A cold spell hit the town of Malta in north central Montana at the end of November 1892. In the wee hours of the morning on the 29th, the mercury dipped blow 16 degrees below and the stretch of the Milk River that ran through town froze over, as did the Missouri River, 45 miles to the south, for the first time that winter. Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, alias the Sundance Kid, had recently arrived in Malta after working as a horse wrangler for three years near Calgary, Canada. As the cold set in, he took refuge in Alex Black’s Saloon with his pals Bill Madden and Harry Bass. Bored, and probably a little drunk, the three cowboys decided to add a little excitement and some easy money to their lives. A train robbery seemed just the ticket.
Longabaugh had earned his nickname for serving an 18-month sentence for horse theft a few years earlier in a jail in Sundance, Wyo. But at age 25 he was still a novice outlaw and, after a botched holdup that night of a Great Northern Railroad train, he escaped another prison stint because of a comic confusion over his identity. In the years that followed, the Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy went on a rampage with the so-called Wild Bunch, a loosely-knit band of outlaws who robbed trains and banks and stole mine payrolls in the Rocky Mountain West. The Sundance Kid’s reputation grew to mythic proportions in part because reporters often confused him with his Wild Bunch cohort Harvey Logan, who was dubbed Kid Curry and was responsible for killing at least nine law enforcement officers in five different shootings. Logan stayed behind when Butch and Sundance high-tailed it to South America in 1901 and soon after led a déjà vu heist of the Great Northern. This time, unlike Sundance and his pals nine years earlier, the holdup crew behaved like professionals, not amateurs, and rode away with $40,000 in unsigned banknotes. But when Logan and his fellow outlaws spent their loot from what is usually called the Wagner robbery, it proved to be their undoing.
Malta in 1892 was little more than a cattle shipping depot for local ranches along the Great Northern Railroad. It was part of huge Dawson County at the time; Valley County was carved out of Dawson the next year. At 3 a.m. on November 29, the Great Northern westbound express No. 23 out of St. Paul, Minn., made its regular mail and water stop at Malta. Two masked men boarded the blind baggage car and, as the train began to pick up speed again, they slipped onto the engine and ordered the engineer to stop near a fire about one mile ahead. The third outlaw waited at the bonfire with the escape horses.
Once the train halted, the thieves ordered railroad employees to open the mail car and safes in the express car. Their take was one check for $46.28 and another for $6.80, plus two packages valued at $10.42 and 30 cents—for a grand total of $63.80. The inexperienced outlaws apparently never considered the fact that the express train had left St. Paul on a Sunday, not a normal banking business day. Although frustrated with the small amount taken, the robbers toasted the crew with a drink and escaped off into the night. The Great Falls Tribune commented, “The affair occurred in less time than it takes to relate it.”
Foolishly, the thieves returned to Malta. The train continued on its regular route, stopping only to telegraph the news of the holdup: “Express car on No. 23 entered by robbers just west of Malta. Little of value taken. Nothing done to molest passengers.” J.A. Mayer of the Great Northern Railroad authorized a $500 reward for each of the outlaws, and the governor of Montana offered to match the railroad’s reward. The rewards were worth far more than the outlaws had stolen, but the railroad wanted to send a clear message that they would not tolerate train robbery.
The first officers to arrive in Malta were with a small posse led by Sheriff B.F. O’Neal of Choteau County. As soon as they arrived in town on December 1, however, they stopped in a saloon for a shot of courage. Coincidentally, it was in the same saloon where Sundance, Madden and Bass were once again drinking. The Great Falls Tribune reported: “Inside the building there were a number of men who, when they saw them coming, quickly grasped their Winchesters and began throwing cartridges into the magazines. ‘Guess you _____ of _____ of deputy sheriffs are after someone, ain’t you?’ said one of the gang. ‘Well, come right along. We’ll make it interesting for you and we’ll take even bets or give odds that you don’t take us. What do you say?’ The officers saw they were powerless. The men were undoubtedly the robbers, but they had not only been drinking, but were desperate and had resolved not to be captured….So, the Glasgow posse retired.”
The outlaws also promptly left Malta, but the Sundance Kid and Bass did not make it far. At 10 p.m. Detective W. Ed Black of the Great Northern Railroad arrested Bass and a man named William Hunt as they saddled their horses outside Alex Black’s Saloon. At about the same time, Sheriff O’Neal and Sheriff Hamilton of Cascade County arrested saloonkeeper Alex Black and the Sundance Kid as they boarded an eastbound train just leaving the Malta depot. Suspect Madden was not found.
