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

Ike Gravelle, Montana’s Original Dynamiting Extortionist

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.

8 Allegedly Cursed Places

Some of the most picturesque spots in the world hide legends of a curse. Castles, islands, rivers, and more have supposedly suffered spooky misfortunes as the result of a muttered hex cast after a perceived slight—whether it's by a maligned monk or a mischievous pirate. Below are eight such (allegedly) unfortunate locations.


An 800-year-old ruined wall stands on the grounds of a large steelworks in Port Talbot, Wales. The wall is surrounded by a fence and held up by a number of brick buttresses—all because of an ancient curse. The story goes that when King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in the 16th century, one of the local Cistercian monks evicted from Margam Abbey told the new owners of the site, in a bid to protect it, that if the wall fell, the entire town would fall with it (it's unclear why he would focus on that particular part of the structure). Since then, the townsfolk have tried hard to protect the wall, even as an enormous steelworks was built around it. Rumors abound that the hex-giving monk still haunts the site in a red habit, keeping an eye on his precious wall.


Alloa tower in Scotland
HARTLEPOOLMARINA2014, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 4.0

Alloa Tower in Clackmannanshire, Scotland, has reportedly been subject to a curse for hundreds of years. In the 16th century, the Earl of Mar is said to have destroyed the local Cambuskenneth Abbey and taken the stones to build his new palace. The Abbot of Cambuskenneth was so furious he supposedly cast a multi-part curse on the Erskine family—ominously known as “The Doom of Mar." It is said that at least part of the curse has come true over the years, including that three of the children of the Mar family would “never see the light” (three of the earl’s ancestors’ offspring were reportedly born blind). The curse also supposedly predicted that the house would burn down, which occurred in 1800. Another part of the curse: The house would lay in ruins until an ash sapling grew from its roof. Sure enough, around 1820 a sapling was seen sprouting from the roof, and since then the family curse is said to have been lifted.


In the fall of 2017, archeologists reopened an almost-4500-year-old tomb complex in Giza, Egypt, that contains the remains of hundreds of workers who built the great Pyramid of Giza. The tomb also contains the remains of the supervisor of the workers, who is believed to have added curses to the cemetery to protect it from thieves. One such curse reads: "All people who enter this tomb who will make evil against this tomb and destroy it, may the crocodile be against them in water and snakes against them on land. May the hippopotamus be against them in water, the scorpion against them on land." The complex is now open to the public—who may or may not want to take their chances.


A chateau just north of the French Riviera may sound like a delightful place to be, but amid the ruins of the Chateau de Rocca-Sparviera—the Castle of the Sparrow-Hawk—lies a disturbing legend. The tale centers around a medieval French queen named Jeanne, who supposedly fled to the castle after her husband was killed. She arrived with two young sons and a monk known to enjoy his drink. One Christmas, she went into the village to hear a midnight mass, and when she returned, she found that the monk had killed her sons in a drunken rage. (In another version of the story, she was served a banquet of her own children, which she unknowingly ate.) According to legend, Jeanne then cursed the castle, saying a bird would never sing nearby. To this day, some travelers report that the ruins are surrounded by an eerie silence.


Stopped off at a small uninhabited island that, according to Thai mythology, is cursed by the god Tarutao. If anyone dared to even take one pebble off this island they would be forever cursed! 😈 I heard from a local that every year the National Park office receive many stones back via mail from people who want to lift the curse! I was never much of a stone collector anyway... ☻☹☻☹☻ #thailand #kohlanta #kohlipe #kohhingham #islandhopping #islandlife #beachlife #pebbles #beach #speedboat #travelgram #instatraveling #wanderlust #exploringtheglobe #exploretocreate #traveleverywhere #aroundtheworld #exploringtheglobe #travelawesome #wanderer #earth_escape #natgeotravel #serialtraveler #awesomesauce #picoftheday #photooftheday #potd

A post shared by Adil - 爱迪尔 - عادل (@theglaswegistani) on

The tiny uninhabited island of Koh Hingham, off the coast of Thailand, is blessed with a covering of precious black stones. The stones are not precious because they contain anything valuable in a monetary sense, but because according to Thai mythology the god Tarutao made them so. Tarutao is said to have invoked a curse upon anyone who takes a stone off the island. As a result, every year the national park office that manages the island receives packages from all over the world, sent by tourists returning the stones and attempting to rid themselves of bad luck.


