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

MYSTERY OF THE
LAKE CREEK HANGING


A True Story

by Coleen Mielke 2022






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 an Athabascan winter trail; he was reportedly carrying $3,000 in gold dust.

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 Kenney Roadhouse on the north bank of the Yentna River, near Lake Creek. It was built by Jack Kenney 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 roadhouse owners counter 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,about 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 it consisted of a group of well respected men
who agreed to hear the evidence of a crime and render a verdict. If found guilty, the miners court chose an appropriate punishment and carried it out immediately. 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 the Kenney Roadhouse 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 the roadhouse where they searched the buildings and questioned everyone, except 2 strangers who left hours earlier. To make sure their investigation was fair and complete, 2 of the investigators tracked down the missing strangers at Fire Island. After searching them and finding no gold, they let the men go.

Back at Kenney's Roadhouse, the interrogation of those present was heated and accusatory but yielded no clues except that Kenney was the only person with access to the gold poke. The next morning, in spite of no real proof, the miners court voted to convict and hang Jack Kenney 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, Kenney 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) was said to have been a dance hall girl in the early gold rush days of Nome.

The miners court tied Kenney'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 and pulled it tight. Next, they stood the screaming man on a box and kicked it out from under him. A short while later, they declared him dead and cut the body down.

Everyone in the roadhouse was shocked when Kenney regained consciousness. There was an immediate (and aggrivated) debate about the legality of hanging him a second time. Since no one was certain, they took Kenney out to Cook Inlet by boat and told him they would kill him if he ever came back to the Yentna area.

Five months later, in a Valdez court room, Kenney sued the men that hung him. He told 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." Kenney also sued for the loss of his homestead, his home, his roadhouse, his dog team, all of his furniture and possessions and one ton of dried fish.

The men on trial 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 Kenney $1,500 in damages and legal expenses.

Kenney'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 Kenney's trial was winding it's way through the Valdez court, Frank Dunn (one of the men originally indicted for Kenney'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 girlfriend, "Rampart Nell" were preparing for men, 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 at the top of some stairs talking to a "roadhouse regular" named Johnny Kashevnikov. 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" backed his story up, so the committee voted to acquit Johnny of all charges.

Three months later, (spring of 1910) a Deputy U.S. Marshal arrived at Knik to take Kashevnikov (the shooter), Jimmy St. Clair and "Rampart Nell" back to Valdez to testify. The Valdez court acquitted Kashevnikov of all charges. A short time later he married "Rampart Nell", which raised a lot of eyebrows in Knik AND Susitna Station.

Who really stole Edward Cone's gold poke in 1907?
Why did Kenney leave his roadhouse to "Rampart Nell" in 1907?
Kenney sued the lynchers 5 months after the Lake Creek hanging.
Kenney's Roadhouse burned down 5 months after the hanging.
Was there any connection to the death of Frank Dunn in 1909?
Was there any connection to the death of George Purches in 1909?


END
The facts of the above story were extracted from Valdez court records
The newspaper articles (below) are about the Lake Creek Hanging


SEWARD WEEKLY GATEWAY 9/28/1907
George Purches and wife  are well known in Seward. George worked in railroad commissary for a long time. He went to the Yentna country early in 1906 and stayed.

When J.E. Kenney was driven away from his roadhouse at Lake Creek by a mob on a wild guess that he had stolen Cone’s alleged lost $3,000 poke, the house was placed in charge of Purches. It was arranged that Purches was to meet Kenney later at Knik and give him his property.

Cone’s poke has not yet turned up. When last heard from, he was taking life very cheerfully around Susitna Station and some people doubt whether he ever let his poke behind.

THE ALASKA PROSPECTOR 2/10/1908
The Lake Creek  Roadhouse located on the Yentna River at the mouth of Lake Creek was destroyed by fire last week. None of the stores or furnishings were saved and the loss to the proprietors was heavy. The origin of the fire has not been learned here. The house was new, a story and a half log structure built a year ago and run by him until last fall. Since then, Mr. and Mrs. George Purches have been conducting it.

