How A Tenderfoot Wyoming Dentist Once Outdrank Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch To Survive

Sheridan dentist William Frackleton had no intention of ever meeting Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch gang in person. No sirree. But when he did and it started going downhill, he devised a plan to survive — outdrink them.

RJ
Renée Jean

February 18, 202418 min read

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There are houses of ill repute, and then there are businesses of ill repute.

Hog ranches were considered the latter once upon a time in early-day Wyoming, said Thermopolis Tourism Director Jackie Dorothy, who has uncovered a little-told tale of daring from the memoir of the self-described sagebrush dentist and tenderfoot, William Frackelton.

The hog ranch was one of the places outlaw Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch gang were known to frequent. Frackelton had, of course, heard of the Wild Bunch where he was in Sheridan. But he never figured on meeting them out in the wilds of the Big Horn Basin, or so he wrote in his memoir, “Sagebrush Dentist: Practicing Dentistry in the Days of Bill Cody and Calamity Jane.”

“So notorious were these gentlemen that a reward of $27,500 was offered for their capture, dead or alive,” Frackelton wrote in his memoir. “But they remained at large to the great chagrin of the railroads, the express companies, and the Sovereign State of Wyoming.”

Tom O’Day — big and blundering, as Frackelton put it — was a familiar face in Sheridan.

“He was reputedly the town man and fixer,” Frackelton wrote. “Who acted as a sort of listening post when a raid was in the making. Tom possessed as rich a brogue as could be found, and I suppose his air of genial stupidity helped him to escape arrest.”

Frackelton had seen O’Day now and again at the Sheridan Inn bar, but the good dentist wisely kept his distance.

He had no intention of ever meeting any of the Wild Bunch gang in person. No sirree.

‘Take My Tip, An’ You’ll Be Rich’

One day, however, while in the Sheridan Inn bar, he struck up a conversation with an odd gentleman who traveled the world for big oil companies.

“Boy,” the man told Frackelton earnestly after a few drinks. “If I was 20 years younger, I’d get me a homestead somewhere there (in the Bighorn Basin). It’s a-goin’ to be the biggest oil pool in the world someday. Take my tip, an’ you’ll be rich.”

To Frackelton, this sounded like gold strikes that never pan out. But the conversation nevertheless did turn his mind to the Basin, because the good dentist had a bit of a problem, Dorothy told Cowboy State Daily.

“Things were a bit slow in Sheridan about then,” she said. “And he was also trying to raise enough money to go travel home to visit his folks.”

Frackelton decided if the business could not come to him in Sheridan because of seasonal roundups and the like, then perhaps he should just go to the business. He could go from ranch to ranch, offering his services like a traveling doctor.

While preparing for this little adventure, Frackelton chanced upon a Philadelphia optician who also wanted to see the country, so he took the man on.

“In many ways, we made a good pair,” Frackelton wrote in his memoir. “For his bump of caution was as good as my lack of one.”

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‘The Boys’ Suddenly Need A Dentist

Things were going quite well as Frackelton and his “Quakerish” partner from Philadelphia worked ranch to ranch around the basin.

Then, as summer was ending, they got word from one Pete Mickelson, a mail carrier, that “the boys” needed a dentist down at Anderson’s hog ranch on the Big Horn River.

Neither Frackelton nor the optician had any idea what a hog ranch might be.

It was a ranch, though, and if some of “the boys” needed the services of a dentist or optician, well, that was the whole reason they were out in the basin.

“It took them a while to figure out that this was the Hole in the Wall gang,” Dorothy said. “But after he figured it out, Frackelton thought well, the bandits are to a professional man no different from others who are in need of aid.”

So despite a few misgivings — and the strenuous objections of his partner — the dentist and optician agreed to make the 40-mile trek to this hog ranch, located across the river in Andersonville — the rival town to Ben Hanson’s settlement, which would eventually be named Thermopolis.

The day of the journey, Mickelson rode up to accompany the dentist and optician as they rode along through “dusty sage and greasewood.”

Noting that Frackelton carried a Colt .45-caliber revolver, Mickelson became quite interested that, and all too innocently asked, “What you goin’ to do with that thing?”

