Butch Sundance and Walness
Monday, December 13, 2004
On December 12th, 1913, a Grand Forks story reported the last living member of the infamous Wild Bunch had just been in town. Frank Walness, 39, told the reporter he had just gotten out of a Utah prison after serving 21 years; he said he left home when he was only 16 but couldn’t say why. “Nor can I tell you how I began a career of crime with Butch Cassidy,” he said. “Poor old Butch! He got his in Alaska. He was killed just before we pulled the (Utah) train robbery that marked the beginning of the end of our game.”
The train robbery he referred to was in Utah when he was 18 – he said he was the gang’s youngest member. “One night (the train) reached its destination,” he said, “minus exactly $26,000 of the world’s wealth…I’m not going to tell you how we did it…we got away without difficulty.”
Walness said he and his two partners headed for the Hole-in-the-Wall hideout, but Butch’s girlfriend proved their undoing. “She squawked,” he said, “and the posse grabbed us…It was our last trick, and we couldn’t take the pot.”
The three men buried the money right after they robbed the train and refused to give the location while in prison. Walness said one of them was shot in prison, and the other died while serving a life sentence. Walness said he was put in solitary confinement for up to 13 months at a time.
When Walness was the last man left, prison officials offered to set him free if he told them where the money was hidden. “It sounded good to me,” he said. “They had been twelve long years, and I longed to get out again. I told them, but they double-crossed me. I was not released until I served my full time. That $26,000 would come in handy now, wouldn’t it?”
Walness described a wide variety of experiences he had in jail. “We were given a little tobacco and twenty matches each month,” he said. “Twenty matches never were enough for some of us, so we watched for our chance, and with a sharp knife split the matches into quarters. We had to be careful in lighting them, but we soon got so we could make them work.”
Because of his education, Walness ended up teaching a few classes and also served as the prison librarian for a time. He told of helping a jailed husband and wife to communicate with each other by letting them check out the same book each week; inside, they would make faint markings that worked as a type of code. Walness said he also helped a fellow prisoner escape in a lunch wagon, but his own two escape attempts failed.
Walness told the reporter he saw his first automobile when he was released. “When I was a kid,” he said, “I never heard of such things…When they put me into the machine, I didn’t know whether I was in Heaven or in Hell. I just sat there and wondered… When they put me out at Logan and told me to leave the state, I said nothing. I just turned and looked at the automobile.”
It’s not clear why Walness would be in Grand Forks just three weeks after his release – especially since he said he was on his way to Iowa to claim his father’s estate. After a little digging, in fact, this story is probably more about a gullible journalist than a notorious outlaw – at least the part about Butch Cassidy. There’s a lot of controversy about where and when Cassidy died, but it wasn’t in Alaska, and it wasn’t right before Walness pulled his great train robbery. The earliest estimate of Cassidy’s death is 1908 – the man who called himself Walness would have been in jail sixteen years by then. Still, a good story is a good story… isn’t it?
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm