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The Problem with the Wild West’s “Bank Robber Bounty”

When most people picture the Wild West, they think of the nineteenth-century, when the United States’ western frontier was a lawless land filled with desperadoes, rogue lawmen, and bounty hunters, but this tradition of lawlessness and robbery didn’t end at the turn of the century. 

In the early twentieth-century, bank robberies in Texas reached an all-time high as the populations grew, and small towns popped up with their own local banks. This peaked in the 1920s, which became known as the Golden Age of crime. Lawmen weren’t enough to stop it, so the Texas banks took matters into their own hands, and offered a reward for dead bank robbers. Today, we’re going to explore the Texas bank robber bounty and one or two occasions where it went terribly wrong.

The Bounty’s Background

In 1920s Texas, bank robberies were incredibly common, reaching an average of three or four per day throughout the state. The problem was particularly bad in rural areas, where a single constable or marshall was counted on to rule over vast territories. The Texas Bankers Association pressed the state’s law enforcement to crack down harder on bank robberies, as they were not only bad for business but could devastate the economy of a small rural town. 

As the decade progressed, the TBA didn’t see the progress they wanted, so they took their own steps to instill change. They started the Dead Bank Robber Reward Program, offering $5,000 to anyone who killed an alleged bank robber. In current US dollars, that $5,000 reward would be worth almost $75,000, making it an attractive payout for anyone willing to risk their lives to stop a robbery. There’s no question that this reward motivated men across the state to do their part to prevent thefts, but would it motivate them too much? Would the fear of vigilante retribution dissuade potential criminals from even attempting to rob a bank in the first place? 

Unfortunately, it quickly became clear that the TBA’s logic was deeply flawed. Their bounty was based on the belief that only inherently evil men were willing to commit these robberies and that killing those men would end the problem. However, the wealthy financiers didn’t understand the reality of rampant desperation and lawlessness that pushed so many Texans to risk their lives to rob one of their banks.

Abusing the Bounty

It didn’t take long for the flaws in this plan to reveal themselves. One of the first examples took place in January of 1928 in the tiny town of Sylvester, Texas, where a single man pulled off a bank robbery and escaped unidentified. News of the heist spread quickly, and townsmen flooded the streets armed with shotguns, rifles, and pistols, hoping to bring their own justice down upon the outlaw. A group of these men set up along a road leading out of town, waiting for the chance to fire upon any fellow who seemed suspicious.

Their chance came quickly, as a lone man in a pickup truck attempted to drive past their makeshift roadblock, piquing the suspicion of the vigilantes. The bounty hunters unloaded on the man, clearly displaying an intent to kill, but the driver somehow managed to duck out of the line of fire. He was hit and wounded but managed to escape the onslaught and find safety in the sanctuary of his employer, the Gulf Oil Company. 

Frank Hamer Early 1920s

It turned out that the man had no connection whatsoever to the bank robbery and was, in fact, an oil prospector on his way to his daily work. Texas governor Dan Moody heard of the incident from the president of the West Texas Oil Scouts Association, who let him know that the innocent man had been shot in an attempt to catch this supposed thief. So, Moody brought in the Texas Rangers, placing Frank Hamer in charge of the investigation. Hamer, the man who would eventually become famous for capturing the notorious criminals Bonnie and Clyde, investigated the tales of supposed vigilante justice.

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow,

Hamer uncovered the tale of a deputy sheriff in a small town who used the bounty as cover to murder indiscriminately. One day, in tiny Stanton, Texas, this deputy picked up a group of Mexican laborers, promising them a day’s work if they rode with him into town. He dropped the laborers off near a bank, and told them to hang tight for a few minutes as he took care of a few things.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a church across the street caught fire. Townsfolk filled the streets to catch a view of the catastrophe, causing commotion and confusion in the area just outside the bank. Moments later, the deputy appeared brandishing his firearms and unloaded on the laborers, later claiming that they were attempting to take advantage of the disturbance by robbing the bank. Two of the Mexican men were killed, and one was seriously wounded.

Thankfully, the Texas Bankers’ Association refused to pay the bounty to the deputy, as they claimed there was no evidence whatsoever that a bank robbery was actually underway. Hoping to stem the tide of men seeking payouts for random murders, the TBA restricted the conditions of the bounty, now stipulating that rewards would only be paid for men who were killed “legally.” From a modern lens, it’s unclear what constitutes a legal murder, but this change in wording seemed to at least partially deter the justification of heinous killings. Instead, the bounty collectors would need to get much more creative.

