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Wild West - December 2013 - Letters From Readers

Originally published on Published Online: October 01, 2013 
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'Soapy never achieved the notoriety bestowed upon the likes of Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy and others, because he didn't leave a trail of bodies behind him. But he probably made more money than all the others combined'

Finding Finckle
I enjoyed John Koster's excellent article "Desperate Flight From the Little Bighorn" [June 2013], in which he addressed the issue of possible survivors of the Last Stand, a topic many historians have dismissed as absurd. One of these men whom Koster believes might have escaped and survived was August Finckle. The author argues that Finckle's body was not found on the battlefield, and he states that Daniel Kanipe, who supposedly identified Finckle's corpse, was mistaken. Koster also cites Charles Windolph as saying, late in life, "I tried to find the body of my German friend, Trooper Finckle.…But I could not identify him." However, Windolph gave another account to Walter Camp decades earlier, "Windolph corroborates Knipe's [sic] story about [the] line of Benteen's march on p.m. of 6/27. Saw Finckle's body sticking full of arrows, just as Knipe says."

Perhaps the most credible account of a survivor from Custer's detachment relates to Gustave Korn. Newly discovered evidence suggests Korn's horse was struck by a bullet early in the fight and became unmanageable from pain. The animal then ran back to Reno's detachment, carrying Korn to safety. Because of Koster's reopening of the topic of possible survivors, such accounts will gain more attention and possible approval.

Albert Winkler
Orem, Utah

John Koster responds: Walter Mason Camp probably misheard "Finley" as "Finckle." Kanipe indeed said Sergeant Jeremiah Finley was shot full of arrows. Kanipe never described Finckle as riddled with arrows to Camp or W.A. Graham; he simply said he was "very badly mutilated." Camp died in 1925. But in 1944 Windolph again told interviewer Arthur Kannenberg how bad he felt about not being able to find Finckle's body, and Windolph's daughter said her father talked about it all the time. Windolph could not have seen Finckle's body, and Kanipe was mistaken, because the photograph of "Sergeant August Finckle" that George Kush discovered in the papers of Sergeant Samuel Alcott has been identified by a professional portrait photographer, two semiprofessional photographers, a Fulbright scholar with a degree in engineering from Dartmouth, a police chief with special training in facial recognition, a portrait painter and an anthropologist as undeniably a younger likeness of Frank Finkel. The photos of Sergeant August Finckle (above, left) and Frank Finkel (above, right) were analyzed point by point. Sergeant Alcott also says that "Sergeant Finckle" had trouble speaking German, which is bluntly impossible for a recent Prussian officer but no trick at all for an Ohio farm boy who never lived in Prussia and whose parents spoke a Bavarian dialect. No Prussian officer named Finckle, Finckle or Finkel turns up on the roster for Bismarck's army in 1869–73. August Finckle and Frank Finkel were the same guy.

More Dope on Soapy
Thanks for Jeff Smith's article ["Soapy Smith's Showdown With the Vigilantes"] in the April 2013 issue. I have researched him for several years, and there's some additional information of interest. Soapy never killed anyone until that fateful day of his demise. He is not buried in the cemetery but just outside it, because locals didn't want the hallowed grounds defiled. Frank Reid was buried inside under the large granite marker erected to honor him. This was ironic, because Reid also sported an unsavory reputation. Today tourists are moderately interested in Reid's gravesite but flock to view Soapy's resting place.

This, too, is ironic. When visiting Skagway, Alaska, I was told that two years after Smith's burial the site was flooded, and his body washed away. It was never recovered, but there was no publicity on this, because the site had become a drawing card for tourists and remains so today.

Soapy never achieved the notoriety bestowed upon the likes of Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy and others, because he didn't leave a trail of bodies behind him. But he probably made more money than all the others combined. He had gangs with memberships approaching 100. He kept agents in Portland who spotted people heading for Skagway who had a lot of cash with them. The agents would book passage on the same ships as the marks and alert Soapy, who would then relieve the newcomers of their money. It is no wonder he has been called America's first gangster. His biggest successes in Colorado came when he owned a tavern in Creede. He would sit at a table in the back of the gambling hall section of the tavern and, when engaged in a conversation, would quote Shakespeare from memory to make a point. His stint there also revealed he had a benevolent streak, when he funded the construction of Creede's first church. I authored a Western novel that covered his time in Creede, although he's not the main character. Interestingly, other notables there at the same time were Bat Masterson, Bob Ford, Frank James, Poker Alice, Calamity Jane and others. In my opinion Soapy deserves a lot more attention than he has received.

