March 17, 2010

Tom Word: Skagway vigilante, 1898





For a few years now I have been exchanging interesting e-mails with Fred Wood, a great-grandson of Skagway's Thomas Marshall Word. If Fred and I are correct Word is the man who acted as the go-between for Soapy and the vigilante's after John Fay shot and killed Deputy U.S. Marshal Rowan and Andy McGrath. Word was involved in the hunt for the gang after Soapy had been killed and came real close to becoming famous as the man who captured the three top gangsters, Bowers, Foster, and Wilder. Hours later he was one of the guards protecting those same three bunco steerers locked away on the third floor of the Burkhard Hotel. Tom Word twice aided in keeping a blood thirsty vigilante mob from orchestrating a wholesale slaughter and that's something his g-grandson can be proud of.

Fred is naturally interested in learning as much as he possibly can about Tom and I have been doing everything I could to assist him, as has Marlene McCluskey. of the Skagway Historical Society. At the very least it is a pleasure to know him, even if our descendants were on opposing sides.

Tom Word's adventures are described in Alias Soapy Smith. He first appears after John Fay murdered the Deputy U.S. Marshal and Andy McGrath.

Immediately after killing the two men, John Fay hurried to Jeff for protection. Fay was in hiding when the new church bell tolled that afternoon, calling all concerned to determine what was to be done about the double homicide. Major Strong led the vigilante meeting, or tried to. Arguments swayed between seeing Fay fairly tried and seeing him hanged. Jeff addressed the group to call for calm, rationality, and preservation of law and order, but he also threatened to shoot anyone who tried to carry out a lynching. Tom M. Ward, a local merchant, said he knew the whereabouts of Fay and that he had agreed to give himself up if guaranteed protection and a fair trial.

After Soapy was killed Tom Word was involved in the manhunt for the Soap Gang.


Triplett gave his captors the last known location of Bowers, Foster, and Wilder. An armed posse of 30 men scoured the hillside all day Sunday and into the early evening, looking for the men, but did not find them. In the early evening Tom Ward and 8 others were searching the hills near the cemetery. John Patten and James Little had a hunch that Bowers, Foster, and Wilder might be in the area, so they hid near a little bridge just north of the cemetery and waited for Ward and his men to leave, which they did around 8 p.m. About 8:30 the 3 fugitives stepped into the open about 50 yards to the east of Patten and Little and began walking straight towards Patten’s hiding spot. When they were about 15 feet from him, he stood up, aimed his Winchester rifle at the men, and demanded their surrender. They did so without resistance. Bowers, Foster, and Wilder were marched into town about midnight where under cover of darkness they were taken to the city hall jail.

Within hours Word is giving assistance in guarding the captured gang.

Since the night of the gunfight US Army Captain Yeatman had been regularly telephoning Commissioner Sehlbrede to ask if order had been restored. Sehlbrede assured Yeatman that he had everything under control, but with the capture of Old Man Tripp and then Bowers, Foster, and Wilder, a crowd had assembled, kept growing, and at last reached the critical mass of a mob that wanted to seize the prisoners. About 11:30 “Sehlbrede hurried to the scene and begged the people to maintain … good order….” That appeal somewhat calmed the turmoil, but it renewed and continued growing until by 2 a.m., Monday, July 11, Sehlbrede called Captain Yeatman and asked him to bring his soldiers. Sehlbrede then ordered Tanner to transfer Bowers, Foster, and Wilder to the same third-floor Burkhard Hotel area occupied by Van Triplett. Some of the men helping to guard the prisoners were F. F. Clark, Dr. J. A. Cleveland, Tom Word, W. J. Rogers, and Captain Sperry, chairman of the Citizens’ Committee. Once together, the inmates began to sing. One soloist sang, “Take Back Your Gold,” a sad love song composed in 1897. Word continued to spread that the four men responsible for the robbery had been captured and were being held at the Burkhard. Soon several hundred men were noisily demanding that they be allowed to interrogate the prisoners about the whereabouts of the sack of gold and then to deal with them “as the crowd saw fit.”


You may have noticed that there are two separate spellings, Thomas Marshall Word and Thomas M. Ward. We now believe they are one and the same person.

When I first met Fred I could not find my information on Thomas Word, however, I had some on a Thomas M. Ward and applied the belief to Fred that the Skagway newspapers misspelled his name, not an uncommon error. It was not until I actually published my book that my index listed Word. I had had it all along.

We then centered on Tom M. Ward to see if Ward and Word were actually the same man. We knew a newspaper error was possible so I asked about Tom's birth. Fred told me that Word was born in Missouri but his parents had been raised in Tennessee so it is possible Tom had a southern accent which may have been a cause for the misspelling. I can remember as a youngster enjoying the rock group Pink Floyd. The lead singers name was Roger Waters. I plainly remember my shock when I learned that his name was not "Walters." That English accent when he spoke his name sound like "Walters" to me.

From Marlene, Fred learned that Tom Word had a son, Arthur Clark Word, who passed away in Skagway in 1898 during the flu epidemic. His body was sent back to Portland to be buried.

Ironically Fred had visited Skagway a few years prior to learning he had a connection there.

Fred writes,

I was in Skagway years ago before I knew anything about all this, I would be fun to go back and look at it through different eyes.


It appears to me that Thomas Word was legitimately interested that law and order prevail no matter what the accused did. He aided Soapy in making sure John Fay got a fair trial and protected the Soapy Gang from a lynching. Although Fred can honestly be proud of his descendant in Skagway, his family does have a few skeletons in the closet that he want to mention.

Fred writes,

About the dark side....Another Ggpa of mine, John C Franks, was the first city Marshal of Salinas CA, and later Monterey County Sheriff and then US Marshal in SF. He left Monterey county under a cloud after being VP of the Anti-Chinese League while being Sheriff. Seems a few Chinese merchants where hanged during that period.

So we know dark, I'm reading old newspapers out of Salinas to see what I can find out.

But wait there's more! It has not been verified yet but Fred, while doing his genealogical research has found a family link from Word to Soapy through the Edmondson line. Emily Dawson Edmondson was Soapy's mother.... more to come.














pp. 458, 567










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