wild-bunch-the-hunt-for-the-great-northern-train-robbers

Wild Bunch – The Hunt for the Great Northern Train Robbers


As Great Northern westbound train No. 3 pulled away from Malta, Montana, on the afternoon of July 3, 1901, conductor Alex Smith saw a tall, red-faced man board the blind baggage. Thinking the man was a hobo, Smith ordered him off the train. Instead of obeying, the man pulled a pistol and warned the conductor not to stop the train. Smith quickly retreated, and the hobo headed for the engine.

Minutes later the free rider climbed over the tender, pistol in hand, and told engineer Tom Jones to “just keep on drilling.” He told Jones and fireman Mike O’Neil that he was going to rob their train and ordered Jones to stop at a small bridge where two more holdup men were waiting with rifles and dynamite.


One of the passengers on train No. 3. was Valley County Sheriff William Griffith. When the train stopped unexpectedly, Griffith got off to investigate but was forced to take cover when the robbers fired at him. While two of the holdup men fired their rifles along side the train to keep Griffith and the passengers inside, the third robber marched Jones and O’Neil to the baggage car where mail clerk James Martin and express messenger Clarence Smith were taken from the train. The man guarding the north side of the train then took charge of the train’s crew while the bandit leader and express messenger Smith went to the express car.

Smith later said that when they entered the express car the robber “commenced taking his dynamite from a sack and laid it on top of the safe. . . .and when it got to sputtering, I said, ‘Bill I would like to get out [of] here,’ and he said ‘You wait a minute and I will get out of here with you,’ and when it was ready we both went out.”

On the second trip to the express car the bandit leader took O’Neil along to carry the dynamite . O’Neil waited outside while the robber entered the car and found the safe unopened. After placing another charge on the safe the robber hurriedly exited and another explosion rocked the car. As soon as the smoke cleared, the robber returned to find the safe still unopened. O’Neil again waited outside while another charge was placed on the safe.

When the robber entered the express car for the fourth time, he found the door ripped from the safe and ordered O’Neil to join him. O’Neil later said, “He threw what stuff was in the sack out. . . .and told me to hold [the sack]. . . .He started tearing the broken pieces of the safe off so he could get the stuff in there. . . .He picked up one package and made a remark about it, something like $30,000 or $40,000, . . .and dropped it into the sack.”

Once the safe was emptied, the train crew was ordered to walk toward the rear of the train. The robbers then disappeared around the front of the engine and were next seen by the passengers riding south toward the Little Rockies.

Less than an hour after the robbery, train No. 3 limped into Wagner, Montana, twelve miles west of Malta, where Sheriff Griffith began organizing a posse to go after the robbers. Under Sheriff Richard Kane was contacted at Glasgow, and Kane and seven deputies were soon on their way to Wagner aboard a light engine. Later a special car loaded with horses was brought from Glasgow to Malta where a second posse was being formed.

Meanwhile, the train robbers were putting distance between themselves and their pursuers. George Zimmerman saw them south of Malta following the robbery. He said that they rode a wide circle around him and fired one shot in his direction when he tried to approach them. Rancher William Ellis met the same three men eighteen miles south of Malta about two hour after the robbery. Ellis claimed he recognized two of the robbers and identified them as Harry Longabaugh and Kid Curry.

Harry Longabaugh, better known as the Sundance Kid, was a leading member of Butch Cassidy’s Hole-in-the-Wall gang. Longabaugh, Harry Bass, and Bill Madden had held up a train near the same spot in 1892. In addition to the 1892 robbery, he was also suspected of bank and train robberies in Nevada, South Dakota, and Wyoming.

“Kid” Curry, real name Harvey Logan, was another Cassidy gang member. Wanted for murder, train robbery, and bank robbery in several states, he was considered by many to be the most dangerous member of the gang. He was also familiar with the Malta area, having ranched in the Little Rockies before becoming an outlaw.

Under the headline TRAIN HELD UP BY THREE ROBBERS, the Great Falls Daily Tribune gave a detailed account of the robbery on July 4. They named Bill Longbaugh (Harry Longabaugh) as the leader of the gang and estimate the robbers take at $30,000. They also reported that Valley County officers had identified the large red-faced man who had climbed over the tender as a man named Jones who had recently been released from the penitentiary at Deer Lodge.

The man the newspapers called Jones was Orlando Camillo Hanks, alias Charles Jones. In 1893, Hanks and three accomplices robbed a Union Pacific train near Grey Cliff, Montana. He was later captured, convicted, and sentenced to ten year in the penitentiary at Deer Lodge. He had been released on April 30, 1901, and had been seen around Malta and Glasgow in the weeks prior to the robbery.

