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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Book Review: Cole Younger, Last of the Great Outlaws

Cole Younger: Last of the Great OutlawsCole Younger: Last of the Great Outlaws by Homer Croy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Cole Younger was one of the most successful outlaws who got their start as Confederate bushwhackers. Like Frank and Jesse James and a whole crowd of lesser names, Younger learned to ride and shoot and steal in Missouri's bitter Civil War. He became a legend, and tales of his exploits made fireside conversation in Missouri and other states for generations.

Homer Croy (1883-1965) grew up on those tales. He grew up not too far from the James farm so he heard a lot of them. Reading this book is a bit like sitting by a fire in a little cabin in the woods, hearing some oldtimer spin stories. It's hugely entertaining, but it's not history.

Croy writes in a homey, informal sort of way, often slipping out of the narrative to talk about his own experiences researching this book. He talked to many people who knew Cole Younger, and this adds a huge amount of value to his work.

He's weak on the facts, though. For example, he has Quantrill dying a few months after the Lawrence Massacre, when in fact he lived until 1865. He has Jim Younger getting shot through the jaw during the Northfield holdup, when actually he received that injury two weeks later when cornered by a posse. He also says the film Under the Black Flag was about Cole. I've seen it and it's about Jesse James, played by his son Jesse James, Jr. Croy obviously didn't see the picture, which is good for him because it was terrible.

Croy also repeats the legend of Cole Younger and Belle Starr being lovers. This has been disproved. It was Cole's uncle who had a brief affair with Belle.

But legends are what this book is about. Croy spins a fun tale, and as long as you don't take it as history, or at least reliable history, it's a highly entertaining read.

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