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Ed Molen, Horse Thief


Ed Molen was an expert horseman and blacksmith, and he had a knack for locks. Molen also seemed like a man who didn’t overstay his welcome. Even the State Penitentiary had a hard time keeping him in one place.

After stealing a horse from his employer, Mr. Hamilton on June 7, 1911 near Bowman, Molen escaped to Wyoming where he was later caught. He was sent to the South Dakota State Penitentiary to serve a previous sentence for embezzlement and forgery before being returned to Bowman in August 1912 to stand trial for the theft of Hamilton’s horse. He didn’t stay there too long, however, and broke out of jail the night before his sentencing.

When Sheriff Moore came to retrieve his prisoner, he was gone. All that remained of Molen was a note, in which he assured Sheriff Moore that he had been securely locked in, “but that did not bother him any, as he was an expert at picking locks.” He had picked the lock to his cell, wrenched a bar from the grating on his window and escaped. He added in the note that the sheriff would not see him again.

Following the escape, Molen returned to the scene of the crime, and again stole a horse from the Hamiltons. He remained at large for five days when he was captured near Sentinel Butte. After his sentencing, which took place today in 1912, Ed Molen was sent to the North Dakota State Penitentiary to serve four and a half years for Grand Larceny. While in the State Pen, Ed Totten, the Bowman County State’s Attorney stated that Molen, described as bold, shrewd, and resourceful, should be treated for insanity. “He is not insane in the sense that he does not know what he is doing or that he should not be held accountable for his actions, but in the sense that his power of resistance to temptations along the line of his desires seems to be so extremely weak that...he should be treated for weak-mindedness rather than charged with wanton wickedness.” The resourceful Molen, however, had other plans. On October 2nd at 8 pm, he broke out of the State Pen.

A press dispatch on October 3rd reported Molen’s escape. “In some unknown way, he secured a brace and bit of good size, went up over the picture machine booth in the auditorium where he effected an opening through the roof. He then drew up a plank and by the use of it, he got to the officers quarters where he let himself down with a rope,” reported the Bowman County Pioneer. He stole a horse at a nearby ranch and Ed Molen disappeared.

Molen was gone, but in his usual taunting flair, he wrote a letter to Sheriff Jack Barrett of Bowman. The letter was dated from Russia. He greeted the sheriff and told him that he could steal a thousand horses there easier than he could steal one from Bowman County. The letter was the last sign of Molen for nearly three years.

He returned to North Dakota, however, and this time he was dressed as an Indian with the Barton and Bailey circus. While riding in the circus parade in Marmarth in July 1915, Molen was recognized by Ed Moss, who reported him to the authorities.

The Marmarth Mail reported that Molen “could easily have went through here without being caught by remaining in the car, but his natural daring and the feeling that he wanted to know if he could ‘get by,’ forced him to take the long chance with the result that he was recognized and caught.”

Molen was arrested and taken in for questioning. He denied his identity until it was verified by the tattoo of German, English, and American flags clustered around a woman. He became wily and later seemed upset that authorities thought the letter to Sheriff Barrett was from Russia, when it was really from Liverpool, England. He calmed down, however, and said he was more at peace with himself now than ever. He stated he was even anxious to go back and serve his time so that he could be a free man without continually dodging authorities. He was returned to the State Penitentiary and was discharged on July 1, 1917.

By Tessa Sandstrom


“Ed Molen caught,” Slope County News. July 22, 1915: 4.

“Bowman horse thief captured from circus,” The Marmarth Mail. July 16, 1915: 1.

“Horse thief is out again,” Bowman County Pioneer. October 10, 1912.

“Out again, in again,” Bowman County Pioneer. August 8, 1912: 1.

State Penitentiary Inmate Case Files, 1910, 1916-2013, 1916. Series 1255.