Letters From Readers - February 2008 - Wild West | HistoryNet

Letters From Readers – February 2008 – Wild West

12/6/2007 • WW Issues

Winchester 1894

Thank you for the Winchester Model 1894 “Guns of the West” article by Charles M. Robinson III in the June 2007 issue. I, along with Kevin Tierney, ran the “Save Winchester” campaign. Unfortunately, despite having found a buyer that would keep the factory open and production in New Haven, Conn., Winchester/Olin decided to license the name to Browning, another division of the Herstal Group that owned the failed U.S. Repeating Arms. I still have much faith in the Model 94 and other historic Winchester models. I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for continuing to make sure that the 94 and the other fine arms made for generations in New Haven are not forgotten. I still hold out hope, no matter how remote the possibility, that we will see that fine model again, either as a Winchester product, or from another American manufacturer.

While I am not one to forget the past, I am also not one to dwell on it. So, I have recently launched the return of Merwin, Hulbert & Co. The Web site (www.MerwinHulbertCo.com) is up and we are taking indications of interest so that when the models come to market they will be what the market wants, which is the way it should be.

Michael H. Blank
St. Charles, Mo.

Frank Finkel’s Fate

I recently encountered John Koster’s article “Survivor Frank Finkel’s Lasting Stand” (June 2007 Wild West). I think that this interesting, well-researched bit of history is a valuable contribution to the Old West’s treasury of wild but true stories. I’ve done a lot of military history research and can appreciate the work by Mr. Koster.

Thomas P. Lowry
Woodbridge, Va.

In his zeal to recognize Finkel as a survivor of Custer’s Last Sand, author John Koster makes several bold and erroneous assumptions that do not withstand scrutiny. The author’s thesis is that Frank Finkel was actually August Finckle, who was reported dead with the Custer command. True, both men were of Germanic ethnicity with similar surnames, both stood more than 6 feet tall and both are linked with Company C of the 7th Cavalry. These are tenuous foundations, however, on which to attempt to build a mighty fortress of fact. The facts remain that Frank Finkel was born in Marietta, Ohio (not Berlin, Prussia), that he was born in 1854 (not 1845), that he enlisted under the name Frank Hall (not August Finckle) and that he served as a private and temporarily as a corporal (not as a sergeant). Whether Frank Finkel actually survived Custer’s Last Stand is still debated, but there is no credible evidence that he was Sergeant August Finckle. The best evidence says that he was not.

Douglas Ellison
Medora, N.D.

Allowing the article connecting Frank Finkel with August Finckle is a shoddy piece of editing. Other than height, they share no commonality. August’s body, one of a mid-30s sergeant, was found on the battlefield and ID’d. Frank’s body, which would have been one of a 20-year-old private, was not found by his friends. I am currently aiding a relative of Frank’s in her quest to connect the dots of his life from enlisting under an alias in Council Bluffs to his revelation in Dayton, Wash., some 40 odd years later, which was depicted well in Sole Survivor, by Doug Ellison, whom I have also interviewed. Doug admits that, for now, the story is a “footnote of history”; but an intriguing story nonetheless. We are still searching for links to the 7th that can verify Frank’s story. However, the piece published in your latest issue is poppycock.

Scott T. Dyke
Sahuarita, Ariz.

I have been a reader and subscriber to your magazine for many years, through the graciousness of my wife who purchased the subscription as a gift to me. She has also purchased a gift subscription for our son John, who is a rancher in Montana. I eagerly await each edition of your magazine and sit down and read it from cover to cover. John P. Koster’s article on Frank Finkel’s surviving the Battle of the Little Bighorn (Greasy Grass) and other articles that you publish are, in my mind, the highest quality and caliber of journalistic art and give the reader vivid descriptions and understanding of the events.

John A. Spizziri
Wyckoff, N.J.

John Koster states that “Sergeant Charles Windolph was Finckle’s best friend.” True enough, but Frank Finkel refused several meetings set up to meet with his “best friend” Windolph. Strange. But as a matter of fact Finkel went out of his way to avoid contact with any veteran of the battle who might have asked the question, “Who the hell are you?” In 1921 Frank was invited to be the honorary guest at the 45th anniversary of the battle held at Hardin, Mont. But the old fraud was much too busy; he was painting his house. Frank Finkel told a ton of lies concerning his great escape, including how his galloping horse carried him “unconscious” from the battlefield. Whatever may be said of old Frank, we can safely say he had one helluva horse!

