October 17, 2012

Soapy Smith and the act of caning

Soapy Smith canes Colonel John Arkins

n the evening of July 29, 1898 in Denver, Soapy Smith retaliated against the Rocky Mountain News for a published blurb about his wife and children. With cane in hand and Soap Gang member, Ned Parker, alias "Banjo," in tow, he made his way over to the Patterson and Thomas Block where the offices of the News were located. His exact plans are unknown but the person he was looking to see was Colonel John Arkins, the general manager of the newspaper. For eight days, ever since the trouble at Logan Park (see Alias Soapy Smith, pages 140-147), the News had been attacking and exposing Soapy and his activities. The mention of his family in an article on the eighth day was the proverbial straw that broke the camels back, and Soapy lost his composure. He waited for Arkin to appear on the street and when he did, Soapy attacked. The following comes from my book.


Last night at ten minutes to 9 o’clock Jeff R. Smith attempted to murder Colonel John Arkins, president of the News Printing Company and manager of this paper. Never did ruffian commit a more utterly brutal deed.

Colonel Arkins had just left his office and was about to call a carriage. The streets were crowded with people and the electric lights shone brilliantly. Streetcars were passing, and ladies chatted as they walked along. It did not look like a favorable spot in which to commit a black crime.

In the shadow of a great doorway crouched the form of a being with murder in his heart. At his right hand and left were others come to see the murder done. 

In its reporting, the News was mistaken in a number of particulars and exaggerated others. Reported was that Jeff carried a heavy black cane, but the cane placed on exhibit during the trial was described as a light, wooden walking cane. The News account had the editor leaving, but Arkins testified that he was arriving at the office. The News reported “others” with Jeff, but witnesses stated that only Ned “Banjo” Parker accompanied Jeff that night.

Arkins stated that when he arrived, he saw Parker but not Jeff as his form was blocked by Parker’s. When Arkins was about ten feet away, Jeff stepped out and said, “Oh, John!” Arkins glanced over his shoulder. Jeff threw up his left hand as though to shove him back, and with his cane in his right hand, according to witnesses, struck Arkins once over the head and knocked him to the sidewalk. While he was down, Jeff kicked him twice and struck him two or three more times with the cane. Witnesses claimed Jeff stooped over Arkins and felt his hip pocket, as if to discover a gun there, but no such claim was made at trial. Afterward, Jeff turned and walked rapidly to the corner and disappeared down Curtis street. Parker, who was between Jeff and witnesses with a cane of his own raised to prevent interference, quickly walked off in the opposite direction.

It has always interested me that armed with just a cane, and using his feet to kick, that Soapy seriously injured Arkins. So much so, to be initially charged with attempted murder. The question I always wondered about, why a cane? In responding to a another post on a Tombstone forum, Dr. Gary Roberts, author of Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend (2006), gave me a clue. He wrote,

On the other hand, in the Old South, caning was an act of contempt reserved for men who were socially beneath you. Gentlemen didn't cane gentlemen. By that code—and Doc knew it well—caning a man meant that he considered the victim to be inferior, not a gentleman.

A classic example of the use of caning as an act of disdain for the victim was, of course, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks' caning of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner in May 1856. Senator Sumner had delivered his "Crime Against Kansas" speech in which he attacked the "slave power" of the South. In the speech, he singled out Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina in vitriolic terms. Brooks was Butler's nephew. Brooks, who was considered to be mild-mannered by most who knew him, caught Sumner at his desk in the Senate chamber. He addressed him, saying something like, "Sir, you have insulted my family and the sovereign state of South Carolina, and I am here to punish you!" Note that last part: "I am here to PUNISH you."

Brooks did not challenge Sumner as he would have someone he perceived to be a gentleman. He did not go there to kill him. He chose instead to punish him which was reserved for men without honor or station (in Brooks' mind, at least). The beating kept Sumner out of the Senate from May 22, 1856, until December, 1859. The act was condemned as brutal proof of Southern depravity across the North, but Brooks received what one source called "a box car load of canes" from well-wishers across the South, many of the canes with notes attached with instructions to use them on a variety of Northern senators and representatives.

Colonel John Arkins
January 17, 2009 

Colonel John Arkins: pages 88, 134, 143-145, 147-54, 158, 160, 230, 240, 292, 371, 529, 578.

"He was a character the like of which will probably never be seen again in the history of the country. He left a few friends who will regret his death, but the majority of people who knew him were relieved when they heard that he had been killed. The evil which he did will live a long time after him, and his bunco record will be a monument which will last all ages."
Rocky Mountain News article
Alias Soapy Smith, p. 582.


1777: American troops defeat British forces in Saratoga, New York, in the turning point of the American Revolution.
1835: The Texas Rangers are established as an organization with the primary duty of suppressing violent Indians and the rerouting of Mexican marauders back to Mexico.
1858: Boulder, Colorado Territory is founded.
1862: 13 buildings are destroyed by fire and 3 residents are killed when Quantrill's Raiders strike Johnson County, Kansas. They then steal wagons from teamsters a few miles south of Shawnee.  
1864: The Sisters of Providence open an Indian boarding school at St. Ignatius Mission, Montana Territory.
1865: Kansas representatives for Apache, Kiowa, Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians sign a treaty with U.S. Commissioners.
1877: Brigadier General Alfred Terry meets with Sitting Bull in Canada to discuss the Chief’s return to the U.S.
1881: It is reported that rustlers shoot up Gayleville, Arizona Territory.
1888: National Geographic Magazine is published.

No comments:

Post a Comment

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