By James H Nottage
I remember him clearly, an older gray haired man, slender with the kind of wind-worn face common to men who labored to make a living in the Wyoming of cowboys and railroaders. These were the men who scraped out a living in this often unforgiving land. Some of my earliest memories as a child come from listening to this man chat with my father while I sipped a grape soda. He operated tourist cabins on the east edge of Laramie and my father delivered Sinclair gasoline to his adjacent gas station.
As an avid fan of Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers, I was all about Wild West shoot outs, galloping horses, and the scenarios of the fictional 1950s Westerns. Imagine the fascination of learning that the scars on the man's left hand were from a bullet wound earned in a shooting following a train robbery gone bad! That certain difference between the mythical West of television and movies and the real West of Wyoming was clear and evident to my young imagination.
Bill Carlisle was well-known in Laramie where he was active as a business man and socially as a competitive bowler. He had been even better known after 1916 when every newspaper in the region reported on the first Union Pacific train he robbed and the man hunt that followed, searching for the "White Masked Bandit." He would hide at line camps and enjoyed the friendship and protection of cowboys and others who did not mind that he pulled a few over on the railroad. There was a bit of chivalry about him, for he always refused to take anything from a woman. One time he actually held up a train using a glass gun that originally contained candy. There is every assurance that such a frivolous move was more one of desperation, fraught with great risk for the robber. The last robbery by the "White Masked Bandit" was in 1919, by which time Carlisle's exploits were being read in newspapers all across the country, including The New York Times.
A few short years after being locked up the first time, he worked in the prison shirt factory in Rawlins and escaped by mailing himself out of jail in a shipment to freedom. Another train robbery followed. Wounded in the left hand, he stayed at a line shack, but was gunned down by a member of the pursuing posse, taking a bullet to the chest, barely surviving, and then spending 25 years in the state penitentiary in Rawlins. It was also a romantic story because of the lady he met after leaving prison and going straight. They had a daughter and lived an otherwise normal and happy life.
You can read Bill Carlisle's story as I did when I was a kid. Published in 1946, by Trail's End Publishing Co., Pasadena, California, Bill Carlisle Lone Bandit, An Autobiography is still a good read. This is a starkly honest personal story, of an orphan's survival, and ultimate triumph. There is humor, tragedy, and even irony that play out. While the story is not verified, it seems that when Bill was last arrested and sent to prison, his clothes were purchased by a cowboy movie star so that he could convincingly play the role of a train robber in a film. Even then, truth and fiction were not widely separated from each other. Perhaps one of the lessons for us is that today it is easy to think of Bill Carlisle's tale as one of the old West. In its own time, it was simply one of crime and punishment and the shimmering glaze of passing time had not yet taken its toll, making it seem more innocent.
Bill Carlisle died in 1964. He was a part of the real West that is not that long ago. Who do you know that can tell you about the West that they grew up with? Pay attention to them and do everyone else a favor by recording their experiences. I will be forever grateful for the patience this man had at telling me stories he told so many times before. There was the one about robbing a train, fleeing to Denver and going to a baseball game where he was seated with policemen who speculated about the "White Masked Bandit" so thrillingly described on the pages of The Rocky Mountain News. I've told many people that this man is one of the reasons why I went into museum work and have devoted my life to studying the history of the West. If our friends at High Noon Western Americana will allow me, I will tell you about a few more favorite characters in future ramblings.
Chief Curatorial Officer, Eiteljorg Museum, Indianapolis, Indiana
Founding Curator, Autry National Center, Los Angeles
Husband of Mary Ellen Hennessy Nottage