Outlaws Were Big Business

Wanted posters have a long history and they existed long before America was discovered. In England, I believe the first ones came about as the sheriffs sought to get their hands on Robin Hood. Most believe the thief’s name was an alias used freely by all thieves in England. But that time period is when the first wanted posters came about.

In America, the first was for the capture of John Wilkes Booth for the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. I don’t know how large a part the poster played in Booth’s capture but I do know they were used extensively afterward as a tool for catching criminals.

The money offered for the culprit was a great incentive and the amounts varied. If the crime was against railroads, stagecoach lines, or big banks, it was more because the companies put up the money. For smaller businesses for just low profile criminals, it was often around $50 or less.

Since photographs were extremely hard to come by for the most part in the 1800s, the posters usually only gave a brief description of the outlaw or maybe had a hand-drawn likeness.

The progression of cameras changed the landscape considerably. No longer were lawbreakers hidden in the shadows. Their faces were everywhere for all to see.










If the poster used the phrase, “Dead or Alive” on it, that made it okay to just kill the wanted man or woman. The person got the reward either way and it was often safer to bring them in dead.

Jesse James had a $25,000 bounty on his head and the Governor of Missouri put up the money. That’s equivalent to $115,000  in today’s currency. A whole lot of dinero.

Most were lots smaller. In 1892, a poster offered $6,500 for The Sundance Kid. That same year, Bob, Emmett, and Grat Dalton had a $5,000 reward for all three, not each. In 1874, the Texas Rangers put out one for John Wesley Hardin and didn’t state an amount. One for Billy the Kid only offered $500.










In 2007, the FBI went a step further and began to use electronic billboards. In 2014, they claimed that 53 cases had been solved as a direct result of the billboards.

I’ve used wanted posters in quite a few of my books and in my upcoming To Marry a Texas Outlaw in November, Luke Weston has a $2000 bounty on his head for killing a federal judge. It’s fun to fantasize about living in that era and thinking about all that money. It would’ve been nice for someone who made less than a dollar a week come into a windfall like this for catching an outlaw.

Do you think you’d have been a bounty hunter back then? Lots to think about. I have one copy of To Love a Texas Ranger to give away to someone who comments. The drawing will be Sunday.

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Here in the Texas Panhandle, we do love our cowboys. There's just something about a man in a Stetson and jeans that makes my heart beat faster. I'm not much of a cook but I love to do genealogy and I'm a bit of a rock hound. I'm also a NY Times & USA Today bestselling author of historical western romance. You can contact me through my website and I'd love to connect with you on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and more. HAPPY READING!

36 thoughts on “Outlaws Were Big Business”

  1. Linda- I love this blog. Wanted posters always fascinated me. The photos were not of any quality, but they definitely got the word out and the message across as to how dangerous these outlaws were. As far as being a bounty hunter?? I think that would of been quite a dangerous, yet fun occupation. Actually being the bounty hunter might have been safer than just a civilian, because you would always be on the lookout and at the ready. Of course the money to capture one could put a person not only in a great financial stability, but the notoriety of the capture could become both a godsend and a determental state. You would then be known to all other outlaws as a person to avoid or you, yourself coukd become an outlaws new bounty for them. Wow!! Great topic, you always find the best. Have a beautiful Tuesday and may God ride with you today and everyday. Love you my sister friend.

    • Good Morning, Miss Tonya…….I’ve always been kinda fascinated with wanted posters too. Their wording was so dramatic. They told what the outlaw did, his description, and also who would pay the reward –whether it was a bank, a railroad, or whatever. The governor of Missouri never had to pay out that $25k for Jesse James and Bob Ford never collected any money after he killed Jesse. I think it might’ve been because he was on the run. Not sure though. It was sad that they offered a reward for Chief Sitting Bull and some other Native Americans. I think it’s fun to speculate on claiming a reward and you’re right. You could’ve become a target.

      God Bless. Sending much love, sister friend!

    • Good Morning, DebraG……..Thanks for coming. Always glad to see you. I wouldn’t have been a bounty hunter either. That was a very dangerous profession. The hunter often became the hunted by the outlaw’s friends and/or other outlaws. I’m a baby too about killing things–except wasps and hornets and snakes.

      Have a blessed day and good luck in the drawing!

  2. Interesting post, Linda. I was rather surprised that the wanted poster didn’t start use in the US until John Wilks Booth, but it seems fitting that such a history changing crime would change the history of crime fighting as well. Great stuff.

    • Morning, Karen…….I was surprised too about the lateness of wanted posters. That assassination created lots of changes in the way they fought crime. Glad you enjoyed my post.

      Have a blessed day, my filly sister!

  3. So interesting, Linda. You know, being able to put their pictures on the wanted posters was a huge breakthrough, wasn’t it–rather than just writing out a description that could fit a ton of people. That was probably as huge as when we began to be able to match fingerprints, and later on, DNA. Very good stuff–I love seeing all those posters. So much history all on one page here in your post!

    Have a great day, and thanks for this wonderful post!

    • Hi Cheryl…….I’m glad you enjoyed my post. Yes, the pictures were a huge breakthrough. No longer were the outlaws invisible. In my story, Luke Weston has evaded capture for so long because they had no picture of him.

      Those old posters are sure fun to look at. Hugs!

