Butch Cassidy and his Idaho bank heist

History Corner

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Buried somewhere along the old Stage Road between Wallace and Spokane are gold coins worth $32,640 in 1900. Today, the value of the gold alone would be about $2.2 million - a lot more for numismatic value.

Nobody has ever found it, though many have tried.

Butch Cassidy didn't particularly like gold coins, because they were too heavy to lug around. He preferred paper money and negotiable bank securities. On Aug. 13, 1896, he and two pals helped themselves to all of those at the bank in Montpelier and got away with it.

Cassidy's sidekick, the Sundance Kid, wasn't part of his Wild Bunch gang yet on that heist. Butch did the job with William Ellsworth "Elzy" Lay and Henry "Bub" Meeks. It was the gang's first bank robbery.

The Bank of Montpelier was established in 1891 and the building is still there - though no longer used as a bank. It was the first bank in southeastern Idaho, and later when banks had to be chartered in the state, it was the first.

Robbing that bank was a casual affair - not like the violent shoot-and-run kind seen in the movies. Butch and the boys planned it well in advance. On the day of the robbery, they rode quietly into town, bided their time buying supplies and enjoying a few drinks until near bank closing time.

Then they rode to the bank and tied their horses up across the street. Butch and Lay walked toward the bank, leaving Bub outside as lookout.

G.C. Gray, the bank's cashier was in front of the bank talking with a friend, Ed Hoover. He noticed the three men ride in but didn't pay much attention to them until Butch and Lay suddenly ushered the two men into the bank at gunpoint and lined them up facing the wall, along with teller A.N. "Bud" McIntosh and a female stenographer.

While Lay held his gun on the captives, Butch stuffed money into a gunnysack. One account says that while this was going on, McIntosh could still see Meeks outside through the window and carefully took note of his appearance.

Carrying $7,165 ($1,000 in silver and gold), Butch and Meeks left first, mounted their horses and casually rode away. Then, Lay told the people in the bank to keep quiet for 10 minutes and left the bank, jumped on his horse and raced out of town. Immediately, pandemonium broke loose and the chase was on.

First to go after the robbers were Deputy Sheriff Fred Cruikshank and an attorney named Bagley. Minutes later, Bear Lake County Sheriff Jefferson Davis and Deputy Mike Malone organized a posse.

They searched for Butch and the boys for a week without success, and then gave up.

Meeks was arrested in Wyoming less than a year later on a different robbery charge but was also linked to the Montpelier job. Some reports credit bank cashier Gray's positive identification of Meeks, but another says, "Gray sent a letter telling that the man was short and slight and he did not believe it was Bub." The sheriff's brother, along with a railroad special agent and a county attorney also defended him.

Nevertheless, Meeks was convicted and sentenced to 35 years in Idaho State Penitentiary in Boise.

It was shortly after Montpelier that Harry Longabaugh - the Sundance Kid - joined the Wild Bunch, AKA The Hole-in-the-Wall Gang.

In the years that followed the Idaho raid, the gang led a life of robbery in Utah, South Dakota, Wyoming, New Mexico and Nevada.

Butch Cassidy was born April 13, 1866, in Beaver, Utah, the eldest of 13 children in a Mormon family. He took the nickname "Butch" after working in a butcher shop, and "Cassidy" after Mike Cassidy who taught him how to rustle cattle.

Rustling was how Butch started his career on the wrong side of the law.

Why did Butch and Sundance do it?

Some stories paint them with a Robin Hood image by taking on the big, bad rich railroads, banks, mine owners, and the wealthy cattle barons who were wiping out the little guy ranchers by buying the cattle stolen from them - ironically by Butch's fellow outlaws.

Butch reportedly also helped the downtrodden, once riding with Bub Meeks 10 miles to buy groceries for a family that was sick and in trouble.

There's no evidence that Butch and Sundance were killers. They are said to have preferred shooting horses out from under those chasing them rather than shooting the riders. But some of the gang were indeed killers.

Cassidy is said to have robbed the Montpelier bank to get bail money for his friend Matt Warner, a racehorse owner and rustler sitting in jail awaiting trial for murder. But some say it was to pay for a lawyer, confirmed by Warner years later in his autobiography.

