Iowa History Daily: On July 11, 1881, Charles Knox Polk (Poke) Wells and his accomplice ‘Wilson’ stole $4,000 ($114,625.88 in 2022) from the Riverton Bank in Fremont County. A potential compatriot of the famed Jesse James-Younger Gang, Wells later died in Anamosa State Penitentiary after a failed escape attempt.
Born in Buchanan County, Missouri, a turn of luck in a poker game provided the future outlaw with the startup money to strike west. Over ten years, Poke Wells gained some repute after escaping Indigenous captivity on two separate occasions. A noted barroom brawler, the stocky Wells won famous friends including Kit Carson. Carson gifted him a buckhorn-handled hunting knife and introduced him to “Wild” Bill Hicock.
Married to Nora Wilson in his home state of Missouri during 1872, Poke Wells started out on a reformed life. However, a wild life awaited after the grocery store and saloon he operated failed. Striking out on the road in his former western haunts, Wells attempted to return to the settled life after two years but found his wife remarried and his child dead. The course of fate led an angry Wells to a 1879 highway robbery.
A reputed rider with the James-Younger, robberies of an express train and several banks followed for Wells. By the time he and ‘Wilson’ arrived in Fremont County’s Riverton in 1881 the former grocery clerk cut a convincing image of a hardened criminal. At 3:00 p.m., the duo waltzed into the Riverton Bank and relieved the institution of $4,000 before heading out the backdoor.
A local store owner, Tommy Thompson, heard the cries of help from bank staff and stepped outside to level his Winchester rifle at the fleeing bandits. Striking Wells in the knee, Thompson only succeeded in slowing the robbers down before they ultimately escaped. Nursing the wound in selected woods south of Riverton for several days, Wells eventually resurfaced in Randolph, Wisconsin, posing as a reputable merchant.
With a recent James-Younger Gang robbery in the area already drawing plenty of law enforcement attention, Wells didn’t last long on the lam. Arrested by Mills County Sheriff Dan Ferrell on September 24, 1882, a jury eventually convicted Wells. Wells killed a guard with the help of two accomplices in an attempt to escape Fort Madison, earning him a life sentence. Transferred to Anamosa, Wells died in prison. #IowaHistoryDaily #IowaOTD #IowaHistoryCalendar