April 22, 2012

Sylvester Scovel: Friend of Soapy Smith, Part 1.

Sylvester Henry "Harry" Scovel

he name of Sylvester Scovel is listed prominently in my book on 3 pages. Soapy Smith utilized Scovel's wife Frances to send money from Skagway to his own wife Mary in August 1897. Artifact #59 (not posted yet) is that original letter in my collection. It is the first physical evidence of Soapy in Skagway. It was Scovel that probably introduced William Saportas to Soapy and the gang. For the book I did research on Scovel to round out his importance to history, and since publishing the book his name has not come up.   

I regained my interest in Scovel when our good neighbor, The Skagway Historical Society blog published a post about him. Being I had not written anything on him in some time I thought I'd touch on the subject. Below is the full content of the post from the SHS blog.

Of the many schemes to get rich, Sylvester Scovel's was unique. Scovel was a reporter for the New York World, but he also brought two tons of blasting powder to Skagway in Sept 1897 for White Pass Trail construction. He arrived in Skagway with his wife, Frances Cabanne and went over the Chilkoot Pass with his provisions. When he and Frances reached Lake Bennett, they had intended to float up to Dawson, but when he heard that only three mail deliveries would make it to Dawson that winter, Scovel came up with an idea. Why not organize a regular dog team mail delivery service from Skagway to Dawson and thus deliver the "New York World" to miners who would happily pay for news? He told Frances that they would certainly get rich.

Skeptics pointed out that the 600 miles of snow covered trails, frozen lakes and sub-zero conditions would take 25-30 days. Still, Scovel told his wife that it would be like an extended honeymoon withe nothing to do but "hunt, fish, prospect for gold and write correspondence..."

He left Frances in a tent at Lake Bennett while he took a boat down to Seattle to wire his employers for support in this venture. The World took three days to respond and then turned him down flatly and ordered him back to New York immediately. He wrote to Frances to return to Skagway and take the first boat down to Seattle as he was returning to New York. He also wrote to William Saportas, an acquaintance and fellow reporter in Skagway (also friend of Soapy) to please go find the "madame" in Lake Bennett and take her down south. Meanwhile poor Frances had not heard from her husband yet and so related in a letter to her mother that Bennett was "awful, awful without him and in this hole - it is death."

Sylvester's relatives were amazed and told him he should not have left Frances. His Aunt Belle even boxed his ears. To make matters worse, the World was not happy and accused him of "gross extravagance" having wasted too much money. Oddly, the only reason he was not fired was because Hearst was courting him to come work for the New York Journal. Scovel went on to be the World's man in Havana, but died there in 1905 following an operation to his liver. In the end the only one who came out ahead was William Saportas. He married Frances in 1917 and they presumably lived happily ever after.

Seen above are Scovel and his wife Frances in Skagway promoting his newspaper!

The Year that defined American Journalism: 1897 and the clash of paradigms by W. Joseph Campbell; Edmond Hazard Wells, Magnificence and Misery, page 32.

Marlene McCluskey, the author of the blog article above ignited my interest. I had forgotten many of the stories of Scovel's time in Skagway and the Klondike. And so once again I went searching online for what else I could find on this interesting character journalist. Immediately I noted that there was more about him online than the last time I looked, some 4 years previous. The most thorough information comes from a Dissertation paper by Darien Elizabeth Andreu. Below are some of the more interesting aspects of Scovel's life leading up to and including his trip to Alaska. 

“Harry” was born Sylvester Henry Scovel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on July 29, 1869. Scovel was the third of five children of Caroline Woodruff and Dr. Sylvester Fithian Scovel, a Presbyterian minister who served as President of the University of Wooster (now College of Wooster), in Wooster, Ohio, from 1883 to 1899...

His imagination and sympathies stirred by the revolution taking place in Cuba, he headed [1896] to New York, where he made arrangements to work as a foreign correspondent for the Herald, a paper well-regarded for its reporting of international news. An editor promised Scovel $24 per dispatch for the information he could smuggle out about the Spanish-Cuban conflict. At the time, Scovel was 26 and told friends he was going to Cuba “to see the fighting.” Scovel landed in Cienfuegos on the southern coast. After some initial difficulties in eluding Spanish authorities as he tried to slip out of town, he headed to the back-country in search of the army of General Maximo Gomez, the Cuban insurgent chief in the eastern provinces. Scovel arrived in November, “traveling with the commander’s personal staff,” as the insurgents began their invasion of the western provinces. He sent his dispatches to New York through sympathetic Junta agents who smuggled them by boat to the U.S. But after three months, he had no idea if any of his work had made its way to the Herald. In an effort to locate American newspapers, early January of 1896, while traveling with the rebel band of General Antonio Maceo, Scovel attempted to slip into Havana to check on his dispatches. In trying to pass through a sentry post as a 20-year-old Spanish speaking journalist, his bluff was called, and he was imprisoned in Havana’s dreaded Morro Castle. Several days away from execution, he was visited by Dr. William Shaw Bowen, a correspondent for The New York World, who made a strong case to the Spanish authorities that they should not execute this college presidents son.