Michael Nunnally
Memphis, Tenn.

I sincerely enjoyed reading John Koster’s excellent article “Survivor Frank Finkel’s Lasting Stand” and appreciated his new research and approach to this decades-old controversy. But I have to take issue with the statement that Captain Tom Custer’s C Company was a “high morale unit whose soldiers, like the officers, were Custer partisans.” I hate to upset the Custer buffs that might read this, but surviving evidence points to just the opposite. Veterans of C Company, as well as the 7th Cavalry in general, all tend to agree that this particular troop was one of the least disciplined and worst handled within the regiment and the blame was always laid squarely upon the shoulders of Captain Thomas Ward Custer. The result of their disaffection can clearly be seen when on June 25 C Company had the greatest number of known straggler/survivors out of any troop under Lt. Col. George Custer’s immediate command. Koster’s own glimpse of the movements of this company also lend credence to the perception that this unit virtually fell apart during the course of the battle.

Also, the lone cavalryman who may or may not have reached the valley of the Rosebud was identified by some as Nathan Short, another member of C Company; as was Corporal Daniel Ryan, whose post-battle escapades along the Yellowstone River resulted in an official U.S. War Department investigation. But then that’s another survivor story.

George F. Kush
Monarch, Alberta, Canada

Author John Koster responds: Thanks for all the letters about my article. George Kush is substantially correct: C Company of the 7th Cavalry may have been a high-morale outfit when they ordered their contraband hats, but by the time of the Little Bighorn things had clearly started to crumble. As for Michael Nunnally’s letter, Charles Windolph (based on all available records) didn’t know Finkel had been alive until after Finkel was dead, which is when Finkel’s second wife started the whole misguided campaign to prove Finkel had actually escaped under the name “Frank Hall”—a name Finkel never used when he was alive. I found no evidence that Finkel had been invited to the 45th anniversary (he was interviewed by a Washington state newspaper at the time, but I found nothing suggesting an invitation) nor would he have been much interested since his escape wasn’t especially glorious.

None of these would-be debunkers of the “Finckle is Finkel” theory deal with the identical forensics—same height (6 feet 1⁄2 inch), same hair color (“dark”), same eye color (actually, the Old Army listed all light-colored eyes as “gray”). Both men were bilingual in English and German. The absolute clincher is the comparison of signatures between 1872 and 1921, obviously written by the same hand with allowances for age. The gradual shift in the spelling of the name from Finckle to Finkle to Finkel can be seen on marriage documents and land deeds preserved at the auditor’s office of the Columbia County (Wash.) Court-house. Finkel wasn’t a lying windbag like the others who turn up as Custer survivors; he blurted out his role at a horseshoe game. Finkel’s descriptions of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, however brief, are correct. There are no spurious Sioux ambushes or traitorous Sioux scouts in the Finkel version. Face it, world—he was there.

Not So Much Custer

Wild West Magazine should regularly feature articles on popular, famous or even infamous characters, but to devote 39 out of 74 pages to coverage of George Custer in your June 2007 issue does your readers a disservice. Obviously, when you publish an issue with a theme, fans of the selected theme will rejoice, but you alienate those who aren’t especially interested. I do like the new format that does not jump articles.

David Wilson
Via e-mail

The editor responds: Some readers want to know everything about Custer, others don’t want to see his name mentioned again. We shall try to stand our middle ground. As for theme issues, our December 2007 issue had no particular theme, except maybe Merry Christmas. The current issue, on the other hand, has a lot about the Apaches, but you can also read about a black barber, Tlingit Indians and short-lived Cash City, Kan.

Send letters to Wild West Magazine, 741 Miller Dr. SE, Suite D-2, Leesburg, VA 20175 or by email: wildwest@weiderhistorygroup.com.

7 Responses to Letters From Readers – February 2008 – Wild West

  1. Michael Wyman says:

    Mr. Koster is incorrect. Mr. Finkel did claim, in 1921, that he enlisted under the name Frank Hall, and that he was listed among the killed, under that name. It is unfortunate that this preposterous story has been revived as anything but fantasy.