For answer, Frackelton used the gun to kill, with one shot, a badger that had popped up right then alongside the road.

“Accident,” Mickelson protested.

Spying three prairie dogs further away, the mail carrier made a bet that Frackelton couldn’t hit one of them.

“Which one?” Frackelton asked.

“Middle for choice,” Mickelson said, with a withering glance.

Surely the tenderfoot dentist couldn’t possibly hit such a small target, so far away, while on a moving horse, with a pistol.

But Frackelton didn’t hesitate. He nailed the middle prairie dog with one shot. Clean kill.

Mickelson’s eyes narrowed a bit, but he had nothing more to say to that.

Frackelton, though, had a few questions of his own.

“I didn’t know they raised hogs in this country,” he said.

“Doc, there’s lots o’ things hain’t in the books yet,” Mickelson assured him.

Frackelton pressed for answers, but the more he asked, the less Mickelson had to say.

Eventually, the pair stopped at the Dee Stage Ranch for dinner and a change of horses for Mickelson. There they ate soda biscuits, fried beef that Frackelton described as shoe leather, and some dried apples posing as fruit.

There were also “extras” called knickknacks, served in little dishes similar to those that pet stores sold as birdbaths, Frackelton wrote. Knickknacks were a good description for these questionable concoctions.

Arbuckle’s coffee — black — was the one bright spot for the meal.

The Hog Ranch

Continuing on their way the next day, Mickelson led them to a log-cabin store that served as post office and gathering place.

“This was about 7, 8 miles outside of modern-day Thermopolis,” Dorothy said. “And Andersonville, that’s where the Wild Bunch were tracked down to, and that’s where they got more ammunition and fresh horses. So, it was remote, and we do have actual ledgers from those days from old Thermopolis that list all these outlaws and what they bought.”

Across the river, Frackelton could see a low-riding cabin, roofed with red shale, with weeds growing on top of it, and windows so dirty they couldn’t possibly have ever been opened or washed.

Jokingly, Frackelton swung his thumb around to this sorry building and asked Mickelson if that was the hog ranch.

“Maybe so,” Mickelson said, noncommittal, as he headed into the store with the mail sack.

While Frackelton and his partner waited for Mickelson to return, they could hear lovely piano music, despite being somewhat out of tune, drifting in from somewhere.

It seemed to come from the red-roofed cabin with the dirty windows.

“Ain’t you going over?” Mickelson asked Frackelton and the optician when the mail carrier returned, gesturing at the questionable structure. “You’ll find some of the boys there.”

Across the river and inside, Frackelton and the optometrist found a bar of rough pine, along with a customary backbar. Its mirror had been decorated cheaply with soap frost by some wandering amateur artist, Frackelton wrote in his memoir.

At each end of the bar there were boxes filled with what appeared to be sawdust, which were often used for spitting tobacco juice.

“The floor was proof the marksmen had been none too expert in hitting these makeshift cuspidors,” Frackelton wrote.

In the corner was the piano they’d heard, and there, the musician, talented enough to play an out-of-tune piano so well. It was one George Carwile, who Frackelton happened to know.

“I think what really kind of brings this story to life is that you think about an old, out-of-tune piano, and when he walks in, it’s somebody he recognizes,” Dorothy said. “It’s a professionally trained piano player, educated, and he’s come down to the point now that he’s playing at these kinds of saloons.”

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Showdown With The Kid

Inside the saloon, there was a Mexican Monte card game going on, Frackelton writes in his memoir, but outside there was a contest more to his liking.

A shooting match that doubled as a drinking game.

“A man whom I recognized as (Harry) Louderbaugh snatched my derby, threw it high in the air, while his pals blazed away,” Frackelton wrote in his memoir. “It was untouched.”

Frackelton boldly reached for the man’s Stetson, knowing full well by this time that this Louderbaugh character was also known as the infamous Sundance Kid.

Frackelton’s book spells the man’s name as Louderbaugh, though today most people would refer to him as Longabaugh.

Frackelton had heard Louderbaugh once say that he liked to watch the expression on a man’s face when he’d been plugged, so he knew this was not a man to be trifled with.

But neither could he back down.

“Bum shots,” Frackelton said without flinching. “Will you give me a chance in return?”