THE ALASKA PROSPECTOR 2/27/1908
Because of their participation in a purported attempt to hang J.E. Kenney, a roadhouse owner on Lake Creek in the Yentna District last September, Frank Churchill and Frank Dunn were brought to Valdez on the Bertha by Special Deputy Marshal Fred Slack, who arrested them in Seattle upon warrants under indictments returned by a recent grand jury for assault with intent to kill. Both of them gave bond to the sum of $1,000. Both Dunn and Churchill are well known in the Cook Inlet country. Churchill has conducted a store at Susitna Station for many years. Dunn, for the past 1 1/2 years has kept a roadhouse at the same place. Three other men were arrested last fall upon warrants issued by Commissioner Goodell of Knik, before whom Kenney filed a complaint charging them with riot.

THE ALASKA PROSPECTOR 2/28/1908

The Lake Creek Roadhouse located on the Yentna River at the mouth of Lake Creek was destroyed by fire last week. None of the stores or furnishings were saved and the loss to the proprietors was heavy. The origin of the fire has not been learned here. The house was a new, story and a half log structure built by J.E.Kenney a year ago and run by him until last fall. Since then, Mr. and Mrs. George Purches have been conducting it.

VALDEZ WEEKLY PROSPECTOR 10/29/1908

Five members of the Lake Creek hanging-bee party of which J.E.Kenney is the victim, arrived on the Portland from the westward for the purpose of standing trial on a charge of assault with intent to kill. The men are also defendants in a damage suit brought by Kenney to recover $25,000. Those to arrive are Frank Dunn, Frank Churchill, Charles Harper, A.R.Young and Sam Wagner. The hanging took place 9/13/1907. Kenney had homesteaded some land and the allegations are that the defendants named in the foregoing and 3 others, Ed Cone, McManus and T.I.Ellixson were desirous of running Kenney out of the country. Accordingly, Cone declared that he had been robbed of gold dust. The defendants organized themselves into a vigilance committee and personally charged Kenney with the crime. Kenney made strenuous denial of any wrongful act and after being threatened, was placed upon a box and a rope was looped around his neck. The party kicked the box from under the trussed up man. It so happened that the rope was new and it stretched sufficiently to permit Kenney's toes to touch the ground, thus preventing his neck from being broken. Kenney asserted that some of the men were in favor of making a second attempt and while he was slowly strangling to death, the question was debated, finally being decided in  Kenney's favor, so he was cut down. Kenney made his way to civilization and made his complaints. Cone is said to be in the Kuskokwim country and McManus and Ellixson are believed to be back in Cook Inlet.

A.R. Young and Charles Harper, 2 of those accused of assault with intent to kill as a result of their connection with the Lake Creek Hanging case, were placed on trial this morning. It was not until 2 this afternoon that the jury was obtained. J.E. Kenney, the alleged victim was the 1st witness called. In his opening statement to the jury, Attorney Fred Brown for the defense admitted that the defendants had made a bluff at hanging, but Mr. Brown denied that there was any criminal intent and insisted that the sole purpose of the affair was to force Kenney into telling the whereabouts of a poke of gold dust of which he was supposed to possess knowledge.

SEWARD WEEKLY GATEWAY 10/31/1908

Charles Harper and Al Young were acquitted by a jury in district court today on a charge technically described as "participating in a riot" by attempting to hang J.E. Kenney a year ago at his roadhouse on Lake Creek.

THE DOUGLAS ISLAND NEWS 12/15/1909

Word came to Seward from Knik by local authorities of the murder of George Purches on 11/17/1909. Purches and a miner by the name of J.J. Kashevnikov had trouble over a woman and meeting that day, had hot words which led to blows, which were followed by the shooting and almost instant killing of Purches. There being no local peace officer, the miners held a meeting to consider the case, resulting in a decision to hold the murderer pending
the arrival of officers from Seward.

VALDEZ WEEKLY PROSPECTOR  2/11/1909

Killing is the end of Susitna fight: Ralph Williams,  nephew of John Corson is in a Seward jail on a murder charge. Frank Dunn, a proprietor of a roadhouse at Susitna Station was shot and instantly killed last month by R.E.Williams as the result of a quarrel growing out of Williams attempt to protect Mrs. Dunn from her husband. Williams was brought to Seward last evening, being in the custody of the Marshal. Early on the morning of January 21, Dunn and his wife became involved in a quarrel and the woman was being subjected to abusive treatment. Williams interfered and was badly beaten for his pains. When he found that he was no match for Dunn, Williams drew a revolver and shot Dunn. Dunn was well known to the westward and was one of the defendants in the Lake Creek Hanging case.


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