Al Jennings

During the late 1880s, pulp fiction dime novels created larger-than-life myths and legends of Old West figures like Wild Bill Hickok, Belle Starr, Calamity Jane and Jesse James.  

These were followed in the 20th century by Hollywood shooting stars like Tom Mix, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. This raises the question: Were there any who might be called intelligence challenged?

The Old West wasn’t a place for the meek. Lawmen had to be as tough and cunning as the culprits they had to deal with. Keeping the peace was a grim and deadly business, but a few did provide peace officers some comic relief. Take, for example, Al Jennings of Oklahoma.

During his long and colorful life, Jennings was a cowboy, lawyer, gunslinger, train robber, jailbird, preacher, politician, author and movie star. In his autobiography he claimed to have robbed 15 or 20 trains, but it was another exaggeration. His career only lasted 109 days before he was captured and sent to prison. He once claimed to have outshot James in a shooting match, but his math must have been skewered because James had been dead for several years at the time the match supposedly took place.

His first attempted train robbery was almost his last. Unwittingly, he stood in the middle of the tracks pointing his pistol at the approaching locomotive. The train didn’t stop, and Jennings jumped off the tracks just in time. His second attempt, Jennings used too much dynamite and accidentally blew up the express car while trying to open the safe. He did manage to salvage a jug of whisky and an armload of bananas. The third time was the charm, and the robbery netted him $27. He was captured and given a life sentence in the pen, but in 1904 he received a presidential pardon.

Jennings then went into politics and ran for governor of Oklahoma. His campaign slogan was, “I promise to be honest for a year if I can hold out that long.” Jennings finished third in the primary. After, he became an evangelist, claiming passing the collection plate in church was no different than robbing passengers on a train.

Jennings decided to write his autobiography, “Beating Back,” embellishing his days as a notorious train robber, and Hollywood came calling. The movie moguls wanted to make a film and asked Jennings to star as himself. He went off to tinsel town, where he was heralded as a “real Old West outlaw.” Soon, Jennings was a celebrity. He starred, consulted and wrote the screenplays for more than 100 films.

Fortunately, by following his scripts, Jennings’ train robberies fared much better than the ones he lived.

Jennings stood only 5-foot-1 with his boots on. One might say the only thing tall about him was his tales. He married a woman a foot taller than he and always called her “the little woman.”

In later years he retired to his little ranch in San Fernando Valley and raised chickens. One evening in 1945, while listening to “The Lone Ranger Show” on his radio, Jennings was outraged to hear the Masked Man shoot the gun out of outlaw Al Jennings’ hand. “Nobody could ever shoot the gun out of Al Jennings’ hand,” he bellowed and promptly sued the Lone Ranger.

The judge and jury were thoroughly entertained by his tall tales but ruled against him and the lawsuit was thrown out of court.

Jennings had his last gunfight one night when he was sitting on his front porch and heard a noise down by the hen house. Thinking a burglar was on the prowl, Jennings accidentally shot his prize rooster.