Robberies and Conspiracies

While the rogue deputy’s story drew public ire and affected the Bankers’ Associations’ ruling on bounties, it was by no means the worst of the tales uncovered by Hamer and the rest of the Texas Rangers.

This leads us to the story of John Alsup, a Fort Worth police officer who was fired from the department because of his massive debts. Now without any income, Alsup devised a new plan to earn the money he needed to repay his creditors. He recruited the aid of two locals to help him set up the robbery, one to drive the car and the other to find two African-American men to conduct the hold-up and theft of a local bank. The two robbers were named Will Tate and George Terrell, and together they represented $10,000 of potential earnings for Alsup.

Alsup informed the local police department of the “rumors” of the impending bank robbery, hoping to lend some credibility to his story. However, his plan backfired as the sheriff assigned two armed detectives to hide in the bank to stop the thieves’ scheme, risking Alsup’s chances of getting the kills. 

On the day of the robbery, Alsup sat across the street with a sawed-off shotgun and pistol, waiting for the moment to strike. The two robbers entered the bank and told the teller to give them the bank’s money. The teller, feeling encouraged by the two armed detectives hiding nearby, told them to get it themselves. As they approached the vault, the detectives revealed themselves, and a gunfight broke out. Alsup heard the uproar and began to randomly fire into the building from the outside. 

Tate and Terrell fled the bank empty-handed, now aware of the setup, only to find Alsup waiting for them outside. He shot and killed Terrell immediately, then chased Tate down the street to kill him in front of the town’s church. The local papers hailed Alsup as a hero, and he was reinstated to his position in the local police force, but the spoils of victory didn’t last long.

One of Alsup’s accomplices tipped off the police that the entire gunfight was a setup to earn the dead bank robber bounty. In a shocking turn of events, Alsup was charged with the murder of two men and found guilty of one charge, only to later be acquitted of both charges because of a purported mishandling of witness testimony.

Finally free of conspiracy accusations, Alsup sought the reward for the two dead bank robbers, but in a cruel yet just twist of fate, the payout was refused. The bank that Alsup had set up for the robbery had failed to pay their annual dues to the Texas Bankers’ Association and was therefore not eligible for the bounty payout. Alsup was permanently removed from the police force, without a job, and unable to pay his debts.

The Bounty’s Cause and Effect

While the story of John Alsup is intricate and intriguing, Frank Hamer’s investigation eventually showed that it was not incredibly unique. The Texas Ranger uncovered a plethora of similar ploys where wannabe heroes set up bank robberies, recruiting local low-lifes and then killing them to claim the reward.

Hamer pushed the Texas Bankers Association to remove their bounty, arguing that “many of the so-called ‘bank robbers’ who have died over this state were nothing more than pigeons, sent to their doom by grasping, dishonest men who were much worse than any of the bank robbers they profess to want to see die.” Unfortunately, few people agreed with Hamer’s view, as the majority believed that any man or woman willing to rob a bank deserved to die.

In reality, the late 1920s and early 30s were the absolute worst period in the history of the American economy, as the Great Depression forced the hands of countless poverty-stricken citizens, who would rather risk it all to rob a bank than die of starvation. The law’s most sinister outcome was its application as an excuse to target people of color, generally Mexicans or African-Americans, whose oppression was used as leverage to draw them into schemes that would end with their death. As the cases of Alsup and the rogue deputy show, the court system in early twentieth-century Texas made little effort to seek justice for the murder of minorities even when it was clear that the victims were set up through criminal conspiracy.

In retrospect, the Texas Bank Robber Bounty is a clear example of the issue with vigilante justice. Extra-judicial killings have historically led to increased violence, despite the oft-believed fallacy that simply killing criminals leads to a reduction in crime. It took several decades for the Texas Bankers Association to finally realize this, and they ended the bounty officially in 1964. By that time, law enforcement throughout Texas was more capable, and both bank robberies and vigilante murder were nowhere near as standard as they had once been.

In the end, the bounty was seen as a massive failure. At its height, the reward was only paid out five times in a single year. Not only did it do nothing to stem the tide of bank robberies throughout the state, but it led to senseless murders of men who were not inherently criminal. It may be hard to believe the bounty remained in effect for so long, but there’s a reason they called it the Wild West.

So what do you think? Is there ever any justification for vigilante justice? Or does it only escalate anarchy and violence?

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