The four men were taken to Helena, where the train conductor identified them; they were then moved to Great Falls under extremely heavy guard. According to one newspaper report, “Every man in the posse had a Winchester rifle within easy reach and a 45-calibre pistol in his pocket.” They were arraigned on December 3 before U.S. Commissioner Pomeroy, and were bound over for trial, with bail set at $300 each. However, none of them had any money; the Chinook Opinion reported that they were “out of work cowboys who had been hanging around town for some time.” Sundance was held as J.E. Ebaugh, alias J.E. Thibadoe, the names he gave at the time of his arrest.
Two days later, Bill Madden was also arrested in Malta and taken to Fort Benton, where he too was held over for trial. Madden was taken to Fort Benton rather than Great Falls because the authorities belatedly realized that the holdup had actually occurred in Choteau County, rather than Dawson County as originally believed. Once in Fort Benton, Madden was lodged in the town’s new mail-ordered log jailhouse, where each cell was a tiny 4-foot-by-8-foot-by-6-foot steel cage. Under questioning, Madden confessed his part in the robbery and implicated Bass and a man identified as “Loungbo.”
Meanwhile, on December 8, a trial was held for the four outlaws still jailed in Great Falls. The U.S. attorney, a prosecutor named Weed, and defense attorney J.B. Leslie each made his case. After giving testimony concerning the robbery, prosecution witness A.J. Shore unexpectedly made a motion “that the prisoners be discharged for the reason that nothing had been adduced to show that they were guilty of the charge proferred against them.” The prosecutor’s case fell apart; and all four prisoners were immediately released.
Bass was immediately rearrested on the courthouse steps on charges of burglary, based upon Madden’s confession. But Sundance was allowed to leave town because the authorities did not realize that he was, in fact, Loungbo, the second man implicated by Madden. A local newspaper reported, “Loungbo was supposed to have gone from Malta to a ranch on the Missouri.” The safe haven might have been Bob Coburn’s Circle C Ranch.
Bass was taken to Fort Benton, where he was placed in a cell adjoining Madden’s. Sheriff O’Neal, Detectives Black and Kilgore of the Great Northern Railroad and railroad Superintendent G.C. Gates subsequently attempted to track Sundance, to no avail. They returned to Great Falls and sent out the following wanted notice:
The above reward will be paid by the Great Northern Express company for the arrest and detention of Harry Lounghbo, who in company with others held up and robbed the west bound train on the Great Northern Railway, near Malta, Montana, on the morning of November 29th, 1892.
Description – Height, 5 feet 11 inches. Dark complexion, short dark moustache, dark hair. Age, about 25 years. Slender and erect, with slight stoop in head and shoulders. Short upper lip, exposing teeth when talking. Teeth white and clean with small dark spot on upper front tooth to right of center. Wore a medium size black soft hat. Dark double breasted sack coat. Dark close-fitting pants with blue overalls. When last seen was riding bay horse branded Half Circle Cross on left shoulder.
Address communications to
B.F. O’Neal, Sheriff
Choteau County, Mont.
Madden and Bass were both convicted of “Burglary in the Night Time” in connection with the Malta train robbery and on Christmas morning 1892 entered the Deer Lodge State Penitentiary. Prison records indicate that Bass received a pardon and early release on January 1, 1897; he then disappeared from all record. Madden was released January 19, 1898, with time off for good behavior. According to the Pinkerton Detective Agency Archives, Madden moved to Oregon City, Ore. The Pinkertons kept him under surveillance, opened a dossier on him and gave him the cipher name “Wolf” in their reports. When the Southern Pacific Railroad was robbed at nearby Walkers, Ore., Madden was immediately suspected; however, nothing could be proved.
“Lounghbo” – Harry Longabaugh, alias the Sundance Kid – was never recaptured or tried for the Malta train robbery. For a while, he worked on the N Bar N Ranch near Culbertson, Mont. According to employee lists, one of his co-workers was Harvey Logan, a local rancher and rustler also known as Kid Curry. Both Sundance and Harvey would soon be members of the Wild Bunch, which was led by Butch Cassidy.
Soon after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid sailed from New York for Buenos Aires in 1901, Harvey Logan rode north from Texas with Ben Kilpatrick, alias the Tall Texan. Logan and his clan had owned a horse ranch in Landusky, Mont., and it now provided a safe hideout, especially needed since Texas authorities suspected Logan of murder. Logan’s friends Jim Thornhill and Bob Coburn always made sure that Logan’s Rock Creek Ranch was well stocked for him.
In early June, 1901, Logan and the Tall Texan met up with Orland Camillo “Deaf Charley” Hanks, who had been released from the Deer Lodge Penitentiary on May 30, 1901, after serving about 6 ½ years for robbing a Northern Pacific train near Reed Point, Mont. While at Deer Lodge, two of Hanks’ fellow inmates had been Harry Bass and Bill Madden, both serving time for the first Malta holdup. Apparently short on cash, Logan, Kilpatrick and Hanks decided to hold up another train in the Malta area.
