What are some of the first things that you think of when you think of the Wild West? Maybe cowboys and Indians, or gunfights, or maybe the myth that bank robberies happened all of the time. Well the truth is bank robberies were not as common in the 19th century west as Hollywood would have you believe. There were several factors that made it difficult to do like location and transportation.
One major contributing factor was the location of the banks1. They were in the middle of town. They usually had other store fronts on either side leaving only the front and back vulnerable to attack2. The front faced towards town and that would be too obvious so the best option was to break in through the back wall3.
The next factor is the security of the banks. They typically had double-reinforced rear walls4, making entry very difficult not to mention noisy. Even if the thieves could get inside, they still had to deal with the safe that held the money. The safes were made of iron which was hard to break but it was also heavy and hard to steal the whole thing. Later with the introduction of Diebold safes5, which had walls and doors of iron several inches thick, breaking into them was made much harder.
That only leaves one easy option. Walk in the front door, draw a gun, and demand that the teller open the safe and hand over the money. The problem with this strategy is that everyone can see you do it, and the sheriff’s office is right down the street. It would be very hard to escape on horseback. It took a lot of planning to do which the thieves either didn’t think of or were incapable of doing, except in a handful of cases like that of Butch Cassidy6.
Another factor was that trains and stagecoaches were much easier to rob7. Stagecoaches only had a driver and a guard so with a gang of robbers it was not hard to overtake it. Train schedules were easily predictable. A gang could ride up, jump onto a car, and make their way to the car holding the money and goods. Take what they could, jump out and ride away. Train tracks were also mostly in the middle of nowhere so it would be easy to escape from them.
With all of these factors combined it was very difficult for anyone to successfully rob a bank and then get away with it. There certainly were some cases where that did happen but it was not common. The notion that a group of outlaws could ride into a town, rob a bank, and then ride off into the sunset never to be caught by the law is very cool. That is a lot of the reason that the myth is so common. Hollywood made countless movies all about that very same thing so society just perceives it as happening all of the time.
- Corey Wood
1 Freeman. “The Non-Existent Frontier Bank Robbery | Foundation for Economic Education.” FEE Freeman Article. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2015. <http://fee.org/freeman/the-non-existent-frontier-bank-robbery/>.
6 The Salt Lake Herald. (Salt Lake City [Utah) 1870-1909, June 25, 1889, Image 1.” News about Chronicling America RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2015. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85058130/1889-06-25/ed-1/seq-1/#words=+Bobber+Colorado+Tetrttinc+robber>.
7 Freeman. “The Non-Existent Frontier Bank Robbery”