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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Myths of the Old West

The Old West, with little or no government, was a generally peaceful place, not the violent frontier often depicted. There were probably fewer than a dozen bank robberies in the entire period from 1859 through 1900 in all the frontier West.

The frontier West was not the violent "Wild West" depicted by the press and history teachers who don’t know history. Before 1900 there were no successful bank robberies in any of the major towns in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas, Kansas, Nebraska, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, or New Mexico, and only a pair of robberies in California and Arizona. Lots of people carried concealed weapons, so potential robbers were always vulnerable. Criminals don’t want to get hurt doing their criminal acts, so they aren't as likely to pick prey that appears willing to fight back.

In 2000 there were about 7,500 bank robberies, burglaries, and larcenies in the United States. Normally, these crimes are pulled off with no injuries or deaths.

What is particularly remarkable about bank robberies today is that there are far more of them than there were a century ago, even after accounting for the increase in population. Was the United States really plagued by bank robberies in the late 1800s and early 1900s? Did gangs of armed men in black hats routinely plunder banks in small western towns? Not quite. Historians Larry Schweikart and Lynne Doti, in their study of banking in the "frontier west," found that western bank robberies were almost nonexistent in the "Wild West" period. Over the four decades from 1859-1900 in 15 states (including Nebraska), there were only about half a dozen bank robberies. As Schweikart has noted, bank robberies began to be a serious problem in the western United States only in the 1920s, when the automobile allowed criminals to quickly cross the state line—and when the physical security of banks became less important to their success.

There are more bank robberies in modern-day Dayton, Ohio, in a year than there were in the entire Old West in a decade, perhaps in the entire frontier period.

One of the enduring images of movies and television about the frontier west in America is the bank robbery. In a typical Hollywood scene, several riders, clad in long coats—despite summertime frontier temperatures of up to 125 degrees—slowly enter town, conspicuously scanning the cityscape for lawmen. The riders tie up their horses and enter the bank in broad daylight. Then they move with lightning speed to draw their guns, force the cashier or president to open the safe, throw the money in saddlebags, and hightail it for their horses outside. In a cloud of dust, they scramble out of town, with an occasional gunshot from one of the befuddled sheriffs trailing behind. The townspeople may mount a posse, but this belated action proves ineffective, as the crooks gleefully reach their hideout, the next town, or Mexico, whichever comes first.

There is one thing wrong with this scenario: it almost never happened. In 1991, Lynne Doti and Larry Schweikart published Banking in the American West from the Gold Rush to Deregulation, in which they surveyed primary and secondary sources from all the states of the “frontier west.” This included every state west of the Missouri/Minnesota/Texas line, specifically, Arizona, California, Colorado, the Dakotas, Kansas, Idaho, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. The time frame was 1859-1900, or what most historians would include in the “frontier period.”

The western bank-robbery scene is pure myth. Yes, a handful of robberies occurred. In the roughly 40 years, spread across these 15 states, there were three or four definite bank robberies; and in subsequent correspondence with academics anxious to help “clarify the record,” perhaps two or three others were pointed out.

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Violence in the Old West

In the real Dodge City of history, there were five killings in 1878, the most homicidal year in the little town's frontier history. In the most violent year in Deadwood, South Dakota, only four people were killed. In the worst year in Tombstone, home of the shoot-out at the OK Corral, only five people were killed. The only reason the OK Corral shoot-out even became famous was that town boosters deliberately overplayed the drama to attract new settlers. They cashed in on the tourist boom by inventing a myth.

The most notorious cow towns in Kansas—Abilene, Dodge City, Ellsworth, Wichita, and Caldwell—did see more violence than similar-sized small towns elsewhere. But not as much as you might think. Records indicate that between 1870 and 1885, there were only 45 murders in those towns.

There is no evidence anyone was ever killed in a frontier shoot-out at high noon.

Billy the Kid was a pyschopathic murderer, but he didn't kill 21 people by the time he was 21 years old, as the legend says. Authorities can account for three men he killed for sure, and no more than a total of six or seven.

Wild Bill Hickok claimed to have killed six Kansas outlaws and secessionists in the incident that first made him famous. But he lied. He killed just three—all unarmed.