Amused by this effrontery, Louderbaugh nodded his head yes.

Frackelton tossed the hat up in the air, and promptly drilled a hole in it.

“It’s better ventilated now,” he said, handing it back. “You shouldn’t get hot-headed.”

Frackelton couldn’t help but notice during all this just how well-dressed all of these “gentlemen” were.

They had good leather boots worth a month’s wages all by themselves, and brand new stiff-brimmed Stetsons. Large silk handkerchiefs were tied around the neck of loose and comfortable shirts.

Their horses, meanwhile, were special. They’d been obtained down along the Powder River way, where the English were importing fast, high-quality thoroughbreds for hunting and racing — or, if you were an outlaw, a fast getaway.

The shooting contest, Frackelton discovered, now that the preliminary introductions had been survived, was deceptively simple. A chunk of wood was tossed in upriver. The outlaws took turns trying to shoot it as it floated down the swiftly flowing Big Horn River.

The first to make chips fly was the winner of the round. Each round, meanwhile, was followed by an obligatory trip to the bar, where the coins that had been placed on the betting blanket were used to buy a round of drinks.

It didn’t take long for all the men, including Frackelton, to get a bit beyond liquored up.

Hungarian Dancers And Madams

As the day wore on into night, Hungarian dancers showed up on the scene, as did Madam Mag Jess and her girls from one of the most infamous houses of ill repute in Buffalo.

Jess had heard the Wild Bunch had a new haul from a recent Union Pacific robbery. So, she had her women dress up in baby doll clothes — the better to show off their ample assets — and now, here they were, cooing at the drunk men with coquettish baby talk.

“They weren’t that pretty, according to Frackelton, but they were dressed up, so they were nice enough,” Dorothy said. “And it’s hilarious because they’re talking to everybody in baby talk. And you don’t picture that really happening, but then you hear the details in Frackelton’s memoir and it’s like, ‘Wow.’”

By this time, however, Frackelton’s optician partner from Philadelphia was beyond worried. He was more certain than ever that the bandits were after their “poke.”

“Poke is what they called their gold sack in those days,” Dorothy explained. “So, when the miners got their gold, they called it their poke. And Frackelton and the optician weren’t near anything, so they would have been carrying their whole summer wages around. And that would have been known that hey, these two young doctors have money on them.”

Bacon Grease To The Rescue?

At first, Frackelton just laughed off these fears. So what if Tom O’Day had bumped into him a few times? He was probably just drunk. Surely, he was not feeling out where his target’s money was being kept. That was just paranoid.

But, after the optician pointed out that no one had so much as mentioned a toothache the entire day, Frackelton began to realize his partner might be right after all. It had all been a ruse to part them from their summer earnings.

All of which they had on them.

Their situation was dire, Frackelton realized. But what to do?

The optician wanted to just leave, right then.

But Frackelton realized that would just give them away and spring the trap.

They’d have very little chance of outrunning thoroughbreds with their Marley horses pulling a wagon across dusty sagebrush and rocky prairie. The outlaws would simply follow them out, after which almost anything might happen in an area as remote as this.

“So, they came up with this scheme, and it’s actually quite hilarious,” Dorothy said. “The optician pretends he’s sick, and Frackelton says I’m just going to out-drink them.”

Frackelton and the optician then make a big show of asking for a drink of Jamaica ginger and whiskey, well-known to be a panacea for most ills in those days.

Once the optometrist downs this drink, Frackelton escorts him to their camp, where he builds a big fire, ostensibly to keep the poor, sick optician warm.

For himself, meanwhile, Frackelton fried up a pile of bacon in a pan. But not for the bacon itself.

He just wanted the grease.

“Sam Stringer, the mule skinner, once said that if you greased your innards, you could drink any son of a bachelor down,” Frackelton told the optician. “Brother, I have work to do tonight, and not only sons, but daughters of bachelors to outdrink!”

Frackelton left his Colt .45 with the optician, whose job was to appear sick, while simultaneously preparing their camp for rapid departure at dawn.

Frackelton, meanwhile, donned his dusty derby hat, and by drinking down all of the bacon grease at once, prepared for the wildest drinking contest of his life.

