On September 13, 1907, C.Edward Cone, a poet
turned gold miner, left the Yukon River area and headed, by dog
sled, for Seward on the centuries old Athabascan Winter Trail, he
was carrying $3,000 in gold.
The 700+ mile trail was dotted with makeshift roadhouses built roughly
20-25 miles apart (or one days travel). They were a primitive
but welcome respite for weary travelers, freighters, mail carriers
and miners going into and out of gold country.
One of the roadhouses that Cone stopped at, was the Kenny Roadhouse which
was on the north bank of the Yentna River, near the mouth of Lake Creek;
"Jack" Kenny built it in 1905 and it had a good reputation.
After feeding and bedding down his sled dogs for the night, Cone went
into Kenny's Roadhouse and put his gold poke on a shelf behind the
wood stove for safe keeping, as was the custom in those days. He spent
the next two hours eating dinner and talking to other travelers.
Before bed, Cone went to the shelf to
retrieve his gold, but it was gone. He questioned everyone at
the roadhouse, including the owner, but no one knew what happened to
the missing gold poke. Angry and suspicious, Cone mushed to Susitna
Station where he hoped to recruit help to get his gold back.
Susitna Station did not have full time law enforcement
in 1907, but it did have a large enough population to convene a vigilance
committee to deal with the gold theft. Vigilance committee's were commonly
used in remote locations when there was no U.S. Marshal immediately available.
The duty of the committee was to investigate the given crime and vote on
the accused persons guilt or innocence; punishment was then carried out,
right on the spot. The whole process usually happened with lightening speed
and the committee's actions were seldomly frowned upon by the nearest legitimate
court at Valdez.
Cone told the residents of Susitna Station that
his gold poke had been stolen at Lake Creek and he needed their
help to get it back. A vigilance committee was formed by Leon Ellexson,
A.R.Young, William McManus, Sam Wagner, Frank Dunn,
Charles Harper and Frank Churchill. The men hightailed it
back to Kenny's Roadhouse where everyone was questioned at length,
except for the two strangers who had been there earlier in the evening,
but were now long gone. To make their investigation complete, two committee
members set out to find and question the missing strangers. They caught up
with the men at Fire Island, where they were questioned and searched, but
they had no gold.
Back at the roadhouse, the interrogation of everyone present was heated
and accusatory but yielded no clues. By the end of the evening, in spite
of no proof, the committee voted to convict Jack Kenny of the theft and decided
to hang him immediately.
They drug Kenny out of his cabin and took him into the Roadhouse where
his protests fell on deaf ears. Realizing he was completely outnumbered by
the 8 committee members, Kenny reluctantly wrote out a 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 vigilance committee tied Kenny's hands behind his back; blindfolded
him; put a noose around his neck and threw the other end of the rope over
a horizontal roof rafter. They lifted the protesting man onto a box and
pulled the rope tight before they kicked the box out from under the condemned
man, leaving him to hang by the neck until they thought he was dead; then
they cut him down.
Shocked, when Kenny regained consciousness, the vigilance committee questioned
the legality of hanging Kenny twice, so they put him on a boat and escorted
him to Susitna Station and told him that if he ever came back to the Yentna
area, they would kill him.
At Susitna Station, Kenny was immediately transferred to another boat
and escorted out to Cook Inlet with a final threat of death, should he
Five months later, Jack Kenny sued the vigilance committee for $10,000.
In the Valdez court, Kenny gave the ghastly details of what the newspapers
dubbed "The Lake Creek Hanging". He said " I was greatly hurt, bruised
and wounded and was, for a long time afterward, sick, sore, lame and disordered
and suffered great pain, both in mind and body; and my nervous system received
a severe shock, whereby both my physical and mental faculties have been
impaired ever since, and I fear permanently, thereby diminishing my capacity
to earn a living."
Kenny sued the original vigilance committee for physical injury and damages
regarding the possessions he lost when he was unjustly forced out of his
roadhouse by the men who hanged him; he lost his homestead, his home, his
roadhouse, his dog team, all of his furniture and possessions and one ton
of dried salmon.
At trial, the eight vigilantes denied all allegations and the court case
drug on until the spring of 1910, when the court decided that five of the
8 men, (Ellexson, Wagner, Young, Harper and Churchill), should pay
Jack Kenny $1,500 in damages plus legal expenses.
The "Lake Creek Hanging" was not a unique occurrence. Wild west attitudes
around the turn of the century commonly led to suspicion, hot tempers and
frontier consequences. In 1909, while Jack Kenny's trial was winding it's
way through court, Frank Dunn (one of the men originally indicted for the
hanging), was shot to death at Susitna Station, by Ralph Williams. William's,
a prominent miner, got into an argument with Frank Dunn and a war of words
changed into a war with guns when Williams shot Dunn to death. William's
claimed self defense and was acquitted of all charges in a Valdez court.
frontier injustice, happened when George Purches was shot to death
in 1909. George and his wife, "Rampart Nell", owned the Knik Roadhouse. It was Thanksgiving and
many of the miners from the Willow Creek Mining District were in town
to have dinner and watch "Nell" on stage.
Jimmy St. Clair, a straw boss for one of the mining outfits,
had a room at the roadhouse that night and witnessed the shooting.
Decades later, he recounted the story to Gerrit "Heinie" Snider
Jimmy told Heinie that he was headed
to his room, when he saw George Purches, his wife Nell and a man named
Johnny at the top of the 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.
Jimmy wrestled the gun away from Johnny who repeatedly insisted that
he shot Purches in self defense, but few people at the roadhouse believed
Once again, a vigilance committee 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 up Johnny's story, 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 along with Johnny (the shooter), and Jimmy St.
Clair and Rampart Nell. The Valdez court acquitted Johnny and a short
time later he married Nell, which raised many eyebrows in Knik and Susitna