Friend or Faux?
By Wayne Moss
Prostrate on the ice cream parlor floor at the corner of Second Street and Broadway in Los Angeles was Teton Valley’s best known and least understood citizen. He had been enjoying an ice cream soda on a warm August afternoon in 1922 when, without warning, he fell backwards, dead from apoplexy. The Gentleman Bandit, the Happy-Go-Lucky Highwayman, the man who once stopped 15 stagecoaches and single-handedly relieved 165 wealthy tourists of their money and jewelry, had reached the end of the trail. He was 65 years old.
To his neighbors, Ed Trafton was just another of many mavericks who strayed into Teton Basin from “out below” and settled down to whittle dreams into sharp reality. Rare is the longtime valley resident who doesn’t have a Trafton story in his or her arsenal of early day anecdotes.
Valone Nelson of the Teton Valley Historical Museum in Driggs says Ed is the most often talked about subject by both visitors and locals who visit the museum. A harness likely worn by a horse pulling one of the Yellowstone stages Ed robbed in 1914 graces a life-size horse replica in the foyer.
In his venerable The History of Teton Valley, Ben Driggs wrote, “[Ed] would have witnesses to prove that he was at his home near the point of the mountain in the evening before making some thieving trip down the lower valley. He would then start out about dark, rob some store in Rexburg or other nearby town and return before daylight.”
Valone’s father, Leigh Fullmer, knew Ed as a good man with a good heart, often recalling the time Ed owed a man money for hay. When the due date came, in the middle of winter, he trudged through the snow many miles across the valley to tell the man he still didn’t have the money, and promised to pay when he could. And he did.
In a July 1962 interview for the Teton Valley News, Mrs. Willie Hill recalled Ed carrying the mail to Hayden and Chapin, often on skis in the winter. She said Ed loved to dance and that she danced with him many times, adding that he was also “a real good singer.”
Ed’s grandson John Watson used a coarser brush to paint the bandit’s portrait in The Real Virginian: The Saga of Edwin Burnham Trafton, Last of the Stagecoach Robbers. Watson wrote: “Trafton’s wife and daughters—grandmother Wilhelmina, my mother, Helen, and my aunts, Anna, Alice and Wilhelmina Junior—remember his as a scheming, mean cantankerous drunk with only one goal in life; he wanted to become as famous in the annals of history as his boyhood hero, Jesse James.”
According to Watson, Edwin Burnham Trafton was born February 8th, 1857 in New Brunswick, Canada, to George and Annie (Eliza Ann Parsons) Trafton, immigrants from Liverpool, England. Stories of Missouri Ozark roots are false. George died when Ed was 9years old, and Annie Trafton married a neighbor, James Knight. Reports of frank and Jesse James and the Younger brothers inflamed the young man’s impressionable imagination. Reveling in the romantic lawlessness of post-Civil War America, Ed lit out for the territories.
A year later found him in the Denver Home for Delinquent Boys writing letters to his mother begging to be bailed out. His parents opted to move to Denver, using profits from the sale of their Canadian farm to buy a boarding house. Ed has been convicted of petty theft, and once living with his parents, he resumed stealing, mostly guns and equipment from travelers stay9ing at the boarding house. He was caught often, but his mother always retrieved him from the law.
At 20, Ed stood a stubby five and a half feet, with blue eyes, dark brown hair, a beak-like nose and a provocative, perpetual smile, Watson writes. Ed kept his face shaven and favored dark suits, vests, stiff white shirts, celluloid collars and a derby hat, which he wore cocked at an angle. The cigar often wedged in his mouth completed what was known as the “city slicker” look. Bored with boarding housing, Ed bundled his bags determined to grab his share of wealth and fame.
Thus Annie Knight awoke one morning to find her best riding horse, a smoked ham and $40 she had hidden for emergencies missing. There was a note. Ed was headed for the gold hills of the Black Hills of South Dakota.
