Al JenningsJust before my dad died we were talking to him about family histories.  He pulled out a newspaper clipping about the death of Al Jennings, the “last train robber.”  He told us of his presidential pardon, and related an anecdote in which wwhen he was released from prison he went to a museum displaying artifacts from his life and demanded them back.  After a suit in court, he won, recovered his stuff and headed to Hollywood.

Our hearts swelled with pride; he was the only famous guy in our immediate bloodline, and he was the last train robber!  How cool is that?

Two years ago there was a History Channel special on train robbers and my relative was mentioned!  Initially I was thrilled but they made him out to be a bit of a buffoon, which kinda sucked the fun out of it.

Then a couple weeks ago I was reading one of those “15 random things about me” lists, this one about artist Tricia Anders, wherein she revealed her ancestry having included a famous outlaw.  I chimed in with the above, and then thought to google Al Jennings to see what came up.

Big mistake.

According to Sarah Vowell’s favorite Web site findagrave.com, the History Channel had been kind to my great-great uncle. Not only was I chagrined to learn that he was also a second-rate lawyer, a third-rate politician, and (say it ain’t so) an evangelist, virtually every aspect of his infamous career had been exaggerated.

“‘The fastest gun on the range’, as he often proclaimed himself, was an even faster talker. He boasted that he killed 18 men, ‘and I always shot ‘em in the throat so they couldn’t talk back’. Historians say there is no record that Jennings killed anyone.”

It gets worse.  “Real desperadoes like Fred Dalton of the Dalton Gang scoffed at Jennings as ‘the guy who held the horses’ during bank robberies, and his outlaw exploits were marked by such ineptitude that comic moments from films like ‘Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid’ were based on them.”

My heart sank as I read on.  Inept exploits (blowing up a US Mail car while trying to open a safe) pathetic hauls (passing the hat among the train’s passengers), and ignominious defeat (capture with no shots fired).  As a would-be politician, he ran for Oklahoma governor on the platform “If elected I promise to be honest for a year, if I can hold out for that long.”

He was involved in like 100 movies in Hollywood as a scriptwriter, technical consultant, and even an actor.  Hollywood is the only place he truly seemed to be at home, which I don’t consider as speaking well of his character.

Even in his 90′s he was constantly tangling with lawmen over his use of guns on his property.  for example: “One night he chased a chicken thief off his property and ended up blasting one of his own roosters.”<sigh> He died, heartbroken at the loss of his wife, at age 98 — no way for an outlaw to die. Ultimately the article concludes that he was “an amusing footnote” in American history.

Wikipedia isn’t much kinder, only adding that he did not finish last in that Oklahoma gubernatorial race.

For some reason his autobiography has been digitized by Google Books and is available online in its entirety .  Presumably under “Fiction.”