May – June 2020
Local Lore & Mysterious Matters
Episode 3: A cashier conundrum, the Pyramid cradle, and the Sundance scandal.
BY ERIC CACHINERO
Mankind’s natural curiosity for the mysterious and unexplained spans our entire history. Where is the lost city of Atlantis? Will we ever know the identity of Jack the Ripper? How were ancient sites like Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids constructed? Is Bigfoot real? What actually caused the dinosaurs to go extinct? Do aliens exist?
Nevada holds its own collection of myths and mysteries, peculiar and unexplained. Some are morbid, some are silly, but all require the reader to take a small step—or leap, if you like—into a “Twilight Zone” mindset. Sit back, relax, and enjoy, because you’ve just crossed over.
THE CASHIER CONUNDRUM
“Roy J. Frisch stepped into oblivion yesterday.” —“Nevada State Journal,” March 23, 1934
On the evening of March 22, 1934, Roy Frisch did just that—disappeared completely. The 41-year-old Reno resident was living at 247 Court Street with his mother and sisters, and shortly before his disappearance, he decided to walk to see the movie “Gallant Lady” at the Majestic Theater, located about four blocks from his house. An account of Frisch’s final moments is detailed by Nevada historian Phillip I. Earl:
Frisch left his Court Street home at around 7:30 p.m. He traveled two blocks east on Court Street, before heading north at the Washoe County Courthouse. Frisch continued north across the Virginia Street Bridge and walked two more blocks to reach the theater. He watched the film, then left the theater at around 9:30 p.m. On the way home, Frisch took a different route, walking First Street to Sierra Street, then followed Sierra south to Court. Between 9:45-10:15 p.m., Frisch recognized a friend on a street corner, and the two talked for a bit. From there—only a couple blocks from home—he continued his walk, but would never reach his destination.
Frisch’s disappearance may have gone under the radar as an ordinary missing-persons case had it not been for one glaring red flag that would establish it as a national sensation. At the time of his disappearance, Frisch was working as a lead cashier at the Riverside Bank in Reno, which was owned by one of the state’s most prominent, powerful, and wealthiest men, George Wingfield. Several month’s prior to his disappearance, Frisch had testified to a grand jury regarding the bank’s involvement in a sinister financial scam. The scam was perpetrated by the notoriously shady Reno mobsters and conmen James McKay and William J. Graham, whom Frisch testified against.
The duo’s tactics reportedly lured an unsuspecting subject with a planted “lost” purse full of cash. When the target returned the purse to its rightful owner, they were offered a “tip” in a horse race that took place in some distant location. If the selected horse won the race, the target was then asked to offer up good-faith cash to prove that they could have covered the loss if need be. The good-faith cash was deposited into the Riverside Bank, and the target was given a ticket to collect their large winnings at the distant horse track. By the time they tried to cash in, however, the good-faith money was long gone, and the victim was left scammed and embarrassed.
It is believed that Frisch told jurors details about the amounts of money that were transferred to the bank, as well as the identities of those who received it, leading to McKay and Graham receiving federal charges for their scam. Unfortunately, for Frisch, though, the duo had ties to the mob, and they were gunning for Frisch.
At the time, mobster Lester M. Gillis (Baby Face Nelson) was working as a bouncer and chauffeur for McKay and Graham. Nelson and fellow gangster John Paul Chase were prime suspects after Frisch went missing. In an article, Nevada author David Toll claimed that Chase was later arrested on charges unrelated to the disappearance, and went on to tell investigators that he and Nelson had killed Frisch. Toll writes, “Nelson had blocked Frisch’s path with the black Buick sedan he was driving, and then picked a fight with him. He knocked Roy down, and then threw him in the back of the car. They had driven out of town, he said, eventually pulling off the highway near Yerington, where they killed Frisch.”
The “Chicago Daily Tribune” in a July 1935 issue, claimed that head of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover confirmed that Chase had seen Frisch’s slaying firsthand, and that Chase would be brought forward to show authorities the location of Frisch’s body. Chase, however, once in Nevada, claimed he couldn’t remember where the body was located.
The only other witness to the crime, Baby Face Nelson, went on a maniacal killing spree soon after he left Reno in April 1934. He was subsequently killed in a shootout with FBI agents in November 1934 near Barrington, Illinois. Seeing that Chase was unreliable, the only true lead of Frisch’s whereabouts died along with Baby Face Nelson.
Did Baby Face Nelson and John Paul Chase really kill Roy Frisch? Was George Wingfield somehow involved in the scam? Will Frisch’s body ever be found?
THE PYRAMID CRADLE
Pyramid Lake has an undeniable beauty: miles of sandy beaches, emerald water, impressive tufa formations, and, of course, the signature pyramid-shaped rock the lake is famous for. The lake is owned by the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, and is a popular camping and fishing destination, though it’s not without its spooky side. Many who have visited this northwestern Nevada treasure have heard the legend of the lake’s crying babies that grab swimmers and beachgoers, dragging them to an icy demise.
