January 15, 2015

Soapy Smith, the Owl Club and Spokane, Washington 1889-1897.

The Owl Club
1898 sheet music (March and Two-Step)
"Dedicated to Doc Brown of Spokane Wash."

n Alias Soapy Smith I wrote

about Soapy traveling to Spokane, Washington. The details of his time there are sketchy and have not been fully explored as of yet. It is a part of Soapy's life that still remains a mystery. I originally thought this would be a short, quick post, but I kept finding myself needing to research for answers, and those answers created more questions. I am discovering that rather being just a nice place to wait for the Klondike gold rush to begin, Spokane held more importance to Soapy than what was originally known. 

The first mention of Spokane, at least within my book, comes from a letter, written in 1887 by close-friend John Taylor, which indicates that Spokane was a worthy location to operate in. Nearly two years later in 1889, Soapy, according to a letter to his wife, Mary, was headed there, but an assassination attempt on Soapy, while at the train station in Pocatello, Idaho, may have cut the trip short. He let his wife know that a letter would reach him there, but according to a grandson (my father, John Randolph Smith) Mary hurried to be at her husband's side, probably in Spokane, where she unsuccessfully tried to fix his bullet perforated mustache. There are no known records of his activities there in 1889.

On October 17, 1889, forty-eight days after leaving for Spokane, Soapy was back in Denver. Why did Soapy go to Spokane? Apparently, it was one of the many wide-open (little interference from the law) towns across the west that was positioned around mining camps. He is known to have had allies and friends there, such as early Fort Worth friend, Charlie E. Pratt, who owned a vaudeville theater called The Louvre. After leaving Spokane in 1889 there is no record of a return visit for nearly seven years.

On June 2, 1896, on a return trip from Alaska, Soapy registered at the Butler hotel on Second and James streets, in Seattle. For two months he traveled between Seattle and Spokane. A newspaper in Spokane gives hint of the bunco men working their fair city.

The fame of Spokane is spreading and as a result during the last week a dozen or more noted confidence men have struck town and in a quiet manner have commenced to ply their vocation. They are all said to be “slick” individuals and while as yet have made no effort to capture any large game have been quietly laying their wires so to do. As yet they have confined their attention to working outside saloons, but with the big crowd that will be here this week to attend the races these gentry will no doubt try to do some bigger business. The police have them spotted and if they attempt to try any “funny business” they will at once be arrested (Spokesman Review 06/23/1896).

A letter of response from George Mason, the famed gambling equipment supplier, indicates that Soapy was running games of chance in Spokane in August 1896.

Playing Cards and Ivory Goods, 1413 Eighteenth Street.
Denver, Colo. Aug. 10, 1896

Friend Jeff:

Yours at hand and will say am glad to hear from you and you are still on earth. We have a new small Tivola. We made a few weeks ago a New Orleans Belt with 50 spaces [—] there is [sic] 2 prizes and 3 blanks. It is a good deal larger, that is, the basket, than the old style and makes a better showing. We made it for one of you x lieutenants Power and the gang and think they are doing well with it, as they were running at Fisks Gardens and done well. Since then I see in paper they were arrested at Colo Spring and fined 50.00 and a few hours to get out of town. Since then I have heard nothing from them or seen them. There is nothing going on here at all and it seems worse than ever. We will soon make some drop cases, that is as soon as we can get at them [i.e., get to making them]. Ed Chase sent over a note for that machin[e] saying it belonged to him and he paid what charges was on it. The machine we put the celluloid on and fixed up. But your jewelry spindle is still here. Jeff wishing you success we remain yours Resp.


That same month Soapy attempted to defraud J. Hugh Bauerlein of a mining claim. Jeff sent Bauerlein of the Denver Stock and Mine Exchange an unsigned check for $2,500. Hoped for, probably, was that the claim papers and unsigned check would be returned for signature, but Bauerlein did not fall for the trick.

On August 14, Soapy received a letter from wife Mary. It was addressed "care of the Grand Hotel" in Spokane, located on the corner of Howard Street and Main Avenue.

Grand Hotel ad
from stationary letter head
Jeff Smith coll.
 (Click image to enlarge)

In October 1896, while Soapy was dealing in fraudulent claims, etc., he decided to start selling interest in McGinty, the petrified man, as he had done since 1892. He sent a letter to Henry "Yank Fewclothes" Edwards in Denver, informing him to crate up McGinty and ship him to Hillyard, Washington, a suburb of Spokane. A letter from Judge James B. Belford dated October 16, verifies that Soapy was there at the time. Another document showing Soapy in Spokane includes a promissory note for $250 from D. P. Stomas, dated October 13, 1896. At the bottom appears “Due Oct 18th 1896 At Spokane [signed] DP Stomas.” Not indicated is what the money was for. Could Stomas have been one of the new "investors" in McGinty, or was he paying off a gambling debt?