Bill Cody's reputation as a gunslinger was mostly from his own fiction. He freely admitted that he fabricated all the excessive shooting in those dime novels. But he was a good shot and is said to have proved it repeatedly at the bison-killing contests where he earned the nickname Buffalo Bill. But he didn't kill many Indians, and when he was old, his estranged wife revealed that he have been wounded in combat with Indians only once, not 137 times as he claimed.

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An interesting question is why there were so few bank robberies. Certainly people in the Wild West were no less greedy than later generations of criminals. In the 1920s, for example, a spate of western bank robberies plagued the Great Plains states: rewards soared, bank insurance was offered for the first time, and western bankers discussed bank robberies with increasing frequency at their meetings. Career criminals such as Bonnie and Clyde became infamous for their ability to strike quickly and escape. So if the crooks didn’t change, what did?

Equally interesting is the simultaneous rise of government regulation aimed at bank failures—but not robberies. After the 1890s almost every western state began to regulate other types of bank behavior to “protect” the consumer. Why were there so few bank robberies before the government got involved?

Symbolic Building
Besides demonstrating an affinity for business and personal wealth, the banker had to show the community that he meant business by constructing a building that would symbolically reflect stability, permanence, and safety.

The buildings were in the dead center of town, with other stores on each side. This left only two walls “open” to blasting without disturbing residents, who tended to sleep above their establishments. The bank front faced into the town, and smashing through it would be obvious. That left the rear wall the most vulnerable. Even then, however, blasting through a wall was no easy (or quiet) chore. Bankers double-reinforced rear walls, and should the robbers get inside, they still had to deal with an iron safe. Safe storage of money was a key to successful banking: one Oklahoma banker kept his cash in a small grated box with rattlesnakes inside; an Arizona banker had a safe, but put his money in a wastebasket covered by a cloth, hoping thieves would take the safe and ignore the rest. Still others slept, literally, with the bank’s assets under their bed.

Eventually, though, early iron safes appeared. Constructed in the “ball-on-a-box” design, they featured a large metal box on legs that held important documents. Actual gold and silver, plus paper money, was stored on top of the box in a large “ball safe,” which proved daunting to separate from the bottom, or, more important, to haul off. Dynamite could break it off from its base, but what does one do with a huge round iron ball? The absence of plastic explosives made surgical entrance difficult, though certainly not impossible. These safes were later abandoned in favor of more conventional Diebold safes, named after the Cincinnati company that supplied many of them. The rectangular safes sported metal doors several inches thick. Again, one could penetrate them given enough time, but that was a luxury most thieves lacked. In short, penetrating a vault or safe constituted a major, difficult undertaking that most robbers avoided. But for our purposes here, the key is that the vault and safe, along with the building itself, made up the “symbols of safety” that reassured depositors their money was safe.

Indeed, many western banks commonly left the vault open during the day to allow customers a full view of the safe. Customers also saw fine wooden counters, excellent brass finishings (sometimes gold), and in banks in larger cities, beautiful chandeliers and marble floors. Ornate and ostentatious materials and furnishings contributed to the overall message of the owner’s wealth, the bank’s permanence, and the institution’s stability and safety. Once regarded as irrelevant or odd, it turns out that the fine interiors had a definite purpose in maintaining the solvency of frontier banks.

Direct Approach
Given the difficulty of liberating cash from such buildings, it is not surprising that robbers usually chose the more direct approach. Several gunslingers marching headlong into a bank may have seemed like a good idea to some, and certainly Butch Cassidy’s gang pulled off the successful Telluride robbery in such a mode. His gang had the advantage of Cassidy’s brilliant planning: a shrewd evaluator of horse flesh, Cassidy had stationed (Pony Express-style) horses at exactly the points where he knew his own horses would be wearing out, ensuring that his gang had fresh mounts all the way to their hideout. Even so, one has to search extensively to find bank robberies of even this type. There was one in Nogales, one in California, and perhaps a couple in other locations. But like the rear-wall blasting, the front-door robbery is notoriously absent in western records.

So where did the myth of the western bank robbery arise? Some of it can be traced to Missouri, where the James and Quantrill gangs plundered at will during the Civil War era. Their expeditions ranged as far north as Northfield, Minnesota.

But Hollywood is the likely culprit, certainly guilty of misrepresentation.


The Non-Existent Frontier Bank Robbery By Larry Schweikart, January 2001. (Larry Schweikart teaches history at the University of Dayton.)

Legends, Lies, and Cherished Myths of American History By Richard Shenkman, 1988

Bank Robberies and Rational Crooks