February 12, 2010

William "Klondike" O'Donnell: Update.

(Click image to enlarge)
"Place yer bets!"

Yesterday (see here), I reported on the possibility that Skagway Soap Gang member, William O'Donnell, evicted and forced to leave the city with other gangsters after Soapy was killed, may be William "Klondike" O'Donnell of Chicago mob fame that includes the likes of Al Capone.

I spent the day finding Chicago mob historians and discussion boards to obtain some facts that would answer the question.

I joined The Real Deal: Organized Crime Forum, posting my search for information and some of the members e-mailed me with several authorities on the subject who they felt could help me.

My first response came from John Binder, author of The Chicago Outfit. Mr. Binder needed to "double-check his birth year. But as of right now Klondike was almost certainly too young to be the guy in question...". I thanked him and as of writing this I am awaiting his answer and hope he has a good source for the year of birth and/or death. I admit I was somewhat disappointed in reading Mr. Binder's e-mail and was nearly giving up hope when I received an e-mail from Mr. Robert Schoenberg.

Robert Schoenberg is the author of Mr. Capone: The Real and Complete story of Al Capone. Mr. Schoenberg writes

Dear Mr. Smith:

My Web site derives from my book, MR. CAPONE, which I believe is generally reckoned the standard biography--because of the extensive research that went into it, reflected in the 93 pages of source notes at the end. My note, on page 386 of the notes section, referencing page 82 of the text, which is the first mention in my book of O'Donnell and his west side gang, reads like this: "No source even speculated on the origin of his nickname; description (also of Myles, below) DN 5/27/26; no source gave exact ages or background of either". DN = Chicago Daily News, with the date of the issue; it was cited specifically for a description of K [“Klondike”].

Kind of slim pickings. There were three west-side O'Donnell brothers. In the text, K. is called the oldest brother and only one of much account, Myles being much younger and rather sickly, and the middle brother, Bernard, being "lucky to have a job." After K., in fact, the most capable gang member was James J. Doherty, who was killed in the famous ambush that Capone orchestrated in which Bill McSwiggin, an asst. state's atty (Chicagoese for DA) was killed, McSwiggin a boyhood and ongoing pal of gangsters, out for an evening with his pals when Capone struck.

Now, as to your specific question. It seems to me very possible that the two were the same man. You wrote that your Klondike was deported. Now, "deported" generally means sent back to the country of origin. Do you know where K. was deported to? If to Ireland, that would weigh heavily against they're being the same person. If to the U.S. it strengthens the supposition. It would certainly be a striking coincidence if there were two Wm O'Ds who had the same (surely not very common) nickname and-- unlike the vast majority of people--were criminals. If they were the same person, that would explain what is a passing strange nickname for a Chicago fellow. In my text (all of which derives from contemporary newspaper accounts, like that DN reference) I wrote that K. was much older not only than his brothers but also than the general run of that era's gangsters. I have a picture (in one of three 8-page picture forms, this one after p. 192) of both K. and Myles, and K. is, indeed, visibly older. If we can assume that he was no more than in his early 20s in 1898, he would have been about the age shown in his picture.

Although I'm not a crime buff (I wrote the book because I thought it was a good idea and my agent agreed), out of curiosity, sparked by your e-mail, I Googled K. and read the first hit, the Wikipedia entry. I was mildly flattered to see that one of the two sources cited at the bottom was my book. The other was a recent '06 book than I've never heard of PADDY WHACKED, I think the name was. You might consult it as a source. Trouble is, the book evidently has Myles as the oldest brother and founder of the gang--which certainly is at odds with what contemporary newspapers said. So I don't know if the other book is reliable. The part they used mine for was the episode with Eddie Tancl. Unless the other book gives some pretty convincing sources, I would believe reporters who, after all, lived there, knew and covered the O'Ds. (And in the two contemporary pictures that I found, Myles is clearly very much younger than K.) The Wiki. entry says (source, I assume, the other book) that Myles was born on the west side. If so, then presumably so was K., but that doesn't mean much, since he could very well have lit out for Alaska with news of gold.

In short, I don't know how you can, at this remove, prove the case either way. But it does seem likely (maybe even probable) that they are one person.

If you want to read more about the brothers and the gang, you should be able to find my book in any fair-sized library. Or, if you want to own a copy, go back on my Web site, go to the "Know More" page, and you'll find links to the apposite page of Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Boarders. I believe Amazon offers the best deal.

Good luck with your research.
Robert Schoenberg

That e-mail boosted my mood and I quickly shot him a response.

Hello, Robert.

Thank you very for your detailed and sourced information. It is greatly appreciated. I will forward this to the Skagway Historical Society and place a hard copy in my files.

It seems possible that another mystery has been solved. My g-grandfather's gang is as interesting to study as he is. A number of years ago I opened a can of worms in the western genre when my research led several of the gang directly to Wyatt Earp's "gang" which strengthened the concept that the Earp's were not the pristine lawmen many believed them to be. I made enemies with that one but it sure was fun.

My book just came out this last October. I spent 25 years researching and am still finding new information, as you are aware.

To answer one question and correct a comment, the O'Donnell in Skagway was not nicked named "Klondike." The word deported was the wrong word. Perhaps evicted would have been a better choice. William O'Donnell was evicted from Skagway (by vigilantes) and sent by ship along with others to Seattle, Washington.

Jeff Smith

Now I sit back and wait for more information that will hopefully put the question to rest.

And here it is...

As I published this post John Binder e-mailed me with the following.

Klondike O'Donnell, according to two different official records, was born May 12, 1894. This is also consistent with information in the U. S. Census.


Well don't that beat all... I'll let Robert Schoenberg know about this new information and give him a chance to respond but right now it looks like there are two criminals name William O'Donnell. It wouldn't be the first time this has happened and it surely won't be the last.


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