March 24, 2010

Soapy Smith's watch and Judge Van Horn's gun.

(Click image to enlarge)
Judge Norman Van Horn
Member of the Soap Gang?
(Photo by Bob Wood)

My good friend Bob Wood of Old West Antiques is most assuredly one of the busiest and honest on-line old west non-fictional aficionados I known. Besides his busy antique and collectibles business he also operates several very interesting and informative websites and blogs on the old west. They include..

His blog, Where the West Comes Back to Life is an extension of his business and I have learned much from all his sites, which naturally include Soapy Smith.

When ever Bob comes across something that he knows would interest me he does not hesitate to let me know. He has access to a lot of information I could never get to and his friendship and help are greatly appreciated. This post is no exception of Bob’s willingness to help out fellow historians. A week ago I received the following from him.

(Click image to enlarge)
Soapy's gamblers box?
(Photo by Bob Wood)

ey Jeff,

I want to relate a story to you about Soapy. I was at an Antique store in Houston, Tx. today and an 87 yr old dealer couldn't wait to show me his gamblers box. In it was a honking big Silver pocket watch with a script "S" on the back with a large link chain and the fob was a Sharps 4 barrel all engraved. And there was a boot knife with an ebony and M.O.P. handle and scabbard. The knife maker was out of Sheffield, England. The box was leather covered and very old.

The old guy tells me he was 10-yrs old and in Denver when he read his first book on Soapy Smith and he is sure the gamblers box and items were Soapy's. Of course he had no provenance, just what he was told and willing to believe.

Bob Wood

Thanks to my fathers teachings I have a skeptical mind. However, I always give owners of items like this a chance to tell their story. If there is the slightest chance that there might be some truth to the story I will print and file it for future use, or until such a time as information come available to prove or disprove the facts.

I asked Bob if he would be willing to take some photographs the next time he saw the owner and he readily agreed. He writes,

(Photo by Bob Wood)

Well I met with the owner of the gamblers box and Van Horn revolver. He does not want his name used in any write-up nor his business but he does want to sell these items. You can use my business as a go-between.

The gamblers box measures 9" X 6" X 2". It is leather covered with a cloth lining. Inside the box is an Elgin key wind pocket watch with a script "S" on the back, a Sharps 4 barrel and a Manson Sheffield knife with leather sheath.

I pressed the owner for details of provenance and he stated he bought it out of an estate but had no other details.

The pistol is a Colt .44 SAA with a 7- 1/2" barrel, nickel finish and on the back strap is inscribed "Judge Norman Van Horn".

Bob Wood

After viewing the photos Bob took I wrote back,

Hi, Bob.

Well, speaking of writing stories, you may not want me to write this one, at least not using your business name.

The watch has "SL" or "LS" for initials. Please check out the photo and see if you see the same thing. The gun has "Judge Norman Van Horn" engraved on it. The old bios on Soapy had several gang members who were made up including the story of Van Horn, the disbarred lawyer who paid Soapy's way to Skagway. The only Van Horn mentioned in the newspapers and Smith family collection is Denver's major Marion D. Van Horn, who was never a "judge." I found two references on-line where "someone" was pushing Norman as the judge Van Horn of Soapy's gang. Unless you say something different I won't write a story on the watch. I would like to write a story on the gun but the facts won't be favorable to the owner's liking. As far as using your name I can write a very favorable account of you and your kind notice that the gun exists, etc., "Bob Wood of Old West Antiques (linked) came across a gun that the owner claims....." so that you are not aligned with ownership or in "selling" it, but anyone interested in the gun will know to go to you. The idea is that your does not get smudged when you were only trying to help me. I am always one to be critical of claims like this, however, I could be wrong. If the guy was telling the truth, maybe the watch was won by Soapy in a game? Maybe I should write a story on the watch after all. Lol.

…. The "old boy's" wish not to have his name released was indeed a red flag. Unfortunately, even if he is telling the truth, his items are under suspect. I have learned to try and have an open mind on things people send me. After all, many of the artifacts in my collection have no provenance of belonging to Soapy, except by possession of the Smith family. In time my family will no longer have these items and they too may be under suspect. Whose to say I can't go out and buy antiques and claim them to be Soapy's...hmmm? When I posted a picture of the Soapy DA on my website, suddenly I received two offers to sell me his DA, lol.

(Click image to enlarge)
Revolver back strap
"Judge Norman Van Horn"
(Photo by Bob Wood)

Bob’s response follows,


Regarding the pocket watch, I do see the "LS" or "SL". So much for the gun, too. I am contacted on a pretty regular basis by people wanting to sell me so-and-so's items and when I ask for proof of their claim usually the only response they have is, " that's what they said at the auction".

I'm ok with you writing about the watch or gun or gambler's box and pointing out the inconsistencies you observe. This is a great educational opportunity for your readers and one would expect them to appreciate your insight. I concur with you that the watch was not Soapy's which places doubt on the remainder of the items in the box. The dirk is one of the most common knives from that period and is so common it's value is only around $300.00. The Sharp's is very nice but again unless their is some type of proof linking Soapy to the gun it's just a nice gun.

The Van Horn gun is most interesting since it would be the easiest to prove or disprove. If you say there was no such person then I believe you. After all, you are the expert on Soapy and his associates.

If you decide to post anything please show me as just a go-between and not someone that is promoting these items as genuine as to belonging to Soapy.

I've known Bob for years and he is one of the most honest and honorable businessmen I've ever known. We have many a time corresponded on the authenticity of items we have run across. He agreed to be the go-between for these items in this post at my request, otherwise I would not have been able to post the story and photographs. He has no other interest in these items beyond bringing them to my attention, and for that I thank him very much.


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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