Gold Theft - Frontier Justice - Murder and "Rampart Nell"

"The Lake Creek Hanging"

A True Story

by Coleen Mielke 2014

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On September 13, 1907, C. Edward Cone, a poet turned gold miner, left the Yukon River area (by dog sled) and headed for Seward on the centuries old Athabascan winter trail; he was carrying $3,000 in gold ($75,000+ by current values).

The long trail to Seward was dotted with small roadhouses spaced roughly 20-25 miles apart (approximately one days travel). They were primitive but welcome rest stops for weary travelers, freighters, mail carriers and miners traveling into and out of gold country.

One of the roadhouses, that Cone stopped at, was the Kenny Roadhouse on the north bank of the Yentna River, near Lake Creek. It was built by Jack Kenny in 1905 and had a good reputation for being an upfront place to stay.

Cone put his dogs down for the night, then went into the roadhouse for dinner. As was customary, he stashed his gold poke behind the wood stove for safe keeping and spent the next two hours eating and talking to other travelers. When he was ready to turn in for the evening, he discovered that his gold was gone. He questioned everyone present, including the roadhouse owner, but no one knew anything about the missing poke. Angry and very suspicious, Cole decided to get help from the nearest "authorities" which were at Susitna Station, 20+ miles away.

Susitna Station did not have full time law enforcement in 1907, but it did have a large enough population to convene a "miners court" to investigate the theft of Cone's gold. A miners court was commonly used in remote locations (when no U.S. Marshal was immediately available) and consisted of a half dozen (or so) men who agreed to hear the evidence of a crime and immediately render a verdict. If found guilty, the miners court chose a punishment for the offender and carried it out on the spot. Their actions were seldom challenged by the nearest Federal Court, which was in Valdez.

Cone told the people of Susitna Station that his gold was stolen while he was at Lake Creek and he needed their help to get it back. A miners court was formed by Leon Ellexson, A.R. Young, William McManus, Sam Wagner, Frank Dunn, Charles Harper and Frank Churchill. The group hightailed it back to Kenny's Roadhouse where they questioned everyone at length, except for two strangers who had left the roadhouse a few hours earlier. To make sure their investigation was fair and complete, two of the investigators tracked down the missing strangers at Fire Island. After searching them, and finding no gold, they let them go.

Back at Kenny's Roadhouse, the interrogation of those present was heated and accusatory but yielded no clues. By the end of the following day, in spite of no real proof, the miners court voted to convict and hang Jack Kenny (the roadhouse owner) for stealing Cone's gold. They drug him out of his cabin and took him into the roadhouse where his loud protests fell on deaf ears. Realizing he was completely outnumbered, Kenny reluctantly wrote out his will, leaving all of his worldly goods to "Rampart Nell", the wife of George Purches who owned a roadhouse at Knik. Rampart Nell (real name Eileen) used to be a dance hall girl in the early gold rush days of Nome.

The miners court tied Kenny's hands behind his back, then blindfolded him, put a noose around his neck and threw the other end of the rope up over a horizontal ceiling beam. They stood the (loudly protesting) condemned man on a box and pulled the rope tight before kicking the box out from under him, leaving Kenny to hang by the neck until they declared him dead; then they cut his body down.

A short time later, everyone was shocked when Kenny regained consciousness. There was an immediate (and animated) conversation about the legality of hanging him a second time. No one was certain, so they put Kenny in a boat and escorted him to Cook Inlet and gave him a final threat of death should he ever come back to the Yentna area.

Five months later, Jack Kenny sued the men that hung him for $10,000 in a Valdez court room. He gave the judge the ghastly details of his ordeal: "I was greatly hurt, bruised, sick, sore, lame and suffered great pain for a long time afterward, both in mind and body. My nervous system received a severe shock, whereby both my physical and mental faculties have been impaired ever since, and I am in fear permanently, thereby diminishing my capacity to earn a living."

Kenny also sued the men for damages regarding the possessions he lost when he was unjustly forced out of his roadhouse: He said he lost his homestead, his home, his roadhouse, his dog team, all of his furniture and possessions and one ton of dried salmon.

The men that hung Kenny denied all allegations and the case drug on until the spring of 1910, when five of the  men, (Ellexson, Wagner, Young, Harper and Churchill), were ordered to pay Jack Kenny $1,500 in damages plus legal expenses. The newspapers called it, "The Lake Creek Hanging".

Jack Kenny's experience with the "miners court" was not a unique one. A wild west mentality, around the turn of the century, quickly led to suspicion, hot tempers and frontier consequences. In 1909, while Kenny's trial was winding it's way through the Valdez court, Frank Dunn (one of the men originally indicted for Kenny's hanging), was shot to death at Susitna Station by Ralph Williams, a prominent miner. A war of words, between the two men, quickly turned into a war with guns resulting in Williams shooting Dunn to death. Williams claimed self defense and was acquitted of all charges in a Valdez court.

Another example of frontier injustice, was a shooting at Knik in 1909. George Purches and his wife, "Rampart Nell" (her real name was Eileen) were preparing for miners (from the Willow Creek Mining District) to spend Thanksgiving at their roadhouse where "Nell" performed on stage.
Jimmy St. Clair, a straw boss for one of the mining outfits, had a room at the roadhouse and decades later, recounted the shooting to Gerrit "Heinie" Snider of Wasilla.

Jimmy told Heinie that he saw George Purches and "Nell" standing near a "roadhouse regular" named Johnny at the top of some stairs. He said he didn't see what led up to the shooting, but he did see Johnny shoot George Purches with a .30-30 rifle. St. Clair then wrestled the gun away from Johnny who repeatedly insisted that he shot Purches in self defense, but few people at the roadhouse believed him.

Once again, a miners court was formed to investigate the shooting. Johnny was interrogated at length, but never wavered from his self defense claim and "Nell" (the dead mans wife), backed his story up, so the committee voted to acquit Johnny of all charges.

Three months later, (spring of 1910) the Deputy U.S. Marshal arrived at Knik and ordered that the body of George Purches be exhumed and taken to Valdez for examination, along with Johnny (the shooter), Jimmy St. Clair and "Rampart Nell" to testify. The Valdez court acquitted Johnny (a second time) and a short time later he married "Rampart Nell", which raised a lot of eyebrows in Knik AND Susitna Station.

END



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