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Let’s Get This Party Started

When Frackelton re-entered the saloon, he found Carwile playing at the piano along with two Hungarian troubadours. A square dance was forming up between the outlaws and the women.

Men outnumbered the women, though, so a couple of the boys tied handkerchiefs around their arms to play the part of a lady.

Meanwhile, a woman named “Goldie” grabbed Frackelton’s derby and placed it on her own head.

“Oy, yoi, Doc,” she said. “Come on an’ get in the first set. Let’s start things!”

And start they did. The girls got a short beer and a check for their time after each dance, while the men got shots of whiskey.

Frackelton’s derby hat seemed to find favor all over the bar as the night wore on. The bartender nabbed it while serving Frackelton and Goldie drinks, then passed it on to the musicians, who took their turns wearing it.

Later, Madam Jess’ girls took turns wearing it, and at last sight it was atop a man named Mr. One Gut, who was yelling out, “Oy, yoi, yoi!” at the top of his lungs.

As the night grew longer in the tooth, outlaw after outlaw succumbed to the excesses of whiskey, despite all the best intentions. But Frackelton managed to remain standing, whether thanks to the bacon grease or just plain desperation.

When dawn approached, the optician appeared in the doorway as planned, whisking Frackelton away from the scene of drunken, passed-out outlaws.

It was just in the nick of time. Frackelton himself succumbed to all the drink, passing out in the wagon, with no memory of anything past leaving the saloon.

The Job Offer

When he next woke, sun was beating down on Frackelton’s head most uncomfortably, and he could feel something tight around his waist. It was a halter rope, holding him down on the buckboard seat.

Frackelton figured they had to have been on the road for a couple of hours at least. Then he heard the optometrist laughing at him.

“Go ahead,” Frackelton mumbled. “Have your little joke. You’ve earned it. They can never catch us with this start.”

But the race was still on the whole way, and they both knew it. So, they let their horses drink only once, and sparingly. They had to get to Lost Cabin before the stagecoach pulled out.

Despite all their haste, they just barely made it in time.

There, the two agreed the optometrist was in the best condition for the last and most important phase of the journey — the trip to Casper, where their money could be stashed in a bank that even the Wild Bunch wouldn’t dare try to rob.

Frackelton would stay to take care of their horses and recover from the night of excess.

No sooner had the coach left and Frackelton dozed off, though, than an eddy of dust appeared on the horizon, drawing nearer and nearer.

It was Tom O’Day.

“Howdy, Doc,” he said cheerily.

But there was business glinting in his eye.

Frackelton didn’t bother with niceties at this point. The jig was up, and they both knew it.

“You’re a little too late, Tom,” he told the Wild Bunch fixer. “(The optician) left on the stage for Casper some time ago, and if it’s our poke you’re after, my partner took it with him.”

Tom blinked once, then threw his head back, laughing.

“Shure, Doc,” he said in his thick Irish brogue. “I told th’ byes you were too fast for us. Th’ drinks are on me.”

Drink in hand, O’Day winked again and leaned in conspiratorially. In a low whisper he said, “We’re needing the likes av yez wid us. Howja like to join up?”

The job offer from O’Day to become a Wild Bunch gang member is Dorothy’s favorite part of the story.

“The way Frackelton portrayed Tom O’Day was the same way that he was portrayed in other books and in the newspapers of the time,” she said. “So, I think this story is pretty accurate. And today, there are still remnants of Andersonville down Black Mountain Road.”

Dorothy believes that those who listen closely may hear the faintest sound of a slightly out-of-tune piano playing. Or at the very least, they might sense there is still something special about the place once known as Andersonville, where a tenderfoot dentist successfully outdrank the Hole in the Wall Gang.

“I don’t know if you could call Andersonville a town, it just had a few buildings, but it is the actual place where some of this kind of stuff happened,” she said. “It was definitely a dangerous place to be, one of the wildest places in Wyoming. And it’s a place where there are whispers of the past — you just have to listen closely.”

Dr. William Frackelton is buried in Sheridan Municipal Cemetery.
Dr. William Frackelton is buried in Sheridan Municipal Cemetery. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Renée Jean can be reached at renee@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Renée Jean

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