Comedy of errors marked the Wild Bunch's botched bank robbery in 1897
Members of the Sundance Kid’s gang failed to get away with the goods when they tried to rob the Butte County Bank in Belle Fourche, South Dakota.
BELLE FOURCHE, S.D. — The American west has spawned many legends about renegade outlaws and their daring exploits. Bank and train robberies. Cattle rustling. Showdowns at high noon on Main Street.
Pulp novels and Hollywood movies, such as "Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid" and "The Magnificent Seven," have ingrained the images of such bandits in the hearts and minds of the American populace. Tales of events like the famous shootout at the O.K. Corral have established outlaws as fearless, cunning criminals, or even misunderstood anti-heroes who were skillful with a six-shooter and clever in their planning.
And then there was the 1897 robbery of the Butte County Bank in Belle Fourche, South Dakota.
“There was a lot more bumbling. There were a lot more of these stories than what you see on Rawhide,” said Kristi Thielen, director for the Tri-State Museum in Belle Fouche.
The robbery of the bank in Belle Fourche was attempted by members of The Wild Bunch, a group of men known for running with Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, also known as The Sundance Kid, though Thielen and other historians question just how much of a connection actually existed between them. The men, including Tom O’Day, Kid Curry and Walter Punteney among them, did have a reputation of success in train robberies and horse theft and had a penchant for getting into shootouts. Others involved in the robbery may have included George Currie and Lonnie Logan, but historical records are unclear.
The bank reportedly held assets of around $30,000, the equivalent of a little over $1 million in today’s money.
The robbery took place on June 28, 1897, and the men rode into town to pull off the heist. O’Day, described as somewhat dim but affable when he was sober, was selected to act as lookout. That was the first mistake the group made.
“He was definitely three sheets to the wind,” Thielen said.
Bank cashier Arthur Marble, his assistant Harry Ticknor and shopkeeper Sam Arnold, along with three customers, were in the bank at the time of the robbery. As the bandits burst in demanding the money, the bank employees obliged with everything they had. At this point the gang’s research into the bank revealed itself as their second mistake.
The employees handed over a grand total of $97, a little under $3,500 in 2022 currency, not exactly the amount they were hoping to steal.
A hardware store shopkeeper across the street spotted what was going on and shouted an alarm. This prompted O’Day to fire off a warning shot, which spooked his horse, causing it to run off. The robbers in the bank stashed what cash they had managed to steal, ran out, mounted their horses, and proceeded to ride away.
Now without his horse, O’Day made a break for it and attempted to hide in a nearby outhouse, where he was promptly arrested. Adding insult to injury, the local jail had recently burned down, so authorities had no recourse but to hold O’Day in the vault of the very bank he and his associates had just robbed.
The remaining criminals rode up a hill in an attempt to spot O’Day. There they were nearly accosted by a blacksmith who had ridden out from the town to confront them. But the blacksmith’s horse was shot out from under him by another vigilante who had been aiming at the outlaws. The bandits then turned and rode away.
Thielen said this was a good example of citizens in the Old West not being as proficient with firearms as legend makes them out to be. From bank robbers to ordinary businessmen, a high level of skill with a gun was more the exception than the rule. Many residents of the Wild West were former denizens of the Confederate South, and while they were used to the violence surrounding firearms, they weren’t necessarily handy with them.
“The notion that all of these bank robbers or criminals or men who carried weapons in the Old West were skillful in their use was born more on the backlot of Paramount Pictures than in the history of the Old West,” Thielen said. “Cowboys in particular tended to not be skillful at handling a gun, because if you’re a cowboy you’re herding cattle, you don’t need a gun anyway.”
The group made their way to Hole-in-the-Wall, an outlaw lair in Wyoming that was composed of a large wall of red sandstone that provided a useful hiding place. They evaded a posse sent to bring them in, but soon had their sights set on a bank in Red Lodge, Montana. Punteney, Curry and possibly the Sundance Kid himself made their way to the town, hoping to bribe a local marshall to look the other way while they committed the robbery.
Instead, the marshal alerted the county sheriff, and a posse caught up with them on Sept. 22. A gunfight ensued, and Curry’s horse was shot with himself being shot in the wrist. He, the Sundance Kid and Punteney were reportedly taken into custody and moved to a jail in Deadwood, South Dakota, where they were united with their former lookout O’Day.
In one last-ditch effort to avoid prosecution, the Sundance Kid and Curry allegedly overpowered their jailers and escaped, while Punteney and O’Day were once again recaptured. Records suggest Punteney had his charges dropped for lack of evidence, and O’Day was actually found innocent of his charges. Thielen said O’Day went on to live a relatively normal life mostly away from the excitement of crime.
The details of the robbery and the subsequent capture of its perpetrators are sketchy at best, Thielen said. Record keeping and positive identification of individuals in the 1890s was far from an exact science, and many residents who occupied the Wild West had left their old homes back east to start a new life, sometimes going as far to adopt new names, making it unclear exactly who was involved. Even the official indictment for the Belle Fourche bank robbery is filled with misspellings and possible aliases of the perpetrators.
“There is some confusion. Keeping records in a newly-emerging society is not what it is today, and the entire concept of identity is interesting to explore. So many people who came west lost their identity. They were leaving a criminal record and coming out here and taking a colorful name. That was a common thing for a lot of men in particular,” Thielen said. “Who showed up when? Who was with whom? I only wish I could answer. There is so much that is not absolutely known.”
Thielen said it’s even possible that the Sundance Kid himself may not have had any involvement in the events. While the robbers did have an association with him, the inclusion of The Sundance Kid being directly involved as part of the story may have been added later over the years, though it’s impossible to tell.
“In my opinion, I think he ended up as part of it later. Sundance was a title that a number of people took, so there were various Sundances. I don’t think he had anything to do with this, but that’s my opinion,” Thielen said.
The story remains a legend in the Belle Fourche community, and visitors enjoy checking out the exhibit of the event at the Tri-State Museum, Thielen said. And it’s gained some fandom in recent years, with a group of local enthusiasts re-enacting the robbery for an audience. That may turn into an annual event itself, she said.
“It’s not just the tourists that are interested. Belle Fourche is in many ways a transitional community. We have a lot of people who weren’t here five years ago, so to many locals this is new. People like quirky stories and everybody likes something that didn’t go well, perhaps because we’ve all had that experience,” Thiesen said.
The story will continue to live on in legend, regardless of how much of it is known to be factually true. The story of the bungling bank robbers, their hapless lookout and their pitiful haul will continue to entertain Wild West enthusiasts for years to come.
As for that $97 the robbers reportedly made off with? Decades later, Punteney reportedly said in an interview that the money fell from the bag in which they were carrying it and scattered in the wind.
Whether or not that is true, Thielen said it’s an appropriate outcome for one of the more amusingly botched robberies in South Dakota history.
“That’s the official story everybody has always been told,” she laughed.