“Wild Bill” Carlisle: Last Train Robber of the American West

Train passengers leaving Green River, Wyoming, on February 9, 1916 riding the Union Pacific Railroad’s Portland Rose found themselves confronted by a young man hiding his face with a white kerchief who demanded their money at gunpoint. But the youngster had a courteous streak. He bowed to a lady who tried to take his gun and, from his stolen loot, gave the porter coins to cover his lost tips and a silver dollar to pay for another man’s breakfast. The culprit leaped from the train about three miles from Rock Springs, Wyoming. He only gleaned $52.35 from his caper, but news quickly spread of a “White Masked Bandit.” Luck seemed to follow the young man, at least for a time, when a posse followed the wrong trail. After eluding capture, he actually returned to Green River to buy a train ticket, this time to Wheatland, Wyoming.

Who was that masked man? He was William L. “Wild Bill” Carlisle (1890-1964), one of the last train robbers of the American West. Orphaned and destitute, he left home in Pennsylvania barely out of his teens and rode the freight trains searching for work. By age 15, he was a hobo. With only itinerant work available, he found in 1916 that he had only a nickel in his pocket. The quickest way to get some needed cash, he figured, was to hold up a train.

That first robbery in February 2016 was so easy that it seemed only natural to the “Robin Hood of the Rails,” as he came to be known, to continue this potentially prosperous line of work. Over the next two months, he held up two more trains. His luck ran out when he was caught on April 22, 1916, and was sentenced to life imprisonment in the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins, despite not shooting anyone during his robberies and never taking money from women or children.

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Bill Carlisle, right, and his captor Sheriff Rubie Rivera, on the steps of the Carbon County courthouse in Rawlins, 1916. Courtesy Carbon County Museum.

He was a model prisoner and, by 1919, his sentence was commuted to 25 to 50 years. But he wanted out. He escaped from the Rawlins prison by hiding in a carton of shirts made by prisoners.

Still in the familiar position of being short on cash, he resorted to his customary scheme. On November 19, 1919, he robbed the Overland Ltd near Rock River, Wyoming, which was full of World War I veterans returning from France. He refused to take their money, saying, “I would have been over there with you had they let me go.” He managed to make off with $86.00, but didn’t have much time to spend it. He was arrested two weeks later.

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“Wild Bill” Carlisle, from a wanted poster, 1919. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Carlisle was imprisoned in Rawlins for 16 more years. While there, he met Reverend Gerard Schellinger, a local Catholic priest who encouraged the outlaw to go straight. Carlisle earned parole and was released on January 8, 1936.

The reckless young man had now settled into middle age. Carlisle opened a cigar shop and newsstand in Kemmerer, Wyoming. While recuperating from a ruptured appendix, he met Lillian Berquist, the superintendent of the local nursing home. They married on Dec. 23, 1936. Abandoning the cigar store, Carlisle moved to Laramie and worked at a filling station in Laramie for about a year. In 1937, the Saratoga Sun reported that Carlisle had leased Spring Creek Camp east of Laramie to open “a lunchroom and a filling station.” It was located on the present site of The Wild Rose floral shop near the intersection of Grand Avenue and 30th Street.

Carlisle sold his Laramie business in 1956. After his wife died in 1962, he moved to Coatesville, Pennsylvania, where he lived with his niece. He died on June 19, 1964.

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Bill Carlisle in his later years. American Heritage Center, Photograph file: Carlisle, Bill.

The American Heritage Center has an oral history interview with Bill Carlisle. It is part of the AHC’s Wyoming Pioneers Oral History Project. The collection contains audio interviews with people who were early residents of Wyoming. Interviews were conducted between 1947 and 1956 by employees of the American Heritage Center. Interviews were recorded using a new technology at the time: SoundScriber discs. SoundScriber was a dictation machine introduced in 1945 that recorded sound with a groove embossed into soft vinyl discs with a stylus. The format remained popular for two decades before it was superseded by magnetic tape recorders.

The recordings were digitized by the AHC in 2016. Unfortunately, many of the SoundScriber discs had deteriorated by then and sound can be hard to hear. On these particular recordings of Carlisle, there is at times an echo effect. Six SoundScriber discs were used to conduct Carlisle’s interview of 57 minutes. You can listen to that interview and hear “Wild Bill” Carlisle talk about his adventurous life riding, and sometimes profiting, from the rails.

– Submitted by Leslie Waggener, Associate Archivist, American Heritage Center

This entry was posted in Digital collections, found in the archive, Local history, oral histories, Outlaws--West (U.S.), Railroad History, Transportation history, Uncategorized, Western history, Wyoming history and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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