Although Sheriff Griffith and his posse started out with high hopes, at least one local resident did not think that the robbers had anything to worry about. Based on his knowledge of the area, the unnamed informant told the Tribune, “If the robbers have a 10 mile start on the pursuers they are safe. They are in a country that has been a refuge for many criminals, and while posses have frequently gone there, they have never caught anyone.”

Nevertheless, the first reports from the posse were encouraging. On July 5, the Helena Independent predicted that the robbers “will probably be captured by morning.” They said that the posse had caught up with the robbers the previous afternoon at Buck Allen’s ranch, 40 miles south of Wagner. Sheriff Griffith and fifteen men had them completely surrounded and were expected to make an attack as soon as reinforcements arrived.

But any hope that the train robbers would be captured quickly was short lived. The following day the Tribune reported. “Information received by Great Northern officials does not verify the report that the bandits have been cornered. Their horses were captured by a posse about 50 miles south of Malta, Mont., but it is believed remounts were secured and the men have escaped to the Little Rockies.”

Great Northern official T. Elliot also told the Tribune that Pinkerton agents sent from St. Paul had identified the three robbers. Elliot declined to reveal the their names, but he was quoted as saying that they were “old hands and have held up trains on other roads.”

On July 7, a courier arrived in Malta with news from the posse. He told the Tribune that Sheriff Griffith’s men were exhausted and their horses were too spent to continue the chase. The posse had lost the robbers trail the previous afternoon near Rocky Canyon, and unless fresh horses could be obtained, there was little hope that the robbers would be captured.

The robber who had boarded the train at Malta was in the news again on July 9. “It is now believed that one of the Great Northern train robbers, and the one who stopped the train by climbing over the tender. . . is a man by the name of Johnston (Camillo Hanks, alias Charles Jones) who was recently released from the penitentiary after serving a term of 10 years for manslaughter. He was loafing, for two days prior to the robbery, around Shade J. Denson’s saloon. Mr. Denson saw him board the ‘blind baggage’ Wednesday morning and noticed that he drew a gun on a trainman who tried to put him off.”

Although the authorities claimed to know who the Great Northern robbers were, it was becoming less and less likely that any of them would be captured. The Independent reported on July 9, “Member of the posse which started out in high hopes of capturing the train robbers . . . are straggling back, their mounts fagged and jaded, themselves tired and worn with the hard riding. . . . Nervy Sheriff Griffith declares that he will stick to the trail . . . but it is doubtful that he will be able to keep his brave resolve. His posse is diminishing and the probability of coming up with the robbers is diminishing even faster.”

Sheriff Griffith certainly did not show any loss of resolve when he arrived in Glasgow later that day. He told a Tribune, reporter, “The men I want are in the Little Rocky mountains and cannot possibly get away, as I have a complete patrol of the Missouri river both day and night. . . . I will need a least 50 more men, and as soon as I get them I will drive every point on the river. . . . The fighting men from some of the outlying precincts can now report and I will lead them where they can tangle up in legitimate warfare.”

Griffith later contacted the Great Northern Express Company and asked them to guarantee the posse’s expenses. When they responded with a pledge of $500, Griffith wired Culbertson and Saco urging them to, “Send up your fighting men. Will guarantee them payment.”

While Griffith was gathering his “fighting men,” the Independent reported more bad news. “It is known definitely that the Great Northern train robbers crossed the Missouri river about seven miles above Fort Peck about 7:45 Monday evening (July 8) and that they are now on the south side. Sheriff Griffith and posse have been notified, but by the time . . . he reaches the point where the robbers crossed the river he would be 40 hours behind them.” A Great Northern official at Glasgow confirmed the report, stating that he had received reliable information that the train robbers were already south of the Missouri and that any further pursuit from the north was hopeless.

Sheriff Griffith ignored these reports and left Glasgow with twenty-eight men and ten days rations on July 10. The next day he arrived at Jim Winters’ ranch, six miles east of the Little Rockies, where he was joined by posses from Great Falls and Chinook.

By July 12, Griffith had sixty-five men combing the Little Rockies. But in spite of reports that they were closing in on the train robbers, the field correspondent for the Tribune remained skeptical. “Sheriff Griffith may know the exact whereabouts of the robbers, but there are many here . . . who do not take much stock in the sheriff’s statement. . . . After a careful review of the whole situation from this point, it is safe to say that perhaps Sheriff Griffith has the robbers corralled and then again perhaps he has not.”