On Wednesday, July 3, 1901, the westbound Great Northern Railroad Coast Flyer No. 3 made its regular stop in Malta about 1:30 p.m. Kilpatrick purchased a ticket and boarded the train as a passenger. As the train began to pull out of town, the conductor noticed Logan loitering on the platform near the baggage car, where he was trying to sneak aboard the tender car. Before the conductor could kick him off the train, however, Logan had already crawled over the tender and onto the engine cab. By the time the conductor pulled the emergency stop cord, Logan already had his gun leveled on engineer Thomas Jones and fireman Mike O’Neill.
Logan gave the order to keep the train moving until they reached the Exeter Creek Bridge, just east of Wagner, a small whistle stop a few miles west of Malta. When the train did not come to an immediate halt when the emergency cord was pulled, the suspicious conductor raced through the passenger cars toward the engine cab. He spotted Sheriff Griffith of Great Falls, Mont., and the brakeman along the way and enlisted their help. However, Kilpatrick, riding in the passenger car, noticed the three men heading forward with their guns drawn, and he fired a couple of warning shots at them. Woodside was hit in the shoulder, and everyone backed away from the obvious danger. Woodside later had to have his arm amputated.
The train halted at the bridge where Deaf Charley Hanks was waiting with escape horses and dynamite. Logan and Kilpatrick fired their guns along the passenger cars to keep curious heads inside; their gunfire ricocheted and slightly injured a teenaged girl and A.W. Douglas, an auditor with the railroad. Logan then ordered engineer Jones to disconnect the baggage and express cars from the passenger cars and to pull forward again. He commanded mail clerk Jimmy Martin and express messenger C.H. Smith to open the express car doors and jump out, which they immediately did.
Although it took three attempts, they blew the safe open and reportedly took “eight hundred sheets with four notes on each being three ten-dollar and one twenty-dollar bills” in unsigned bank notes belonging to the National Bank of Montana. They also took a similar package containing $500 for the American National Bank, Helena, a bolt of green silk fabric, a package of watches and a bag filled with silver coins. As they loaded the loot onto their horses, express messenger Smith asked Logan for a souvenir of the holdup. Logan fired off the remaining rounds in his pistol, handed it to Smith and said, “Thanks for your help.”
As the trio started to leave, a local sheepherder named John Cunningham came upon the scene and realized what was happening. He began to race towards Malta to sound the alarm when the Kilpatrick and Hanks spotted him. They fired their guns to stop him, but only succeeded in nicking his horse slightly on the hip. Cunningham reached Malta on his injured horse, spread the news of the robbery and joined a posse that soon left for the holdup site.
Meanwhile, Logan led the gang southwest through the Missouri Breaks on a pre-planned escape route through Bob Coburn’s Circle C Ranch. He spotted Bob’s 14-year-old brother Walt out on a knoll and slowly rode over alone. Kid Curry said, “Jimmer [Thornhill] says you know how to keep your mouth shut….Our horses are played out….We’re travelin’ light and borrowin’ the loan of some Circle C horses….If a two-bit sheriff and his posse show up at the ranch, remember you never saw me.” The outlaws then made a clean escape.
Although this second holdup, the Wagner train robbery, had succeeded far beyond the 1892 take of Sundance and his pals, Logan, Hanks and Kilpatrick risked laundering the stolen money too quickly. The easily identified bills were traced as the men took chances cashing in the forged bank notes. Kilpatrick was arrested in St. Louis on November 5, 1901; he was sentenced to prison for forging signatures on the stolen bank notes. After serving nearly 10 years, the Tall Texan was killed during an attempted train robbery in Sanderson, Texas, on March 13, 1912. Hanks was shot and killed by detectives while on a drunken spree at Flo Williams’ whorehouse in San Antonio, Texas, on April 17, 1902. Deaf Charley still had stolen money sewn into his pockets.
Harvey Logan was tracked down outside Knoxville, Tenn., where he was captured on December 15, 1902. After receiving a 20-year hard labor sentence for the robbery, he escaped jail in June 1903, but did not elude the law for long. A year later he was tracked down by a posse outside Parachute, Colo., after trying to rob another train and is believed to have committed suicide in the massive shootout that followed.
Malta today is still in cattle country, and the train still rumbles through town on a regular basis, although it is now part of the Burlington Northern Railroad. The bright green cars travel past the robbery sites where one Kid pocketed a pittance and slipped away and another Kid grabbed a fistful of dollars that he never got the chance to spend. ww
Donna B. Ernst, who lives with her husband, Paul, in Pennsylvania, is a frequent contributor to Wild West magazine and has written five books. This article is adapted from Ernst’s latest book (due for release early in 2009) The Sundance Kid: A Family Biography, which expands on her previous work on the Sundance Kid and includes many new finds. Also suggested for further reading: The Train Robbery Era: An Encyclopedic History, by Richard Patterson.