Ike Gravelle, Montana’s Original Dynamiting Extortionist

Chloe Effron/The Anaconda Standard // Public Domain
Chloe Effron/The Anaconda Standard // Public Domain / Chloe Effron/The Anaconda Standard // Public Domain

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski’s capture near Lincoln, Montana. Kaczynski, however, is not the state’s first serial bomber. Nearly 100 years before his time, there was a Montana ex-con named Issac “Ike” Gravelle, who combined explosives with extortion in his effort to obtain money from the Northern Pacific Railroad Company.

Gravelle was a Montreal native who had relocated to Montana at the age of 16. He worked as a cowhand, but also as a thief, and, according to Montana State Prison records, he was convicted of felony burglary in 1891 for stealing a harness from a stable.

After serving two years and four months in the state penitentiary, Gravelle ran a butcher shop in Helena. He was able to sell his pork very cheaply because he was feeding them rustled local cattle—a crime that sent him back to prison for another six years. During this second prison stint, he learned how to read and write, a skill that later would serve him in his extortionist pursuits.

On July 18, 1903, not long after Gravelle returned to society, the first in a series of anonymous letters arrived on the desk of J.M. Hannaford, Vice President of the Northern Pacific Railroad Company. The letter said that railroad property would be destroyed unless a $25,000 ransom was paid. The company felt that if they were to pay the ransom, it would encourage any crook with half a brain to venture into the lucrative practice of blackmail. Still, Northern Pacific chose to keep up the pretense of agreeing with the demands, as journalist Walter G. Patterson explained in a July 1904 edition of The Wide World Magazine.

A date of September 2, 1903, was arranged for the ransom drop beneath a “red light” somewhere along the Montana stretch of rail. This date came and went, and no money was dropped. A September 3 letter was mailed, postmarked from Helena. To little surprise, this letter took on a more critical tone: “We will not stand for any more monkey work … Take warning, or some of your trains will go in the ditch.”

The final letter, dated September 17, 1903, doubled the sum of the ransom to $50,000. At this point, Northern Pacific had dropped all pretense of complying with the demands. The company, along with law enforcement, stepped up patrols of the railways. Experienced bloodhounds were brought in from state penitentiaries in Montana, Nebraska, and even Texas. This vigilance resulted in the discovery of several caches of explosives, among them a batch of dynamite that was hidden in a tunnel near Helena.

Though railroad officials would not release the contents of the blackmailing letters, the press was now generally aware of the extortion attempt, and began printing sensationalistic speculations about fatal bombings with tunnels blown up. Adding to the tension, a wooden bridge on the railroad caught fire—fortunately, nothing more than a coincidence. With the public on edge, Northern Pacific, in conjunction with the Montana government, now introduced its own monetary amount: $10,500 offered as a reward to anyone who provided information leading to the capture and conviction of the blackmailer(s).

Four or five minor explosions took place at various isolated locations on the rail in the days that followed. It seems that these explosions were, more than anything, a way for the blackmailing party to show that it did indeed have the means to put together a destructive device.

On October 7, 1903, at a bend in the railroad 11 miles from Helena, there was a more sizable explosion. No one was seriously injured, but part of a train was destroyed, along with some yards of rail. A separate train full of lawmen quickly arrived, and the bloodhounds were released. Their efforts were suddenly hampered by the arrival of a storm that brought intense rain, which obfuscated any trail and killed the scent for the dogs. In the coming days, there were two separate explosions, neither resulting in human injury, but both resulting in property damage.

A pivotal moment occurred on the evening of October 17, 1903, when a rail watchman came upon a man furiously digging beneath the tracks. The digger, when spotted, ran to his horse and fled the scene. The watchman fired twice at the suspect, but it was dark, and both shots missed.

With the next morning’s daylight, a team of lawmen closely followed the trail. In an area known as Priest Pass, they eventually came to a small cabin. There was a man outside of this cabin, who saw the lawmen the same instant that the lawmen saw him. He fled, but the lawmen quickly tracked him down and took him prisoner.

Upon being detained, the suspect was indignant, insisting that he was an honest rancher named “J.H. Plummer.” The suspect was brought to the Lewis and Clarke County Gaol, where he was positively identified as Issac “Ike” Gravelle, a criminal well-known in Helena. Defiant as ever, Gravelle denied his identity even in the face of his former penitentiary warden, a Mr. McTague, who wasn’t one bit fooled.

The trial of Ike Gravelle began on June 6, 1904, in Helena. One might say there was significant circumstantial evidence: Aside from the tracks of the last explosion leading to his cabin, a spur that had been missing from his left boot had been discovered near the scene of a separate dynamite explosion, and letters from a trunk in his cabin contained handwriting that was matched to the handwriting on the blackmailing letters.

Additionally, there was another break in the case. Certain letters had surfaced written by one Harvey Whitten, a Montana prison inmate who had sent these letters to a woman who turned them over to police. The letters indicated a rather intimate knowledge of the extortion attempt. Upon interrogation, inmate Whitten confessed. He said that the whole plot had been conceived in early 1903, when Gravelle had been his cellmate.

As the writer Salina Davis explains in the book Jerks in Montana History: “In their cramped cell, sometime during the spring of 1903, Whitten dictated to Ike four extortion letters, addressed to the board of directors of the Northern Pacific.” Gravelle managed to conceal these extortion letters, and when he obtained release from prison, the letters went with him. (That didn’t stop Whitten from writing tell-tale personal letters to the woman who spilled the beans, however.)

Gravelle had been the lone active participant, while Whitten and another inmate named Morgan, both of whom were serving life sentences, had assisted in the composition of the blackmailing letters. If the plot worked, the two other inmates were to benefit by “having a part of the money devoted to an effort to secure commutations of their prison sentences,” according to The Wide World Magazine.

One wonders whether or not Gravelle, if successful in obtaining the money, would have kept his part of the bargain to his former fellow inmates. Either way, all of the combined evidence resulted in a conviction.

But the State wasn’t done with him yet. He still had to stand trial for burglary committed before the dynamiting threats were made. On August 11, 1904, Gravelle was being transferred from his cell to the court when he asked to use the bathroom. Inside a stall, he retrieved a revolver that had been stashed (presumably by someone else). During his ensuing escape from the courthouse, Gravelle fatally shot a deputy, as well as another man who pursued him through the streets. Eventually cornered in downtown Helena, he either succumbed to his injuries in the shoot-out or put the gun to his own head. He was buried without any service or mourners.

Though Gravelle and Kaczynski were both Montana serial bombers, they had very different goals. Kaczynski had vague goals of wanting to overthrow modern society and returning our world to the state it had been in before the Industrial Revolution. Gravelle, on the other hand, just wanted a fat stack of ill-gotten cash.