  2. John Koster says:

    I’ve read Finkel’s entire file and he never claimed he enlisted as
    Frank Hall. He said in 1921 that he was the man on the roster —
    August Finckle. The records in the Columbia County Courthouse
    show that he used the name “Finckle” in the marriage book but
    that the spelling drifted from “Finkle” to “Finkel” through the
    remainder of the 19th Century. His second wife , a Canadian
    national, invented “Frank Hall” , probably after she saw “Berlin,
    Prussia” as his (fictitious) brithplace on his 1872 enlistment form.
    Despite the documented shift in spelling “Finckle” and “Finkel” had
    identical penmanship as confirmed by a psychiatrist, a
    criminologist, a police detective, a genealogist and a half-dozen
    librarians. John Koster

    • Kenneth Finkel says:

      Frank Finkel was a GG uncle to me and I have researched the Finkel’s back two generation in Germany. At one time the name was spelled Finckel but changed to Finkel during Frank’s grandfathers time. My name was recorded in 1943 as Finkle. People that worked in court houses spelled names like they thought that they should be spelled. The one thing about Frank’s story that no one dwells on is his statement that the skirmish line was formed halfway up the hill not in the ravine as the offical report states. His story was born out by research with metal detectors in 1986 when they found evidence of the line where he said it was.

      • John Koster says:

        Excellent point. Also important is that relatives in Washington state and family friends in Idaho, where his son was a state legislator, concur that Frank used the name “August Finckle” to enlist, which prety much supplies the last piece of the puzzle. The photo the Ohio Finkel family sent me is obviously a younger version of Frank Finkel of Dayton with a military-style imperial beard — like that of First Sergeant Bobo and Third Sergeant Finley of C Company, both killed at the Little Bighorn.

  3. John Koster says:

    PS: Nobody named Frank Hall was killed at the Little Bighorn.
    The real Frank Hall was five-foot-seven and deserted in May of
    1875, a year before the 7th Cavalry set out for their final
    expedition. Finckle was was just over six feet tall with dark hair
    and pale eyes. So was Finkel until his hair turned gray. Both men
    were bilingual in English and German. Finkel insisted his horse
    had been a “roan” and C Company was the only company that
    followed Custer mounted on sorrels — roans if they had white
    points. The dead 7th Cavalry horse found 80 miles from the
    battlefield with a carbine still in the scabbard was — guess what —
    a sorrel. Short of DNA or fingerprints, I’d say this case is closed.
    We already have multiple signatures and forensic evidence.

  4. John Koster says:

    PPS: Frank Finkel never refused to meet with Charles Windolph.
    Hermie Billmeyer contacted Windolph only after Frank Finkel
    was dead and she needed the pension. (Frank had been prosperous
    until and when his first wife died, but Hermie appears to have
    involved Frank in the stock market — 1929! – and alienated the
    three surviving adult children with some tough dealing on
    Frank’s will.) Charles Windolph wrote in the 1940s that he
    couldn’t be sure whether the man in the photograph was Finckle
    or not because his eyesight had gotten so bad – he was past 90 —
    but he didn’t see how anybody could have survived. Remember
    that Windolph, an excellent soldier, fought on Reno Hill. didn’t get
    to Custer Hill until two days after the battle, and explicited stated
    that he went back to find “Finkle’s” body but couldn’t find it.
    Finckle broke out with five or six other C Company troopers, all
    shortly killed or fatally wounded, just as the battle on Calhoun
    Ridge was developing. He himself was shot twice — once in the
    side — not the stomach — and once in the foot. He also described
    Tullock’s Creek, two branches alkali and the third potable, as Dr.
    Charles Kuhlman, a Finkel believer, wrote in the 1950s. Long
    before Richard Allen Fox’s archeology, Finkel described a battle
    where the soldiers were overwhelmed by rapid gunfire — and as a
    sneak attack on an Indian village, which may be part of the
    reason some people take such drastic umbrage: in the 19th
    Century, Custer’s Last Stand was generally understood by the
    public at large to be a “Sioux ambush” though of course the Army
    knew better.

  5. L. Solimine says:

    Would it be possible to put me in contact with John Koster? Specifically, I’m trying to locate a piece he did for the June 2008 issue (re: Giovanni Martini). I’m researching his life (aside from the Little Bighorn) and understand that Mr. Koster had an article published in Wild West (Jun 08). Thank you.

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