His fervor for gold played out shortly. “I paddled around after gold for a while till my hands swelled up like they were poisoned, and my back creaked like a frozen pine tree in the wind. Then I quit and stayed quit. I ain’t that kind of tom-fool. I’ll tell you. I ain’t got no use from prairie-dog grubbing. Why, there’s fourteen miners to every hole in the ground out there,” Ed told a friend years afterwards, according to Watson.
The erstwhile gold miner pointed his pony west. Summer of 1878 saw Ed befriending Edward and Lillie Seymour near Driggs, building a cabin nearby and establishing himself as a resident of Teton Valley. The next summer he homesteaded along Milk Creek, near Grandview Point, south of present-day Highway 33. A few logs and broken boards remain today. In an August 1962 interview for the Teton Valley News, Charles Fullmer claimed Trafton’s place was an “ideal location for shearing sheds, sheep corrals, a saloon, a small store and boarding house.”
Ben Driggs claimed Ed Harrington (an alias Ed used to cover his criminal past) and his buddies Columbus (known as Lum) Nickerson and Jim Robinson would steal horses in easter Idaho and take them via Conant Creek into Jackson Hole, where brands would be altered and the horses sold to unsuspecting buyers. “Conant Gang” was the name pinned on the three thieves. In The Virginian, Western novelist Owen Wister called this route from Teton Basin over Conant Pass the Horse Thief Trail.
According to Watson, the gang made life difficult for early Teton Valley rancers. Livestock regularly disappeared. Finally a fed-up Hiram Lapham rounded up a posse of local men in June of 1887 and, under the cover of night, surrounded Lum’s cabin on an island in the Teton River near Cache Bridge. Come daylight, Lum was captured, while Robinson made a run for it. In his flight, he was shot in the hip, however, and died a day later from the wound. Ed had slipped away during the night, but he was found the next day in Rexburg.
Lum and Ed were taken to Blackfoot to await trial. Emma, Lum’s wife, wrapped a pistol with their baby on a jail visit. The pistol enabled escape, leading to a manhunt as the escapees fled into the hills east of town. Cornered and recaptured, Ed took a bullet in his foot. In deference to Lum’s family responsibilities, Ed volunteered to accept the blame. The first criminal trial held in Rexburg dished out 25 years of hard labor in the Idaho pen for Ed. Lum got six months.
Ed was released in two years. Some say his mother, Annie Knight, helped shorten his sentence with a bribe. In a May 1999 interview for the Teton Valley News, James Henry Pincock, an early Rexburg settler, said, “Harrington was a clever fellow and aside from his outlaw traits was a pleasant companion. He elicited sympathy from people and petitions were soon circulated for his release.”
Back in Teton Basin, Ed soon found some stolen horses on his hands and decided to sell them to Lillie Seymour’s father in Hyrum, Utah. There Ed met Lillie’s sister, Wilhelmina, known as Minnie. On July 3, 1891, 18-year-old Minnie Lyman married the 34-year-old horse thief.
The newlyweds set up housekeeping at Colter Bay on Jackson Lake. Ed worked with rustlers moving horses and cattle stolen in Idaho through Conant Pass into Wyoming and beyond. Occasionally Western author Owen Wister and family were visitors at the Trafton cabin, according to Watson. After a few years of rustling, Ed moved his family back to Teton Basin, vowing to forsake outlaw life.
As the last decade of the 19th century dwindled into history, Ed and Minnie managed a boarding house and raised sheep at their point-of-the-mountain homestead near Clementsville. Guiding tourists on hunting trips and carrying the U.S. mail from St. Anthony to the post offices scattered around Teton Basin supplemented their income.
About every three years children arrived: Anna Violet was born August 28, 1892; Wilhelmina Frances on August 2, 1895; Alice Pauline on January 12, 1898; Helen Kathleen on May 17, 1904 and Edwin George on September 20, 1906. All were born in Driggs.
Convicted and sentenced to five years for stealing cattle in St. Anthony, he found himself again in the Idaho State Penitentiary in 1901. Released in February 1903, Ed returned to Teton Valley and picked up his old alias, Edward Harrington. Resuming his job as U.S. mail carrier, Ed appeared to be leading the domestic life, but he was still working both sides of the fence.