Scovel was released and directed to leave the country. But the young man had impressed the veteran political writer with his sincerity “to make a reputation as a war correspondent” that he was employed by The World.

Despite a limited facility with Spanish, Scovel had acquired the confidence of General Gomez and rode again with his men through the year of 1896, sending back dispatches “from mountain and swamp, by whatever means he could command.” As later reported by The World, he “was of great service to them in drilling their green troops.” He traveled on horseback with a typewriter and refused to carry a weapon of any kind, for to do so, he believed, would compromise his noncombatant status.

As quickly as Scovel became an ally valued by the Cubans, he was reviled by the Spanish for his reporting. Senor Sylvester was “the best known and most bitterly hated American in Cuba.”

The World’s representative wrote numerous articles about the Spanish atrocities and had the information witnessed with signatures. He reported on Spanish and Cuban troop movements, their strengths and weaknesses, the devastating effects of the Spanish reconcentrado policy (relocating rural Cubans to the cities to prevent their aiding the insurgents)—and even on the Cuban insurgents’ unfortunate but unavoidable contributions to the natives’ poverty as they wrecked trains and burned the back-country food supplies and crops that the Spanish might appropriate. The World years later declared that Scovel “alert and fearless, with a marvelous capacity for work under unfavorable conditions found in The World a mouth piece for his messages, that the true situation in Cuba became known.

On February 23, 1896, Scovel published an exclusive interview with Gomez that enraged General Valeriano Weyler, Spanish governor of Cuba, who responded by posting a reward of $5,000 and then $10,000 for The World correspondent’s capture. Nursing a six-month-old gunshot wound that he incurred while witnessing an exchange of fire between the insurgents and the Spanish, Scovel left the country in disguise in August. On January 2, 1897, Scovel slipped back into Havana, risking arrest “at times when the execution of a little band of captured revolutionists by a firing squad was one of the regular early morning spectacles.” He met with American Consul-General Fitzhugh Lee, who wanted Scovel to locate Gomez and obtain the general’s response to an American proposal for home rule in Cuba. Scovel accomplished his mission expeditiously. On January 4, he wrote, “I have been fortunate enough to get into Havana, get out of it again, and to find an insurgent force, all within twelve hours.”  The Spanish authorities seethed.

Scovel continued to elude capture until February 2, 1897, when he was arrested for a second time by Spanish officials, who claimed that the journalist had forfeited his American citizenship by assisting the insurgents. A great outcry ensued. Newspapers in 87 U.S. cities ran editorials calling for Scovel’s release. Congress, 14 state legislatures, as well as the Oklahoma territory and the city council of Columbus, Ohio, adopted resolutions calling for immediate governmental intervention. Journalist Richard Harding Davis and illustrator Frederic Remington published letters in The World protesting Scovel’s unjust imprisonment. Davis argued Scovel’s status as a non-combatant and concluded by threatening that if Scovel were to perish in Spanish hands, “HIS DEATH WILL FREE CUBA.” Three days later, Remington called for greater State Department involvement and observed that “it must make [Scovel] sour on his country when he is abandoned this way.” On March 9, he was released and traveled back to New York, now one of the most famous correspondents in the nation.

On April 5, 1897, Scovel married Frances Cabanne and four months later he was sent to Alaska. to cover the Klondike gold rush.

Soapy was a man of current events. He read at least one newspaper everyday so there is little doubt he knew who Sylvester Scovel was. I can imagine that Scovel received a hero's welcome at Jeff Smith's Parlor. I'm sure the two men talked political and military tactics for days. Scovel said of Soapy,

Smith may be a grafter, but he is one of the most generous, kind-hearted men I ever met in my life. He is always ready to help those in distress and he loves his family. To know Smith is to like him.

The "party" in Skagway did not last long.  Scovel stayed in Alaska for about 4 months long. In that time he made friends with William Saportas, whose association helped Saportas land a job at the Daily Alaskan, which developed into a friendship with Soapy if not already friends by this time.  

In Juneau Scovel no doubt felt his fame entitled him the freedom of covering his drafts he made out while there. The story was published in the  Spokane Daily Chronicle on November 16, 1897 but by then  Scovel was back in Cuba, about to become more famous then he already was.

To be continued... 

  • Andreu, Darien Elizabeth, "Sylvester H. Scovel, Journalist, and The Spanish-American War" (2003). Electronic Theses, Treatises and Dissertations. Paper 8.
  • Wikipedia: Sylvester H. Scovel
  • The Missouri History Museum

Future research project: The Missouri History Museum obtained Sylvester Scovel's material and correspondence from his life, including his Klondike expedition. In that collection are photographs of Scovel and his friend William Saportas.

Sylvester H. Scovel: pages 436, 473-74.


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