This Week in History: The Poet and the Bandit

Watchthe story of these lifelong friends is preserved in letters, which are now safely stored at the BC Archives.

When George Winkler met Shorty Dunn in Princeton around 1905, he probably didn’t expect that within a few years Shorty would be involved in a train robbery with the notorious Bill Miner.

But the story of these lifelong friends is preserved in letters, which are now safely stored at the BC Archives.

Archivist Katy Hughes explains that there were more than 50 letter donated.

“No one had seen them for 20 or 30 years by the time I opened up the boxes, and when I saw these particular letters, in several little bundles, I was quite excited.”

So what’s in the letters?

“Well” says Hughes, “everyone knows about Bill Miner, the train robber…”

Bill Miner served several prison terms for stagecoach robbery in the late 19th and early 20th century.

“But not too many people know about one of his sidekicks, who was called Shorty Dunn,” Hughes continues.  “And he was one of the people that was caught with Miner and sent to the federal penitentiary in 1906. It was his one and only attempt at crime.  But he was friends with a man named George Winkler, who had a long time residence in Victoria.  Winkler actually died in the 1970’s, well over 100 years old.”

After Winkler’s death in 1978, a friend contacted the BC Archives with a donation.

“And they were letters” says Hughes, “from Shorty Dunn, the train robber, who wrote to George Winkler while he was in prison.”

Not only letters, buy many drawings too.

“Shorty drew cartoons, obviously as a way to pass the time, but also to show what conditions in the federal penitentiary were like.”

So how did these two men first meet?  That was in Princeton, BC, in 1905.

“Shorty was a ranch hand” says Hughes.  “He came from Wisconsin originally, but he was living and working in BC as a ranch hand.”

Winkler had come to Princeton from Manitoba to manage a grain store.  Winkler was a published poet, and became friends with Shorty as both men shared a passion for writing.

“George was quite shocked when Shorty went to prison,” says Hughes, “when Shorty got caught up with Bill Miner, and was caught robbing trains and went to prison.”

And so Winkler and some of his friends began a campaign to get Shorty released.

“They felt Shorty had made a mistake, and that it was a one-time mistake, and that he was a good person, and he shouldn’t have to suffer a life sentence” Hughes explained.

“And they wrote to Ottawa, and put a lot of pressure on various government departments to get Shorty released, and they were successful. He was released in 1915, after serving nine years.”

Shorty returned to Princeton, but died by accidental drowning in 1927.

“George was one of the first people” says Hughes, “to receive a telegram letting him know that his friend had drown.  And Shorty’s last letter to George was just a few months before.”

The two men had maintained their friendship until Shorty’s death.  And now, those letters are safely stored at the BC Archives for anyone to see.

People are always welcome to come into the Archives” says Hughes. “We’re open Monday to Friday from 10 to 4, with staff here to help people get started, and there’s a whole wealth of information that people can find.”

Veronica CooperVeronica Cooper

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