Leavenworth Train: A Fugitive's Search for Justice in the Vanishing West

by Joe Jackson

Published by Carroll & Graf

432 pages, 2001

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On the Run

Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce


Frank Grigware wasn't so different from other young men, hungry for some adventure before consigning himself to a life that could be construed as "respectable." Born in Michigan in 1886, he came of age just as the American frontier was shedding the legend and lesser reality of its lawless past. Many of the characters who'd been most synonymous with the West's colorful maturation -- Wild Bill Hickok, John Henry "Doc" Holliday, Belle Starr, John Wesley Hardin, Sitting Bull -- were dead and gone by the turn of the last century. Yet Grigware was a wide-eyed teenager when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid pulled off their last train robbery in 1901, and Wyatt Earp still had another two decades ahead of him, during which he occasionally ran down border-jumping desperadoes for the Los Angeles Police Department. There remained enough that was still wild about the West to fire young Grigware's imagination.

So, in 1906, at 20 years of age, Frank announced to his family that he was "going to see the world." The Grigwares were then living in eastern Washington, having moved out from the Midwest half a dozen years earlier, and to Frank, "the world" was pretty much anywhere but among the wheat fields and whitewashed crackerboxes close to home. In company with his best friend, Jack Golden, Grigware figured he'd start out doing some gold prospecting in northern Idaho's Couer d'Alenes Mountains, then roam onward from there, maybe rub elbows with the bowlegged cowboys who remained a part of street life in small towns, see the last vestiges of the buffalo herds that once blanketed the western landscape.

Little did he know what his wanderlust would come to -- or cost him.

The history of the American West is overstuffed with yarns about men and women who made a name for themselves behind a trigger or a fan of lucky cards or the flashing of a shapely leg. A territory so vast and vacant was ripe for filling up with tales about lawmakers and lawbreakers and there were long lines of both ready to become immortal through a single violent episode or the artful bilking of the innocent. So numerous are the people who became famous or infamous in the breaking of the West, that it's especially rewarding now to find historical figures whose stories have been forgotten, but whose lives were equally marked by drama and danger.

As Joe Jackson relates in his crackling new work, Leavenworth Train, Frank Grigware was just such a character. A man whose visions of western adventure turned nightmarish as he became a fugitive from justice, wanted in two countries -- a symbol of frontier outlawry long after the frontier had vanished.

* * *

Things started to go awry for Grigware and Golden shortly after they left Idaho, having achieved scant success as silver miners. By the spring of 1908, the romantic West Frank had imagined was soured by too many sightings of sickened cattle, starving Native American children and fire-flattened prairie towns. As Jackson explains:

He'd dreamed of a place of life, not an empty place of death. There was nothing to eat and damn little to drink; you could freeze in a sudden snowstorm or get sucked off the earth by a cyclone. It was lonely in a way he'd never imagined, a loneliness so elemental that a man's life meant nothing and his brief passage did little more than help wear a smooth path on the ground.

Thus, when Golden proposed a visit to the bright lights and bawdy back alleys of Denver, Colorado, Grigware could hardly get moving fast enough.

But it was in Denver that Grigware fell in with a late-blooming gang of train robbers. Too naïve to realize what these men meant when they talked about scouting for business "opportunities," and apparently too dense to associate his new "friends" with railway holdups that seemed to occur wherever they traveled, Grigware didn't seek to distance himself from the gang until it was too late. On May 22, 1909, a Union Pacific eastbound express was ambushed by four bandits outside of Omaha, Nebraska. The men wore handkerchiefs over their faces, and later, none of the officials on the train could do so much as tell whether the robbers were white or African American or Martians. However, at a site near where the train was stopped, investigators found part of an envelope (evidently used by one of the thieves as toilet paper) that had been addressed to Frank Grigware.

This was shaky evidence, at best; Grigware would insist at his trial that the envelope had been stolen from him, along with some other letters he'd received from a girlfriend. Confirmation of his complicity in the crime -- including identifications from trainmen who conceded that it was too dark to clearly make out any of the robbers -- was no less questionable. As was testimony from people who appeared on behalf of the prosecution only because they hoped to win part of the reward money offered for anyone who could identify the Union Pacific thieves. Yet the jury, cognizant that its verdict might deter other would-be brigands, deliberated for less than two and a half hours before finding Grigware, Jack Golden and three other men guilty of train robbery. They were all sentenced to life imprisonment at Leavenworth, the first federal penitentiary in the United States. And that's where Grigware would have stayed, susceptible to disease and the caprice of sadistic guards, had he not participated in a breakout just six months into his sentence.