Describing the posse’s attempts to catch the robbers as a “grab-bag sort of affair” and “a go-as-you-please man hunt,” the same correspondent was even more critical on July 16. “After a careful review of all the stories and all the real and manufactured information, the consensus of opinion among those who have participated in the man hunt, is that they have been chasing phantoms. . . . According to a report here the bandits were last seen at a point south of the Little Rockies. They were also last seen at Rocky Point, and were also last seen at several other place, and the funny part of all of this seemingly childish man hunt is that men can be found who believe it.”

The next day, the Tribune announced that the manhunt was over. “It may as well be admitted first as last that the search for the Great Northern robbers by posse process is at an end. It can do no harm either, to admit that all talk of the identity of the bandits is mere conjecture. . . . The train robbers may be caught, and it is to be hoped that they will be, but if they permit themselves to be entrapped in the country the posses have been hunting, then they are the veriest chumps living.”

The manhunt had failed to inflict any damage on the train robbers, but it had severely damaged the relationship between Sheriff Griffith and the local citizens. Although men had been recruited from as far away as Lewistown, the Great Northern Express Company had advised Sheriff Griffith not to allow anyone from Malta to accompany his posse. They believed the residents of Malta were sympathetic to the robbers and would go along with the posse in hopes of slowing it down. When the citizens of Malta offered men, guns, horses, and a wagon load of provisions to the posse, they were told that the Great Northern Express Company did not want anything from Malta.

On July 17, the Malta Enterprise answered with an editorial accusing the Great Northern Express Company of unjustly branding their community “a band of cut throats, unfit even to hunt train robbers.” The editorial went on to say, “There is no citizen of Malta who had anything to do with the robbery. Whatever may be the faults of the people living in the neighborhood where the Curry gang holds out, it is certain they have not been harbored around Malta, and our people should not be blamed for their depredations.”

Sheriff Griffith and his “fighting men” had also left a bad impression on the citizens of the Little Rockies. In a letter to the editor of the Chinook Opinion, a Landusky resident wrote, “Among some of his braves that composed his posse were a gang of the Culbertson toughs. This mob of outlaw hunters, instead of being in pursuit of the much wanted desperadoes . . . were apparently hunting trouble, and with this object in view came to our peaceable little village, and at once began taking on a load of our best booze, after which they proceeded to shoot up the town. . . . Leaving the town well jaged, they would make as many holes in the atmosphere as possible on their way home. On one of these wild trips one had the misfortune to wound his horse. Another of these braves was seen on the prairie about two miles from town, dead drunk. He had lost his hat and his faithful horse was grazing near him, apparently guarding him, possibly from being stolen by the train robbers.”

While this was taking place, the Tribune reported what at first appeared to be a legitimate sighting of the train robbers. According to their report, the robbers had stopped on the evening of July 5, at the house of a sheepman named Morton on Little Porcupine Creek. They had told Morton that they were stock detectives trying to reach Forsyth by morning to stop a shipment of stolen horses and had traded him their worn out horses and $100 for three fresh mounts. A few days later, Morton had sent the three $20 and two $10 bills to a Miles City bank where they were identified as part of the stolen money from the Great Northern robbery.

Like all the other sightings of the train robbers, this one was quickly discredited. On July 20, the Yellowstone Journal reported that if any of the stolen bills had been presented at a bank, it was certainly not at Miles City. They had investigated the Tribune’s report and found that none of the cashiers at the Miles City banks had any knowledge of such an incident.

Sheriff Griffith and his posse had quit the chase, but the Pinkerton Detective Agency continued their hunt for the train robbers. As part of their investigation, they distributed the serial numbers and a description of the stolen Bank of Montana bill to banks throughout the United States. Their efforts paid off on October 14, when a young woman entered a Nashville, Tennessee, bank and attempted to exchange a roll of $10 bills for larger bills. A bank employee recognized the bills as ones from the Great Northern robbery and called the police. Nashville Detectives Jack Dwyer and Austin Dickens responded to the call and arrested the woman.

She told the police that her name was Annie Rogers and that she was from Texas. She said that the stolen money had been given to her by a man named Bob Nevill with whom she had been traveling. They had arrived in Nashville on October 11, and had been staying at the Lincks Hotel. She also furnished information that led Pinkerton detectives to a Denver photographer where she and Nevill had been photographed in December 1900. When the Pinkertons obtained a copy of the photograph, they recognized Bob Nevill as suspected Great Northern train robber Harvey Logan, alias, Kid Curry.

