An article ("Westerners used to wear masks" by Andrew Gulliford, June 13, 2020) in The Journal of Cortez, Colorado, claims that it was a regular practice of bandits in the "Wild West" to wear facemasks while committing robberies. It claims:

Because of the coronavirus, we are now asked to wear masks while working and shopping downtown. Westerners used to wear masks a century ago, so the fashion has come back around. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid wore bandannas while they robbed banks and trains....

Any up-and-coming train robber in the late 19th century had to have the requisite cowboy boots, cowboy hat, cowhide vest, pistols in hand-tooled leather holsters and the all-important red bandanna worn tightly across the bridge of the nose. How else would the public know they were being robbed? You just had to wear the right uniform.

The article then describes an alleged robbery in Wyoming in which the robber in question had his face mask fall off in the middle of perpetrating the crime.

No sources are provided for any of these assertions.

Was wearing a facemask a common practice in the United States among armed criminals in the "Wild West" era (mid-late 19th century)? Are there any first-hand sources, such as photographs, court depositions of witnesses or victims of robbery, etc. that would indicate that masks were a common practice?

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    Hmm.. I have no citations, but my understanding is that the "bandanna over the nose/mouth" thing had to do with screening dust out when riding, but of course just as happened in a few places during the epidemic, some people probably took advantage of having a good excuse to be masked so as to be harder to recognize. Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 14:46
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    Just wanted to point out that the description of the "uniform" of the train robber is tongue-in-cheek. The author is using covid-motivated masking as a lead-in to a light-hearted look at train robbery in the Old West, and specifically Butch and Sundance.
    – antlersoft
    Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 15:12
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    How would criminals trying to conceal their identities be a notable claim? Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 15:12
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    @PoloHoleSet I could agree that the linked article itself may not be notable, but it's a widely held belief. I think pulling up decades of western films using the trope would probably fit 'widely believed'? Or just quickly google image searching 'western outlaw' to see ~50% of photos with a bandana over the lower face
    – TCooper
    Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 20:20
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    It might be worth noting that until spring/summer of 2020 it was normally policy/law that you couldn't wear a mask in a bank (I worked in an office building owned by a bank (there was a vault, but no tellers or cash)), and they wouldn't allow other tenants to have Halloween parties that included masked employees. I was told it was law (when I was there). Example: wcvb.com/article/…
    – Flydog57
    Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 22:30

2 Answers 2


Yes, of course. This was quite common.

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— The Evening News, Detroit MI Michigan, July 4, 1901
'Last train robbery of Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid' 'Original reporting'

Sundance supposedly turned up again almost a year later in the town of Elko, Nevada. At midnight on April 3, 1899, Sundance, Harvey Logan, and George Currie, wearing masks, reportedly burst into the Club Saloon on Railroad Street while the bartender was counting the day’s receipts. […]

No sooner had the locomotive stopped than two masked men jumped into the engine compartment and ordered Jones and his fireman, Dietrick, to move the train up the tracks across the bridge. […]

— Thom Hatch: "The Last Outlaws. The Lives and Legens of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid", New American Library: New York, 2013.

On Tuesday, November 3, 1908, the paymaster for the Aramayo, Franke & Company silver mine left the mine’s office in Tupiza, Bolivia for the corporate headquarters in Quechisla. The next day, the payroll caravan ran into two white-masked men armed with rifles and pistols. The two robbers demanded that the paymaster hand over the two mules carrying the payroll.

— Leonard John Lanier: "Did They Die With Their Boots On?", ecu.edu 06, 2017 (PDF)

That was less embarrassing than getting a train stopped and blasting its safe, only to discover that two successive charges of dynamite couldn’t dent it. They had a repeat performance with another train safe, also tougher than both them and their dynamite. During one of these abortive attempts, clever Al successfully knocked off his own mask.

— Robert Barr Smith and Laurence J. Yadon: "Oklahoma Scoundrels. History's most Notorious Outlaws, Bandits and Gansters" , The History Press: Charleston, 2016.

[1843] After further discussion, during which time Haines carefully surveyed the premises, he took leave, promising to call again in a few days. True to his word, late one night ten days later Haines and two other masked men armed with pistols, knives, and clubs, broke into Mulford’s house.

It looked as though the Morrises had embarked on a new and better life when around midnight on October 10, 1844, six masked men burst into his cabin and abducted Katherine, Martha, David, and James.

— Ken Lizzio: "Pirates of the Prarie. Outlaws and Vigilantes in America's Heartland", Guilford Press: Lanham, 2018.

On October 6, 1866, at 6:30 in the evening, an Ohio & Mississippi train left Seymour with three Reno Gang members aboard: John and Sim Reno, along with Frank Sparks. When the train was beyond the town, the three forced their way inside the express car. John poked a Navy Colt into messenger Elam Miller’s face and he surrendered his keys. The masked outlaws scooped up ten thousand dollars in gold coin and thirty-three dollars in bank notes from one small safe. When they tried to pry open a larger safe, they had no luck. […]

— Gerry and Janet Souter: "Guns of Outlaws. Weapons of the American Bad Man", Zenith Press: Mionneapolis, 2014.

Other newspaper headlines:

"Masked Robber terrorizes Town."

