The frontier West of popular legend was not the violent “Wild West,” so often depicted by Hollywood, the mainstream media and history teachers and writers.
For example, in one of the most famous locations in the American west, Dodge City, there were only five killings during 1878, also the most murderous year in the town’s frontier history.
In Deadwood, South Dakota, only four people were killed that year.
In Tombstone, the location of the legendary ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral,’ the five people killed during that shoot-out was the entire tally for the town that year.
The reason the OK Corral shoot-out even became known at all, was that town ‘boosters’ over dramatised the event, simply to attract new settlers, and encourage people to visit.
The most notorious cattle towns in Kansas, Abilene, Ellsworth, Wichita, and Caldwell however, did see more violence than similar-sized small towns in the west.
But not as much as the movie studios, novelists and history teachers would have you believe.
Official records show that between 1870 and 1885, there were only 45 murders in all those towns combined.
There is no solid evidence, that anyone was ever killed in any frontier town shoot-out at ‘High Noon’ either.
William Bonney,(Billy the Kid) was a pyschopathic murderer, but he did not kill 21 people by the time he was 21 years old, as the legend says.
Evidence does support him killing three men, the true number remains unknown, but is certainly nowhere near double figures even.
‘Wild’ Bill ‘James’ Hickok famously claimed to have killed six Kansas outlaws and secessionists in the incident that brought him notoriety.
But Bill also lied.
Only three men died at his hand, and all were unarmed.
He openly admitted that he ‘fabricated’ his version of the shootouts depicted in the movies and stories written about his life and times.
He was a crack shot though, and is said to have proved it repeatedly at Bison-Killing Contests, which is where he earned the nickname ‘Buffalo Bill.’
What he did not do however, was kill many Indians, and when he was a much older man, his estranged wife revealed that he had been wounded fighting Indians only once, not the 137 times as he often claimed.
One of the enduring and popularised images of the frontier west in America, the armed bank robbery, was nothing more than Hollywood chicanery.
An interesting aspect about the so-called ‘Wild West’ is that in reality, there were actually less bank robberies than there are in modern-day America.
Criminals were no less greedy than today, I would imagine.
Was the United States really plagued by bank robberies in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s?
Did gangs of armed men in black hats and long coats, routinely ride into town and rob the banks in small western towns?
Bank robberies were almost non existent in the ‘Wild West’ period.
Between 1859 and 1900, in 15 states (including Nebraska), there were probably less than six in all.
Prior to 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 two carried out in California and Arizona.
Many people carried concealed weapons at that time, so potential robbers were always vulnerable to serious injury.
Most criminals don’t really want to get hurt, so they are usually reluctant to select targets that look as if they are willing and able to fight back.
Bank robberies only began to be a serious problem in the western United States in the 1920s, when the automobile allowed criminals to quickly cross the state line.
But that would be a far less romantic and bankable image, I would imagine.
To put it into perspective, there are more bank robberies committed in modern-day Dayton, Ohio, in one year than there were in the entire Old West during the entire frontier period.
There were of course, sound reasons for this.
Bankers had to demonstrate to the community in frontier towns, that they meant business, so would normally construct a building that would show stability, permanence, and most importantly, safety.
The buildings were usually, in the center of town, with other stores on each side.
This left only two walls ‘open’ to blasting without disturbing the town residents, who tended in those days, to live and sleep above their businesses.
The bank front faced into the town, and smashing through it would attract far too much unwanted attention.
That only left the rear wall the most accessible.
Even then however, blasting through a solid wall was no easy (or quiet) task.
Banks usually incorporated double-reinforced rear walls in their designs, so even if the robbers got inside, they still had to deal with an iron safe.
The safe storage of money and valuables, was seen as being paramount to successful banking, then as now.
One intrepid Oklahoma banker kept his cash in a small grated box with live rattlesnakes inside.
Another banker from Arizona, did have a safe, but put the cash in a wastebasket covered by a cloth, hoping thieves would take just the safe and ignore everything else.
Others slept, ironically, with the bank’s assets under their matresses.
That was before iron safes appeared, I must add.
Constructed around a “ball-on-a-box” design, the earliest safes, known as ‘Cannonballs’ featured a large metal box on legs that were designed to hold important documents.
Gold and silver, plus paper money, was stored on top of the box in a large ‘ball safe,’ which proved difficult to separate from the bottom, or, more importantly, to carry off.
Plastic explosive had not even been invented, so ‘blowing’ a safe with sticks of dynamite, would have been extremely difficult, although not impossible.
Things became even more difficult with the introduction of the more conventional ‘Diebold’ safes, named after the Cincinnati company that supplied many of them.
These had steel doors which were several inches thick.
They could of course, be penetrated in time, but that was something in very short supply during a robbery.
So, it was simply avoided altogether.
In fact, many western banks deliberately left their vaults open during the day to allow customers, (and potential robbers presumably) a clear view of the safe.
Like the often depicted (and entirely fictional) rear-wall blasting, the front-door bank robberies are almost absent in western records.
So where did the myth of the western bank robber come from ?
Some of it can be traced to Missouri, where the James and Quantrill gangs plundered banks at will during the Civil War era.
But Hollywood and dozens of ‘Wild West’ fiction writers are the more likely culprits.