Butch Cassidy’s foray into Idaho to rob the bank at Montpelier in 1896, with the help of local boys Bob Meeks and Elza Lay, made him a part of Gem State history, and like other Western states, we are quick to claim anybody that famous as one of ours.
Certainly Butch and his “Wild Bunch” have become part of the lore of the Wild West, right up there with Jesse James, the Dalton gang and Billy the Kid. Another name for the informal and constantly changing association of horse thieves and bank robbers who rode with Cassidy was the “Hole in the Wall Gang.”
The Hole in the Wall was a mountain hideout in Johnson County, Wyo., that was already notorious before the Cassidy gang holed up there at the time of the Montpelier robbery. Among those reported to have used this secluded canyon in the 1880s and ’90s were “Laughing Sam” Carey, “Black Jack” Ketchum and “Flat nose” Currie. Meeks, who helped rob the bank at Montpelier in 1896, was not notorious, and this might have been his first crime. In 1897 he was arrested, tried and convicted, and sentenced to 35 years in the Idaho State Penitentiary in Boise.
In August 1901, the State Board of Pardons reduced Meeks’ sentence to 12 years on the recommendation of E.C. Gray, cashier of the bank he had helped rob; Joseph Jones, special agent of the Oregon Short Line Railroad; and Alfred Budge, county attorney of Bear Lake County. The Idaho Statesman was much taken with the story of the robbery and Meeks’ part in it, and published an account of it on Aug. 13, 1901:
“The history of the Meeks case is one of the most exciting in the criminal annals of the state. On the 12th day of July, 1896, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, three men rode into the town of Montpelier. They rode down the main street of the town, their horses going at an easy amble.
“Arriving in front of the Bank of Montpelier the men alighted, tied their horses, and went into the bank. At the door they met Cashier Gray and urgently but politely invited him inside. Getting into the bank, two of the men ordered the employees to come out from behind the counter and line themselves up against the wall. They did so, when one of the men, heavily armed, stood guard over them. One of the men then stepped outside the door and watched the street, the other going inside the counter and securing some $7,000 in cash.
“After the money had been procured, the men started back toward the street, and in a moment all three were again seated on their horses and were riding like the wind out of town.”
Cassidy’s later success as a train robber and resourceful dodger of the law makes it obvious that he was the brains behind the Montpelier bank robbery. The escape from the posse was by a ploy Cassidy would use later after a train robbery near Price, Utah, on April 1, 1897. In both cases Cassidy had staked out extra horses on the escape route so that the horses of his pursuers were outrun by fresh mounts.
Meeks decided that 12 years was still too long to spend in the penitentiary and planned to escape at the first opportunity. His first try, on Christmas Eve 1901, failed; on Feb. 2, 1903, he made the attempt again and was shot in the leg. The wound was so serious that amputation was necessary. Despite the missing limb, on March 16, 1903, he somehow managed to scale a prison wall, and in an apparent suicide attempt dove from the wall after shouting, “Hurrah for hell.”
That Meeks was a sympathetic character is suggested by the fact that in April 1903 his fellow convicts raised the money to bring his mother to see him. He was next judged to be insane and sent to the asylum in Blackfoot, where he escaped, was recaptured and was sent back to Boise, where he served out his time and was released in 1912.
Meeks was in prison during the years when Butch Cassidy and his gang went on to become the legend that has inspired several largely fictional movies, notably “Three Outlaws,” with Neville Brand and Alan Hale in 1956, and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” the famous 1969 film starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.