Born in New Brunswick, Canada in 1857 to immigrants from Liverpool, Edwin Burnham Trafton seemed bent on outlawry from an early age. A few years after his father’s death and his mother Annie’s marriage to a neighbor, James Knight, Ed found himself in Denver, a juvenile delinquent who had a habit of appropriating guns from the residents of his mother’s boarding house.
At around age 20 Ed decided to set out on his own. He left Annie Knight a note, stole $40, a smoked ham, and her best horse, and took off for the Black Hills in search of gold.
His taste for gold never left him, but mining it was not his preferred method of acquisition.
After striking out in the Black Hills gold rush, Trafton settled in the Teton Valley near present day Driggs in 1878. The following year he homesteaded in the valley along Milk Creek and started a variety of endeavors, including sheep shearing, and eventually operating a small store that included a saloon and boarding house.
Ed Trafton lived parallel lives. He ran his legitimate businesses while at the same time robbing other businesses and stealing livestock. This seemed to be widely known and widely tolerated.
Arrested for horse stealing in 1887, Ed was sent to the jail in Blackfoot to await trial along with his alleged partner in the crime, Lem Nickerson. The theft had occurred in the Teton Valley, but Blackfoot was the county seat of a much larger Bingham county at that time. Ed was going by the name Harrington then, but I will continue to call him Trafton to help readers through a confusing story.
Nickerson’s wife was visiting regularly in the weeks before the trial. She got to be such a regular visitor that the guards let down their, well, guard. She slipped a long six-shooter into the pocket of her spouse during visitation.
Soon after noon on June 22, 1887, the leisurely escape began. Guard William High looked down the hall to the jail and saw that he was also looking down the barrel of a 45. Nickerson demanded that the guard “throw up your hands and deliver me the keys to this jail or down and out you go.”
Trafton and Nickerson overpowered another deputy on duty and locked the two officers in a cell. The accused horse thieves poked around the county offices and found three other men to lock away.
Then it was time for Ed Harrington Trafton to pen a little note to Judge Hayes, who he was scheduled to appear before: “We are off for the hills and the mountains which we love so dearly. We are familiar with the mountain trails and the officers cannot catch us, for we are well mounted and well armed. You cannot get a crack at me this time and when I meet you again it will be in hell.”
Perhaps while Trafton was working on that note, Nickerson strolled from the courthouse to where his family was staying in Blackfoot to retrieve some horses stashed there by his brother, bringing them back to the jail.
It was nearing dusk by the time the men were ready to make their escape.
A Pocatello man named Hughes, accused of murder, was also locked up in the jail. Nickerson and Trafton freed him, perhaps to provide an additional diversion to pursuers. Hughes was a Black man. He was aware that Indians often sympathized with dark-skinned people who were in trouble with white men, so he made his way to a scattering of tepees south of town. To his delight, the Indians did take him in, putting ocher on his face and giving him native clothes to wear. He hung around Blackfoot in that disguise for a few days before hopping a train to Montana.
While Hughes was making friends with the Indians, the other escapees made their way to Willow Creek in the Blackfoot Mountains where they looked up an old acquaintance, Johnnie Heath. They had a leisurely breakfast with him the next day, then headed out. Trafton and Nickerson made their way for several days through the Wolverine country, and eventually headed north, planning to cross the Snake River near present day Heise Hot Springs. High water made the crossing too dangerous. With a posse now in hot pursuit, Trafton and Nickerson took refuge in the willows on Pool Island.
Law enforcement officials from several towns came together to smoke out the escapees. A several days siege ensued, the result of which was that Trafton was shot in the foot and both men surrendered.
Their fellow escapee, Hughes, was recognized in Butte, Montana and brought back to Blackfoot to face execution days later.
It’s likely that Ed Harrington Trafton regretted his snarky note to Judge Hayes. “Well, Mr. Harrington,” the judge said, “we have met again—but not in hell!” He then sentenced Harrington/Trafton to 25 years at hard labor in the Idaho State Penitentiary.
Warden C.E. Arney, who took Trafton in at the penitentiary related a story years later that may shed some light on how the man led his parallel lives of businessman and outlaw. “Harrington was a clever fellow and aside from his outlaw traits was a pleasant companion, interesting and truthful. These traits elicited sympathy for him, and petitions soon circulated for his release. In 1888 I saw [him] in the penitentiary and in 1891 when I was running a newspaper in Rexburg, he was pardoned and I saw him in the wild pose of a cowboy, once more breathing the free mountain air, and astride a well gaited cayuse, ride down the streets of Rexburg wildly waving his broad brimmed hat at the friends who greeted him from the streets and store buildings, stopping only long enough to shake hands with those who had befriended him and then hurrying on to his old haunts in the Teton Basin and Jackson Hole Districts.”
Trafton had gotten out in two years, perhaps with the help of his mother who may have bribed someone. If so, she would come to regret that.
Tomorrow I’ll continue the story of the outlaw/entrepreneur.