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"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 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 (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.

After dinner, 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 nearby Susitna Station where he hoped to recruit help to find out what happened to his gold.

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. It consisted of a half dozen (or so) men who agreed to hear evidence and render a guilty or not guilty verdict right on the spot. If found guilty, the miners court chose a punishment for the offender and carried it out immediately. Their actions were seldom frowned upon by the nearest Federal Court which was in Valdez.

Cone told the people of Susitna Station that his gold poke had been stolen 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 men hightailed it back to Kenny's Roadhouse where they questioned everyone at length, except for the two strangers who left before Cone returned. To make sure their investigation was complete, two of the investigators set out to find the missing strangers. They caught up with them at Fire Island where they questioned and searched the men, but found no gold.

Back at Kenny's Roadhouse, the interrogation of everyone present was heated and accusatory but yielded no clues. By the end of the next day, in spite of no real proof, the miners court 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, 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 miners court men 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 miners court questioned the legality of hanging him again, so they put Kenny on a boat and escorted him to Susitna Station. They told him that if he ever came back to the Yentna area, they would kill him.

At Susitna Station, Kenny was transferred to another boat and escorted out to Cook Inlet with a final threat of death, should he return.

Five months later, Jack Kenny sued the men that hung him for $10,000. In the Valdez court, Kenny gave the ghastly details of what the newspapers had dubbed "The Lake Creek Hanging". He said "I was greatly hurt, bruised and wounded and was, for a long time afterward, sick, sore, lame, disordered and suffered great pain, 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 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 testified that 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 miners court denied all allegations and the case drug on until the spring of 1910, when the court decided that five of the 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 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.

Another 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 of Wasilla.

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 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 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), as well as Jimmy St. Clair and Rampart Nell. The Valdez court acquitted Johnny and a short time later he married Rampart Nell, which raised many eyebrows in Knik and Susitna Station.



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