November 1896 also shows that Soapy was still operating in Spokane. A letter from George B. Fisher to Soapy, care of the Grand Hotel, arrived on November 12. Soapy did see this letter, but it is not known if he was in town at the time. Six days later, on November 18, 1896, good friend, Bat Masterson, the famed lawman and gambler, wrote Soapy, regarding money that was collected in Spokane at the Owl Saloon for a mutual friend. Bat writes in the letter to tell "Brownie" that $100 had already reached that friend in need. So, two things are now known. Soapy was in Spokane for about a month, plus or minus a few days. The second thing is that until now, I did not know who "Brownie" was, but I'm certain that Bat was referring to H. G. "Doc" Brown (The Spokes-Man Review lists his name as H. G. Brown, July 15, 1902).

Soapy's choice saloon while in Spokane was the Owl Club, located at 2nd and Washington. In Alias Soapy Smith I mention the Owl Club and "Doc" Brown several times, but I did not realize that they were connected. In my research to write this post I came across the History of the City of Spokane and Spokane County, Washington Volume 1, by Nelson Wayne Durham (1912). Page 466 mentions that "Doc" Brown ran the "Owl gambling House." I cannot be certain, but in looking at Google maps, it is possible that the building which held the Owl Club may still be standing.


The Grand Hotel location
Spokane, Washington

On January 24, 1897 Soapy bought, from one Martin Murphy, his 1/8 interest in a gold mine located about 150 miles north of Spokane, for $1. The bill of sale, appearing to be Martin Murphy’s hand, evidences having been written under duress or in something akin to distraction, hurriedness, or inebriation. Words are repeated. The word heirs is misspelled and rewritten, again incorrectly. Punctuation and capital letters appear (or do not appear) in odd places, and the description is not clear, requiring a closing reference to where the claim is recorded. Dictation of the contents could account for confusion and so many anomalies. The document is on stationary from the Grand Hotel, where Soapy was staying. It seems pretty unlikely that this was a legitimate, voluntary purchase, but rather one of extortion, settlement of a gambling debt, and/or the remnant of a swindle.

A letter to wife Mary, dated February 15, 1897, listing the "Owl Saloon" as his contact address, simply reads,

Dear Wife
This far on my journey to the North God bless you
Owl Saloon

Within two months time Soapy returned to St. Louis, Missouri where his wife and children were living with her mother. This begins another point of mystery in Soapy's life. This exit appears to be sudden and unexpected. It is possible something happened that forced his migration. On May 2, 1897, a “Charlie,” wrote to Soapy from Spokane, asking for his assistance in a detailed swindle plan he was forming. In the letter Charlie makes it clear that Spokane is a great location for bunco activities and gambling, so we know that Soapy did not leave due to anti-gambling reforms there, and that the town was thriving. So why did Soapy leave? Something happened, but what?

At the time I published Alias Soapy Smith, I could see that something had happened in Spokane. I wrote,

Before returning to Spokane, where Jeff probably had a few enemies, he used a news-oriented form of messaging in a newspaper to announce to friends that he was headed back. A clipping he cut out and saved tells the story.


“Jeff,” the pet seal belonging to “Doc” Brown, after exploring the waters of Lake Coeur d’ Alene, has concluded he likes those of the Spokane River, in the vicinity of Spokane, better, and has returned. Perhaps it was because of his fondness for the “Doc.” Whatever the cause, he is back.

Several weeks ago “Jeff” was sent to the Lake, where he could have abundant room in which to disport himself. … A large bathing pool was fenced in for him in the bay at the ranch owned by George Forster. There “Jeff” seemed contented for a time. It was a lonely spot, however, and “Jeff” craved company.

He broke out of the pool and went to Coeur d’ Alene city, where he was seen Friday. He was reported from there, and “Doc” Brown sent a box of fish up to him. Before they had arrived, “Jeff” had started for Spokane.

Yesterday he was seen in the water above Washington Street Bridge. He seemed glad to see familiar faces, wagged his tail and tried to stand on his head, as an evidence of his joy. “Doc” Brown will secure permission from the owners and have a home built for him on the island, where he may spend the winter.

