Bank Robbers in the American West

1940s-bank-robberThere are various myths that have been created regarding the American West due to the lack of accuracy in the retelling stories of the West in the form of a cinematic film. Westerns focus on the action of the moment and heroics or misdeeds of the characters. These acts of heroism or crime are fantastically exaggerated for the viewer’s pleasure, but some of what the viewer sees is transformed into their own view of the Western United States because they live too far east to actually understand the lifestyle of Westerners during this time period. There are various famous Western films created with the Clint Eastwood or John Wayne, but I chose to watch the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid which told the tale of two infamous bank robbers and their adventure as they went on a bank robbing spree. Bank robbers during the frontier period (mid to late 1800’s) were not as common and invincible as they seem to be in a Western film because society will protect their banks from such crimes with brutal force. The only reason that people today want to believe that such bank robbers existed is because everybody loves a good Western and sense of adventure. Nothing is more exciting than seeing a bank get blown up with dynamite.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was a terrific film; it was filled with action, comedy and romance. Aside from the brilliance of the film, it created some false assumptions of what it was like to rob a bank. First of all, the typical lawman in the film was extremely incapable of doing their job. The sheriff deputy had to get the local community together and ask for their help in apprehending the outlaws because the police force was not capable of doing so themselves. No citizen volunteered to help because they felt useless in capturing someone so well known as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The lawmen are so helpless that the sheriff allowed the duo to break into the police department, handcuff him and gag him in a chair.[1] Even more shockingly, the law didn’t start reacting to the robbing of their banks until the criminals had quite the robbing spree accumulating and the rhythm of robbing them down. Plus, the criminals themselves are idolized in the film as being better than the average man. A bank robber in this movie is handsome, funny, wealthy, skilled, and intelligent, gets all the ladies and is free to do as he pleases. The men were portrayed as sensible men with feelings and emotions. The Sundance Kid fell in love with Etta and Butch felt guilty for killing a man for the first time even though the man he killed deserved it. The criminal duo had a conscious just like the typical human being.  Butch and Sundance could get away with eating a luxurious dinner in public without being recognized or taken under suspicion even though there were wanted posters of them on every public building in town. Robbing banks was just as easy as saying please. The bank teller at one bank literally took Sundance and his lovely lady interest, Etta Place, right to the money without question. The teller hadn’t asked why and hadn’t checked them for weapons or anything.  Apparently all you need is a gun to rob a bank because there isn’t constant security watching over the bank. The only thing in the way of the bank robbers is a handful of helpless citizens. Butch also, somehow, had access to TNT and used it to crack open a safe. Surprisingly, the entire bank didn’t get blown up along with the safe. At the very beginning of the film, Butch approached his favorite bank and asked the lawman guarding it why the bank shut down. The lawman replied that the bank was being robbed too often. He hadn’t even recognized the criminal who robbed the bank standing right in front of him. The criminals in the West were untouchable.

Larry Schweikart, a history professor at the University of Dayton, has an extremely different take on what would actually happen in a typical bank robbery. This man created an academic article called “The Non-Existent Frontier Bank Robbery.”  Schweikart states, “In 1991, Lynne Doti and I published Banking in the American West from the Gold Rush to Deregulation, in which we surveyed primary and secondary sources from all the states of the ‘frontier west.’” Schweikart agrees that such instances of criminal immortality in which the bank robbers get away with ease had been achieved by a select few, but the majority of the bank robbers in the West could never escape so easily. “Put generally, we found the western bank-robbery scene to be a myth. Yes, a handful of robberies occurred. In the roughly 40 years, spread across these 15 states, we identified three or four definite ones”[3]. Larry even goes as far as to say that there are more successful bank robberies in modern day Dayton, Ohio in a year than a decade in the American West during the frontier period. Virtually every adult male at the time carried a firearm so it would be impossible for a known robber to even get close to a bank without someone catching on to the criminal’s intentions. Bankers were also more concerned about maintaining financial stability than bank robberies. Bankers believed that no robber could steal the money because of the quality of their safes and building structure. Robbers were the least of a banker’s worries at the time.

