Editor’s note: This is the first of two stories about the infamous 1904 robbery of the First National Bank in Cody, Wyoming. Part two explores how Buffalo Bill Cody went on to “avenge” the bank heist that wasn’t done by the Hole in the Wall Gang by stopping a fake train robbery.
Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch did a lot of dastardly deeds that have become Old West legend, but in November 1904 they crossed a line they would regret — they robbed a bank in Buffalo Bill Cody’s town.
The Nov. 1 robbery of the First National Bank in Cody was a dramatic event for Wyoming and the nation. The then-5-year-old Cody Enterprise described it as "the most sensational event with a shocking termination that ever happened in Cody ... creating an excitement of a character never before known in the town."
Buffalo Bill Cody publicly declared a merciless vendetta to right the wrong and find the Wild Bunch. And there would be no taking of prisoners.
"I have wired my manager at Cody, Col. Frank Powell, the old Indian fighter and scout, to offer a large reward for the capture alive of each robber,” he told newspaper reporters. “And I told him to double the reward if the outlaws were killed. We want them dead rather than alive."
Buffalo Bill enlisted a posse of 30 cowboys to track down the infamous Wild Bunch. Meanwhile, the world held its breath and waited for the inevitable day when the outlaw scoundrels met their judge, jury and executioner at the end of a six-shooter held by the living Western legend Buffalo Bill.
Now 120 years later, they’re still holding their breath. The Wild Bunch never faced justice for the crime, and Buffalo Bill never avenged the Cody bank robbery.
That’s because despite the national outcry that soon became legend, Butch Cassidy and the Wild Buch didn’t rob that bank — and Buffalo Bill Cody never actually tried to catch them.
Meanwhile, the real story of the Cody bank robbery is even more sensational.
“That's another good story that gets spread quite a bit,” said Jeremy Johnston, curator of the Buffalo Bill Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. “Two cowboys ride into town, and everybody in Cody was taking shots at the robbers.”
Cody’s (First) Crime Of The Century
The real story starts in the same place on the same day, Nov. 1, 1904, when two men rode into Cody and entered the First National Bank. Once inside, they drew their pistols and demanded money. A classic Western holdup.
Ira O. Middaugh, a cashier and part owner of the bank, escaped out the back and ran into the street, either to come up behind the robbers or alert Cody residents of the crime. One of the robbers noticed Middaugh and ran into the street to grab him, where a scuffle ensued.
A few moments later, Middaugh was dead. The robber hit him over the head and shot him twice.
By then, the town of Cody knew a robbery was underway. When locals rushed to the scene and saw Middaugh dead, the street turned into a shooting gallery.
“Everybody in Cody was pretty well armed, so everybody in Cody tried to shoot down the bank robbers,” Johnston said. “And they managed to hit everything but the bank robbers.”
Bullets were flying in every direction, some ending up in the dining room of the Irma Hotel directly across the street from the bank. A painting that once hung behind the bar in the Irma (which now hangs in the Buffalo Bill Center of the West) has the mark of a bullet ricochet preserved in its frame.
“It would have been a full-fledged gunfight,” he said.
One eyewitness account said Col. Frank Powell, Buffalo Bill’s “old Indian fighter and scout,” took a defensive position on the Irma Hotel’s porch. Another account claimed Powell was ineffectually pacing in his nightshirt, brandishing two revolvers (that were both missing their cylinders).
Facing the angry barrels of most of Cody’s population, the robbers got on their horses and fled town. They didn’t get a single cent from their attempted bank robbery.
There are multiple first-person accounts of the 1904 bank robbery, but none identified the culprits. Witnesses said neither robber covered their face, but nobody knew who they were.
A makeshift posse was formed to chase the culprits, who fled south toward Meeteetse. There were even two additional gunfights with the robbers, but they used the dark of night and fresh horses to elude the posse.
The case has been cold ever since.
When newspapers of the time learned the robbers' identities were unknown, they took the opportunity to speculate. One newspaper latched onto the description of “the shorter bandit” and published the name of a likely suspect: Harvey Logan, also known as “Kid Curry,” an outlaw and known associate of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch.
The Hole In The Story
Logan’s reputation was “the wildest of the Wild Bunch” for his exploits with Butch Cassidy and “Sundance Kid” Harry Longabaugh, allegedly killing at least nine law enforcement officers in five different shootings. He also appears in the legendary photo of the “Fort Worth Five” with Cassidy and Longabaugh.
The idea of Kid Curry being the ruthless outlaw behind the robbery was captivating. However, Johnston noted one minor historical fact that rules out Logan as a suspect.
“That would have been a little difficult because the evidence on Kid Curry has him dying in Parachute, Colorado, a few months before in a shootout,” Johnston said.
History has Kid Curry fleeing a train robbery when he was shot by a man whose horses he stole, then killing himself to avoid capture on June 7, 1094. Legend says the outlaw escaped and fled to South America with Butch and Sundance.
Either way, it mostly likely wasn’t Kid Curry who robbed the First National Bank in Cody on Nov. 1, 1904. Johnston thinks it's unlikely as well that the Hole in the Wall Gang created the holes in the walls of Cody.
“I’ve not seen any indication that would connect the Hole in the Wall (Gang) directly to that Cody bank robbery,” he said. “It could have been two guys that were familiar with the Wild Bunch or may have ridden with the Wild Bunch. The bottom line is we're just not sure. The two men got away.”
Johnston doesn’t know who the men were, but he has an informed opinion on the circumstances that might have led to why the robbed the First National Bank in Cody.
“I think it was two cowboys who were down on their luck and decided to get some extra funds and get out of town,” he said.
But two unknown cowboys robbing a bank out of desperation isn’t as captivating as the legacy of notorious outlaw Kid Curry. While the real culprits got away with their crime, the world latched onto the more dramatic narrative that the First National Bank robbery was another escapade of the Old West staged by the Hole in the Wall Gang.
And who better to hunt down those outlaws than America’s famous Old West fighter? And nobody was better at staging dramatic Western escapades (regardless of their historical accuracy) than Buffalo Bill Cody.
So, while the world waited for Buffalo Bill to save the day, Buffalo Bill saved his time and energy to concoct a dramatic revision of history.
Andrew Rossi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.