The Gentleman Bandit of Laramie

The story of Laramie’s Bill Carlisle (1890-1964) reads like an Old West novel. 

A Pennsylvanian orphan who set out to ride the rails west, Carlisle went from circus work to a life of crime almost overnight.

Bill Carlisle, the youngest of five children, grew up in a Pennsylvania orphanage because his father was ailing and his mother had died. Around 1915, Carlisle made his way to Cheyenne via Denver. With little money left, he set out to rob westbound trains as a last ditch effort to survive.  Armed with only a .32 caliber handgun and a toy pistol meant for his niece, Carlisle embarked on a new, dangerous form of living.

The first hold up took place on February 9, 1916. Carlisle wedged himself between two train cars before jumping on the rear car of the Portland Rose as it was leaving the Green River station. His take was only $52.35; until some shots were fired, the passengers thought the hold up was a joke, but Carlisle gained infamy quite rapidly due to the nature of the crime since an armed train robbery had not happened in the U.S. in over 16 years. The Union Pacific Railroad offered a cash reward—dead or alive—for Carlisle, who came to be known as the “White Masked Bandit” because of the white bandana he wore over his face.

  Looking for funds to get to Alaska, Carlisle robbed the Overland Limited between Laramie and Cheyenne on April 4, 1916. This time he stole $506.07—substantially more than the last heist. This, in turn, raised the reward money to $5,000, which encouraged many to join the search.

Carlisle quickly learned that innocent men were being jailed for his crimes because their captors hoped for the reward. In hopes of freeing the wrongly-imprisoned men, he wrote a letter to the Denver Post signed by the “White Masked Bandit” saying he would rob again soon near Laramie. On April 21, 1916 he did just that. However, Carlisle badly injured his right ankle during his escape with $378.50.

A third posse was formed. This group finally caught up with the injured Carlisle twelve miles north of Walcott, Wyoming.  Sheriff Rubie Rivera of Rawlins split the money with the posse members, although Rivera was not impressed with Carlisle, noting there were worse criminals to be found.

Carlisle was sentenced to life in the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins on May 10, 1916. However, in November 1919, he escaped and subsequently robbed a train for the fourth time. Feeling sympathy towards soldiers returning home from World War I, Carlisle allowed military passengers to keep their money, gathering $86.40 from the others.  His last robbery earned him the nickname “Gentleman Bandit,” thanks to his compassion for the soldiers.

Two weeks and a gunshot wound to the chest later, Carlisle was once again captured and imprisoned in Rawlins. It was here that Carlisle met Reverend Gerard Schellinger who helped the bandit see the error of his ways and choose a new path. Carlisle stayed in prison another sixteen years before earning parole on January 8, 1936.

Carlisle opened a cigar shop in Kemmerer upon his release. He married Lillian Berquist on December 23, 1936. The newlyweds then left Kemmerer for a lunchroom, filling station and tourist cabins in Laramie.  “Carlisle’s Cabins” were located in a grove of trees past the then city limits on what is now the southwest corner of 30th and Grand Ave., where Aspen Square is today. 

Bill Carlisle became a well-known and respected member of Laramie society. His colorful history was a tourist attraction in its own right.  He capitalized on his notoriety by renaming his establishment “The Lone Bandit Trading Post” along with the Roundup Café.   

In 1946, Carlisle published Bill Carlisle: Lone Bandit, an autobiography.  He dedicated the book to his sister, his wife, and Reverend Schellinger “who taught me that often in failure there lies great success.”

After his wife died in 1962, Carlisle returned to Pennsylvania to live with his niece before succumbing to cancer in 1964. A few years later all remaining vestiges of Carlisle’s Cabins along free-flowing Spring Creek were bulldozed for development (and the creek was channelized further south), though the true story of the lone bandit lingers on. 

By Jordyn Patrias

Caption: Sheriff Rubie Rivera of Carbon County (left) shows off his handcuffed prisoner, the “White Masked Bandit” Bill Carlisle (3rd from left) in 1916.  The other two men are unidentified. Carlisle escaped from the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins in 1919 and robbed one more train before recapture and eventual parole in 1936.  Courtesy Photo