Daughter Anna often recalled on of Ed’s “business trips” in 1906. Then age 14, she was awakened in the night when her father scrambled into her bed, reeking of alcohol with muddy boots, dirty clothes, and a drawn revolver. “Anna if anyone comes in here looking for me, you tell them I’ve been here all night long,” he whispered. Almost immediately several men burst into the room with guns in hand. “Don’t wake father, she told the intruders. “He had a hard day today and he has been asleep since sundown.” Reluctantly, the men left.
Why the Teton Valley community tolerated a known outlaw might be explained by the fact that the nearest courts were hours away, and by the time lawmen could muster a trial, victims and witnesses were scarce, if available at all. The light sentences meted out for rustling didn’t justify the time and expense. Ed’s activities were regarded as more annoyance than thievery.
Cattle ranchers Willard and Howard Sawnson and John Holland were an exception to local tolerance. They had no proof Ed has stolen their cattle and horses, but they kept the heat on him in an attempt to either intimidate him into confession or catch him in the act. When Ed’s mother asked him to move to Denver to help with his ailing stepfather, he gathered up his family and went, perhaps to let the fires at home cool a little.
Ed and Minnie ran the Knight’s boarding house while Annie tended to her dying husband. A boarder, James Melrose, special investigator for the U.S. Department of Justice, was a gullible listener to Ed’s stories of an imagined past. During long evenings on the porch, Ed enthralled Melrose with tales of himself as a hard-riding, straight shooting Western hero, the inspiration for Owen Wister’s character, the Virginian. When not embellishing his past, he took painting lessons from Melrose’s wife, Allene. Minnie suspected, rightfully, that teacher and student were having an affair.
James knight died in January of 1910, leaving $10,000 in insurance to Annie. She took the money in cash and not trusting the banks hid it. At the constant urging of his wife, Ed spent months searching for Annies’ hidden money to no avail. Noticing things suspiciously out of place around the house, Annie eventually gave the money to Ed to deposit—but he never go to the bank.
He buried $4,000 in a sealed black powder can in the backyard, hid $3,000 in a sock in Minnie’s dresser drawer as a surprise gift and stashed the remaining $3,000 under the floorboards in the living room. Then he made up a story, actually two stories. First he claimed to have been robbed, then he swore he left the money in a satchel on the trolley, and it was gone when he returned. Nobody believed either one. Annie immediately called the police, who searched the house and found the $3,000 stuffed in Minnie’s sock, according to Watson.
The Colorado State Penitentiary at Canon City became home, in separate cells, for the Traftons. They told their oldest daughter, Anna, about the $3,000 hidden under the living room floor. She gathered the loot and the kids, and caught a trail to Pocatello. (According to Watson, Annie never believed her son or grandchildren would steal from her. Personally, she blamed Minnie.) Anna, at 18 and Frances, 15, were old enough to take care of themselves, while the three youngwer kids were farmed out to friends and relatives in Driggs.
Minnie was released from prison on February 20, 1912, and joined Anna in Pocatello, where the two women opened a boarding house. Ed got out November 9, 1913, dug up the $4,000 and headed for Idaho. Early in 1914 the Traftons bought a farm in Rupert. He was pushing 60 years old when Anna overheard him tell Minnie, “I’ll play just one more trick, and then we’ll settle down in California.”
Ed’s trick ignited newspaper headlines across the West. “Forty Stages Held Up in Yellowstone,” read the Deseret News. “Thirty-five Coach Loads of Tourists Robbed Wednesday Morning, Most Daring and Most Successful Stage Robbery in History of Yellowstone Park,” said the Teton Peak-Chronicle. “Tourists Held Up in Yellowstone,” reported Pocatello Tribune. This wasn’t the first time stagecoaches had been robbed in Yellowstone Park, but it captured the public’s imagination like none other.
On “The Grand Tour,” wealthy Americans saw Yellowstone Park from hors-drawn stagecoaches. Donning long white linen coats and Shaker bonnets to protect themselves from the dust, they rode in caravans of 10 to 50 stages, eating and spending nights at hotels scattered around the park. Forbidden by park regulations to carry weapons, tourists were easy pickings for highwaymen—like Ed.