  4. Thanks for sharing this interesting history, Linda. I wouldn’t have wanted to make a living by catching outlaws!

  5. Hi Linda, yes, that business about Booth surprised me, too. I tried to find a female bounty hunter in the Old West, but apparently none existed. Would I have been a bounty hunter? I tend to be a lion where my loved ones are concerned so, yeah, I’d have gone after the culprit who had hurt one of them. But not for money.

    • Hi Margaret……..I’m glad you enjoyed my post. I don’t think any female bounty hunters existed back then either. It’s fun to imagine there was one though. In my book The Cowboy Who Came Calling, my heroine Glory Day decided to go after an outlaw because she desperately needed the money. But she didn’t see it as a lifelong profession. And she didn’t catch him.

      Have a blessed day!

  6. Hi Linda, congrats on your latest! And thanks for this wonderful post. Me, I am too much a weenie to do anything remotely scary, which I think bounty-hunting must be. But i always love stories with outlaws in them…if they get redeemed LOL. xox

    • Hi Tanya…….I’m so happy you liked you post. There wasn’t really a lot of information about it. I’d like to have known more. Like who printed them and who decided on the wording. Guess we’ll never know. Yes, I love outlaws who get redeemed. That’s the best kind.

      Hugs and much love!

  7. My goodness what an interesting blog. I’d never stopped to consider wanted posters. Enlightening Linda.

  8. Oh, good heavens, no lol. But find it fascinating as to the amounts and who warranted it and did you need proof they they were a criminal. I wonder if they ever killed the wrong person – I have to think it happened. Were they then accused of murder or just was a case of mistaken identity? Questions, questions haha.

    • Hi Catslady……..Thanks for coming. You pose some interesting questions. I’m sure there were lots of mistakes made and it would’ve been pretty easy seeing how the descriptions were often vague. I doubt anyone would stand trial for murder though unless the murdered man had influential friends who could afford to exert pressure. The normal person probably couldn’t have. But very interesting.

      Have a blessed day my friend!

  9. I would have left the bounty hunting to braver people… always wondered what the criminals’ reactions were in seeing their wanted posters…

    • Hi Colleen………Thanks for stopping by! Another interesting question. I think it would’ve been funny for an egotistical outlaw to get offended if they didn’t describe him right. HaHa!

      Have a wonderful day in your sunshine!

    • Hi Susan P……Thanks for coming. I agree. Poor Billy. I wonder if he felt like he had little value? Still, $500 back then was over $11,000. Quite a hefty sum.

      Hugs and Good Luck in the drawing!

  10. That is some good history, Linda. I learned quite a bit today! I guess I would be insulted to think I might not be worth as much as some other criminal! LOL
    I also did not know that John Wilkes Booth. Guess I need to brush up on some history.

    • Hi Rosie…….Glad to see you and glad you enjoyed my blog. I’m sure some outlaws were insulted that they weren’t worth as much as others. Ha! Yes, John Wilkes Booth was quite a bad guy. He did get caught though along with the people who helped hide him. You should read about him. Interesting stuff.

      I’ve entered you in the drawing that will be on Sunday. Good luck!

  11. What a great post! I really enjoyed it. I knew posters existed but not as much as you provided here. Thank you!

    For the being a bounty hunter question: A big NO. Couldn’t wouldn’t do that job.

    One last thing, the Sam and Belle Starr poster. I either never saw it before or I’ve forgotten. I did a bunch of reading on Belle quite a while back because my great-grandfather lived on land very close to the Starrs’ at Younger’s Bend on the Canadian River in Oklahoma where outlaws hid out, and my GGF testified on their behalf in a horse theft case in Fort Smith. So now, I need to go back to see what I missed or forgot in my research. I do remember that Belle tossed outlaws off her land after Sam Starr died, and that she was murdered on the Canadian River going home from a party.

    Thanks again!!!!

    • Hi Eliza…….Thanks for coming. Belle Starr was an interesting woman and even served time in prison. As far as I know though she never killed anyone. I’ll bet she was one rough lady. Happy hunting in your research.

      Hugs and good luck in the drawing.

    • Hi Melanie……I’m glad you enjoyed my post. I loved writing this and finding the authentic posters. It was interesting.

      Big Hugs! You’re in the drawing.

  12. I love westerns so I would love to read your book. Wanted posters are neat to look at. It would be kind of cool to have one of the old ones and frame it to hang on a wall somewhere.

  13. I don’t think I would have wanted to be a bounty hunter. That job was so dangerous. I do think it would have been interesting living in that time though. I’m adding your book to my wishlist, in case I don’t win. It looks like a great book!

    • Hi Joy……Thanks for stopping by. Great to have you. A bounty hunter would have a very dangerous job. Can’t even imagine the outlaws who’d be gunning for him.

      You’re entered in the drawing. Good Luck!

  14. Hi Linda – Enjoyed your post about wanted posters. Oh yes, I would be a bounty hunter, but; I would do my homework & research those persons wanted & what they did to warrant this poster being issued for them. Here in Delphi, IN. someone killed two 13 year old girls. The fee for info to capture him is up to $200,000+ What I wouldn’t give to capture him & turn the money over to those two hurting families……

    • Hi Lois…….I’m so glad you enjoyed my post. I agree about wanting to hunt down that person or persons who killed those two little girls. They must be pure evil. Not sure they’re even human.

      You’re entered in the drawing. Good luck!

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