Gold Theft - Frontier Justice -
Murder? and "Rampart Nell"
A True Story
by Coleen Mielke 2013
At the end of the 1907 Alaska mining season, C.E.
Cone, a poet turned gold miner, left Poorman Creek near the Yukon
River and headed for Seward with $3,000 in gold. His route was the centuries
old Athabascan Winter Trail.
Makeshift roadhouses, along the Winter Trail, were roughly
20-25 miles apart (or one days travel) and were a primitive but welcome
respite for weary freighters, mail carriers and miners traveling into
and out of gold country.
One of the stops that Cone made during his trip to Seward,
was at the roadhouse on Lake Creek near the Yentna River. After he bedded
down his sled dogs for the night, Cone went into the 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 it's owner (a man named Kinney), 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 recover his gold.
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 where there was no U.S. Marshal immediately available. They
investigated the given crime and immediately decided (by a majority vote)
on the accused persons guilt or innocence; punishment was then carried out,
right on the spot. The whole process happened with lightening speed and
the committee's actions were seldomly frowned upon by the nearest court at
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 and they hightailed it back to Kinney's
Roadhouse where everyone was questioned at length, except for the
two strangers who had been at the roadhouse earlier in the evening,
but were now long gone. Two committee members decided it was necessary to
question the missing strangers, so they went after them, catching up with
the men at Fire Island. The strangers were thoroughly searched, but did not
have Cone's gold.
Interrogation, back at the Lake Creek Roadhouse, was heated and accusatory.
The committee decided that Kinney, himself, had stolen Cone's gold; a charge
that he vehemently denied; even so, they voted to hang the roadhouse owner
A scaffold was built and the condemned roadhouse owner reluctantly
wrote out his will, leaving all of his worldly goods to "Rampart Nell",
the wife of George Purches. Rampart Nell (real name Eileen) used
to be a dance hall girl in the early gold rush days of Nome. She and
her husband George (who was one of the vigilance committee members)
owned the Knik Roadhouse.
With hands and feet bound and a noose around his
neck, Kinney was given one last chance to confess. Emphatically
denying his guilt and struggling against his ropes, he accidentally
knocked over the box on which he was standing and was nearly choked
to death before one of the committee members cut him down.
The vigilance committee was now faced with a dilemma;
could they legally hang Kinney twice for the same crime? To be on
the safe side, they decided to take him to Susitna Station and send for
the authorities. That spring, the Deputy U.S. Marshal took Kinney to
stand trial in Valdez; he was acquitted of all charges.
After his acquittal, Kinney
sued the people involved in his attempted hanging at Lake Creek and
won a sizable judgment, but that is not the end of this tangled web.
Two members of the original vigilance committee were shot to
death within the next year: Frank Dunn was shot to death in his roadhouse
at Susitna Station and George Purches was shot to death in his roadhouse
I don't have the details of Frank Dunn's death
(yet), however, the death of George Purches is as follows:
The Knik Roadhouse was full of people the day that, it's
owner George Purches, was shot to death in 1909. It was Thanksgiving
and many of the miners from the Willow Creek Mining District were in
town to have dinner and watch "Rampart Nell" perform at the roadhouse.
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 noticed
three people at the top of the stairs: George Purches, his wife Rampart
Nell and a man named Johnny. He said he didn't see what led up to the incident,
but he did see Johnny shoot George Purches with a .30-30 rifle; Jimmy then
wrestled the rifle away from Johnny who insisted that he shot Purches in
self defense, but few people at the roadhouse believed him.
Another vigilance committee was formed to investigate the
shooting. Johnny was interrogated at length, but never wavered from
his self defense claim and Rampart Nell continued to back up Johnny's story,
so the committee voted to acquit Johnny of all charges.
Three months later, 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 witnesses Jimmy St. Clair and Rampart
Nell. The Valdez court acquitted Johnny (again) and a short time later
he married Nell, which raised many eyebrows in Knik and Susitna Station.
Knik residents had a lot of questions and Rampart Nell
seemed to be implicated in each one. They wanted to know why Kinney wrote
a will that left everything he owned to Nell, another mans wife. They
also wanted to know why Nell didn't try to stop Johnny from shooting her
husband. They wanted to know why she testified FOR Johnny in front of the
vigilance committee and again in a Valdez Court, and they certainly wanted to know why Nell then married
the man that shot her husband.
None of these questions
were ever answered; Nell and Johnny left Alaska shortly after
they got married......with Cone's gold poke perhaps??