April 17, 2012

A Jack-Pot in Alaska: The story of an unknown gunfight.

A hand drawn picture shows
Soapy Smith ready to commence shooting

obert Wilhelm, our great neighbor over on the blogs, The National Night Stick and Murder By Gaslight, sent me a wonderful chapter on Soapy Smith from the book, Seen and Heard, edited by Louis N. Megargee that I have never seen before. It is called A Jack-Pot in Alaska and exposes for the first time, the inner layout and activity inside Clancy and Company. It may also expose a gunfight that took place inside the saloon in the earliest and darkest days of Skagway's history. A time when crimes not reported, recorded or published.

The article was published in 1904 and conveys events of 1897, just a few years previous. The story clearly shows the general methods of the Soap Gang; Methods that the writer could hardly have known unless he was on the inside, an employee of the saloon, or perhaps even a member of the famed bunco gang. The story Leander Kilpatrick tells of how he witnessed the events in his story will be dealt with by me at the end.

A Jack-Pot in Alaska.
By Leander Kilpatrick

From Leander Kilpatrick, a nephew of Ignatius Donnelly—who attempted to prove that Bacon and not Shakespeare wrote the dramas attributed to the Bard of Avon—comes the story of an experience he had in the far Northwest, and with it two illustrations drawn by his sister, and which are herewith reproduced in minor form.

As a preface to his tale he, among other words, has these to say:

"I send you herewith a realistic little tale of Alaska frontier life, hitherto unpublished, that I thought might prove of interest to the readers of "Seen and Heard." As I was an eye-witness of the occurrence I can vouch for its truthfulness in all the details. As the principal character, Jefferson 'Soapy' Smith, has a world-wide reputation and is known throughout the West as the 'King of Gamblers,' it may prove of double interest to those who have read and heard of him."

Uppermost in the breast of all human kind, be it man, woman or child, there is one distinctive characteristic—"admiration of a brave deed done in a moment of peril." Let the man be who he may, law abiding citizen or desperado, a display of moral as well as physical courage touches a chord in human nature that calls forth the plaudits of the multitude in a greater or less degree, as the case may be. A remarkable case in point that came under the writer's notice, to which he was an eyewitness, occurred in Skaguay, Alaska, at a period in its history when the gamblers, cowboys and gun-men of the Western States, flocking to the shores of Alaska, reveled in the delight of perfect freedom from all forms of law. In fact at the time in question the only acknowledged and respected law in Skaguay was that meted out at the end of a six shooter. Naturally the man quickest on the trigger became for the time being the dominant power. Gambling hells, dance halls and free-and-easies abounded on all sides and with wide open doors; every game of chance known to the wily fraternity of gamblers was displayed in enticing array to catch the unwary tenderfoot, many of whom proved rich picking in the "Klondike gold" crazy little town.

This was all the more easy, as every incoming steamer brought its quota of prospective miners from all quarters of the globe; the large majority of whom having been "grub-staked" back in the States landed on the hospitable shores of Skaguay with more money in their pockets than they had ever known before and perfectly unconscious of the dangers waiting them in "bucking the tiger" against the "sure thing" games then in vogue.

As a natural consequence the gamblers reaped a golden harvest; wagers ran into the thousands, and "no limit" games became the rule. Shooting affrays were of frequent occurrence both day and night, and many fatalities happened, but as most of the floating population of the wicked little town were strangers to one another a bullet through the heart of a player at a gaming table created only a momentary flutter of excitement, and if the dead man was unknown, the proprietor of the saloon had the body of the unfortunate player quickly removed and (as it was termed) "planted," and the game went wearily on. But of one only of these scenes will I speak now. A thrilling "duel to the death" between four men in a small back room shrouded in utter darkness. It happened thus:

One of the principal gambling halls, palatial in its fittings for Skaguay, was "Claucy's" on Holly Avenue. Along one side of the main room ran the bar, behind which the eight white-coated bartenders nimbly supplied the fiery Alaskan concoctions of liquors to the constantly changing crowds of men and women who lined the highly polished brass rail in front.

Off to the left of the bar, and in full view, was the dance-floor upon whose smooth surface from ten o'clock in the morning until three or four the next could be heard the weary tapping of the feet of the dancers. The women in skirts reaching to the knees only, and to further display their charms wearing very low neck dresses, in perfect abandon whirling around the room in time to the music; at one moment, mayhap, in the arms of a fresh-faced tenderfoot who had not yet discarded his "boiled" shirt and collar and well fitting clothes, and the next clasped in the brawny embrace of an unkempt miner or packer just off the trail, whose hob-nailed and iron-bound boots as they slid upon the smooth floor often-times landed both him and his short-skirted partner in a heap on the boards with their "heels higher than their heads."

