Myths about Violence in the Wild, Wild West

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There are some certain aspects of life during the wild west in America that make most people think twice about wanting to travel back to that time: bank robbing and gun-slinging. It was a dangerous time in U.S. History, we were taught that as students in the U.S., the textbooks state it, movies depict it, and characters like Butch Cassidy and Wild Bill all confirm that life was bloody and downright unsafe.

Except none of it is true, not really.

Think about a town from the wild west, it has dirt roads, tumbleweeds blowing, horses at stalls and a small number of buildings in the middle of town. The buildings most typically were a general store of one kind or another, a bank, a saloon, and a sheriff’s office (of course, the larger the town, the more options there were but these are the basics).

With only a couple of buildings downtown and the vicinity of the bank to the sheriff’s office, wouldn’t that make successful bank robbing difficult? A resounding yes.

Statistics from the roughly 40 year period of the wild west as we all know it show an absurd amount of bank robberies. Researchers and historians agree on 8 bank robberies in 40 years. Of course some believe it to be a few more or a few less than that number, so it is safe to say that there were 6-10 bank robberies in the 40 years of the wild west. It was just too risky.

The first person to have the gall to rob a bank was none other than Jesse James, along with his brother Frank, who robbed the Clay County Savings Association in Liberty, Missouri on February 13, 1866. Their cash takeaway that day was $60,000, that would be a successful heist in today’s money of $980,228.49.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were responsible for a handful of bank robberies as well, although they were operating during the end of the time period. Bank robbing did not in fact become common place until the the 1920s and 1930s after towns and cities expanded to more than the 2 horse towns that were so often seen in the wild west.

So bank robbing occurred later than the wild west but what about guns, they are synonymous to the wild west. Right? Yes and no, mostly no though.

It is commonplace to believe that everyone in the wild west carried a gun but it is simply not true. The first argument brought up in this discussion has always been, but the OK Corral was violent and guns were responsible. Again, yes and no.

The gunfight at the OK Corral (it was actually down the street from the OK Corral) took place at around 3:00pm on October 26, 1881 in Tombstone, Arizona. There stood 9 men: Virgil, Marshal, and Wyatt Earp with Doc Holliday against Billy Claiborne, Ike and Billy Clanton, and Tom and Frank McLaury. The gunfight lasted 30 seconds. But it wasn’t just random gun violence, Virgil Earp, who was the city Marshall, was trying to enforce Ordinance 9 against the Clanton/McLaury gang. Ordinance 9 stated “It is hereby declared unlawful to carry in the hand or upon the person or otherwise any deadly weapon within the limits of said city of Tombstone, without first obtaining a permit in writing”.

It wasn’t only Tombstone that enacted gun laws, it was the entire wild west, from the infamous Dodge City known for its violence all the way to Tombstone. Dodge City, Kansas was a popular place for gunslingers of the day to stay along their travels because the town was famous for their saloons, brothels and gambling halls but one of the first laws created in the city was a prohibition on guns. In many cities ordinances were passed on “dead-lines” where there was a given line – in Dodge City it was the railroad tracks – and if a person carried a gun passed that line they would likely wind up shot because of it.

Yes guns were rampant in the wild west but the guns themselves were a far cry from ours today. The six-shooter that we so commonly associate with cowboys and outlaws of the wild west were not as dangerous as we are led to believe in the movies; they were a cap and ball system that shot out a small ball a distance of 50 feet, if you were lucky. The aim was also inaccurate not making shooting an easy task by any means. The six-shooter was actually a gun of last resort because of all of these reasons, but rifles and shotguns were more widely used. Now you can picture a real wild west outlaw sans a pistol on their hip and replace with a very large and very bulky shotgun or rifle.

If you were somehow transported back in time to the old west, you really have nothing to fear. You can work at a bank and your chances of that bank being robbed are statistically and drastically lower than if you worked at a bank in America today. Guns laws were much more strict and guns were far less seen than we see them today in America. Actually, in 1934, in response to the guns and bank robberies that had become common by the 1930s with people such as Bonnie and Clyde, the U.S. Passed the National Firearms Act where each fully automatic firearm, short-barreled rifles and shotguns were taxed to the amount of $200; a federal law that no longer exists.

So be rest assured that Americans live in a far more dangerous society today than they did in the 1800s during the western expansion of this nation.

Charlotte