The Cowboy and the Lady
Executive editor Skip Hollandsworth on Peggy Jo Tallas (the infamous bank robber known as Cowboy Bob) and rooting for the bad guy.
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texasmonthly.com: After Peggy Jo Tallas’s death in early 2005, the family was unwilling to speak with reporters. How did you manage to break their silence and get them to share their stories?
Skip Hollandsworth: When the story broke in 1992 that a woman named Peggy Jo Tallas, the infamous “Cowboy Bob,” had been arrested for robbing banks, I was one of many reporters back then who wanted to talk to her. But she wasn’t giving interviews and neither was anyone in her family. She was a genuine mystery who preferred going off to prison in silence. She didn’t even try to explain her behavior to the judge.
I forgot about her—until this past May, of course, when I learned she had returned to bank robbery at the age of sixty. This time, even more reporters were trying to get her family to talk about what had happened to her. But I got the only interview with those family members and with her closest friends, though I have to say it wasn’t because of any ingenuity on my part. It just so happened that the wife of Peggy Jo’s brother happened to have read a story I had done for Texas Monthly a couple of years earlier about a group of female prison inmates in the 1940’s who formed a string band (“Oh, Sister Where Art Thou?”). She told her brother Pete, who had not spoken to the news media since Peggy Jo began making headlines fourteen years ago, that I had written a sympathetic story about the life of those women who had committed various crimes. She persuaded him to talk to me, and afterward he introduced me to other relatives and friends who were very close to Peggy Jo. I will always be deeply grateful to Pete for helping me with the story, because it finally gave us a chance to see who the real Peggy Jo Tallas was.
texasmonthly.com: Nearly everyone involved in Peggy Jo’s case seemed to have a deep fondness for her, including the officers who made it their business to capture her. While researching Peggy Jo’s story, did you find yourself growing the same fondness, perhaps secretly hoping she would have made it to Mexico?
SH: Well, this is a complicated question, because I have to admit, I did find myself rooting for her in the way we root for bank robbers in movies. Just the idea of a sixty-year-old woman robbing banks, using her RV as her getaway vehicle, struck me as, well, sort of charming. She never waved a gun in the banks in order to make sure no one got hurt. And the little money that she was getting—a few thousand dollars here and there—was insured.
So then, am I saying that I root for all bank robbers I hear about? The answer is that I find the typical bank robber disgusting. As I pointed out in my story, bank robbers are usually male drug addicts who make vicious threats and wave guns in the air and use their money to buy more drugs. Perhaps because Peggy Jo went against every stereotype I had ever heard of is what drew me to her story.
texasmonthly.com: How did the local people of the town react after the death of Peggy Jo?
SH: For the people who knew her, her death was a tragedy. For them, Peggy Jo was a genuinely loving, kindhearted person. I literally could have filled up the entire length of the magazine article just quoting people’s stories about things she did for them, the gentle way she treated them, and her deep love for life. And again, that is why you are so drawn to her story. Why would such a normal woman want to rob banks year after year? And how could she have developed the skill to do it so successfully? So beyond the suspense of seeing if she could get away with her robberies was a psychological mystery revolving around Peggy Jo’s character.
texasmonthly.com: What happened to the video of the moment that Peggy Jo was shot?
SH: The man who shot the video sold it to the local CBS television station in Tyler. The station allowed me to watch it. When I saw her get shot, I felt myself take a breath. I know this sounds like a cliché, but it was heartbreaking to see such a life end in such a wasted way.
texasmonthly.com: There are many unanswered questions regarding the reasons Peggy Jo returned to the same bank and made such careless mistakes. Do you believe she was trying to get caught or were they simply errors in judgment?
SH: One of the many unanswered questions about Peggy Jo’s secret career is whether she was trying to get caught that last time. Why, for instance, didn’t she dress in one of her male disguises like she had during all of her other robberies? Why did she speak to the teller instead of handing over the note as she had before? Was she trying to get caught? Or did she think she was so good that the FBI couldn’t catch her? Did she dress as a woman that last time as a way to tease her pursuers—her last calling card before she disappeared forever? That’s a judgment every reader has to make for himself.