To the right, all the rest of the space was spread out with an almost endless array of gambling games and devices, faro, roulette, hazzard, chuck-a-luck, wheels of fortune, Black Jack—Alaska's favorite game—and many others with names and without.

To the new comer or tenderfoot the first glance at a scene such as I depict was startling. The perfect abandon of the drink enthused dancers; the eager faces and muttered curses of the gamblers as they won or lost, and the swaying and constant stream in front of the bar, men and women, elbow to elbow, all tended to bewilder and hold spellbound the attention of one just arrived from the States, where law, order and respectability predominated. Here in the brilliantly lighted room all seemed to be in a fever of excitement. Pleasure was the one thought; to-morrow

Let to-morrow care for itself.

A step to the rear of the dance-floor, however, and the scene changed; one suddenly stood here in almost perfect quiet in a small rear room. The green covered table and stacks of chips, neatly arranged in a glass case to one side, at once denoted the character of the place. It was the private poker lair—where the big games were played between the skilled and wily gamblers themselves. A game here meant perfect quiet and unceasing watchfulness on the part of all, and woe to the man caught cheating here—the revolver settled it instanter.

On the night in question, when the revelries in the main hall were at their height, four men were seated around the green table in this room. Money, chips and nuggets of gold were stacked high on the cloth in the middle of the table. A big game was in progress, and from the tense set expression on the faces of the four players and the steely glittering eyes no mercy would be shown the one among them who attempted any "crooked work." Three of the men were professional gamblers, whose cold hard faces bespoke no pity for an adversary over the green cloth. The fourth man of the party was an ex-Montana cowboy, just out from Dawson City, with a goodly fortune of Alaska gold dust and nuggets.

A glance at the table in front of one of the gamblers showed that the gold of Jack Dolan, the cowboy, was fast disappearing across the table. Dolan was not a bad looking fellow, even in his rough Klondike costume. The square jaw, high forehead and clean cut features denoted a man of character and decision. His face was flushed now with excitement, and his features twitched painfully as he picked up the cards that had just been dealt him by the heavy browed, bald-headed gambler sitting opposite. His suppressed excitement could not be wondered at, for in the centre of the table lay a fortune; much of it his own, that had been lost. It was a "Jack-pot" that had passed around for the fifth time.

As the cowboy glanced at his hand he could hardly repress a shout—it revealed a "pat

"I open for a thousand," he exclaimed in a strained voice, dumping a handful of yellow nuggets from the buckskin bag in front of him.

"There's more than a thousand in the bunch, but we'll let her go at that."

The gambler on his left, a black-bearded man, promptly saw the thousand, and raised it two thousand more. The dealer hesitated a moment, fingered his chips, took a sly peep at the bottom cards of the deck in his hand and then exclaimed in a smooth even tone of voice:

"Well, I'll see both raises and make it seven thousand more to draw cards"—gracefully beginning to count out the ten thousand dollars in money and chips into the Jack-pot.

The cowboy's face twitched convulsively as he glanced from his cards to the much depleted bag of gold, and thence to the cold, hard features of the dealer, who had raised the pot to the extent of all he had left.

Suddenly he made his decision, and with desperate energy, straightening up in his chair, he pushed his buckskin bag, with all that remained of his hard earned fortune, into the middle of the table, exclaiming:

"By Gad! you can't drive me out. It's the last
cent I've got, but I'll stay for the pile. It's pretty near nine thousand, I guess."

"Well, I guess I'll stay for the raise, too," exclaimed the black-bearded man, counting in the money. "Jimminee, but that's a nice fat pot," exclaimed the gambler who had dropped out on the dealer's left, pulling his cap fiercely over his eyes and looking laughingly at the pile of wealth on the table.

"How many cards?" asked the heavy-browed dealer, picking up the deck and looking inquiringly in the flushed face of the cowboy.

"I'll play what I've got," exclaimed Dolan, exultingly, leaning back in his chair.

"Oh! pat, eh!" he exclaimed, as a sinister smile played around the corners of his mouth.

"Looks like you had it 'cinched.'"

