History

CROSS-BORDER FUGITIVE

The ‘first war on terrorism’ met Canadian resistance

Brian Bethune October 14 2002
History

CROSS-BORDER FUGITIVE

The ‘first war on terrorism’ met Canadian resistance

Brian Bethune October 14 2002

CROSS-BORDER FUGITIVE

History

The ‘first war on terrorism’ met Canadian resistance

BRIAN BETHUNE

IN FEBRUARY, 1934, after two decades of exemplary life in Canada, Frank Grigware slipped up. The Michigan-born carpenter was down on his luck in the depths of the Depression and unwilling to apply for relief, so he poached two marten in the protected federal park at Jasper, Alta. Grigware was caught, fingerprinted and revealed as one of the most wanted fugitives in North American history—a convicted train robber who had busted out of the original Big House, Leavenworth federal penitentiary in Kansas, in 1910. He had been on the run for 24 years. U.S. authorities were exultant. They immedi-

ately initiated extradition proceedings— and were stunned when they were met by near-unanimous resistance in Canada.

The surprising Canadian response is just one of the ironies of Grigware’s life, and of a story that resonates powerfully with current events, including the ongoing tensions over controlling the border that separates the two nations. Grigware, in fact, should never have been in Leavenworth. U.S. postal investigators who reviewed the case concluded that

the conviction of Grigware and his friend Jack Golden relied on perjured testimony. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson pardoned the still-imprisoned Golden, but not Grigware, by then as guilty of escaping custody as he was innocent of train robbery.

Meanwhile, like many American fugitives before him, Grigware had crossed the 49th parallel. And while he had urgent personal motives, in a larger sense Grigware was only coming home. In the half century before the First World War, millions took part in a huge circular migration around North America. Thousands of Americans went north, mostly to the Canadian Prairies, and as many Canadians headed south in search of opportunity. Among the latter were both of Grigware’s grandfathers. One was a French Canadian originally named Grégoire, the other an Irishman who, before ending up in Michigan, gave Canada a try long enough for Frank’s mother to have been born and raised in Woodstock, Ont.

Despite the constant exchange of populations and parallel westward expansions, the two nations remained very different. Lawlessness in the American West extended far beyond Indian wars and gunslinger duels. The struggle to bring organized labour into the U.S. mining industry in particular was marked by brutal violence on both sides. Harry Orchard, a failed cheese-maker from Ontario, was just another Canadian who drifted south, until he became a hired gun for the Industrial Workers of the World. His 1907 trial for killing a former Idaho governor with a dynamite booby trap was a startlingly modern celebrity event, complete with photo-op appearances by actress Ethel Barrymore and baseball star Walter Johnson. (The murderous use of industrial dynamite appalled contemporaries in exactly the same way the use of passenger jets as missiles shocked North Americans on 9/11.)

The U.S. responded to violent labour unrest with what Virginia journalist Joe Jackson, author of a recent study of Grigware’s case, Leavenworth Train: Bitter Justice in the Vanishing West, calls its “first war on terrorism.” While newspapers whipped up hysteria about dangerous foreigners, meaning primarily the southern and eastern Europeans who were changing the face of American immigration, government officials adopted a 19th-century, zero-tolerance approach. Federal offences carrying harsh penalties proliferated and the U.S. government entered into the formerly states-only business of prisons, starting with Leavenworth in 1897. Caught up in the crackdown, only 24 years old and facing a lifetime in the Big House, it probably didn’t take much to convince Grigware to try an escape. Armed with wooden guns carved in the prison shop, Grigware and five other convicts hijacked the daily goods train, smashed it through the prison gate, and steamed out into the Kansas countryside.

The others were soon recaptured, but by whatever means (he’d never talk about it in later years), Grigware made it—all the way to Canada. Starting in Winnipeg, but ending up in Alberta, the fugitive settled down under his mother’s maiden name of Fahey, got steady work, married, and earned the respect of his fellow citizens. Grigware not only became mayor of Spirit River in the Peace River country of northern Alberta; he even—proof of his essential Canadianism—became president of a curling club.

But then came the Depression. In a final irony, the hard times that left Grigware financially desperate also provoked the American-style law and order measures that revealed his past. Grigware set his illegal traps only two years after Ottawa, seeing a possible revolution by the dispossessed around every corner, required the RCMP to fingerprint everyone arrested, no matter how petty the crime. After he was caught, the differing responses of the two nations fascinates crime-writer Jackson, a four-time Pulitzer prize nominee. Grigware’s arrest made the U.S. papers, the author notes, first as one of a spate of stories about how new forensic advances, like the FBI’s vast fingerprint collection, were extending the long arm of the law, just as today’s headlines extol the role of DNA evidence in cracking cold cases. Later, after Grigware’s extradition became an issue, the American press began arguing that he should be returned, and then—perhaps—set free, just like his fellow wrongly accused, Golden. Canadian papers, on the other hand, demanded his immediate release. “The popular conception of mercy in the two

Grigware earned the respect of his fellow citizens, got elected mayor of a small Alberta town, and evenproof of his essential Canadianism-became president of a curling club

countries,” Jackson says, “was very different and very real.”

The Toronto Daily Star led the charge, as ready then as now to champion the little guy, particularly when it also provided an opportunity for tweaking Yankee noses. Feature writer Frederick Griffin was soon on the scene, scoring the first jailhouse interview with Grigware, whom he called “a modern Jean Valjean.” In story after story Griffin hammered on his key themes: Grigware’s innocence of the original crime, his Canadian ancestry, his lovely wife and sturdy children, his exemplary record in Alberta, the support of his new compatriots.

The journalist even travelled to Nebraska to talk to Thomas Munger, Grigware’s trial judge in 1910 and still a sitting federal justice. That interview, described in astonishing detail in the Star, degenerated almost immediately into a shouting match about American vengefulness and Canadian soft-heartedness. Munger’s bailiff had to break it up. Throughout Griffin’s campaign, Canadians by the thousands signed Free Grigware petitions and sent them to any American they thought might matter, including Eleanor Roosevelt. Even Alberta premier John Brownlee and Prime Minister R.B. Bennett joined in. On May 12, the U.S. government withdrew its extradition request and Grigware was set free.

But the Americans still considered Grigware a fugitive and kept an eye on him for the rest of his long life. He never dared go home again, even for his mother’s funeral. Frank Grigware died in Lacombe, Alta., in 1977 at the age of 91, still shadowed by a bitter justice rooted in events almost a century old. 171