Bob Fry
Flowood, Miss.

Author Jeff Smith responds: Thank you for your comments. In regard to Soapy Smith not having any deaths to his name: Counting Frank Reid, Soapy has two "notches," with a possible third, though the latter body was never found. It is true Soapy was not buried inside the cemetery grounds in 1898. It is also true his corpse no longer rests in the plot. A flood in 1919 carried his body out to sea. When standing at the foot of his grave, looking at his marker, turn your head to the right, and you will see among the brush a gully. It is there the original grave was. His grave is indeed a spot people search for. Over the years I have seen people place flowers, a deck of cards, letters and even money upon his grave. Again, you are correct when you say that Soapy deserves more attention. That is changing. Today annual parties in his honor on the day he died are held in Skagway, Hollywood, Denver and Chicago. Fox has a screenplay for a book-to-film adaptation of Howard Blum's The Floor of Heaven, in which Soapy Smith plays a major part.

Wyatt Earp's Six-Shooter
I agree with reader Michael Tynio's comments (April 2013 "Letters") about Roger Jay's article "Fatal Mix-up on Fremont Street" (October 2012), except that Wyatt's Smith & Wesson was a No. 2 Model American single action (Serial No. 20029). The fact Wyatt was ready for action shows he probably already had it cocked in his pocket. As far as Lee Silva's comments about the American being obsolete, the Smith & Wesson No. 3 Model, which came out in 1878 to 1904, still offered the .44 American cartridge as well as the .44 rimfire. Remington UMC was still selling .44 American cartridges in the 1920s and later. Winchester still sold Model 66 Winchester rifles until 1899. Neither cartridge was obsolete in 1881. Virgil Earp owned a No. 3 Model .44 Russian caliber. Did he have it before the Fremont Street incident or after he saw what Wyatt could do with a 7-year-old "obsolete" American?

Ken Black
Winnsboro, S.C.

Lee Silva responds: Your letter proves how easily Old West myth can turn into presumed reality. You note that Smith & Wesson single-action American Model No. 20029 was Wyatt's gun, when in fact it was John Clum's gun, as I wrote. The late Earp relative Charles Dearborn had been a silent partner (1866–73) in Earp historian John Gilcrease's museum in Tombstone, and Dearborn described No. 20029 to me as it was when Gilcrease first got it directly from the Clum family (when it still had the pearl grips presentation-inscribed to Clum, not the wood grips it has now). It is a .44 Russian caliber, and it is on display at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles.

The Smith & Wesson American Model was discontinued in 1874 and replaced by the Russian Model that year and the No. 3 New Model in 1878. There is a .44 Russian caliber No. 3 New Model (No. 14289) in the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City that is attributed to Virgil Earp, but it has no written history to back up the story. And Smith & Wesson didn't make a .44-caliber double-action revolver until the summer of 1881, so it's doubtful Wyatt would have had one as soon as October 1881.

As for the various calibers of cartridges that were manufactured for decades, there is a big difference between ones produced in the East for special order and ones readily available on the frontier. While Colt eventually even made its Single Action Army Model available in .44 Russian caliber, in 1889, the popular calibers of the Colt in .45 Long Colt and .44-40 Winchester were stocked by every sutler and merchandise store on the frontier. So why would Wyatt have been packing a Smith & Wesson with cartridges that were hard to get instead of a Colt like all the Cowboys were carrying? So I will stick to my guns (pun intended) and repeat my conviction that Wyatt Earp did not use a Smith & Wesson at the 1881 shootout, especially not the obsolete American Model.

Send letters to Wild West, 19300 Promenade Dr., Leesburg, VA 20176 or by e-mail.

One Response to “Wild West - December 2013 - Letters From Readers”

  1. 1
    Bob Baird says:

    Wyatt Earp and the Smith American. How and why was the SW American obsolete by say 1882? Ammo? Come on the stats are out there on the cartridge for this gun being available for many years. I am a Colt fan but first to admit the American and the it's later models were way ahead of the Colt SAA if for no other reason in the fact it could be reloaded MUCH faster and easier. You mention Clum's family had his American? Other sources say Clum gave Earp an engraved American just the day before the OK Corral fracas? If so, it did not need to be Clum's own gun ….why would he even think of doing that. We may never know the truth but my money is on the American in that overcoat pocket and for sure not a 10 inch SAA!!
    Bob Baird
    Prescott, AZ

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