"Give me two," said the black-bearded gambler, carelessly throwing his discard in the centre of the table and pushing the two cards dealt him into his hand.

The supple fingers of the dealer paused for a second as he thought how many he would draw. There was for a moment the stillness of death among the little' group. Outside in the main room the revelers could be faintly heard through the tightly closed door.

"I guess I’ll take one," exclaimed the dealer, deftly flicking a car from the bottom of the deck.

Like a flash of light, as the card fell, the cowboy's right hand dropped to his side; the next instant there was a blinding flash and report from the heavy Colt's revolver that a moment before dangled in its holster from his belt. The dealer in the very act of picking up the false card, with a groan, sank in a heap in his chair, shot through the heart.

As he did so there echoed another quick report from the side of the table where the black bearded gambler sat. Instantly the room was plunged into total darkness.


Over went the table and chairs, and then ensued the stillness of the grave; not a sound could be heard in the inky darkness of the room but the smothered breathing of the three men.

In the main hall the revelries ceased for the moment at the sound of the two shots, and one of the bartenders jumped over the bar and ran towards the closed door of the little room. As he laid his hand upon the knob a warning voice from the inside cried:

"Don't open that door, or you're a dead man."

Scarcely had the voice ceased speaking when there came another quick report, followed instantly by a yell of agony. Flash followed flash in a succession of rapid shooting in the pitch dark room. The duelists were firing at the flash in the dark made by each adversary's revolver.

A terrible and deadly scene was being enacted behind the closed door. Now came an awful stillness of five minutes' duration.

Suddenly something struck the floor with a crash. One of the combatants in groping around had tripped over a chair. Almost on the instant the duel began again and curses rent the air as the maddened men tried in the darkness to locate and kill each other. Two sharp reports now rang out almost together; then followed a shriek and the fall of a heavy body.

Even the hardest faces of the roughest of the revelers in the now silent dance hall blanched at the thought of the deadly duel being enacted in the darkness. To open the door and let in the flood of light from the main hall meant death to the man who attempted it. They awaited with breathless interest the outcome. It was not long delayed.

There had been perfect stillness for some minutes. There were evidently but two of the men alive now, and they, by stealthy movements, were trying to locate one another. As they stole like a pair of wild cats softly around the room by accident a hand or arm of one of them struck the door knob. On the instant there came two quick reports, and then the sounds of a final struggle as they grappled with one another in the dark. Chairs rattled across the floor, and the crash of broken glass sounded, intermingled with fierce blows and curses. Then a shot and stillness, followed in a moment by someone groping his way to-wards the door. The listeners stood spellbound, awed into silence and expectancy.

Soapy Smith comes out unscathed

Suddenly the door was thrown open and there staggered into the light the bloody and disheveled figure of the survivor of the terrible battle—the black-bearded gambler.

He was "Soapy" Smith, the noted desperado.

"To the victor belongs the spoils" was Alaska's law. "Soapy" had now the "Jack-pot."

Leander Kilpatrick.

From Seen and Heard
Edited by Louis N. Megargee
Jan. 6, 1904 (Vol. IV - #157)
Pages 3389-3405.

My thoughts on this article

When I first read the story it shook me to my very core. I believe that most of what you just read may have actually occurred, although at this time we only have Mr. Kilpatrick's word. I am certain he is describing the inside surroundings of Clancy and Company's saloon. It has been discussed here in the past that "and Company" was Soapy Smith as we know that they were partners.

There is no Leander Kilpatrick listed on the Skagway lists of people supplied by the Skagway Historical Society but there are several Kilpatrick's, including Perry Kilparick, owner of the Holly House that most likely had connections to Soapy. William Saportas, an associate of Soapy's is also named as a proprietor of the Holly House in 1897.

Mr. Kilpatrick writes,
Let the man be who he may, law abiding citizen or desperado, a display of moral as well as physical courage touches a chord in human nature that calls forth the plaudits of the multitude in a greater or less degree, as the case may be.
In my opinion this statement reveals that he is not necessarily against Soapy and the bunco men, even perhaps showing some admiration for Soapy. This is yet another indication Mr. Kilpatrick may have been on the inside of what occurred, perhaps even one of Soapy's associates.  