Knowing travel times and routes through the Yellowstone wilderness, Ed set up shop at Shoshone Point, midway between Old Faithful and West Thumb, where the stage coaches always stopped for the passengers to enjoy the view of Shoshone Lake and the distant Tetons.
At 8 a.m. on Wednesday, July 29, 1914, stages began leaving Old Faithful Lodge (at 15- to 20-minute intervals to minimize dust) for the Lake Hotel on Yellowstone Lake. Towering lodgepole pines boarded the roadway on each side for miles. At 9 a.m., with revolver in hand and a black silk handkerchief over the lower part of his face, Ed stepped from behind a large boulder and greeted the first stagecoach. “Please step out and come this way,” he said, according to J. C. Pinkston, a victim quoted in the August 1, 1914 edition of the Deseret News.
Pinkston and his wife and daughter, from Montgomery, were in the first coach. “The man chose a horseshoe bend, a veritable amphitheater formed on one side of a long promontory of the road. A better and more suitable site for his job could not have been made by a construction company,” Pinkston told the Deseret News. “The long promontory made room for the coaches to form in line and because of the peculiarity of the road it was practically impossible for any of the coaches but the one that was being ‘worked’ to see what was going on until it has passed into the amphitheater, where, of course, the passengers could witness everything.”
“Drop your valuables in this blanked,” Ed instructed, according to The Yellowstone Story by Aubrey L. Haines. “Now kindly take a standing seat there and wait here and witness the convention.” He ordered the coach driver to park on the opposite side of the clearing and wait. The fleecing procedure only took a few minutes, and soon the next stage coach could be heard rumbling up the grade.
“The next coach appeared and the robber, pointing his gun at the driver ordered him to stop and let the passengers out,” Pinkston said, according to the Deseret News. “These he treated as he had done us, with pleasant remarks, but commanding insistently that they comply readily with his requests.” As the passengers of the second coach stood in line, the rover noticed and elderly lady, waiting her turn to pass the blanket, making frantic efforts to hide her pocketbook and jewelry. In her nervous haste she dropped everything on the ground. Ed helped her pick them up, saying “There madam, you keep these. You look as if you need them more than I do.”
One by one the passengers handed over their money and jewels. The small park-like area filled with coaches and people milling around. Entertained by the robber’s casual banter, the passengers sat around and chatted. Carla Pinkston, J.C.’s daughter, asked for and was granted permission to take a photograph of the robber. Several others dug out their cameras and took snapshots of the proceedings. Ethel Slate of Fairfield, Iowa, took a picture of the outlaw as he stood by the loot-filled blanket. Rev. John D. Bostswick made a pencil sketch of the scene. “The clicks of the Kodaks accompanied the jingling of the money as the victims tossed it onto the blanket at the foot of the bandit,” reported Teton Peak-Chronicle.
Ed might have spent the entire day robbing stagecoaches except Billie Frazier the driver of the 16th coach, caught a glimpse of what was going on and turned back to Old Faithful, warning drivers behind him to do likewise. When no more stages appeared, Ed transferred the stolen valuables to a gunnysack, pitched it over his shoulder, leveled his gun at the crowd and faded into the forest.
In The Yellowstone Story, Haines argues that newspaper reports exaggerated the value of the loot. Estimates ranged from $5,000 to $20,000, but the actual amount came to $915.35 in cash and $130 in jewelry. The total haul extracted about $6.35 from each of the 165 passengers. Many victims praised the hold-up man’s gallantry, calm manner, sense of humor and infections smile. Smilin’ Bandit, Happy Highwayman and Gentleman Bandit were names batted about by the new media.
Once the alarm sounded, U.S. Army scouts picked u tracks leading south across Squirrel Meadows to an empty cabin on Conant Creek belonging to eccentric trapper and hunter Charles Erpenbach. The soldiers waited 11 days before Erpenbach returned and was arrested, taken into custody and charged with the robberies. He posted bail and was released.
