Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Tale of My Great Grandfather in Montana: How Skill Caught a Criminal and Luck Saved the Lawman's Life

Frank Latta, one time Montana lawman, in the autumn of his years. He had one bad eye that was damaged when he was chopping wood. That star sapphire he's wearing now belongs to my Uncle Jack.

I never knew my great grandfather Frank Latta of Bozeman, Montana. But I have come across a new picture of him in sorting through my mother's things after her recent death. The picture explains a key element of a story that is often told about the old lawman and his capture of a notorious railroad extortionist in 1903.

The criminal was Isaac "Ike" Gravelle. He was an ex-con and a generally bad guy who sent a series of anonymous letters to the Northern Pacific Railroad, threatening to blow up bridges and trains if he was not paid $25,000.

The railroads in those days were powerful and rich, and they didn't pay these threats much mind. That is until he blew up a railroad bridge over the Yellowstone River, blew an engine off the tracks near Birdseye, Montana, and derailed a train west of Elliston.

He had stolen the dynamite for his operation from a Helena hardware store and one day a ranch hand from an outfit called Antelope Springs, was riding along the tracks near the Missouri River, when he surprised a guy sleeping in a haystack. When the loner lit out on his horse, he left a rucksack of dynamite behind him and a spur. The spur was identified by a Helena blacksmith as one he'd made for Ike Gravelle, and now he'd been identified, the hunt was on.

That's Gravelle, looking sinister at right. Courtesy Montana Historical Society.

In October of 1903 he was spotted twenty three miles west of Helena. Three lawmen began to track him: Maj. James Keown, another man called Bert Reynolds, and my great grandfather Frank Latta. They used a pack of bloodhounds, and they used Frank Latta's famous skills at tracking. Into the night they tracked Ike Gravelle, through McDonald Pass, Mullan Tunnel, and Priest Pass. Finally, according to editor Frank Walker in Speaking Ill of the Dead: Jerks in Montana History:

" ...they ran him to ground at his old hog ranch near Priest Pass and, without firing a shot, captured their prey. In most dramatic fashion, the Northern Pacific lawmen trailed Ike down into Helena, with his hands bound behind his back. The triumphant captors had telephoned ahead, and hundreds of townspeople lined Helena Avenue to gawk at the blackmailer who had terrorized the entire state of Montana for three long months."

On New Year's Eve 1903, Gravelle was convicted. Before he was led away to the jail he asked to use the men's room, and there, in a stall, a person or persons unknown had planted a revolver for Ike. He used it to escape, shooting and killing deputy Anton Korizek in the struggle. He had told friends what he really wanted to do was to kill Frank Latta, that son-of-a-gun who had tracked him down.

The jury had only been out four hours before returning its verdict that day, and the story goes that my great grandfather, Frank Latta, was just returning to the courthouse when the escape took place. He'd been buying himself a new Stetson with some of the reward money he won for Ike's capture, and he was walking up onto the courthouse steps just as Gravelle brushed past him and ran on down the street.

The escape was Gravelle's last desperate act. As he ran, he shot and mortally wounded another man--one of the the witnesses at his trial who had pulled out his own revolver and given chase. But, it wasn't long before lawmen had Gravelle cornered in the stairway leading down to the coal room of the brand new Montana governor's mansion. Ike turned the gun on himself and ended his life.

"Why didn't he shoot you," people asked Frank Latta when the ruckus had died down. "He was a killer with nothing to lose. He said he'd kill you too."

"Well," said Frank. "I had on my new Stetson. I guess he just didn't recognize me in that brand new hat."

Below is the picture I found among my mother's things, a photo taken thirty years after the famous Gravelle case. That's my mother with my great grandfather, Montanan Frank Latta.

I don't know what hat he had on the day Ike Gravelle escaped, but if it was anything like the one he's wearing in this photo, with a brim just the right size to block the Montana sun and put a cowboy's features in total darkness, it is easy to understand why the famous criminal might have failed, on that fateful day, to identify the man who tracked him down.

The moustache would have been a dead give-away. It must not have been quite so impressive in 1903.


Faye Latta, my mother, with her grandfather, Frank Latta, whose hat saved his life one day in 1903. This photo was taken in Montana in 1936.


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5 comments:

Polly and Thaddeus Seymour said...

What a fascinating account, Robin, especially the photo with your mother. Your entries are wonderfully readable and always enjoyable. Thank you!

Robin Chapman said...

I think my great grandfather looks a lot like the cartoon character Pecos Bill. I've since read that old Frank attended school for three days when he was a child, and on the fourth day the teacher was late and he never went back. A true American character.

Susan said...

Very interesting story and well told. Thanks for sharing.

Jack said...

Dad & I are working our way through episodes of Wells Fargo with Dale Robertson, so your great grandfather's encounter fits right in. Wells Fargo has an excellent museum here in Portland; Frank's picture and story would be natural companions. Thanks for adding this item, Robin.

Robin Chapman said...

I found my great grandfather's story in an old newspaper article in my grandmother's scrapbook, and then I confirmed it with an internet search about the criminal, Ike Gravelle. It would make a good screenplay don't you think?