Mr. Kilpatrick spells Clancy's as "Claucy's." I believe he intentionally misspelled the name. It is only one letter off and could possibly be an editorial or publishing error as well. He perfectly depicts the inside of Clancy's, the bar, the dance hall, the gambling den, and perhaps most important of all, the little side room set up for Soapy Smith's big mit game, a rigged poker game that anyone having read my book (Alias Soapy Smith) will recognize the scenario as it was the most common method of extraction used by Soapy in Denver. I do believe that this is the first article I have read that speaks of a big mit poker room in Skagway. Being that this article was written in 1904 I have to believe that Mr. Kilpatrick is telling the truth in his descriptions up to this point in the article.

The imagery of the poker game and the ensuing gun battle might convince the reader that either Mr. Kilpatrick utilized literary license in describing the events. There is another possibility, that Mr. Kilpatrick was in the room during the fight, perhaps even sitting at the poker table as one of the players. But how can this be if all the combatants, including Soapy, are dead in 1904 when the article was published? I don't necessarily believe everyone at the poker table, except for Soapy, died. I am considering the possibility that only the cowboy victim, "Jack Dolan" was killed. That the other "gamblers" at the table were actually Soapy's men. In order to protect himself and others, Mr. Kilpatrick had all the witnesses killed in his retelling of the story. "Jack Dolan" does not appear in the name list from the historical society, however, his name shows up as a volunteer of the Skagway Military Company created by Soapy, which could mean that the name is not made up for the victim, IF, that's the victims real name. Mr. Kilpatrick could have easily exchanged the dead man's name with one of the gang so as not to arouse any legal investigation that could come back and haunt Mr. Kilpatrick.

Consider this; if the victim was the only one killed and the gang was able to get rid of the body, then perhaps there was "nothing" to report in the newspapers. It is known that Soapy paid the editors of the newspapers handsomely to keep bad news out of print. I can just imagine Soapy reasoning with the editor, "Why publish that some boys got drunk last night and shot up Clancy's? What good will that do for the town? I'll tell you what it'll do...It'll scare prospectors from coming to Skagway, that's what it'll do!"  

Like many a tall tale (if made tall it was), there might be a kernel or nugget or nuggets of truth in it.

Clancy's and Company
April 16, 2011
December 27, 2010
June 24, 2010
April 14, 2010
August 20, 2009
July 4, 2009
June 7, 2009
October 5, 2008

Jack Dolan
May 4, 2011

Clancy and Company: pages 455-456, 461, 471, 481-82, 516, 521, 523, 543-46, 552-55, 558, 585, 595.
Jack Dolan: page 487.

1524: New York Harbor is discovered by Giovanni Verrazano. 
1629: Horses are first imported into the colonies by the American Massachusetts Bay Colony. 
1704: John Campbell publishes what would become the first successful American newspaper. It is called the Boston "News-Letter." 
1758: Frances Williams publishes a collection of Latin poems. He is the first African-American to graduate from a college in the western hemisphere. 1808: Bayonne Decree by Napoleon I of France orders the seizure of U.S. ships. 
1824: Russia abandons all North American claims south of 54' 40'. 
1860: New Yorkers learn of a new law that required fire escapes to be provided for tenement houses. 
1861: Virginia becomes the eighth state to secede from the Union. 
1864: U.S. Civil War General Grant bans the trading of prisoners. 
1865: Mary Surratt is arrested as a conspirator in the Lincoln assassination. 
1891: Soapy assaults John W. Chambers (no details given).
1892: Joe Palmer and Bob Ford shoot up the town in Creede. 
1894: Soapy officially commissioned as an Arapaho County deputy sheriff.



  1. It's a stretch for me to believe that Soapy could've killed three men when 1) no one knew about it for 7 years, 2) he let the "witness" live, and 3) he was never considered a killer. Even in Skaguay, there'd be some notoriety with an event such as this.

    1. Hi, Jacquie.
      Thank you for commenting. Read my comments below the story again. I don't believe 3 men were actually killed. I believe only the one victim was killed. In the "big-mit" poker swindle all the players at the table are members of the Soap Gang. Only the victim believes it is a real game. In this story the only target was the victim. When the shooting started he was the only one the others were trying to hit.

      You are correct that Soapy was not known as a killer, but he was quick with his anger and his gun. He was involved in several shooting scrapes that we know of, and probably others that were not recorded.

      You mention the "Even in Skaguay, there'd be some notoriety with an event such as this." Not if only a few people knew about it. A good example is the shooting death of Soapy. All these years the idea of Jesse Murphy being the real killer of Soapy has been well hidden.

      Jeff Smith


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