August 3, 2011

Did Soapy Smith murder gambler Cliff Sparks?

Perhaps one of the most controversial actions by Soapy Smith was the shooting of gambler Cliff Sparks in 1892. This is one of the few unsolved cases of murder in Denver history and it is believed that Soapy held so much power in the underworld that he and those involved with the shooting went unpunished. There is a lot of information on this gunfight, here is a little bit just to wet the appetite. The following content comes direct from my book, Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel

It was the evening of October 11, 1892, when Jeff used his gun and a gambler named Cliff Sparks died on a barroom floor.

Cliff Sparks, a gambler, was killed in Murphy’s Exchange at 11:50 last night. He was shot through the body by either Jim Jordan, another gambler, or by Jeff Smith, known more familiarly as “Soapy.”

The tragedy was the culmination of a row between Jordan and Tom Cady. Cady is a shell game fakir, working for Smith. Sparks fell and died in a few minutes. The abdominal aorta was severed by the bullet which passed through him. Smith and Cady escaped from the rear of the building. Jordan was arrested by Officer Hunt, who met him as he was going out of the side front entrance of the saloon. Jordan had a hot revolver of heavy caliber in his hand…. All he would say was that it was an accident.

Earlier in the night Jeff Argyle, proprietor of the Missouri gambling house, and Tom Cady had trouble in the exchange gambling room, next door above the scene of the homicide. They had a quarrel over poker chips. Cady sprang to his feet and struck Argyle in the face, knocking him off his chair. Argyle rose and pulled his revolver. Special Officer Gardiner seized Argyle’s arm as the latter fired. The bullet, through this move, struck Cady’s chair. Both men were arrested and Cady was subsequently released. Cady went directly to Murphy’s Exchange again and was joined by Jeff Smith and Cort Thomson.
“Troublesome Tom” Cady had the altercation with “The Black Prince” Jeff Argyle in the upstairs gambling room of Dale & Company above Murphy’s Exchange, and both had been arrested. However, the Denver Republican states that the row between Cady and Argyle started in the Missouri Club, in which Argyle was actually the manager, not the proprietor as stated in the News. Argyle, a noted killer, a year before had gunned down a bricklayer playing at one of his Missouri Club faro tables. Upon learning of Cady’s arrest, Jeff posted bail for his friend at the jail, and together they went to Murphy’s Exchange. In the first-floor saloon were Clifton Sparks, James B. “Gambler” Jordan (aka Henry Gilmore), and Corteze “Cort” Thomson, a friend of Jordan’s and not known to be on good terms with Jeff or Cady. As Jeff and Tom

entered the bar-room of the saloon Jordan met them. They drank together and the affair earlier in the night came up. Jordan said to Cady that he was sorry for it. “Yes, you are, you ___ ___ ___ ___” responded Cady as he instantly struck Jordan in the face.

The News published what it could learn of the details.

Jordan drew his pistol. Smith drew his. Mart Watrous grabbed Jordan and carried him toward the front of the bar-room near the lattice work partition.

In a statement, Watrous said he grabbed Jordan and threw him down in an attempt to keep him from drawing his gun. As he did, Jordan said, “Let me go, or we’ll be killed.” …

Murphy pushed Cady, Smith, and Thompson back toward the rear of the room. The two principal combatants were fully thirty feet apart. Cady started for Jordan again and Murphy struck him. Cady said to Smith: “Shoot him,” meaning Murphy.

Sparks, who had been standing back from the bar, midway between the front and the rear, stepped forward to protest against the shooting and Murphy jumped back out of range and Jordan and Smith shot at almost the same instant. The bullet from Smith’s pistol crashed through a plate glass … partition leading to the front, an elevation of seven and a half feet from the floor. Jordan’s bullet was not found up to 2 o’clock this morning. Which hit Sparks has not yet been determined. Jordan intended to kill Cady, and Smith meant to kill Murphy, without doubt.

When the patrol wagon arrived the doors of the place were closed and an eager crowd surged outside in the pouring rain, vainly endeavoring to see through the drawn curtains.

Inside was confusion. Policeman Hunt … held Jordan by the collar with one hand, while in the other he held the smoking revolver taken from his prisoner. … At the other end of the bar lay the innocent victim of the evening’s quarrels, breathing his last. The bullet, fired either by Jordan, his friend, or Jeff Smith, his enemy, had entered just over the left hip, passed clear through the body, severing the abdominal aorta, and came out an inch above the right hip bone.

The cutting of the artery caused death before Surgeon Wheeler had time to examine the wound. A dozen men stood about … gaping at the dead body and the hole in the partition made by the other bullet. Murphy was applying ice to a huge contusion under his left eye, caused by the blow from Cady’s cane in his attempt to arrest the latter and Jeff Smith. …

Mart Watrous, the proprietor…, saw the quarrel leading up to the shooting and had just released Jordan when the gun, or guns, went off. … “I was standing in front of the bar,” he said, “and Cady and Jeff Smith had just finished drinking. Jordan was standing near them at the time and as Cady turned around, he said to him: ‘Tom, I’m sorry you got into trouble.’”

“’You’re a liar, you ____ ____ ____ ____, said Cady, and he hit Jordan in the face. Jordan reeled back, and drew his gun as he did so. I jumped and caught him and ran him against the bar in the corner near the folding door. I saw a gun in Jeff Smith’s hand. I let go of Jordan, and as I did so I heard a shot go and saw Sparks fall.

“There may have been two shots—I think there were, judging from the course the bullet must have taken that went through the glass—but I only heard one report.”

“As soon as Cady had been bailed out after his trouble with Argyle, he returned to my place, accompanied by Jeff Smith. Jordan, Sparks and the others were there, and Smith proposed the drinks. In the conversation that followed, the latter accused Watrous and myself of acting unfairly in not trying to get bail for Cady as well as Argyle.

“In the heated discussion that followed, Cady called Jordan a ____ ____ ____ ____, and struck him. The men were separated, Thompson and Mart hauling Jordan back to the front of the room, while I pushed Cady the other way.

“As I made for Cady he cried to Smith, “Shoot, Jeff; shoot the ____ ____ ____ ____, I called to Sparks, who was behind me, to stop the row, and he stepped forward. At that instant I heard two shots in close succession and saw Sparks stagger. As he reeled toward the bar Cady ran at him and felled him with a blow on the head. … “Just then I heard Smith cry, ‘Tom, let’s get out of this,’ and he and Cady started for the rear room. I followed … and knocked Cady down, and turned toward Smith. As I did so Cady picked up the cane I had dropped and dealt me a blow under the eye. Both … ran out the back door and disappeared. …

“Sparks was facing Cady and Smith when he was shot, and I can’t tell which shot him.”

Thompson’s statement corroborates that of Murphy in all its details. He helped pull Jordan back and held the latter until he had drawn his revolver and threatened to shoot him, when he let go. He heard two shots and saw Smith shoot, but couldn’t say which it was that shot Sparks.

Smith gave himself up at 1:30 o’clock this morning. He had a heavy revolver, with all the chambers loaded, and Thompson and Murphy were arrested and jailed as witnesses.

The police restrained people from entering the saloon, but outside, within ten minutes, there were fully 300 men.

Sparks has been a gambler in Colorado and Denver for fourteen years. He was 40 years of age and unmarried. He was dressed finely and wore good jewelry. His father is a physician in St. Joseph.

Cliff Sparks: pp. 79, 250-259, 263, 268, 289, 291-92, 502, 507, 529.

Jeff Smith


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