Author Jackson, a four-time Pulitzer Prize nominee and co-author (with William F. Burke) of 1999's Dead Run: The Shocking Story of Dennis Stockton and Life on Death Row in America, is clearly a writer who loves the sometimes frustrating challenges of historical research. While Leavenworth Train depends for its narrative drive on the saga of Frank Grigware, it is riddled with intriguing detours into related bits of history -- about the rise of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, the science of fingerprinting (a topic that has already received great attention this year in Colin Beavan's Fingerprints) and the development of America's penal system. Jackson explains the numbing prisoner routines at Kansas' Leavenworth Penitentiary, the punishments inflicted there on perceived malcontents and the codes of conduct among its inmate population ("The greatest sin was ratting on a fellow prisoner, or 'snitching,' about the only offense in this era that earned a man the death sentence from his fellow prisoners"). Although he admits to speculating on conversations between some of his story's principal players ("to make sense of their choices and delve into their minds"), Jackson has constructed his scenes primarily from newspaper accounts and the records of various law-enforcement agencies.

None of those scenes rivals the marvel of Grigware's escape from Leavenworth. It happened on April 21, 1910 (the same day author Mark Twain died, notes researcher Jackson). Using "guns" crafted of wood and shoe blacking, Frank, together with prisoners John Gideon, Arthur Hewitt, Thomas Kating, Theodore Murdock and Bob Clark, hijacked a supply train that regularly entered the prison yard through a chute closed on the outside by giant iron gates. As armed guards watched in amazement from their towers, the fleeing inmates ran across the yard and leapt onto the train, Gideon jamming his dummy pistol against the head of engineer Charles Curtin and telling him to "Pull the throttle wide open!"

Curtin said it couldn't be done. He pointed down the engine to the ... massive iron barrier. "The gate's still closed."

"Do as I tell you!" Gideon answered, poking Curtin in the ribs with the fake revolver, no hint in his voice that the threat was less than real....

Curtin opened the throttle as told.... Frank stared at the gate at the end of the chute, built to withstand assaults from outside. We'll never make it, he thought, but was somehow too excited to be scared. He almost felt invulnerable, every sense sharpened, living more intensely than ever before. Engineer Curtin moved instinctively to stop the engine as they rushed toward the gate, but Gideon nudged him in the back with the revolver. "Keep your hand off that throttle," Gideon warned the trainman. "Hit it hard!"

The engine slammed into the outer gate with the greatest ringing crash Frank had ever heard. A shudder passed down the entire length of the engine. Frank watched as if from a great distance; time seemed to freeze as the convicts and guards watched the era's most irresistible force crash head on into what was assumed to be an unmovable object. Then the gate ripped free. It folded like cardboard, warping along its length as the mogul [steam engine] pushed it aside. The engine, neither derailed nor badly damaged, rushed on....

Frank heard himself cheer -- the others around him, too. Ahead was freedom!

However, the escape was not so easy as that. Within three days, all of the convicts were recaptured. Except for Grigware, who for the next 24 years would be one of America's most wanted men.

* * *

The balance of Leavenworth Train traces Grigware's years on the run, as he assumes a new identity and flees to western Canada, eluding efforts by J. Edgar Hoover's Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to reincarcerate him. There's a sadness in all of this -- how Grigware's family was fractured by his escape; how the FBI, emboldened by its success in bringing down more serious criminals, refused to abandon its pursuit of the misimprisoned Grigware; and how Frank, had he remained at Leavenworth, would probably have had his sentence commuted by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, just as Jack Golden did after a reassessment of the train robbery charges found them lacking in substance.

Instead of earning a presidential pardon, Grigware went on to serve as a husband, a father and the beloved mayor of a small Canadian mountain town. Still, he was haunted by the limits of his liberty. Only when that liberty was finally endangered, and Grigware became the focus of both an international incident and press melodrama, did he realize just how successful he'd been at distancing himself from his criminal renown.

Joe Jackson proves that history, when told through the feats and foibles of the people who make it, can be anything but dull. Leavenworth Train is an express ride into one man's trials and redemption. Hold on for some unlikely twists. | December 2001


J. Kingston Pierce is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.