Meanwhile Trafton had made his way over Conant Pass (Wister’s Horse Thief Trail) to Driggs and holed-up at his sister-in-law’s house for a few weeks while growing a beard for disguise. Back in Rupert, he stashed the loot in his barn.
Hearing that Erpenbach had been charged with the Yellowstone robberies, Ed concocted a plan to clear himself. Forging a suicide note in which Erpenbach admitted to the robberies, he returned to the Conant Creek cabin and slipped inside intending to kill the innocent man. But Erpenbach say Trafton first, tied him up, searched him and discovered the suicide note.
According to the second volume of The Yellowstone Story, Erpenbach was ready to “plant him out back where he could keep track of him.” But Ed begged and sobbed his way out of a sure grave.
High-tailing it to his Rupert farm, he picked up Minnie and they paid a visit to Denver, returning to Idaho in an expensive new (and arguable stolen) car.
A few months later, on May 22, 1915, a headline in the Denver Post signaled the arrest of the Yellowstone Smiling Bandit, who was “Betrayed By His Wife In Revenge For Affair With Other Women.” Back in Rupert, Minnie had caught Ed with Almira, his boss’s wife, and blew the whistle.
After signing the complaint that landed Ed in jail, Minnie located the Yellowstone loot in the barn. Gathering it up, she stopped at the marshal’s office and dumped it on his desk saying, “Here’s your Yellowstone Stagecoach Company robber. You’ve got your man here in jail, and you can keep him for all I care.” Minnie filed for divorce and moved with the younger children to Ogden, Utah.
Ironically, James W. Melrose, Trafton’s old neighbor in Denver, drew the assignment by the Justice Department to escort Ed from the Rupert jail to a federal court trail in Cheyenne.
A number of witnesses appeared in Ed’s defense, several from Teton Valley. But an army of prosecution witnesses paraded through the courtroom. One after another, like the stagecoaches he stopped, each pointed to the Smilin’ Bandit when asked to do so. Eyewitness accounts of the holdup, photographs of Ed in the act of robbery and positive identification of jewelry found in his possession were damning. The jury quickly returned with a guilty verdict.
Ed arrived at Leavenworth Penitentiary on December 18, 1915, where he served the full five years of his sentences. In prison, he wrote to Melrose requesting a letter of recommendation to aid in selling his life story upon his release. Promises of a generous share of the profits produced a fabulously fanciful letter soon to play a major role in Ed’s legacy.
Leaving Leavenworth in 1920, Ed returned to Driggs to find a vacant forlorn homestead. Minnie had married a railroad policeman, Ray Owens, and abandoned Idaho. No matter. Ed had visions of fame and fortune dancing in his head. In his pocket was a letter claiming he was Wister’s Virginian. Off to California he went, planning to sell his fabricated life story to the budding Hollywood movie industry. Ed was found dead on the floor of the ice cream parlor with Melrose’s letter in his pocket. Its contents are farther from the truth than Driggs is from Los Angeles.
The August 16, 1922, issue of the Los Angeles Times ran the letter as a news story under the headlines, “The Virginian’ Dies Suddenly—Owen Wister Novel Hero Was Real Pioneer—Blazed First Trails Into Jackson Hole Country—Ed Trafton Whacked Bulls with Buffalo Bill.” Unwittingly, Ed had succeeded in providing his own, albeit bogus, obituary.
Ed’s crime-riffed life will never be mistaken for that of the righteous white hat hero of The Virginian. However, the novel’s bad-guy character, Trampas, took a name resembling Trafton’s, and chose the same early lifestyle and occupation. Ed’s Conant Pass trail shows up in the novel as Horse Thief Trail.
Asked if he knew the Virginian, Wister said, “As well, I hope, as a father should know his own son.” But Ed was the Virginian only in his dreams. In the novel, the hero guns down Trampas in a fight and rides out of Bear Creek into the Western sunset alongside his new bride, Molly. In reality, Edwin Burnham Trafton buys and ice cream soda and bites the dust on a Los Angeles store floor.
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