Ed Trafton was nearing 60 in 1915, an age when most men would rather settle down and put rustling behind them. He had purchased a farm in Rupert with some of the money he had stolen from his mother. But he wanted at least one more heist before he gave up his guns.
Yellowstone National Park was country he knew well. One thing he knew about it was that in 1915 wealthy tourists who stayed at various establishments in the park toured in relative luxury, riding in spiffed up stages pulled by teams of horses. The practice was for these stages to leave every few minutes on the tour. Spacing them out assured that the well-dressed travelers did not have to endure dust from the stage ahead.
On Wednesday, July 29, 1914, the first stage left Old Faithful Lodge at about 8 am. They rolled along enjoying the scenery until they were about nine miles from the lodge. That’s when a single gunman, his lower face covered by a neckerchief, stepped out in front of the coach holding a gun.
Guns were illegal in the park, so no one in or on the stage had one.
James C. Pinkston, who was visiting Yellowstone from Alabama with his wife and daughter described the incident to Salt Lake City reporters.
“We were just passing Shoshone point when suddenly the bandit appeared, stopped our driver and issue an order for the tourists to step out of the vehicle preparatory to holding a big ‘convention,’ over which he evidently intended to act as presiding minister.
“Naturally, we got out.
“Once on the ground, we had to deposit our money in a rude sack which he had furnished for the occasion. He told all of us to put in nothing but money, and if he saw any rings or other jewelry going in, he rudely threw it aside.”
The bandit herded all the passengers to a natural amphitheater and ordered them to sit. Soon, a second coach pulled up behind the first. The highwayman ordered everyone out. When they hesitated, according to Pinkston, the man said, “I bet if you heard a dinner bell ringing you wouldn’t hesitate like that. Now get out. We’re going to hold a calm peaceful convention and I want to enlist your aid.”
The dropping of cash into a sack was repeated, then repeated again when another coach pulled up.
When the fifth coach rumbled up, it presented a special opportunity. Two friends, Miss Estelle Hammond of London, and Miss Alice Cay of Sydney, Australia, were aboard. According to the Salt Lake Telegram the women had been visiting in untamed Australia and had arrived in the genteel United States just a few days before.
“We were never held up in wild Australia,” Miss Cay told the paper, which reported that she smiled about the adventure. She was able to take five photographs of the highwayman for her scrapbook.
Talking about her photographic escapade, Miss Cay said, “I was afraid to try at first. [Some men] said, ‘for heaven’s sake, don’t try it. He’ll shoot you.’ I tried, though, and really, I believe he rather like it. I believe he is, oh, what’s your American word for it, oh, yes, a flirt. I really do
“He was chivalrous to the extreme. He ordered us to be perfectly comfortable and commanded us in threatening tones to make ourselves comfortable, saying that if we didn’t enjoy the procedure, he would blow our bodies into atoms. Oh, it was thrilling.”
For a hold-up story that needed no exaggeration, this one received quite a bit. One report stated that the Yellowstone Highwayman had held up as many as 300 tourists in 40 coaches for a haul of as much as $20,000. The real story was incredible enough. He held up 165 passengers on 15 coaches. The driver of coach number 16 saw what was going on ahead, turned around, and warned the oncoming stages.
The bandit ended up with less than $1,000 in cash, and a little over $100 in jewelry. Apparently, he decided to keep a few of the ladies’ trinkets.
It wasn’t excellent detective work that led to Trafton’s capture. It was a woman. Not the woman who took pictures of him, but a woman he knew well.
A few months after the robbery, when Trafton was back in Rupert, Minnie caught him with another woman. For her revenge, she located the Yellowstone loot that he had hidden in a barn and took it to authorities. After Ed was arrested, Minnie filed for divorce and moved her family to Ogden, Utah. She eventually remarried.
After spending nine months in the Cheyenne jail, Trafton sat for days through a trial that included some 50 witnesses, photographs of him during the robbery, and positive identification of the jewelry found in the barn by those who owned it. It took the jury 30 minutes to reach a guilty verdict. He was sentenced to spend five years at the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas.
After Trafton was convicted, special agent Melrose, who pops up now and again in this story, told the press that the Yellowstone Bandit had been a suspect in the kidnapping of Alonzo Ernest Empy, which I’ve written about before, and was part of a plot to kidnap Joseph F. Smith, the nephew of the Church of Latter Day Saints founder Joseph Smith, then serving as the sixth president of the church. Trafton wasn’t involved in the Empy kidnapping, as far as we know. Melrose believed that three men were plotting to take Smith, hide him away somewhere in the Jackson Hole area, and hold him for $100,000 in ransom.
After just a few months in prison Trafton wrote a letter to Special Agent Melrose, claiming that he was at death’s door and asking to be moved from Kansas to the prison in Colorado where he had recently resided following the theft of his mother’s money.
“It’s a hard job to put a ‘bull elk,’ who has lived in the open most of his life, into a closet and expect him to ‘make it.’” Trafton wrote to Melrose. “You’ve done your part, as any man with red blood in his veins would do, when he swore allegiance to Uncle Sam. But give me a chance for my life. It’s all I’ve got that’s worthwhile.”
The line about Melrose doing his part referenced the fact that the special agent, whom Trafton had befriended, was the man who escorted him to Cheyenne for trial.
Whether Melrose attempted to honor Trafton’s request is unknown. For the first time in his life, Ed Harrington Trafton served out his entire sentence.
Trafton got out of Leavenworth in 1920. There was nothing for him anymore in Driggs. He thought Hollywood might be interested in his story, so he travelled there in 1922 with that glowing letter about his past exploits from Melrose in his pocket.
That his life ended while he was enjoying an ice cream soda seems every bit as absurd as his claim that he was the model for The Virginian. Trafton’s life story is worthy of a book, but probably not one in which he was the hero.