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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 ($75,000+ today).

The 700+ mile route to Seward was dotted with small primitive roadhouses spaced roughly 20-25 miles apart (or 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 the mouth of Lake Creek. It was built by Jack Kenny in 1905 and had a good reputation for being an upfront business.

After feeding and bedding his sled dogs for the night, Cone went into the roadhouse and stashed his gold poke on a shelf behind the wood stove for safe keeping, which was the custom at the roadhouse. 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, including the owner, but no one knew what happened to the missing gold poke. Angry and suspicious, Cone decided to contact the nearest "authorities" which were at Susitna Station.

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 and immediately render a guilty or not guilty 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 poke had been stolen while he was at Lake Creek and he needed their help to get it back. A miners court was formed and it included 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 two strangers who left before Cone returned. To make sure their investigation was fair and complete, two of the investigators set out to track down the missing strangers. They caught up with them at Fire Island and searched them, but found no gold and let them go.

Back at Kenny's Roadhouse, the interrogation of everyone 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. 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.

Immediately after the judgment, the miners court 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 interior roof beam. They stood the protesting man on a box and pulled the rope tight before they kicked the box out from under him, leaving Kenny to hang by the neck until they thought he was dead; then they cut him down.

Everyone was shocked when Kenny regained consciousness a short time later. Could they legally hang him a second time? No one was certain, so they put Kenny in a boat and escorted him to Cook Inlet with 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 ghastly details of what the newspapers had dubbed "The Lake Creek Hanging" and said "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 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.

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

The "Lake Creek Hanging" was not a unique occurrence. A wild west mentality 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 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.  Williams, a prominent miner, argued with Dunn and the war of words quickly turned into a war with guns when Williams shot Dunn to death.  Williams claimed self defense and was acquitted of all charges in a Valdez court.

Another example of frontier injustice, was in Knik in 1909. George Purches and his wife, "Rampart Nell", owned the Knik Roadhouse and were preparing for miners (from the Willow Creek Mining District) to spend Thanksgiving at the roadhouse where "Nell" performed on stage.

Jimmy St. Clair, a straw boss for one of the mining outfits, had a room at the roadhouse that night and decades later, recounted the shooting that night, to Gerrit "Heinie" Snider of Wasilla.

Jimmy told Heinie that he was headed to his room (just before the shooting), when he saw Purches and Nell standing near a man named Johnny at the top of the roadhouse 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 for examination. The Marshal also took Johnny (the shooter), as well as Jimmy St. Clair and Rampart Nell. The Valdez court acquitted Johnny (a second time) and a short time later Johnny married Rampart Nell, which raised many eyebrows in Knik AND Susitna Station.

END



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