Water babies, as they have come to be known, are derived from Paiute legend, which explains that the babies are evil spirits that inhabit the lake. It is said that the babies venture from the water at night to steal unattended children. Many people over the years have reported hearing the sound of crying babies at night, and the sound is said to lure both curious children and alarmed adults into the lake searching for the source of the crying. This coupled with a rash of drownings at the lake over the years has kept the legend alive.
For as widespread as the myth of the water babies is, though, there may be some reasonable explanation as to why the drownings have occurred. In his book “Nevada Myths & Legends,” author Richard Moreno explains, “The lake can be a treacherous place to swim because it has a severe undertow, which can drag a swimmer, particularly a young one, under the waves or far out into the lake to drown. The lake bed is also tricky—shallow and perfect for wading in some spots but suddenly deep in others (it is 356 feet at its deepest point). It’s not a stretch to believe that the legends about water babies might have evolved to scare young children into giving the lake a wide berth or to at least treat it with caution.”
Do the notorious water babies actually exist in the lake, or is the story a way to keep children cautious of the water? Why have there been so many reports of hearing babies crying in the lake at night over the years?
THE SUNDANCE SCANDAL
At the First National Bank of Winnemucca on Sept. 19, 1900, life was pretty normal. That was, however, until at around noon, when three cowboys strolled into the bank with sin in their souls. Two held the bank staff at gunpoint, while the third—said to have a scruffy blonde beard—stuck a long knife to the throat of bank manager George Nixon, and demanded he open the safe. The desperados helped themselves to the vault’s contents, which included a sack of gold coins, before ransacking several other locations in the bank. The trio then forced the bank employees and patrons at gunpoint to a small yard behind the bank. It was there that the outlaws would hop a fence where their getaway horses awaited.
From there, chaos ensued.
The panicked bank manager retrieved a pistol and began recklessly shooting it into the air, garnering attention that he had been robbed. At the same time, one of the bank’s patrons retrieved a rifle from a decorative case on the wall, lined its sights on the retreating robbers, and pulled the trigger. Click. The rifle was unloaded.
At the same time, having heard the gunfire, Winnemucca Deputy Sherriff George Rose grabbed his own rifle and climbed a windmill to get a better view of what was happening. Rose saw the three outlaws heading back toward town, because apparently, the bag full of gold coins had fallen from the horse, and they rode back to retrieve it. The robbers fired upon several townsfolk who attempted to intervene, before grabbing the loot and once again making their getaway east out of town on Golconda Road.
Rose reportedly hightailed it to the nearby train station, where he would command the railroad crew to fire up a small steam engine so he could pursue the robbers. Rose, who rode on the front of the engine like a live hood ornament, eventually caught up with the trio, and he began shooting at them with his rifle from the front of the train. Rose wounded one horse before the trio managed to find a break in the barbed wire, and was seen for the last time ever, headed away from the tracks and north toward Idaho.
Weeks later, it was discovered that the cowboy outlaws had camped in the Winnemucca area, and at the campsite, several cryptic torn-up letters were uncovered. The first was dated Sept. 1, 1900 and was addressed to a man named C. E. Rowe of Golconda. The letter, once reconstructed, read, “Dear Friend: Yours at hand this evening. We are glad to know you are getting along well. In regards to the sale enclosed letter will explain everything. We have left Baggs, so write us at Encampment, Wyoming. Hoping to hear from you soon I am as ever, your friend Mike.”
Another letter was written on the letterhead of Wyoming attorney D. A. Pristine, though the letter bore the signature D. A. Prestone. According to Nevada author David Toll, who wrote about the robbery in a 1983 issue of Nevada Magazine, D. A. Prestone was an attorney who represented Butch Cassidy, as well as several other members of the notorious group of robbers called the Wild Bunch.
A while after the robbery, a private investigation company called the Pinkerton National Detective Agency sent a photograph to bank manager Nixon of a group of outlaws that were suspected of robbing banks across the west. From the photograph, Nixon recognized two of the men. The first was a man named Harvey Logan, a notorious outlaw who went by the name Kid Curry. The second Nixon recognized as Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, the Sundance Kid.
The most-accepted theory of the outlaws’ true identity was that the bank was robbed by the Sundance Kid, but without Butch Cassidy. Nixon after seeing a photograph of Cassidy, wrote the Pinkerton agency, “While I am satisfied that Cassidy was interested in the robbery, he was not one of the men who entered the bank.”
Other theories exclude the famous robbers entirely, claiming that Nixon and First National Bank of Winnemucca owner George Wingfield [the same George Wingfield in the Roy Frisch story] were in on the heist together, using hired hands.
Was the Sundance Kid really involved in robbing the First National Bank of Winnemucca? Was Butch Cassidy also involved? Or was the entire heist fabricated by George Nixon and George Wingfield?