Saturday, March 23, 2013

Wild Times in the Old West: a True Story

My great grandfather was a cow puncher, a cattle agent, and a sheriff in the area around Bozeman, Montana, at the turn of the twentieth century. I've told this story before on my blog, but it is a story worth telling more than once, and it was time for an update:

Frank Latta, one time Montana lawman, in the autumn of his years. He lost his left eye in an accident, but he could track better than most men anyway. That star sapphire he's wearing now belongs to my Uncle Jack. The photo, taken by a photographer during the Depression, is in the Library of Congress archives. 

I never knew my great grandfather Frank Latta of Bozeman, Montana. But, after my parents passed away in 2010, I came across a picture of him in my mother's things that I had never seen. The photo, which is attached later to this piece, helps to explain a key element of a story that is often told about my great grandfather: how he helped to capture a notorious railroad extortionist in 1903.

Several men died at the hands of the bad man. But luck--and a new hat--helped my great grandfather live to recount the story.

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.

My mother, Faye Latta, 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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1 comment:

Buckeye John said...

I'm sure that you've already received many comments on this story. I have to say, I really enjoyed reading it for the first time. It is really cool that your grandparents settled in the old West, and I'm very happy he decided to purchase that new hat that day. Looking at the photo of your Mother (sitting on the horse next to your Grandfather), it seems that you closely resemble her. I've always loved books and movies about on this topic, and your story is no different. One of my favorite TV shows is "Hell on Wheels," which is about the building of the railroads through the West. Perhaps you've watched on AMC network. By the way, my grandparents came through Ellis Island, so their stories were different, but quite interesting.