On October 27, Nashville Detectives Dwyer and Dickens were again called to investigate stolen bills. At about 10:30 that morning a man entered the store of Newman & Company on North College Street and attempted to make a small purchase with a crisp, new $20 bill. Mrs. Newman could not make change and sent the bill next door to a drug store. Alerted by the publicity from the Annie Rogers arrest, a drug store employee recognized the Bank of Montana bill and called the police.

When Dwyer and Dickens arrived and attempted to arrest the man, he resisted. The detectives grabbed hold of him, but he quickly threw them aside and ran from the store. Once outside, he commandeered an ice wagon and led the police on a daring chase through the streets of Nashville. When one of the ice wagon horses broke down, he forced a man from a buggy and continued his flight. The police followed him for several miles before he abandoned the buggy and disappeared into a large corn field near the Cumberland River.

At one point, when the police appeared to be about to overtake the fugitive, he was seen throwing objects from the buggy. Later they returned to the spot and found a pocket book and $1,280 in Bank of Montana bills.

At first, the authorities believed that the “ice wagon man” was Butch Cassidy. But on October 28, they showed the witnesses photographs of Cassidy and the other suspects in the Great Northern robbery. The witnesses all agreed that the man they saw was not Cassidy. However, several of them, including Mrs. Newman, thought that the “ice wagon man” looked a lot like Camillo Hanks, alias, Charles Jones.

The next break in the case came on November 5, when a man used four new $20 bills to purchased a watch at the Globe Loan Agency in St. Louis. When a Globe employee took the bills to a bank, they were recognized as more of the Montana money. Just before midnight, the St. Louis police located the man at Josie Blake’s Chestnut Street resort and placed him under arrest.

When the police searched their prisoner, they found $460 of the stolen Montana money and a hotel key. The key was traced to the Laclede hotel where the suspect and a woman were registered under the name of Mr. and Mrs. J. W. Rose. Luckily, the police arrived in time to arrest Laura Bullion, alias Della Rose, as she was about to leave the hotel. They found another $8,000 in Bank of Montana bills in her luggage.

The prisoner said that his name was John Arnold. He denied knowing that the money was stolen and insisted that he had won the bank notes gambling. Although the police were sure that they had captured one of the Great Northern train robbers, they were not sure which one. But on November 9, the St. Louis Globe Democrat reported that a former Crook County, Wyoming, prosecutor had positively identified the prisoner as Harry Longabaugh. Twelve years earlier, the informant had prosecuted Longabaugh in Sundance, Wyoming, for stealing horses, and according to the newspaper, there could be no mistake about his identity.

The positive identification turned out not to be so positive. In a later interview, former Wyoming prosecutor Charles Fesenfelt admitted that he was not sure that the prisoner was Longabaugh. “Twelve years is a long time to intervene and many changes occur in that period. My statement after seeing the prisoner at the Four Courts was that I honestly believed it was him. It was not a positive identification.”

Great Northern express messenger Clarence Smith and fireman Mike O’Neil arrived from Montana on November 13 to try and identify John Arnold. Both said Arnold was one of the men who had held up their train. The authorities had expected them to identify him as the leader of the gang who blew the safe, but O’Neil surprised everyone by positively identifying Arnold as the large red-faced man who had boarded the train at Malta and forced engineer Jones to stop the train.

The authorities still believed that Arnold was Harry Longabaugh, but a letter found in his pocket at the time of his arrest and information obtained from Laura Bullion suggested that he may have been from Texas. The St. Louis police sent photographs of their prisoner to law officers throughout Texas, hoping someone would recognize John Arnold. On November 13, they received a reply. “Paint Rock, Texas, Longabaugh photograph received. Positively identified as being (Ben) Kilpatrick. Raised here and wanted for murder. James E. House, (sic) Sheriff Concho County”

On November 15, a second telegram confirmed the identification. “Ballinger, Texas, Photograph of supposed Longabaugh positively identified as Kilpatrick. Wanted in Concho County for murder. He is Kilpatrick beyond any doubt. R. P. Kirk, Sheriff”

When confronted with this information, the man who had repeatedly been misidentified as Harry Longabaugh admitted that he was Ben Kilpatrick.

Another major break in the case came on December 13, when two Knoxville, Tennessee, policemen responded to a fight at a local saloon. When they tried to arrest one of the combatants, he shot and seriously wounded both officers before making his escape. The next day, a large number of the stolen Bank of Montana bill began to show up in Knoxville. The police investigation revealed that all of the bills could be traced to the man who had shot the policemen.

