February 9th marks the 106th anniversary of William L. “Bill” Carlisle’s first train robbery, which took place in 1916 outside Green River. It was a sensational event in the state, all the more notable as it was thought that the days of banditry on trains had long passed. It had been 16 years since the last Wyoming train holdup.
Young Bill Carlisle had a difficult childhood. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1890. Carlisle’s mother died when he was an infant and Bill spent several years in an orphanage. Educated only through the fifth grade, he was an itinerant youth, often engaged in petty thievery. Carlisle said, “I figured out as a little kid that if I wanted something, the easiest and quickest way was to take it”. He became a hobo, traveling on freight rail cars around the country. At one point he even joined a circus. By the time he was fifteen he had been to thirty-eight states. Then, at sixteen he moved north, joined the Skelton gang and rustled horses along the Canadian border.
Carlisle soon decided working with a gang was not for him. He said, “Every time I teamed with another outfit, I always got the worst of the deal.” At an early age he had determined that in any future enterprises he would always work alone.
Carlisle moved to Wyoming where he found a job on the Cross H Ranch in Johnson County but it didn’t last. Wanderlust struck and before long he moved again – this time south to Texas, where he began running guns across the border to guerrillas fighting to overthrow the Mexican government. By 1916 he found himself back in Wyoming, but without a job. Broke and growing increasingly desperate to find work, he decided to rob his first train.
It was after dark on February 9th in 1916 when he hopped aboard a Union Pacific train from Green River, Wyoming. Working alone and wearing a white handkerchief to mask his face, he turned his gun on a porter and demanded that the man pass the hat among the startled passengers. Carlisle was a gentlemanly bandit – he made a point of it to rob only the men, leaving the ladies undisturbed. Carlisle managed to collect $52.35 before he fled the train with the cash. By the time a posse was organized the next day, Carlisle had disappeared into the hills. But he didn’t leave the area. The next evening Carlisle made his way back to Green River and visited the barber shop at the Green River saloon. Hiding in plain sight, Carlisle got a shave and then boldly went to the train station to purchase a ticket to Laramie. None of the lawmen searching for him imagined the masked outlaw would leave on a passenger train! While eyewitnesses couldn’t settle on a description of Carlisle, wanted posters went up around the state and Union Pacific offered a $1,500 reward.
Less than two months later Carlisle reappeared on the Union Pacific Overland Limited outside of Cheyenne. He had decided he wanted to travel to Alaska but lacked funds to make the trip. As before, he demanded that a porter pass the cap, but only accepted money from the men aboard. It was a more lucrative collection, amounting to $506.07. Once again Carlisle disappeared. Union Pacific management and lawmen were furious. Extra train guards were hired, and the railroad upped the reward to $6,500 for Carlisle’s capture. Newspapers across the West reported that a “Lone Bandit” was on the loose. As many as twenty men were held for questioning, but Carlisle remained a free man.
Then on April 21, 1916, just outside Hanna, Wyoming, Carlisle struck again, this time on Union Pacific train number 21. Carlisle had grown even bolder – he had purchased a passenger ticket for himself and even written an anonymous letter to the Denver Post predicting that the next train hold up would take place west of Laramie. He signed it “The White Masked Bandit”. It niggled at Carlisle’s conscience that men were being held in jail for the robberies that he had committed. In a twisted sort of logic, he intended to ensure their releases by holding up another train, thereby proving to the railroad that they had the wrong men in jail.
Upon boarding train number 21, Carlisle mingled with the passengers. He even ordered dinner in the dining car. But when it came time to pull off the holdup, he rushed into it and didn’t take the time to don his trademark white handkerchief mask. True to his reputation, Carlisle demanded cash from the men (a take of $378.50) and fled the train, but this time his luck had run out. He sprained his ankle as he jumped from the train, hindering his ability to escape. Captured, he was sentenced to life in prison at the Rawlins penitentiary.
Carlisle proved to be a model prisoner, and after just three years his sentence was commuted to 50 years. While he may have been a model prisoner, he was also a crafty one. In November 1919 he concealed himself in a large packing crate full of shirts and was shipped out of the state penitentiary in Rawlins. By the time his jailers realized he had escaped, Carlisle had managed to steal some sheepherder’s clothing and a rifle. He returned to the Rawlins rail yard, and masquerading as a railroad guard, made his way by train to Laramie, where he spent the night at the Johnson Hotel and purchased a thirty-two revolver and some shells from a second-hand store on Front Street.
The next day he headed by train to Rock River, where he used the revolver to hold up yet another train, collecting $86.40. The train was full of soldiers returning from World War I. Carlisle let them keep their money, but he robbed a half-dozen other male passengers. His intention was to take the cash and escape to Mexico. But as he was preparing to leave the Rock River train, he was confronted by a young man with a gun. As Carlisle sought to disarm the man, the man’s gun went off, shooting Carlisle in the hand. Wounded, Carlisle spent two weeks hiding out avoiding the posses sent out in pursuit. More than a few ranch families gave him a meal and a place to sleep as he made his way on foot through snow and sub-zero temperatures. Eventually he ended up in a miner’s cabin in the Laramie Peak area. But once again his luck had run out. Lawmen located Carlisle, and he was shot as he surrendered. Carlisle was badly wounded, this time in the right lung. It took him months to recover, and he was returned to Rawlins where he once again faced life in prison.
Determined to make something of himself, Carlisle worked hard, reflected on his misdeeds and became the prison librarian. He was befriended by a Catholic priest, Reverend Gerard Shellinger, who encouraged him to reform his ways. On January 8, 1936, after nearly 20 years behind bars, and thanks in part to Shellinger’s efforts, Carlisle was discharged.
Carlisle moved to Laramie and got a job at a gas station, married and adopted a daughter. Before long he was running the Round Up, a motel, café and souvenir shop on the east end of town. He developed a passion for bowling, joining a traveling bowling team and regularly winning tournaments. And he traveled throughout Wyoming and Colorado speaking to service clubs and organizations about his exploits and reformation. He enjoyed telling stories about his time “roaming from Canada down to Mexico” and of his four train robberies. He wrote an autobiography that was published in 1948. In the end, Carlisle succeeded in establishing himself as an upstanding citizen and Governor Lester C. Hunt eventually granted him a pardon. Carlisle passed away in 1964.
You can learn more about the fascinating life of Bill Carlisle in several collections at the American Heritage Center. There is an oral history interview Carlisle recorded in 1960 (see above), articles about Carlisle in the Clarice Whittenburg papers, and Carlisle’s book, Bill Carlisle Lone Bandit, An Autobiography in the National Association for Outlaw and Lawman History collection.
Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.