August 1, 2011

Gunfight at the Pocatello Train Depot 1889

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This month marks the anniversary of the gunfight at the Pocatello, Idaho train depot on August 30, 1889. The is the fire-fight in which Soapy Smith had famed Earp gunman, "Texas Jack" Vermillion at his side. Also with Soapy were Soap Gang members "Fatty Gray, " G. E. "Auctioneer" Roberts, J. W. Allen, and Soapy's younger, hot headed brother, Bascomb. It also is one of the closets moments in which Soapy nearly lost his life. In my private collection is the original letter Soapy wrote to his wife with the details of the gun battle. The letters content is recorded below.

Much of the following comes direct from my book.


Pocatello, Idaho train station 1885
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In 1889 Soapy was entrenched in the underworld and back-room politics of Denver, Colorado. There was no getting rid of him. However, occasionally he had skip town for a short time in order to let legal troubles subside. On August 4, 1889, Spokane Falls lost thirty-two blocks of the main business district in a horrific fire. Conceivably, in this prime location Jeff saw special opportunity in the aftermath of the fire. Further, there were all the towns between Cheyenne and Spokane to look over and operate in until it was safe to return to Denver.

... On the other hand, it may have been as the Denver Times surmised, “that they were going to Ogden and other cities to ‘work.’” Then an explosive event occurred that caused Jeff to pick Spokane, Washington as a destination.

On Friday, August 30, 1889, Jeff’s train made a scheduled stop at the Pocatello depot. During the wait, a man in railroad switchman clothes came up to the window of the railroad car where Jeff sat and fired at him five times, point blank. All but one bullet missed injuring him. It came so close that it mutilated half Jeff’s mustache as it whizzed by. Jeff drew pistol and returned three shots, all striking their targets, two in one fleeing assailant and one in another. Next, railroad personnel “tried to mob” him, as Jeff put it, but “we stood them off,” and Jeff and his party, with the aid of “a few good citizens,” left Pocatello on a hasty, twenty-five-mile horseback ride north to Blackfoot. The newspaper there gave the shootout only two sentences:

Pocatello had a shooting scrape last week. Nobody killed however.

Three days later, on stationary imprinted with the design and address of the St. Nicholas Hotel in Butte, Montana, Jeff made time to record in a letter to Mary the details of the event and assurances of his well being.

Original letter from Soapy Smith to his wife
describing the gunfight
(Click image to enlarge)


September 2, 1889
Dear wife,

I am all safe and with friends. I had a narrow escape but came out all right. Was sitting in the car at the depot at Pocatello and a man came up and shot at me without any warning through the car window. The smoke of the pistol blinded me for a moment, but I returned the fire and shot both my assailants, one through the thigh, and the other through the calf of the leg and the heel. Five shots were fired at me in all and how I was missed I can’t tell. It looks like providence helped me out. I fired three shots, all of which took effect. The men shot were switchmen and were working for the railroad. The railroaders tried to mob me but we stood them off and got a few good citizens to help and escaped to Blackfoot. We returned the next day. I had my trial and was acquitted. Write to me at Spokan Falls, Washington, Territory.

Bascomb is in Dillon, Montana. Kiss little Jeff & Eva for me. Give all my friends my best wishes and don’t be afraid. Will let you know about other things in my next. I rode 25 miles on a horse in 45 minutes and I am very sore on my sitter. I also lost my mustache as one of the bullets cut half of it off (say nothing about that!) Write me who were my friends. I had to use the money in Pocatello or I would have been there yet.

God bless you my dear wife,
Jeff
p.s. address plain Jeff R. Smith, Spokan Falls, Washington Terr. The man that shot at me was one of the men who got licked at Logan Park.

Pocatello train depot 1885
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The Denver News printed the following on the evening of August 30:

Arrested in Idaho.
The following dispatch was received at police headquarters last evening:
POCATELLO, Idaho., Aug. 30.—Police Headquarters, Denver, Colo.: Is Soapy Smith and gang wanted there? All arrested here. SIMPSON.

According to Jeff, though, in his letter to Mary, he and the men with him returned to Pocatello the next day, August 31, 1889. The police put them in jail while figuring out just what had happened and while waiting for a reply to a wire to Denver about whether Jeff was wanted there. Denver declined the offer to have Jeff returned.

Details of the shootout reached The Denver Times the day after the event, and the story appeared the next day. It was based on a dispatch from Pocatello.

JEFF SMITH SHOOTS A MAN

The Result of a Feud Between Rival Gangs
“SOAPY” PROVES TO BE GAME
From All Accounts the Shooting Was Justifiable Pocatello Toughs Attempt to Drive Denver Experts Out of Idaho.

Jeff Smith, accompanied by “shoot-your-eye-out Jack,” Fatty Gray and others, left Denver last Monday night [August 26], ostensibly for the mountains. It appears now, however, that they did not intend going on a pleasure trip, as they stated, but that they were going to Ogden and other cities to “work.” It will be seen by the following dispatch that the party has not had smooth sailing since leaving Denver:

Special to The Times. POCATELLO, IDAHO, August 31. On the arrival of yesterday’s train from Ogden a shooting affray occurred, in which Samuel Belcher of Ogden was shot through the left leg and right ankle. Jeff Smith of Denver has been arrested as the party who did the shooting. From all facts that can be learned it seems that Smith was justified. A notorious gang at Pocatello, who have been “working” Ogden and other cities, attempted to kill Smith and his companions, but Smith was game and refused to quit the territory which the other gang claimed….
Three guns were drawn on Smith, but he, instead of running, pulled his own gun, shot Belcher and put the others to flight. He was immediately afterwards arrested and will be given a hearing to-day. Another statement as to the effect that the affair grew out of an old feud in which the gang headed by Smith was opposed to a gang being led by “the Rincon Kid.”

It has been well known among “fly” people that an attempt to kill Smith would be made as soon as he left Denver. The “Kid” and his gang are especially bitter against the smooth soap man and in frequent letters to people in Denver the “Kid” has expressed himself as determined to “do” any member of the Smith gang that he might meet.

A number of dispatches were received to-day by friends of Smith’s in which “Soapy” declares that he was justified in shooting Belcher. However, one dispatch from another source states that Belcher was an innocent man whom “Soapy” did not know and did not intend to shoot.

The following dispatch was received this afternoon by a citizen:

“I was honorably acquitted. Show this to my wife. Will write particulars.”
Jeff Smith.
Looking east towards the depot
June 1886
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Major discrepancies occur between Jeff’s version and the Denver dispatch. Jeff wrote that two men attacked him while the dispatch reported three guns (three men?) drawn against him. Jeff claimed Belcher was a beaten man at the Logan Park brawl, yet the dispatch wrote that Belcher was a member of a rival bunco gang attempting to rid his turf of encroachers. (Both reports could be true.) The dispatch reported that Jeff had been arrested immediately following the gunfight while Jeff wrote that he and his men escaped and returned the following day to sort out what had happened with authorities. The money he spent in Pocatello likely went to attorney and enhanced fees to ensure his freedom. The local paper did not publish statements from Jeff about the attack because probably Jeff was gone, immediately having resumed his journey.

The man Belcher is not listed in the 1889 Denver City Directory, but perhaps he and some of the others “who got licked” at Logan Park had been part of a Utah bunco gang that had come over to “work” the well-publicized event. Word was out that Jeff and some of his men were leaving Denver, on holiday. Belcher and the man or men with him could have been waiting for Jeff to come through Pocatello. On the other hand, they might have been from the environs of Denver and as disgruntled victims of Logan Park, were riding the same train, shadowing Jeff, gotten off in Pocatello, changed into railroad work clothes, and closed in on Jeff from outside to gun him down. Still another scenario is that Jeff and the men with him were “working” Utah towns and were being tracked by a rival local gang. If Jeff were going directly to Spokane from Denver, it would not have taken from Monday, August 26 (per the Times story), to Friday, August 30, to reach Pocatello. Moreover, the Denver Times reported Jeff had been on a train arriving in Pocatello from Ogden, which is south of the route from Denver to Spokane. However the true circumstances, clear is that a person or persons wanted Jeff dead.


Once exonerated on September 1, presumably Jeff and the others left. The Idaho News noted the departure: “The smell of gunpowder has been wafted away and the fightists are all gone.” Just where Jeff went next is not exactly clear. He could have gone north into Montana to Butte. That could be where he came by the stationary from the St. Nicholas Hotel in Butte, on which the next day, September 2, Jeff wrote Mary his four-page letter. For certain, Bascomb did go north toward Butte; Jeff wrote that Bascomb was in Dillon, south of Butte. Jeff also wrote that he could be written to in Spokane. He did not, however, travel northwest from Butte to Spokane, at least not by rail. The Great Northern would not have a railway through the Cascades until 1892. Traveling the steep Cascades in 1889 would have been arduous.

Train depot
circa 1910

Clear, though, is that Jeff intended on going to Spokane. In his letter to Mary, he asked her to address her letters “plain Jeff R. Smith, Spokan Falls, Washington Terr.” This means of address was not uncommon, at least for Jeff. A number of letters in the Smith family collections are addressed in a similar manner. It was not wise to advertise a specific place of residence, even on an envelope in the US mails. That would be to invite another Pocatello! Jeff suspected someone in Denver, perhaps even a friend, had given out his itinerary and destination. Near the close of his September 2 letter to Mary appears this cryptic sentence “Write me who were my friends.” It seems likely that in an off-hand way, Jeff is asking who might have been told of his whereabouts and/or route, who might have been inquiring after him, or who might have been inquiring about what had happened in Pocatello. After all, for the attack to be so direct, it must have been known that he was a passenger on that train.

Mary left the children with her mother and hurried to be with her husband, probably at Spokane Falls. While with him, she tried to fix his perforated mustache but without success. Jeff may have resorted to shaving his face smooth and regrowing the beard and mustache that are known in all post 1889 photographs.











Pocatello, Idaho: 75, 88-89, 92, 166-70, 172, 366.
"Texas Jack" ("Shoot-Your-Eye-Out") Vermillion: 75, 88, 91-92, 162-63,165, 170, 175.
John H. "Fatty Gray" Morris: 33-35, 75, 85-86, 88, 92, 100, 113, 153, 156-58, 165, 170, 173, 179, 594.
G. E. "Auctioneer" Roberts: 88, 162-63, 165.
J. W. Allen: 75, 88, 92, 162, 165, 203.




Jeff Smith









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Thank you for leaving your comment and/or question on my blog. I always read, and will answer all questions left here. Please know that they are greatly appreciated. -Jeff Smith