Bank Robberies in the West

Butch_Cassidy_mugshot_detail

Bank Robberies in the West

When most people think of the American West, they think of violence, outlaws, and robberies. Butch Cassidy was one of the most famous outlaws in the American West. He began his life as a criminal as a cattle rustler and horse thief then became notorious for robbing banks and trains. The bank robbery trade is a huge western icon. Movies and other popular culture portray the robberies in the American West as common events, but in fact, bank robberies were not as popular as interpreted.

Considered one of the greatest hustlers of the American West, Butch Cassidy was born named Robert Leroy Parker on April 13, 1886, in Beaver, Utah. He was the oldest of 13 children in an underprivileged, poor Mormon family. When he was a teenager Parker left home in the hopes of a better, more affluent life than what his parents were able to provide. He eventually found work on several different ranches working as a hired hand. There he made friends with a rancher named Mike Cassidy, who had a reputation for stealing cattle and horses. Parker respected Cassidy and wanted to follow in his friend’s footsteps so he changed his name to Butch Cassidy. [1]

Butch Cassidy’s first taste of a major robbery came in June 1889, when he and three other cowboys made off with over $20,000 from a bank in Telluride, Colorado. After buying a ranch of his own in Wyoming, Cassidy continued to be persistent in cattle and horse rustling.  A few years later, the law caught up with him and he was imprisoned for two years. After being released, Cassidy continued his life as a criminal. He and an outlaw group called the “Wild Bunch” embarked on a journey that is considered the longest stretch of successful train and bank robberies in American history. They started with a bank robbery in Montpelier, Idaho where the gang made off with over $7,000. They then hit banks and trains in South Dakota, New Mexico, Nevada, and Wyoming. Between their robberies the men had a hid out located in Johnson County, Wyoming.

With each new robbery the Wild Bunch became better known, and better liked by the Americans who were eager to hear about their exploits in the newspapers. Their robberies also became larger. One of their most successful was a $70,000 haul from a train in New Mexico. They would jump the trains and threaten the workers with guns. They would then have the workers open the safes or blow them up with dynamite if the workers were unwilling to open them. It’s been said that Butch Cassidy never killed anyone during a robbery.  [2]

On June 8, 1899, the Wild Bunch robbed a mail train. Robert Lawson was a mail clerk working on the train when it was stopped by the gang. He said, “The robbers then went after the safes in the express car with dynamite and soon succeeded in getting into them, but not before the car was torn to pieces by the force of the charges. They took everything from the safes and what they didn’t carry away they destroyed. The men all wore masks reaching below their necks and of the three I observed, one looked to be six foot tall, the others being about ordinary sized men.”[3] Unable to stop them, the Union Pacific Railroad turned to the help of the law enforcement to put an everlasting end to the Wild Bunch. To hunt the posse down, the corporation hired the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, which pushed them into to South America. [4]

Cassidy and one of the members of the Wild Bunch, the Sundance Kid, continued to rob trains and banks in South America. It is said that the pair lost their lives in a shootout in Bolivia. Butch Cassidy’s death is very controversial. Some historical evidence suggests that he faked his death and returned to the United States with a new name: William T. Phillips. The man known as Phillips created speculation when he wrote a book in the 1920s called The Invincible Bandit: The Story of Butch Cassidy, which incorporated details only Cassidy would have known.  He could have possibly lived another 30 years, working as a machinist before passing away from cancer in Spokane, Washington, in 1937. Butch Cassidy’s life remains extremely mysterious and disputable.

One of the most persistent images of movies and television about the west in American is the bank robbery.  These images are found in almost every western, western novel, and in the 1969 Oscar Award winning movie, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” In a classic Hollywood scene, outlaws would scan the town for lawmen, tie their horses up and enter a bank in broad daylight. They would then draw their guns, force the cashier to open the safe, throw the money in bags, and ride out of town in a cloud of dust, dodging gunshots left and right. However, the Old West, normally with little or no government, was a generally passive place, not the violent frontier often portrayed. Studies show there were fewer than ten bank robberies from 1859 through 1900 in all of the frontier west.  That’s across 15 states in 40 years. There are more bank robberies in modern-day Dayton, Ohio alone in a year then there were in the entire Old West in a decade.

Historians believe there were less bank robberies in the American West because most of the people carried weapons, so potential robbers were always vulnerable. Criminals don’t want to get hurt undertaking their illegal acts, so they aren’t as likely to pick targets that appear to be willing to fight back. In 2000, there were approximately 7,500 bank robberies, and bank related burglaries, and larcenies in the United States. Normally, these crimes are pulled off with no injuries or deaths. Criminals have a much higher chance of being convicted but less likely to be killed for committing a robbery. Also, the towns then were normally very small with the buildings touching or being close together. Meaning the sheriff’s office was close to the banks, this made it harder for criminals to get away. [5]

Even though the reality is there were very few bank robberies in the American West, the legend of Butch Cassidy continues to live on. He will still remain a significant outlaw icon of the west. The books and movies about his thrilling life will continue to provide Americans with the mistaken portrayal but mythologically thrilling belief of robbery and violence of the 19th century.

-Shaunessy Bidwell

[1] Historynet. “Butch Cassidy Biography.” 2015. Accessed October 13, 2015

[2] Biography.com Editors “Butch Cassidy Biograpy” A&E Televison Networks. Accessed October 13, 2015.

[3] EyeWitness to History. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid Rob a Train, 1899.” 1999. Accessed October 13, 2015.

[4] EyeWitness to History. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid Rob a Train, 1899.” 1999. Accessed October 13, 2015.

[5] Wisniwski, J “5 Myths Everyone Believes About the Wild West.” April 24, 2013. Accessed October 13, 2015.

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