September 10, 2008

Wilson Mizner - Wyatt Earp's pall-bearer & member of the Soap Gang...

Wilson Mizner, friend of Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp and Jefferson R. “Soapy” Smith. who was this man, a pall-bearer for Wyatt Earp? The above newspaper drawing is possibly the only known likeness of Wilson Mizner in the Klondike (San Francisco Weekly Examiner, September 23, 1897).

In 1942 Mizner worked with author, Alva Johnston in publishing his life story. Some historians might think it strange that Mizner chose to talk more to his biographer about Soapy Smith than of Wyatt Earp or Bat Masterson, whom are only mentioned by name throughout the book.

Time in the Klondike.

Wilson’s brother Edgar was a mining engineer and a representative in the Yukon Valley of the Alaska Commercial Company. Anticipating the gold rush before it occurred the firm set up trading posts in the area and Edgar was sent there to supervise. Edgar wrote his family asking his brothers to join him to make their fortunes but by the time the brothers received the letter and prepared to go the gold rush had already begun.

Wilson Mizner shipped out from San Francisco to Skagway, Alaska in 1897 to help handle company business and prepare for the expedition into the gold fields. In the states Wilson had been well versed in criminal and underworld activities but it was in Skagway where “he received a polishing and finishing from the greatest American professor of sharp practice, gentle larceny, and all-round crime—the celebrated Jefferson Randolph (Soapy) Smith, the real-life American version of the Man Who Would Be King. … Of all Mizner’s idols and mentors, none had a greater influence on his life than Soapy.” In his biography Mizner spoke of Soapy’s escapades. Although possibly just a story the following example is just too classic not include here.

“Mizner told how Soapy was once arrested in Chicago on a charge of operating with confederates [shills] and obtaining money under false pretenses. According to Mizner, the judge was confused. ‘I can’t make head or tail out of this testimony,’ he exclaimed. ‘Let the defendant show me how it works, and let the police officers tell me how the law is violated.’ Soapy wrapped up several cakes of soap, first putting a fifty-dollar bill around one of them. ‘Now, your honor,’ said Soapy, ‘you give me twenty-five cents and choose one of these cakes.’ The judge handed over a quarter and chose the fifty-dollar cake. He shook his right fist at the police officers as his left folded up the bill and placed it in his vest pocket. ‘You!’ he shouted, ‘You have been hounding an honest businessman for pursuing his lawful calling. His merchandising methods are obviously fair and honorable. Case dismissed.’”

Once inside the Klondike region Wilson worked at various professions, including that of a faro dealer, a singer, and even a gold scale “weigher” at the famous Monte Carlo saloon in the city of Dawson. When the Nome, Alaska gold strike hit it big Wilson packed up and moved there. Unfortunately the biography chapter for Nome only mentions Wyatt Earp’s name once and the biography never mentions Mizner was Wyatt’s Pall-bearer many years later. It is Soapy Smith he remembers most.

Jeff Smith

[Source: Johnston, Alva, The Legendary Mizners, Farrar, Straus, and Young, New York, 1942.]

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