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Butch, Sundance and Walness

12/12/2016:

On this date in 1913, a Grand Forks story reported on the last living member of the infamous Wild Bunch passing through 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 and began a career of crime with Butch Cassidy. The article quoted him as saying, “Poor old Butch! He got his in Alaska. He was killed just before we pulled the (Utah) train robbery that marked the end of our game.”

The train robbery he referred to happened when he was 18 as the gang’s youngest member. He claimed they took $26,000, saying “I’m not going to tell you how we did it...we got away without difficulty.”

Walness said he and 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.”

He said the three men had buried the money and refused to give up the location. Walness said one of his partners was shot in prison and the other died while serving a life sentence. Walness, as the last man left, was given the chance to go free if he told prison officials 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.”

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, it seems the 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 before Walness pulled his 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.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm