 in the line of duty while riding for "hanging judge" Isaac Parker. Most of the fifteen Dalton kids turned out well, but for Bob, Grat, and Emmett the lure of easy money was too strong, and it would cost them dearly.
The Dalton boys knew Coffeyville well, for their family had lived nearby ten years before, and so they were surprised to find that Coffeyville's passion for civic improvement had frustrated part of the gang's plans: as part of a design to build gutters and sidewalks, the city fathers had removed the hitching rail to which the outlaws had intended to tether their horses. The gang tied their mounts to a pipe in a narrow alley behind the police judge's house, pulled their Winchesters from their saddle scabbards, and walked down the alley toward Coffeyville's central plaza and the town's two banks.
The gang had enjoyed a brief run of success, with four train robberies in Indian Territory just to the south, but now the law was close behind them. On their last raid, on the Kansas-Texas (Katy) division of the Missouri Pacific Railroad, at Adair, the gang had shot a doctor who did no more than watch them gallop out of town. Now every man's hand was against them, and Bob, the gang's leader, was determined to make one big strike and travel on, far and fast.
They would hit two banks at once, Bob boasted, something not even their famous cousins, the Younger brothers, had ever done, but the raid went bad from the start. In spite of wearing false mustaches and beards, the Daltons were recognized as they walked across the plaza. As Bob and Emmett pushed into the First National Bank and Grat, Powers, and Broadwell entered the Condon Bank, the citizens of Coffeyville armed themselves.
Nobody carried a gun in peaceful Coffeyville, including the town marshal, but two hardware stores had plenty of weapons and handed out guns to anybody who wanted one. There were plenty of takers. Meanwhile, inside the First National, Bob and Emmett forced the staff to hand over more than $20,000. But in the Condon, a young bank teller convinced Grat that the safe–long since unlocked–was on a time lock and could not be opened for ten more minutes. Grat was still staring at the safe when his brothers left the First National and a citizen fired at them.
In the firefight that followed, four townsmen and four bandits died. Young Emmett was the sole survivor of the gang, and he was shot almost to pieces. The local doctor fended off a lynch mob intent on hanging Emmett by telling them that the outlaw would surely die of his wounds. "Are you sure, Doc?" somebody asked. "Hell yes," said the physician. "Did you ever know one of my patients to live?" Somebody laughed, the tension broke, and Emmett survived to spend fifteen years in the Kansas State Penitentiary.
Another brother, Bill, would join gang members who had not participated in the Coffeyville raid. These men carried on the gang's lawless career until all of them, including Bill Dalton, were run down and killed by lawmen.
Robert B. Smith University of Oklahoma
Barndollar, Lue Diver. What Really Happened on October 5, 1892. Coffeyville KS: Coffeyville Historical Society, 1992.
Smith, Robert Barr. Daltons! The Raid on Coffeyville, Kansas. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.