The Dalton gang saw a number of successful robberies in the Old West — until October 5, 1892, when they attempted to rob two banks in Coffeyville, Kansas, in broad daylight.
The history of the Wild West is replete with gangs and gunfights. Outlaws like Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and Johnny Ringo all left their bloody mark on American history with their violent lives — and their violent deaths. The Dalton Gang was no exception.
But while other Wild West outlaws might be best known for their successful robberies, the Dalton Gang is most famous for their bungled bank heist. In 1892, they fatefully tried to rob two banks in broad daylight.
Things went so terribly wrong that almost the entire gang was killed. This is their story.
How The Dalton Brothers Went From Lawmen To Lawbreakers
The Dalton Gang was primarily made up of brothers: Bob, Grat, Bill, and Emmett Dalton. Born to James Lewis Dalton and Adeline Lee Younger — whose nephews included Wild West outlaw Cole Younger — the Dalton brothers spent their childhood running wild in the West.
Their family started in Missouri before moving to Oklahoma Territory, and spent some time near the small town of Coffeyville, Kansas. And though many of the Dalton brothers would eventually make a name for themselves as outlaws, they started out on the “right side of the law.”
As the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture notes, their older brother Frank served as deputy U.S. marshal for the Federal District Court of Western Arkansas at Fort Smith starting in 1884. When he was shot and killed by “horse thieves and whiskey peddlers” in 1887, Grat and Bob Dalton followed in his footsteps and served as deputy U.S. marshals.
Even then, however, the Dalton brothers showed some outlaw tendencies. Throughout Kansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri, Bob left several bodies in his wake. Rumor had it that one suspect wound up with Bob’s bullet in his skull because he had attempted to seduce his girlfriend.
And in 1890 both Bob and Grat both got in trouble with the law. Bob was accused of selling whiskey to the Osage Nation; Grat with stealing horses. Ironically, they had become the very things that had killed their brother.
From there, Grat, Bob, and Emmett Dalton made their way to California, where they met up with their law-abiding brother, Bill. The Dalton brothers were together again. And soon, they would strike their first major target.
The Heyday Of The Dalton Gang
The Dalton gang’s life of crime allegedly started on Feb. 6, 1891, when four masked men robbed the Southern Pacific train at Alila, California. According to Legends of America, one man — thought to be Bill — shot over the passenger’s heads, while the others forced the engineer to lead them to the cash-carrying car. In the commotion, the robbers shot and killed the engineer, but the man guarding the cash forced the robbers to retreat.
In the aftermath, Bob and Emmett escaped but Grat and Bill were arrested and put on trial. While Bill was acquitted, Grat was found guilty in July 1891 and sentenced to 20 years in prison (even though dozens of eyewitnesses testified that he was at a Fresno hotel during the robbery).
But Grat would soon pull off a daring escape. That September, he somehow stole the key to his handcuffs while being transported to jail and leaped from the moving train into the San Joaquin River. Then, he made his way back to Oklahoma, where he joined back up with the Dalton gang.
Even before Grat reached them, Emmett and Bob — working alongside other outlaws — had kept busy by robbing trains in Indian Territory. With Grat back in their midst, they continued their crime spree, absconding with $17,000 from a train they robbed at Pryor Creek in July 1892. The Dalton gang also narrowly avoided arrest after deciding not to rob a darkened train, which they later learned was under heavy guard and carrying $70,000.
By then, the law had wised up to the Daltons’ act. Each member of the Dalton gang had a $5,000 reward placed on their head, and the U.S. marshals were closing in. But the Dalton brother seemed undeterred. Instead of laying low, they planned their biggest heist yet.
According to the National Park Service, Bob Dalton wanted to leave his mark on the Wild West. He declared that the gang would “beat anything Jesse James ever did — rob two banks at once, in broad daylight.”
To make matters riskier, they would attempt to rob the C. M. Condon & Company Bank and First National Bank in Coffeyville — their hometown.
‘The Town That Stopped The Daltons’
On Oct. 5, 1892, the Dalton Gang — made up of Bob, Grat, and Emmett, as well as two outlaws named Dick Broadwell and Bill Powers — executed their daring heist. But almost nothing would go as planned.
As the gang marched into town, Legends of America reports that a Coffeyville local named Aleck McKenna recognized the Daltons. As the gang split up — Bob and Emmett Dalton heading for First National Bank, and Grat Dalton, Broadwell, and Powers heading for Condon Bank — McKenna saw the flash of a gun. He cried, “The bank is being robbed!”
As the Dalton gang began their double bank heist, word started to spread throughout the town. At Condon Bank, a quick-thinking bank teller lied and told Grat and his accomplices that the vault was on time lock, meaning it would not open for ten more minutes. At First National Bank, armed townspeople lay in wait at the bank’s entrance as Bob and Emmett Dalton stuffed money into grain sacks.
When Bob and Emmett tried to flee, they were met with a hail of bullets. They turned and went out the bank’s back door, only to find themselves trapped in an alleyway. Meanwhile, Grat, Broadwell, and Powers also found themselves facing armed locals. They too raced into the alleyway — and were swiftly surrounded by angry and armed Coffeyville locals on both sides.
At that point, the Dalton gang was all but doomed. Bob and Grat were killed, as were Broadwell and Powers, as well as four local men. Emmett Dalton was shot 20 times but managed to survive.
“The Dalton gang is no more, and travelers through the Indian Territory can go right along without fear now,” the Coffeyville Journal wrote triumphantly on Oct. 7, according to the National Parks Service. “The country, and the railroads and express companies especially, can breathe easier now that the Daltons are wiped out. The country is rid of the desperate gang, but the riddance cost Coffeyville some of its best blood.”
The Dalton Gang Lives On
Law-abiding citizens across the Wild West celebrated the demise of the Dalton Gang. But its story didn’t quite end in Coffeyville.
In 1893, Bill Dalton joined forces with his old friend Bill Doolin, forming the Doolin-Dalton gang, also known as the Wild Bunch. He continued to terrorize the West until a posse shot him to death on June 8, 1894. Meanwhile, Emmett Dalton — who had survived the failed bank heist in Coffeyville — was pardoned from his life sentence in 1907. Afterward, he got a new start in Hollywood as an author and screenwriter and died at the ripe old age of 66.
Over the last century, the Dalton Gang has been depicted in scores of movies and TV shows. The films Badman’s Territory (1946) and Return of the Bad Men (1948) used elements of the Dalton Gang’s story, as did The Last Day (1975) and The Last Ride of the Dalton Gang (1979).
In that way, Bob Dalton got his wish: to be remembered.