A familiar name was soon being mentioned in the Knoxville newspapers. The December 14 issue of the Knoxville Sentinel reported that the fugitive was believed to be “Harry Longabaugh, one of the Montana train robbers still at large.” The Knoxville Journal & Tribune agreed that his description “tallies very accurately with that of Harry, or ‘Kid’ Longabaugh, who took part in the robbery of the Great Northern train on July 3rd. last.”

The policemen’s assailant was arrested in nearby Jefferson City, Tennessee, and returned to Knoxville on December 15. The police found $2,000 of the stolen money on him and another $3,130 in a bag that he had checked at the Southern Railway station. Approximately $4,000 more was gathered up from sources in Knoxville, bringing the total recovered to more than $9,000.

Once the man was in custody, it was apparent that he was not Harry Longabaugh. Of the men suspected of the Great Northern robbery, he most closely resembled Harvey Logan. To assist them in identifying their prisoner, the authorities asked the Pinkertons to send someone to Knoxville who was familiar with the men suspected of the robbery. On December 17, Pinkerton Detective Lowell Spence arrived and identified the man in custody as Harvey Logan, alias Kid Curry. Three weeks later, Clarence Smith and Mike O’Neil identified Logan as one of the men who had robbed their train.

Although two of the Great Northern train robbers were in jail, the third robber remained free. But on the night of April 15, 1902, a customer at Flo Williams’ saloon in San Antonio, Texas, began flashing a gun and using rough and abusive language. An employee of the saloon became concerned and called the police. When officers Harvey, Hughes, and Taylor entered the saloon, the man jumped to his feet, drew a gun, and fired a shot that glanced off of officer Harvey’s belt buckle. While Harvey and Hughes tried to wrestle the gun away from him, Taylor drew his gun and shot the man in the chest and head, killing him instantly.

The dead man was first identified as Wyatt Hanks because of a name found sewn inside his coat. But on April 18, Sheriff Thomas Stell of Cuero, Texas, viewed the body and told the authorities that the dead man was Wyatt’ brother, Camillo. Mrs. Laura Cox confirmed the identification the next day when she arrived in San Antonio and positively identified the dead man as her son, Camillo Hanks.

Mrs. Cox told the authorities that she had last seen her son in early November 1901, when he visited her at her home in Taylor County, Texas. At that time, he had admitted taking part in the Great Northern robbery and told her that he had received $11,000 as his share of the loot. She said she had feared something would happen to him and had sewn his brother’s name in his coat to help identify him.”

Clarence Smith viewed Hanks’ body on April 24. Smith could not positively identify him as one of the robbers but did say that Hanks had the same general appearance and the same build as one of the men who robbed his train.

With the death of Camillo Hanks all three of the Great Northern train robbers were accounted for, but the final fate of Harvey Logan, Ben Kilpatrick, Annie Rogers, and Laura Bullion was still undecided. Annie Rogers remained in the Nashville jail awaiting trial until June 1902. After the defense presented an affidavit from Harvey Logan stating that he had given her the money and that she had no knowledge of the robbery, a jury acquitted her of forging and attempting to pass stolen bank notes. Following her trial, she returned to Texas and disappeared from the pages of history.

In December 1901, Laura Bullion pled guilty to having altered bank notes in her possession and received a five year sentence. She was released from the Missouri State Penitentiary at Jefferson City, Missouri, on September 19, 1905. She lived the last years of her life in Memphis, Tennessee, under the name of Freda Lincoln. She passed away on December 2, 1961.

Harvey Logan was convicted of counterfeiting, forging, and passing stolen bank notes in November 1902. He remained in the Knoxville jail while his appeal was being heard, and on June 27, 1903, he overpowered a guard and escaped.

On June 7, 1904, Logan and two other men held up a Denver & Rio Grande express train two miles west of Parachute, Colorado. On June 9, a posse caught up with them, and Logan was wounded in the shoot out that followed. Members of the posse heard him call to his pals, telling them that he was badly hurt and would end it there. Moments later, Logan placed a gun to his head and took his own life.

Ben Kilpatrick pled guilty to passing and altering stolen bank notes in December 1901, and was sentenced to fifteen years at hard labor. He was released from the Federal Penitentiary at Atlanta, Georgia, in 1911. On March 12, 1912, Kilpatrick was killed while attempting to hold up the Galviston, Harrisburg, & San Antonio train near Sanderson, Texas.