The "cursed" PH stones of St. Andrews University
Nuwandalice, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The initials PH are paved into the ground outside St. Salvator’s Chapel at St. Andrews University in Scotland. They mark the spot where 24-year-old preacher and faculty member Patrick Hamilton was burned at the stake for heresy in 1528—an early trigger of the Scottish Reformation. The location is therefore supposed to be cursed, and it is said that any student who stands on the initials is doomed to fail their exams. As a result of this superstition, after graduation day many students purposefully go back to stand on the spot now that all danger of failure has passed.


Charles Island, Connecticut
Michael Shaheen, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Charles Island lies off the coast of Milford, Connecticut, and is accessible from the mainland via a sandbar when the tide is low. Today it's home to a peaceful nature reserve for local birds, but its long history supposedly includes three curses. The first is said to have been cast in 1639 by the chief of the Paugussett tribe, after the nation was driven off the land by settlers—the chief supposedly cursed any building erected on the land. The second was supposedly laid in 1699 when the pirate Captain William Kidd stopped by the island to bury his booty and protected it with a curse. Shortly afterward, Kidd was caught and executed for his crimes—taking the location of his treasure to his grave.

The third curse is said to have come all the way from Mexico. In 1525, Mexican emperor Guatimozin was tortured by Spaniards hoping to locate Aztec treasure, but he refused to give up its whereabouts. In 1721, a group of sailors from Connecticut supposedly stumbled across the Aztec loot hidden in a cave in Mexico. After an unfortunate journey home in which disaster after disaster slowly depleted the crew, the sole surviving sailor reportedly landed on Charles Island, where he buried the cursed treasure in the hope of negating its hex.


A house in Bodie, California
Jim Bahn, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Bodie, in California's Sierra Nevadas, sprang up as a result of the gold rush. The town boomed in the late 19th century, with a population nearing 10,000 people. But as the gold seams ran dry, Bodie began a slow and steady decline, hastened by a series of devastating fires. By the 1950s, the place had become a ghost town, and in 1962 it was designated a State Historic Park, with the the buildings kept in a state of “arrested decay." Bodie's sad history has encouraged rumors of a curse, and many visitors to the site who have picked up an abandoned souvenir have reportedly been dogged with bad luck. So much so, the Bodie museum displays numerous letters from tourists who have sent back pilfered booty in the hope of breaking their run of ill fortune.

But the curse didn't start with prospectors or spooked visitors. The rumor apparently originated from rangers at the park, who hoped that the story would prevent visitors from continuing to steal items. In one sense the story worked, since many people are now too scared to pocket artifacts from the site; in another, the rangers have just succeeded in increasing their workload, as they now receive letter after letter expressing regret for taking an item and reporting on the bad luck it caused—further reinforcing the idea of the Bodie curse.

Chris Jackson, Getty Images
21 Other Royal Babies Born In The Last 20 Years
Chris Jackson, Getty Images
Chris Jackson, Getty Images

by Kenny Hemphill

At 11:01 a.m. on April 23, 2018, the Royal Family got a new member when it was announced that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have welcomed their third child, a (yet-to-be-named) boy, who will become fifth in line to the throne. While William and Kate's three children may be the youngsters closest to the throne, they're not the only pint-sized descendants of Queen Elizabeth II to be born in the past 20 years. Here are 21 more of them.


Arthur Robert Nathaniel Chatto, who turned 19 years old February 5, is the younger son of Lady Sarah and Daniel Chatto. He is 23rd in the line of succession—and has been raising some royal eyebrows with his penchant for Instagram selfies.


The grandson of Lord Snowden and Princess Margaret, and son of the 2nd Earl and Countess of Snowdon, Charles—who was born on July 1, 1999—is the heir apparent to the Earldom of Snowdon.


Britain's Queen Elizabeth II (R) speaks to Serena Armstrong-Jones, Countess of Snowdon (L), David Armstrong-Jones (2L), 2nd Earl of Snowdon, and Lady Margarita Armstrong-Jones (2R).

Born on May 14, 2002, Lady Margarita is sister to Charles Armstrong-Jones, and great-niece to the Queen. She's 20th in line to the throne.


Lady Louise Windsor is the eldest child and only daughter of Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, and Sophie, Countess of Wessex. She was born on November 8, 2003 and is 11th in line for the throne.


The third child of Lady Helen and Timothy Taylor, Eloise Olivia Katherine Taylor was born on March 2, 2003 and is 43rd in line for the throne.


Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge chats to Estella Taylor on the balcony during Trooping the Colour - Queen Elizabeth II's Birthday Parade, at The Royal Horseguards on June 14, 2014 in London, England
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Eloise's younger sister, Estella Olga Elizabeth Taylor, was born on December 21, 2004. She is the youngest of the four Taylor children and is 44th in succession.


The younger child of Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, and Sophie, Countess of Wessex, James Alexander Philip Theo Mountbatten-Windsor—or Viscount Severn—was born on December 17, 2007 and is 10th in line for the throne.


Albert Louis Philip Edward Windsor, born September 22, 2007, is notable for being the first royal baby to be baptized a Catholic since 1688. He is the son of Lord and Lady Nicholas Windsor, and grandson of the Duke and Duchess of Kent. According to the Act of Settlement, which was passed in 1701, being baptized Catholic would automatically exclude a potential royal from the line of succession. But there was some controversy surrounding this when, up until 2015, the Royal Family website included Albert.


Lord Culloden, Xan Richard Anders Windsor, is son to the Earl of Ulster and Claire Booth, and grandson of the Duke of Gloucester. He was born on March 2, 2007 and is 26th in succession.


Like his older brother Albert, Leopold Windsor—who was born on September 8, 2009—is not in line to the throne, by virtue of being baptized a Roman Catholic (though he, too, was listed on the Royal Family's website for a time).


Autumn Phillips, Isla Phillips, Peter Philips and Savannah Phillips attend Christmas Day Church service at Church of St Mary Magdalene on December 25, 2017 in King's Lynn, England
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Savannah Anne Kathleen Phillips, the Queen's first great-grandchild, was born on December 29, 2010 to Peter Phillips, son of Princess Anne and Mark Phillips, and Autumn Kelly. She is 14th in line for the throne.


Senna Kowhai Lewis, who was born on June 2, 2010, is the daughter of Gary and Lady Davina Lewis, elder daughter of Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester. She was a beneficiary of the Succession to the Crown Act 2013, which abolished the practice of giving sons precedence over daughters in the line of succession, regardless of when they are born. As a result, she is 29th in succession.


Daughter of Lady Rose and George Gilman, and granddaughter of Prince Richard, 2nd Duke of Gloucester, Lyla Beatrix Christabel Gilman was born on May 30, 2010. She is 32nd in succession.


Lady Cosima Rose Alexandra Windsor was born on May 20, 2010. She is sister to Lord Culloden, daughter of the Earl of Ulster and Claire Booth, and granddaughter to the Duke of Gloucester. She's 27th in line for the throne.


Lyla Gilman's brother, Rufus, born in October 2012, is 33rd in line for the throne.


Tāne Mahuta Lewis, Senna's brother, was named after a giant kauri tree in the Waipoua Forest of the Northland region of New Zealand. He was born on May 25, 2012 and is 30th in line for the throne, following the Succession to the Crown Act 2013.


Princess Anne, Princess Royal, Isla Phillips and Peter Phillips attend a Christmas Day church service
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Peter and Autumn Phillips's second and youngest daughter, Isla Elizabeth Phillips, was born on March 29, 2012 and is 15th in succession.


Maud Elizabeth Daphne Marina Windsor, the daughter of Lord Frederick and Lady Sophie of Windsor and granddaughter of Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, was born on August 15, 2013 and is 47th in line for the throne.


Louis Arthur Nicholas Felix Windsor, who was born on May 27, 2014, is the youngest child of Lord and Lady Nicholas Windsor, and brother of Leopold and Albert. As he was baptized into the Roman Catholic church, he's not in line to the throne.


Mike Tindall, Zara Tindall and their daughter Mia Tindall pose for a photograph during day three of The Big Feastival at Alex James' Farm on August 28, 2016 in Kingham, Oxfordshire.
Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images

Daughter of Zara Phillips and her husband, former England rugby player Mike Tindall, Mia Grace Tindall was born on January 17, 2014 and is 17th in the line of succession.


Isabella Alexandra May, the second and youngest daughter of Lord Frederick and Lady Sophie of Windsor, was the last addition to the royal family. In July 2016, she was christened at Kensington Palace wearing the same gown worn by both Prince George and Princess Charlotte (it's a replica of the one that Queen Victoria's children wore). Looking on was celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who is one of Isabella's godparents.


More from mental floss studios