The bandits, gunslingers and outlaws in the Old West greatly outnumbered law enforcement agents. In addition to violent crimes, criminals used the inconsistent justice system as an excuse to commit robberies whenever they could. They were often caught and punished by vigilantes, whose penalties could be much more severe than those of the law. Some of the era’s most prevalent crimes were:
One of the best ways to make a living in the Wild West was cattle rearing, as steak became a more popular food choice. Wherever cattle was raised the possibility of them being stolen was high. Before the settlement of the area, herds would simply be stampeded away from their range. As the population grew, however, more people began fencing off their land and branding their animals. Cattle rustlers adapted by investing in their own ranches and brands, after which they would steal neighbours’ cattle and rebrand them as their own.
During the Wild West era, stagecoach transportation became more popular and many robbers viewed them as easy targets. The robberies were carefully planned, and criminals would often approach on foot instead of horse. An area where the stagecoach would have to move slowly, such as an uphill climb, was chosen for the robbers to board. The gunslingers would appear from their hiding places, usually armed with shotguns, and stop the stagecoach. Most often the coach and passengers were robbed of all valuables but left unharmed, although killings escalated as time went by. Getaway horses would be hidden close enough for easy mounting after the robbery had been committed, but far enough to be unaffected if shots were fired. Many robbers also stole the stagecoach horses, as a means to get away quickly, and ensure that they weren’t followed.
Wells Fargo stagecoaches were highly targeted, and the company began to hire their own investigators to help track down the thieves. Many times, these private agencies were more successful at locating the criminals than the local law enforcement officers.
The level of difficulty required to commit bank robberies, made them significantly less common than stagecoach or train robberies. Banks were usually located in the middle of the town, where there was always bustling activity, and were designed to be safer than other places. They had double reinforced rear walls, to deter thieves, and the money was kept in iron safes that were difficult to break into and too heavy to travel with.
Despite these setbacks, several bank robberies took place during the period, most notably those committed by Butch Cassidy. After June 1889, when he and three other cowboys robbed a bank in Telluride Colorado, he and his gang became notorious as thieves and outlaws. They were known as The Wild Bunch and embarked on a series of legendary train and bank robberies, which have been featured in many books and films.