Early Western Slope of Colorado Bank Robberies
Colorado’s Western Slope had plenty of room and plenty of excitement in the late 1800s. It was an immense place ” thousands of square miles comprised of great quiet valleys, craggy mountain ranges, sagebrush flats, open parks, sparkling blue lakes, and rushing streams ” just there for the taking. And the “taking” of it (in a lawful way) was what most newcomers had in mind, but there were also a number of those who were bent on “taking” it any way they could. Early day desperadoes brazenly jumped claims, rustled cattle, stole horses, held up stage coaches and railroads, and sometimes shot up the town just for the hell of it. The predatory of all kinds began to fill up the country right alongside their more law abiding neighbors.
Among the most brazen of these desperadoes were the bank robbers. Fearless men on fast horses visited at least three towns on the Western Slope of Colorado, robbing or attempting to rob banks. First Telluride, then Delta, then Meeker experienced the excitement of bank robberies with several casualties being the result.
Outlaw Matt Warner claimed that it was his idea to rob the San Miguel Valley Bank in Telluride. He choose as his associates Tom McCarty who would later attempt to rob Delta’s bank, and young Bob Leroy Parker, who would be known later as Butch Cassidy. These three rode into Telluride on June 24, 1889. They were well dressed and appeared to be just some auspicious looking cowboys in town for the day. They soon entered the bank leaving one man outside to hold the horses. Holding the teller at gunpoint they quickly rounded up a little more than $20,000 dollars. Just as quickly as they had arrived, they departed the bank and tore out of town, firing a few shots along the way to convince any followers that they meant business.
The trio had relay horses stationed along their getaway route and on these fresh mounts easily outran the pursuing posse. It has always been suspected that Telluride’s Sheriff Jim Clark, who was know to operate on both sides of the law, was conveniently out of town the day that McCarty, Warner and Cassidy robbed the bank and that they left his share of the loot under a log in a pre-arranged location.
In 1893 Tom McCarty’s next mark was the Farmer’s and Merchant’s Bank in Delta. Tom included in this attempt his brother Bill and Bill’s son Fred, who was in his late teens. The McCarty strategy was quite similar to the one successfully used in Telluride. On the day of the robbery, initially all went as planned. Tom McCarty waited in the alley while his brother and nephew sauntered into the bank and demanded money at gun point. From here on everything should have been as easy as a Sunday picnic ” all that was left was to get out of town fast.
Then everything went wrong. The McCarty’s hadn’t counted on the inexperienced and unskilled Fred losing his cool and becoming “trigger happy.” A bank clerk had reached for something under his desk, possibly a weapon, and young Fred panicked and fired twice, missing the bank employee once but killing him with a second shot. These loud shots blew the McCarty’s cover and the frazzled team raced outside the back of the bank to the waiting horses. Upon hearing the shots, Tom McCarty mounted his horse and tore out of Delta heading for a crossing of the Gunnison River north of town. Pounding through the dust on his exhausted horse, he reached the gang’s relay horses well ahead of his pursuers and raced on out of the country. Bill and his son Fred made a gallant effort to follow, but weren’t quick enough.
Nearby hardware store owner, Ray Simpson, a thirty-one year old business man, was quicker and also a superb marksman. That day he had a Sharps rifle within his reach and quietly stepped outside when he heard gunshots. Knowing what they meant, he immediately took command of the situation. He took aim and lifted his rifle to blow off the top of Bill McCarty’s head as he galloped, a half a block away, down the alley at full-speed. A few seconds later Bill’s ill-fated son, by now even farther away, was hit in the head by the same cool-headed gunman.
Father and son died at the scene, were photographed, and then unceremoniously buried in the town’s potter’s field, allegedly in the same box.
On an October afternoon in 1896 the sleepy little cow town of Meeker came wide awake for a short period of time when it became the location of the third bank robbery. This hold-up was bungled even more seriously that Delta’s had been three years earlier.
George Law, Jim Shirley, and “The Kid” Pierce, aka “The Kid” Smith, rode into Meeker on a sleepy fall afternoon, casually tied up their horses and then strode to the Hugus building ” a bank and general store on Main Street. They entered the building with guns drawn, stationing themselves at the rear door, the front door, and the cashier’s window. No sooner had they arrived, so full of confidence and bravado, things began to go wrong. George Law, the more mature and seasoned of the lot stepped up to the cashier’s window and fired a couple of shots to show that he meant business. The manager of the building and several clerks looked up to find they were covered by Jim Shirley who had been stationed at the back door. At this point the several customers and employees in the store/bank were ordered to put up their hands.
George Law’s two shots alerted the towns people that the bank was being robbed and every able bodied man immediately came to the scene ” every corner and every door guarded by wary citizens bent on upholding law and order in Meeker.
By then the robbers had taken a few hundred dollars from the cash drawer and put it into a sugar sack. As they started out a side door of the building, they herded several hostages in front of them. When they reached the street they became aware of the mob awaiting them and proceeded to march the hostages to where their horses were tied. One of the hostages chose this moment to run ” and things quickly started to unravel. The remaining hostages scattered. Then the shooting began with three hostages being injured in the confusion. The townsmen returned fire and Jim Shirley and “The Kid” were shot down immediately. George Law attempted to run but two bullets quickly brought him down, too. He died an hour later allegedly calling for his mother.
The three dead robbers were photographed in the gruesome manner of the day, hands folded over their breasts, two with eyes open, the third with a death grimace. They went to their reward having left the sugar sack of money behind in the bank in all the excitement.
The three outlaws were soon buried in Meeker’s Highland Cemetery. Here they sleep peacefully while a century later, on some occasions such as the 4th of July, the townspeople of Meeker reenact their crime for the enjoyment of the tourists.
Parts of this article are excerpted from Judy Buffington Sammons’ forthcoming book, In Search of the Lawmen and the Lawless ” Early Day Law Enforcement on Colorado’s Western Slope.
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