Either way, it adds to the aura that has emerged over the years that Butch and Sundance weren't all that bad - as outlaws go.

After Montpelier, the gang fled to Iowa, and then Michigan where Butch ran into a Wyoming sheriff that was looking for him, but didn't know what he looked like. Butch claimed that they even shared a hotel room.

Making his way south and then back west, Butch linked up with the Gang and they plotted their next heist. It was the Pleasant Valley Coal Company delivering its payroll to Castle Gate, Utah. In broad daylight, Butch and two other gang members held the paymaster and two guards at gunpoint as they were delivering the money and then rode off with $8,800.

They made their getaway to Robbers Roost, cutting the telegraph lines on the way.

Robbers Roost was an outlaw hideout for 30 years along the Outlaw Trail, which stretched from Mexico to Montana. The trail snaked through rugged mountains, laced with a maze of remote canyons that lawmen wouldn't enter, fearing being ambushed. Many ranchers and farmers along the route befriended outlaws, including the Wild Bunch.

The big money came from robbing trains: $60,000 from the Overland Flyer near Wilcox, Wyo., $70,000 from a Rio Grande train near Folsom, New Mexico, and $55,000 from the Union Pacific at Tipton, Wyo.

On the Wilcox job, they dynamited a safe open, sending greenbacks flying everywhere. They scooped them all up.

The Wild Bunch knew their days of plunder were coming to an end. Lawmen and Pinkerton agents everywhere were on their trail.

Butch, Sundance and his girlfriend Etta Place planned to skip to New York and catch a boat for Buenos Aires.

To finance the plan, Butch took the Wild Bunch to Winnemucca, Nev. On Sept. 9, 1900, they robbed the bank - and that's where the $32,640 in gold coins came from.

Butch said it would be his last robbery, but gang member Harvey Logan convinced him to delay the trip with one more heist - the Great Northern Railroad.

They hit the train on July 3, 1901, near Wagner, Mont., in a robbery probably more to Butch's liking. The loot was $65,000 in negotiable bank notes - much easier to handle than a bag full of gold coins.

After Butch, Sundance and Etta left for South America, the rest of the Wild Bunch headed for Idaho with bags of gold coins and their share of the bank notes. When Logan was captured in Tennessee six months later, he had a suitcase full of the paper money but only one gold coin.

Legend says that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid died in Bolivia in 1908 in a shootout with the Bolivian Army. Some say maybe not.

After the "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" movie came out in 1969, reporters tracked down Butch's younger sister Lula Parker Betenson, then 86. She claimed that Butch didn't die in a shootout in Bolivia in 1908, but came home 16 years later and settled in Spokane where he spent his last years as a trapper and prospector, and died in 1937.

Numerous others also claimed to have seen him in various locations over the years.

No one knows for sure about Butch Cassidy's final days, so the mystery remains unanswered - as does the location of the $2.2 million of gold coins.

Syd Albright is a writer/journalist/biographer living in Post Falls. He is chairman of the Kootenai County Historic Preservation Commission. Contact him at silverflix@roadrunner.com.

The Butch and Sundance gang

In addition to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Wild Bunch included some notorious Old West outlaws from Idaho, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, including, Harvey "Kid Curry" Logan, Ben "The Tall Texan" Kilpatrick, Harry Tracy, Will "News" Carver, George "Flatnose" Curry, Walter "the Watcher" Punteney, William Ellsworth, better known as Elza Lay - Butch's best friend - and others. Butch was usually the leader of the loosely knit gang. "With his quick wit and native charm, coupled with his fearlessness and bravery, he never lacked for willing companions to assist in his plans."

Was it all in the number?

Interestingly, Bud McIntosh, the teller at the Montpelier bank noted that the robbery all had to do with the No. 13. It happened on Aug. 13, just after the 13th deposit of the day at the bank was made in the amount of $13, and the heist started at 13 minutes after three in the afternoon.

More on what happened to Butch Cassidy

History scholar Larry Pointer believes Butch faked his death in Bolivia, sailed to Europe and had a facelift. Then he returned to live in Washington State. He bases his evidence in part on manuscripts believed written by Butch.

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