Kingston Daily Freeman, Volume XXXVIII, Number 231, 16 July 1909

"Masked Bandits Hoold Up Train"

Kingston Daily Freeman, Volume XLII, Number 20, 9 November 1912

enter image description here

Kentucky was famed for its fine women, excellent bourbon whiskey, and Thoroughbred racehorses, including the nineteenth-century champion Salvator, pictured on this circa 1910 postcard. But not to be ignored was the state’s reputation for violence and lawlessness. Note the pistol and the group of masked night riders on their way through a tobacco field. (Collage of “Kentucky’s Fame,” ca. 1910, Kramer Art Company Postcard Proofs, 1999PH10.46, Kentucky Historical Society.)

— Maryjean Wall: "How Kentucky Became Southern. A Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders", University Press of Kentucky: Lexington, 2010. (p94, gBooks)

Just the collage from a dictionary of Western 'personalities', all paragraph excerpts from different people:

This time he went to work with a flour-sack mask and a double-barreled shotgun, performing his first stage holdup on July 26, 1875, somewhere around Sonora, California. He pulled two more stage robberies that same year, the task apparently becoming so much fun …

The coroner’s jury exonerated the lawmen, and the outlaw was laid to rest on August 20, 1878. This time he did not wear his flour-sack mask.

He did not leave until January 19, 1896. On August 13, he and several confederates walked into the Montpelier, Idaho, bank, put on their masks, and robbed it. […]

When Ed’s neighbors decided they had enough, they picked an interesting night to take action. Cash’s wife was giving birth, and on hand was a doctor, plus a couple of local women, all of whom must have looked aghast on April 9, 1894, when seven masked men came knocking on the door. […]

The stage carried eight passengers and $26,000 in gold, but three masked men stopped it. During the resultant shootout, one passenger and a shotgun guard were slain. […]

[1881] Six months later, on September 8, the Bisbee stage was held up by several masked men. City Marshal Virgil Earp and Deputies Wyatt and Morgan Earp arrested cowboys Pete Spence and Frank Stilwell. […]

William Fredericks was born in Germany and still had his heavy German accent when he showed up in California. In May 1890, masked and carrying a shotgun, he stopped a Mariposa County stage, found the strongbox empty, and got only a few pennies from the driver and one female passenger. […]

On January 7, 1882, Hume was a passenger aboard the “Sandy Bob” stage when masked highwayman stopped it halfway between Tombstone and Contention in Ari- zona Territory. Nine male travelers, including Hume, were highjacked at the point of a shotgun. He lost two fine revolvers and $70 in cash. […]

On June 22, 1877, at two o’clock in the morning, masked vigilantes caught four Notch-Cutters at a dance. The vigilantes rode away, leaving all four hanging from a tree limb. Things quieted down now for a while, but in 1883 the killings began again. […]

— Leon Claire Metz: "The Encyclopedia of Lawmen, Outlaws, and Gunfighters", Facts on File: New York, 2003.

And from 'Arizona's official historian':

The handkerchief was one of the most utilitarian articles a cowboy could have in his possession. It could be used as a mask to filter the dust when riding drag behind the cattle herd. It came in handy as a sling for broken arms or as a tourniquet. It made a good wash rag when needed and could filter dirty water for drinking. It was also great sunburn protection and good for weather all around. (I’ve worn a neckerchief as a mask while on horseback in northern Colorado when the wind chill was about 40 below.) And, if you got tired of working for wages, you could use one to mask your face while robbing a train or bank.

— Marshall Trimble ("is Arizona’s official historian"): "Why do almost all the Old West characters wear handkerchiefs around their necks in TV shows and movies?", Truewest — History of the American Frontier, July 1, 2005. (Hat tip to ocmment from David Hammen)

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    From truewestmagazine.com/…, "The handkerchief was one of the most utilitarian articles a cowboy could have in his possession. It could be used as a mask to filter the dust when riding drag behind the cattle herd. It came in handy as a sling for broken arms or as a tourniquet. It made a good wash rag when needed and could filter dirty water for drinking. ... And, if you got tired of working for wages, you could use one to mask your face while robbing a train or bank." Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 16:38
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    this answer indicates a lot of research. good job. Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 19:59
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    @DavidHammen The handkerchief is just a mini-towel, afterall...
    – Nacht
    Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 23:38
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    @David Hammen: And though it's now called a bandanna, it's still used for many of the same purposes today. (Personal experience riding horses &c in the West.)
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 5, 2021 at 0:40
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    @Nacht But it lacks the nutritional value Commented Aug 5, 2021 at 21:52

LangLаngС's answer has good examples of bandits/outlaws wearing masks in general, but the type is rarely mentioned - one image shows Zorro-style masks, and flour sack masks are also noted.

Here are a couple of sources that specifically mention crimes committed while wearing bandanas as masks, since that's the claim from the article:

The Big Springs train robbery of 1877

From Outlaws of the Border: A Complete and Authentic History of the Lives of Frank and Jesse James, the Younger Brothers, and Their Robber Companions, Including Quantrell and His Noted Guerrillas the Greatest Bandits the World Has Ever Known : a Wonderful Record of Crime and Its Consequences, Drawn with Great Care from Reliable Sources : a Thrilling Narrative, Vividly Written by Jay Donald, 1882:

image of page from book quoted below

A vigorous effort was set on foot to find out, if possible, the perpetrators of this shameful outrage. There were seven men in the raid and each man had on a red bandana handkerchief hiding his face. That was all that was known.

Source (p. 360)

A robbery at the Argonaut mine in California (December 1, 1921)

From Mining and Scientific Press, December 10 1921:

image of page from book quoted below

Red bandana masks were worn by the men, whom the millmen said were well dressed and apparently familiar with the mine's operations.

Source (p. 827)

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