The iconic 19th Century “Wanted” Poster (or sometimes referred to as a Bill), while a well-known fixture of The American West, is actually Centuries old. In Americana, The “Wanted” Poster was used to alert any Law Enforcement Agency of an Outlaw or Criminal “wanted” before a Court for Crimes. They would be mailed, telegraphed or given to a Sheriff or Marshal of a City or Town and posted at The Office of same. The first known use of such documents how back to Medieval England and the 14th Century. Traitors to The Crown were often placed on instruments known as Royal Warrants. They would dictate (in words), who was wanted and what he or she did. They were to be brought (delivered) to The King or Queens “Good Justice “. These documents were carried by Sheriff’s or Military Commanders. Often, especially in far flung corners of a Kingdom, such documents were copied and placed in the Center of a Village or Town. Commoners came to call them “Wants”.
However, a common issue in this Era was literacy. The vast majority of Persons could not read (or read well). Although unclear, sometime after the development of The Printing Press, woodblock images were carved. Inked, soon an actual image was included on these “Wants”. Thus, the birth of the first true “Wanted Poster” came to be. Although not heavily used in their infancy, by the 17th Century, such Posters were seen in conjunction with Piracy. Additionally, many Governments began to assign rewards for the capture and deliver of certain “infamous” Pirates. Thus us possibly the first use of “Reward Monies” in reference to Wanted Posters .
By the 18th Century, such Posters were in wide use in The American Colonies. They were used not only first Outlaws, but escaped Slaves. By the opening of The American West – and the birth of Western Outlawry, The Wanted Poster became a necessary tools for Law Enforcement and a new bred of adventure seekers, the often reviled “Bounty Hunters”. Often these independent Gunmen would procure copies of Wanted Felons Postings and use these to hunt (more often kill), Outlaws – using The Posters as an “invoice” of sorts, to collect assigned monies. As such, this profession flourished in The American West. When an Outlaw was captured, imprisoned, executed or killed, his (or her) Poster was amended in writing you reflect such. Circulated, this was seen to stop the practice of killing the wrong person and disfiguring the corpse (beyond facial recognition), in an attempt to recover monies offered. Nonetheless, thus grisly practice continued. Their use declined slightly by the early 20th Century, but were made largely “popular” again with the rise of Gangland Crime in the 1930s. The use of Wanted Posters still continue today in Law Enforcement, now often at an International level.