From The Douglas Island News, October 13, 1916
Away back in the pioneer days, Senator Tanner and the editor of this paper were both residents of Skagway, days when that now placid town was accounted the "toughest place on earth." It was "Si" Tanner who redeemed it. When the people mutinied and refused to further be rode over rough-shod by "Soapy" Smith and his band of assassins, when the then deputy U.S. marshal was deposed by a citizen's meeting, it was to Tanner that the people of Skagway turned and asked him to guide them out of the wilderness...
Today but few people realize what Skagway was in those early days nor do they realize what would have happened that summer of 1898 in the way of murder and robbery of people coming from the interior with gold dust had not J. M. Tanner proved himself the fearless, brave and cool-headed man that he is. He was Skagway's savior then as he has been scores of times since.
E. J. "Stroller" White.
Tanner came from a long line of lawmen. His father and grandfather had both served time as deputy sheriffs in Michigan. He took his turn in Harrison County, Iowa in the 1880s and in Pierce County, Washington in the early 1890s. After the Silver Crash of 1893, he moved to Juneau, Alaska.
At the beginning of the Klondike gold rush in July 1897, he took a small steamship, a string of barges, horses and wagons to Skagway where he lightered goods from ship to shore. There he earned his sobriquet "Captain Tanner." He staked one of the first lots surveyed in the new town by Frank Reid.
As an an experienced lawman, Si Tanner became a logical member of the law and order committee appointed by Skagway's city council in November 1897. At first this ad hoc police force had little to do. That would all change when Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith and his gang came to town.
Smith brought himself to the attention of City Hall on July 8, 1898. Klondike miner J.D. Stewart arrived in Skagway with a gold poke filled with $2670 worth of gold dust. In a well-practiced con, "Soapy's" man Van Tripplett stole the poke in the yard behind Smith's saloon. Stewart complained to the U.S. Deputy Marshal, a man known to look the other way when Soapy's gang was involved. The distressed miner found Tanner's law and order committee and some greater sense of satisfaction.
Tanner sent for U.S. Commissioner Charles Sehlbrede in nearby Dyea. Separately, and then together, they warned Smith to return the gold. He refused. Tanner met with six other leading citizens of Skagway and planned a town meeting for that evening. Smith, foiled in his attempts to infiltrate the meetings, got drunk.
Frank Reid became the city's instant hero, ridding Skagway of a scoundrel who had bilked people going and coming from the Klondike for several months, creating a reputation that Skagwayans feared kept many from using the White Pass route to enter the Far North.
Using his authority as a federal judge, U.S. Commissioner Sehlbrede immediately removed Smith's crony from his position as U.S. Deputy Marshal and appointed J. M. Tanner as special officer in his place. Tanner deputized a dozen men, and they began to round up the Smith gang.
When one "Slim Jim" Foster escaped his place of imprisonment in the Burkhard Hotel, Tanner assisted in his capture, calmed a crowd bent on a lynching, and assured the U.S. Army, which had "come to the rescue" that martial law was not needed. The latter retreated to its outpost eight miles away and left Tanner and his deputies to attend to justice.
Southeast Alaska's U.S. Marshal John Shoup formally appointed Tanner U.S. Deputy Marshal on July 12, 1898. He served three years before resigning to become city magistrate.
And 1898 was only the
middle of the story for:
WITH BLOOD IN HIS EYE: A BIOGRAPHY OF J. M. TANNER
1. Growing Up 1850-1872
2. Sheriff 1872-1897
3. Captain 1897-1898
4. Vigilante 1898
5. U.S. Deputy Marshal 1898-1901
6. Judge 1901-1909
7. Baseball Manager 1904 - 1912
8. Alderman and Mayor 1909-1914
9. Territorial Senator 1912-1916
10. U.S. Marshal 1917-1921
11. Conclusion: The Lawman
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Sheriff, Captain, Deputy Marshal, Judge, Baseball Team Manager, City Councilman, Mayor, Senator, Marshal. They called him a lot of things. More than one newspaper referred to him as "Uncle Si." I called him "Con Man's Curse" in True West Magazine's June 2007 issue. That was for his role in rounding up the "Soapy" Smith gang in July 1898. It was just one of many jobs he undertook in his long career of public service.
In my book, Si Tanner epitomized the upstanding lawman of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. From the time he ran away from home at the age of 15 because he couldn't bear to be a farmer, to when he died at the ripe old age of 78, he had two jobs: running a business and protecting his community. Most of the time he did what he had to because it was right, not because it made him any money. Throughout his long life, there was hardly a time when he was not enforcing, making or interpreting the law.
That night, as a citizen's meeting met on E. O. Sylvester's and Emory Valentine's Wharf, the one usually used for freight to Juneau, Captain Tanner, Frank Reid, and railroad workers Jesse Murphy and John Landers volunteered to stand guard.
Most versions of the story agree on what happened next. Having consumed more whiskey than he was accustomed to, Jeff Smith and close to a dozen of his supporters approached the four men standing at the foot of the Juneau Wharf. Smith, bearing a rifle and a revolver, brushed past the unarmed Tanner. Reid, holding up his Winchester rifle, wouldn't let the leader of the gang advance down the wharf. In the struggle that ensued, both Reid and Smith ended up with multiple bullet wounds. Smith died instantly. Reid lingered for twelve days.
The versions of the Soapy Smith Story have all focused on a certain charming rogue. This version will present some twists you've probably never thought about before -- and I'm not talking about who shot Soapy (although I'll happily discuss that, too). How about conflict and community-building in the era of investment capital and corrupt big business? Ever thought of Soapy Smith in that light? Let's talk politics and economics and law. Race, ethnicity, social class. And morality. It all had a bearing on what happened in Skagway in the spring and summer of 1898.
And Josias M. Tanner was in the thick of it. He was one of Skagway's saviors.