Coeur d’ Alene, the lake and the city, are about thirty miles east of Spokane. It would appear that Jeff had traveled to Coeur d’ Alene but had met with little success and wished to return to Spokane. Perhaps it was anticipated that a rival gang would not welcome his return, so, perhaps with the assistance of a reporter, he sent the coded message to let friends know he was coming. “Doc” Brown, a friend and Spokane associate of Jeff’s, tried to convince Jeff to stay put, but Jeff was already on his way. Later on, Brown sought permission from the rival boss for Jeff to stay in Spokane during the winter when visiting from Alaska. 

The Spokesman-Review for July 12, 1897, published a story about a gold brick bunco man, “One of the most notorious and dangerous criminals of the United States…, none other than ‘Rebel George,’ alias W. H. Knowlton and a hundred others aliases.” A probing reporter interviewing the man in jail, portrayed him as evasive and unstable. Toward the end of the interview, asked if he knew Jeff, the man, now thoroughly painted as a rascally criminal, replied, “No, I don’t know ‘Soapy’ Smith. I know of him, but never met him.” Jeff thought more damage had been done to his reputation. He clipped the story and sent it to Mary in St. Louis, writing at the top, “Same old story what next. I can’t do no good.” That sounds to me like he is not writing from Spokane, although he may have still been in Washington state, perhaps in Seattle.

Five days later, July 17, 1897, the steamer Portland docked in Seattle with about 4,000 lbs of gold. It is all but guaranteed that if Soapy was not in Seattle on that day, he was in that city within days. The Klondike gold rush was on, but that's another story.

H. G. "Doc" Brown remained in Spokane. The Spokane Press, Nov. 12, 1902 has a mention on page four.

“Charges His Friend With Embezzlement” Lyndon M. Hall files a complaint with the police to the effect that George O. Scraggs has swindled him out of $100. Mr. Hall wished to mail his certificate of deposit received as wages to his bank. He wrote the letter, endorsed the certificate and enclosed it. His friend, Scraggs, offered to drop it off at the Rathdrum post office for him. Instead, Mr. Scraggs boarded a train for Spokane in Rathdrum. “He landed there in the evening and going to ‘Doc’ Brown of the Owl, it is said, presented the endorsed certificate … when the arrest was made he was broke.” (The Owl is only one of the well-known saloons and gambling establishments in town, others are the Stockholm, the Coeur d’Alene, the Combination, and the O.K. The moral for both Mr. Gower and Mr. Hall seems to be that they should be a great deal less trusting.)

It is not believed Soapy Smith ever returned to Spokane.

Spokane, Wash. Note: Posts are not in order of importance. Be sure to scroll down.

Spokane: pages 113, 165-66, 170, 172, 197, 416, 418-19.
"Doc" Brown: page 427.
Owl Club: 419, 421-22, 425.

There are so many in business here … who are involved with Jeff Smith and are coining money from the sporting element, that they willingly tolerate Smith’s influence in civic affairs. His word is the law!
—Thomas Whitten
Skagway hotel proprietor
Alias Soapy Smith, p. 514.


1777: The people of New Connecticut (now the state of Vermont) declare their independence from England.
1844: Outlaw Cole Younger is born.
1844: The University of Notre Dame receives its charter from the state of Indiana.
1859: Gold is discovered at Gold Run, Boulder County, Colorado Territory.
1863: The Boston Morning Journal is the first newspaper in the U.S. to be published on wood pulp paper.
1864: Stephen Marshland, a member of the Innocents Gang, is lynched in Big Hole, Wyoming Territory.
1870: A cartoon by Thomas Nast appears in Harper's Weekly using the donkey to symbolize the Democratic Party for the first time.
1872: Russian Grand Duke Alexis scurries up a telegraph pole to escape a wounded bison in Nebraska.
1874: The James-Younger Gang stops a Stagecoach near Hot Springs, Arkansas, robbing the passengers, the mail bags and express box. A watch and money is returned to a passenger who served in the Confederate Army. John A. Burbank, former governor of Dakota Territory, is robbed of $840 and a gold watch. The bandits are believed to be the James and Younger brothers and either Clell Miller or Arthur McCoy. They make off with approximately $2,200 plus jewelry and a horse. When Jesse is killed 8 years later, Burbank’s watch is found in his home.
1891: Bascomb Smith, Soapy Smith’s younger brother, is fined $110 for being intoxicated, disturbing the peace, and carrying concealed weapons in Denver.
1892: Triangle magazine in Springfield, Massachusetts, publishes the rules for a new game of two teams getting a ball into a peach basket attached to a pole. The game eventually becomes basketball.

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