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Friday, June 16, 2017

Bank Robberies in the Wild West

     Anybody familiar with the Wild West knows robberies were common when a roving gang of outlaws would ride into town and plunder the bank. They'd ride in, usually dressed in what were known as dusters, overcoats made of canvas which served to keep the dust and wind off the cowboy despite summertime frontier temperatures of up to 125 degrees. 
     They'd slowly ride into town, tie up their horses and enter the bank in broad daylight and force the employees to open the safe, throw the money in saddlebags then skedaddle. As they galloped off, befuddled townsfolk ran around yelling, “The bank's been robbed.”
     According to a research article published in 1991 in Banking in the American West from the Gold Rush to Deregulation they surveyed bank robberies in Arizona, California, Colorado, the Dakotas, Kansas, Idaho, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming between 1859-1900 and discovered only a handful of bank robberies were reported. In fact, the report stated that there were more bank robberies in modern-day Dayton, Ohio in a year than there were in the entire Old West in a decade. 
      All this was despite the fact that it wasn't until the 1890s that Western states began to regulate certain types of bank behavior to protect the customers. In addition, government regulations aimed at preventing bank failures eventually came into existence.  In the 1920s bank robberies plagued the Great Plains states, e.g. Bonnie and Clyde, and rewards were offered and bank insurance was offered for the first time. 
     The study discovered that in the Old West almost all bankers began their careers in another field. Many of the early bankers originally had ties to the banking business when they were city slickers back East, but when the moved to the West they frequently opened the general store. Why? Remember, they were city slickers and they knew townsfolk demanded trust and confidence in the banker, so by setting up a business that townspeople could learn to rely on, they could open a bank later. 
     But earning trust and respect wasn't all it took. You had to LOOK like a banker...rich and successful. The you had to be able to construct a building that at least looked impressive. The bank would be built in the center of town with buildings on each side. That left only the front and back exposed to break-ins which would be easier to protect. Also, in those days, businessmen tended to live above their stores, so it would be difficult to break in at night without waking neighbors. The rear walls would be double-reinforced. 
     Even if the robbers got inside, they still had to deal with the safe. These safes usually were what were called the cannonball design. They were large metal boxes on legs that held important documents and the actual gold, silver and paper money was stored on top of the box in a large “ball safe.” This design made it difficult to separate from the bottom or carry off. These safes were later abandoned in favor of Diebold safes, named after the Cincinnati company that supplied many of them. These safes had doors several inches thick. In short, getting into a safe was a major and very difficult undertaking. 

     Many western banks commonly left the vault open during the day to allow customers a view of the inside as reassurance that their money was well protected. Prior to 1930, there was no Federal Deposit Insurance and if your money was stolen, it was gone so banks had to appear prosperous and impregnable. 
     Besides his personal appearance of prosperity, the banker needed to a building that reflected the same attributes. Hence, many banks' fine wooden counters, shiny brass finishings, chandeliers and marble floors and ostentatious furnishings. 
     All this made breaking into the building and cracking a safe next to impossible, so we are presented with the scenario where the gunslingers march into a bank and pull off the heist. A few were successful,but not many. One famous robbery was by Cassidy’s gang. Butch's bank robbery involved meticulous planning. He stationed horses at points where he knew his own horses would be wearing out, ensuring that his gang had fresh mounts all the way to their hideout. 
     Some of the bank robbery myth can be traced to Missouri, where the James and Quantrill gangs plundered at will during the Civil War. Their expeditions ranged as far north as Northfield, Minnesota, but Hollywood has greatly exaggerated the bank robbery of the Old West. 
     Actually, bank robberies weren’t common during the Old West because there weren't very many of them. Folks usually kept their money somewhere else. Besides, it was difficult to ride into town where almost every adult male was armed and escape without getting met by a hail of bullets.
     Railroads and stagecoaches were easier targets. Stagecoaches had a single driver and an armed guard and train schedules were easy to predict. Even then, after a few trains were hit because the railroads hired the Pinkerton detectives with crack shots and expert riders who rode in separate cars with their horses.

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