April 21, 2017

Did Soapy Smith know John Bull?

id Soapy know gambler John Bull?
Crooked gambler, steerer, gunman.

In July 1898, after Soapy Smith was killed in Skagway, Alaska, J. M. Tanner, the vigilante turned deputy U.S. Marshal, took possession of Soapy's letters found in his personal trunk. These letters were published in Alaska-Yukon Magazine, December 1907 and January 1908. The letters disappeared afterwards. Text of one of those letters (from the January 1908 issue) follows.

Seattle, Wash.
May 9, 1898
Friend Jeff:
    I understand ["Reverend" John L.] Bowers has gone to Skagway. I wrote him in Victoria and Vancouver, but have rec'd no answer. I was in good shape here to get on my feet but old Bull had me pinched on a deal that Bowers and I was in, and because I didn't turn the proceeds over to him, he had Durff swear his life against me, and c., which caused me some trouble. Bull has lost many friends and is not in it. I will have things all right in a few days. Jeff, it makes no difference what people say for or against you, I am always your friend and I hope you are doing well. I will make some money here, but it won't be through the Bull click. Write me soon as you get this. I have two letters for Bowers. One from Skagway and I think it is from you. As soon as I know where Bowers is I will forward them to him.
    Write by return mail. Ever your friend,
Jno. W. Murphy.
Care, Horse Shoe Saloon [Seattle]

The letter was written by John W. Murphy, mistakenly referred to as being the fictitious "Ice Box" Murphy in several books, but who is actually the same John W. Murphy, proprietor of Denver's famed gambling den, Murphy's Exchange (The Exchange), known as "the slaughter house" for all the blood spilled upon its floors. It was here where Soapy is accused of shooting and killing Clifton Sparks in 1892. Note that Mr. Murphy ends his letter with "Care, Horse Shoe Saloon." It is believed that John W. Murphy is the same "John Murphy," a partner in the Horse Shoe Saloon, frequented by Soapy when in Seattle, whom in October 1897 got into a violent fight in said saloon.

John Edwin Bull was born in England in 1836. Little is known of his life, or when he came to the United States. He first appears, in historical texts, in 1861, as a professional gambler making his way around the mining camps of the western states, managing to make a name and place for himself in the sporting hierarchy.

John Bull and cohorts playing joke on "Mark Twain"
Pretending to rob Samuel Clemens
From Roughing It
(Click image to enlarge)

For a few years in the early to mid 1870s Bull worked as a steerer for the notorious three-card monte bunko gang led by "Canada Bill" Jones. Others in the gang included Gerorge Devol, Charles "Doc" Baggs, Ben Marks, and Jim Bush. In 1880 Bull was in Denver as a partner in the Oyster Ocean saloon, restaurant and gaming house with gambler John E. Wilcoxon, alias "Jim Moon."

In 1881 John Bull opened the Turf Exchange, a gambling house and hotel, on Larimer Street. In January 1882, gambler and old associate, Jim Bush, and Bull got into an argument in Bull's establishment, in which Bush drew a revolver and shot Bull in the foot. Shortly afterward Bull left Denver for the north-west and Washington. In 1898, he was in Spokane, Washington, when John Murphy wrote to Soapy Smith about Bull. Sometime later that year Bull got into a shootout with friend Fisky Barnett. One of Bull's shots hit a woman, another took off one of Barnett's fingers. Bull had been shot four times, in the neck, groin, chin, and left arm. Bull was forced to have the arm amputated. He lived to the age of 93 before passing away in 1929.

For more on John Bull pick up a copy of Deadly Dozen: Forgotten Gunfighters of the Old West, Volume 1 (2010) by Robert K. DeArment.

He was strikingly generous, giving a good percentage of his ill-gotten riches to those less fortunate, preferring the limelight of notoriety and popularity to the accumulation of wealth.
Alias Soapy Smith, p. 16


1789: John Adams is sworn in as the first U.S. Vice President.
1836: General Sam Houston defeats Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto. This battle decides the independence of Texas.
1856: The Mississippi River is crossed by a rail train for the first time (between Davenport, Iowa, and Rock Island, Illinois).
1862: Congress establishes the U.S. Mint in Denver, Colorado.
1865: President Abraham Lincoln's funeral train leaves Washington.
1876: five men are hung in Fort Smith, each separate and for murder. They are William Leach, Orpheus McGee, Aaron Wilson, Isham Seeley, and George Ishtonubbee. It is estimated that up to 5,000 people witnessed the execution.
1876: Murderer William F. “Persimmon Bill” Chambers the “Scourge of the Black Hills Trail,” attacks and kills H. E. Brown, manager of the Cheyenne and Black Hills Stage Company, as he rode a freight wagon with two employees towards Hat Creek Station, Wyoming.
1877: Emile Berliner invents the microphone.
1888: Soap Gang member Frank “Blue-Jay” Brown attempts to shoot the man his wife had been seeing in Denver, Colorado, but his gun misfires and the man returns fire striking Brown in the face. Brown survives, following Soapy Smith to Alaska in 1898.
1892: The first Buffalo is born in Golden Gate Park.
1894: All gambling houses in Denver, Colorado are ordered closed. Just one of the many attempts to close down gambling in Denver.
1895: Soapy Smith and brother Bascomb go on a rampage assaulting numerous people in Denver, Colorado, including the chief of police and saloon manager John Hughes, the latter bringing charges that puts Bascomb in prison for one year, and has Soapy fleeing the state as a fugitive.
1897: Wild Bunch gang leader Robert Leroy “Butch Cassidy” Parker and Elzy Lay rob the Pleasant Valley Coal Corporation payroll at Castle Gate, Utah. They escape with $9,860.
1898: Spain breaks diplomatic ties with the United States.
1898: U.S. declares war on Spain, April 25, but backdates the declaration to this date, April 21, so that it appears as if the U.S. declared war first.

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