John Christopher Fine is a writer for “History Magazine” and wrote an article concerning the Montpelier Bank Robbery. The article consists of recollections from the Montpelier Examiner who described the holdup that took place August 15, 1896. He said that three unmasked men walked steadily into the bank with six-shooters in hand. Everyone in the bank faced the wall with their hands in the air while the assistant cashier, Bud McIntosh, one of the bank tillers, bagged all of the money insight into a sack. When they emptied the vault, they simply mounted their horses and rode off. One of the gang members who sat outside holding the horses was identified as Bob Meeks and was arrested much later by a railroad detective in Cheyenne, Wyoming, but the other two men, Butch Cassidy and Elzy Lay were never caught and arrested for the robbery. “The thieves were tracked as far as Snyder’s Basin, where all signs were lost. The pursued had changed horses several times and made hard long rides…It is not likely Cassidy ever killed anyone. He was adamant about that in later life.”[4] With this information, we can conclude that some of the myths created by the previously mentioned movie are false and that some are actually true. Butch was capable of robbing a bank with nothing but a pistol, but his men have been caught before. It is important to keep in mind that Butch Cassidy and his “Hole-in-the-Wall Gang” are one of the few successful bands of bank robbers during this time period.

One of the most famous bank robberies is that of the Coffeyville raid in Kansas. David Elliot was a newspaper editor and wrote down experiences of several observers of the Dalton Gang’s raid. “After crossing the pavement the men quickened their pace, and the three in the front file went into C.M. Condon & Co.’s bank at the southwest door, while the two in the rear ran directly across the street to the First National Bank and entered the front door of that institution… Bill Powers, Dick Broadwell and Grat Dalton the C.M. Condon bank, Bob and Emmett Dalton the First National”[5]. Those who discovered the robbers’ intentions yelled into the streets to warn the others which led to a dozen armed citizens at the ready to prevent the escape of the outlaws. The men who entered the C.M. Condon Bank filled a sack with money. They decided to wait for one of the vaults due to a time lock, which never existed in the first place and was made-up by a bank teller, and the men outside opened fire on the bank. Bob and Emmett Dalton filled a sack with money and attempted to escape by using hostages, but this plan failed due to heavy gunfire from outside. All of the men were gunned down and killed on the spot as they attempted to escape. Even the famous Dalton Gang had failed to rob a bank due to both the police and the citizens of Coffeyville. This instance disproves the myth of “incapable towns folk” and lack of action from the law portrayed in the 1969 film for they acted quickly and efficiently to defeat the outlaws. It is also evident that robbing a bank was no easy task, even for someone as skilled as the Dalton Gang, considering that all five of the robbers were gunned down and killed in their attempt to escape. They certainly didn’t use any dynamite. Overall, the Dalton Gang’s attempt to rob two banks in broad daylight proved to be a failure.

Bank robbers in the American West during the frontier period were not as they were depicted to be. The only bank robberies that are recorded into history are the robberies that were performed by robbers of skill or notoriety. Since we only know of successful bank robberies, we fall into the notion that they were frequent and successful. In reality, bank robberies were of little concern for bankers due to their confidence in the banks structures. There were only a few notably successful bank robberies in the West and even more unsuccessful ones. The male citizens of society are usually packing a weapon and are not afraid to use it alongside the law force to apprehend criminals who threaten their financial wellbeing. Bank robbers will never see victory in their campaign of carnage while other guns are in the street and pointed in their direction. Butch Cassidy may have had a good run for his money, but those who tried to follow his influence would either end up dead or in jail.

by Bailey Martin

[1] George Roy Hill, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, movie,  October 24, 1969, accessed October 29, 2015

[3] Larry Schwiekart, The Non-Existant Frontier Bank Robbery (The Freeman), scholarly article, published Jan. 1, 2001.

[4] John Christopher Fine, Butch Cassidy and the Montpelier Bank Robbery(History Magazine) magazine article, published Dec. 1, 2010

[5] The Dalton Gang’s Last Raid, 1892(eyewitnesstohitory.com), web, published 2001

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