The Outlaw Polk Wells
By his own admission, Polk Wells, an outlaw known to have ridden with the James and Younger brothers, believed life had handed him a raw deal. During an interview after his capture he gave a rare insight into his checkered past. “I was hanged twice during the war by Kansas jayhawkers, stabbed twice in the back by Mexicans, and from first to last have received into my body 33 bullets, 27 of which still remain with me." After his death a medical college in St. Joseph, Missouri, dug out the bullets and gave them to Al Warnica, a man who had an affair with his wife.
Charles Knox Polk Wells hailed from Buchanan County, Missouri, and was a bank and train robber who was said to have killed over thirty men, including an uncle and a jailer. Born in 1851, Polk weighed in at around 200 pounds and was powerfully built. He was described as having a quick temper and always ready to fight at the drop of a hat, with guns or fists. The mere mention of his name could make even the most dedicated lawman shake in his boots.
Early in life, he headed for the frontier and gained fame far and wide as an Indian fighter with the likes of Wild Bill Hickok. He was twice captured by Indians and rubbed shoulders with famed outlaws and frontiersman. Kit Carson was so impressed with Polk’s skill with a pistol and fearlessness he gave him his personal buckhorn-handled hunting knife.
During his early years of crime Polk often used the alias C.H. Warner, but after a while his name and description became so well known to lawmen and Pinkerton detectives, he decided he might as well use his real name. Over the course of his career, Polk was an all around bandit in Missouri, Kansas, and Iowa.
In 1872, Polk attempted living the straight and narrow. He married Nora Wilson at his home in Missouri and started a grocery store and liquor business. Both enterprises failed after two years and abandoning his family he returned to his life of crime. Several years later he decided to try living a decent life again and returned home to his wife. He found his child had died during his absence and Nora had taken up living with another man, Al Warnica.
Polk didn’t hold a grudge against Warnica. After all, he had deserted his wife. In speaking of the situation Wells said, "Warnica was a hard-working young fellow, and I determined not to interfere, for there had been no intentional wrongdoing. I gave him $300 to buy a team with, kissed Nora goodbye, mounted my horse, and rode away." In fact, the two remained friends the rest of his life. Warnica, an author, wrote Well’s autobiography after his death.
According to Polk, his first crime was a highway robbery. That was quickly followed by a train robbery and several bank heists. He once rode on a train with two cohorts in the same coach with three Pinkerton agents who were looking for him. Although they recognized Wells, they apparently thought better of trying to arrest him at that particular time.
Sheriff Dan Farrell of Mills County, Iowa and a neighboring county sheriff finally teamed up to track Wells and another outlaw named Norris down. After several weeks they found the two desperados in a saloon in Randolph, Wisconsin. When the two opposing factions met gunplay erupted.
Farrell was shot four times and Norris took three bullets. Wells was so badly wounded he had to be carried out of the saloon on a stretcher to a train which took him to Chicago. A large throng numbering hundreds were waiting at the train station to catch a glimpse of the notorious bandit. It was thought Well’s wouldn’t survive his injuries. Even in his helpless state, lawmen charged with his custody still feared him and a constant watch was kept over their prisoner.
After their wounds had healed sufficiently, Norris and Wells were imprisoned at Fort Madison Penitentiary. While serving his sentence he chloroformed a guard and escaped. The guard later died and Wells was convicted of murder and handed a life sentence in Lee County in 1882. However, before being captured he wounded several of the pursuing officers.
While in prison he professed he had become a Christian. Wells served most of his sentence at Fort Madison where he contracted tuberculosis. On several occasions he applied for a pardon due to his failing health, but was always turned down. As his condition continued to deteriorate from tuberculosis, prison officials knew he didn’t have long to live and he was transferred to Anamosa Prison, where better hospital facilities were available. Wells died sixteen days later on September 11, 1896. After his death his body was shipped to the medical college in St. Joseph, Missouri, for dissection, per his request. Although there is a prison cemetery marker bearing his identification, most believe it was simply the result of a clerical error.
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