OLD WEST LEGENDS
Whispering Smith's Adventures
By Allen P.
Whispering Smith, as James L. Smith was to become known, served in the U. S.
Navy during the
aboard an ironclad gunboat in the Mississippi River campaign. After the war he
remained in that area as a Plantation Inspector for the Freedmen’s Bureau and
investigated crimes committed against former slaves.
When the New Orleans
Metropolitan Police were formed, Smith was appointed as a detective and served
for several years until he was involved in a shooting that resulted in a
scandal. He and his wife fled to Omaha where he was employed as a Union Pacific
railroad detective and later served in the Cheyenne and
Black Hills area. During this
period he was involved in the shooting of two adversaries and implicated in the
lynching of two others. It was during this period that he acquired the
nick-name, "Whispering Smith.”
Terminated by the Union Pacific, Smith moved to the
Indian Reservation in
where he was appointed as Chief of Indian
Police. He was active in capturing
members and shot two during a raid on a rustler’s camp.
James L. Smith, artist's rendition from the cover of
His Life and Misadventures by Allen P. Bristow,
Reservation politics and
governmental criticism forced his resignation but not before he unsuccessfully
to a duel. Smith returned to Cheyenne where he was employed as a stock detective
Growers Association. The secretive nature of this work obscures the number of
his shooting events but he was suspected of participating in several lynching.
One event became public knowledge when Smith arranged the contract killing of a
rustler who had fled to Mexico. This was the revenge killing of an outlaw who had
killed one of Smith’s fellow range detectives.
Another event in which Smith had
a hand was the attempt by granger interests to elect fence laws in
Smith scoured Wyoming and Nebraska for
ranch hands that could be fraudulently moved into the election districts to
defeat the legislation. The effort failed. Blizzard conditions and the financial
failure of the cattle industry during 1887 caused Smith to seek employment as a
railroad detective with the Northern Pacific Railway.
During Smith’s employment with the Wyoming Stock
Grower’s Association he was befriended by Alexander H. Swan, the "Cattle King”
of Cheyenne. Swan had financial involvement with a
short-line railroad corporation at Ogden and sought revenge against an associate
who was suspected of fraud. Swan convinced Smith to resign from the Northern
Pacific to conduct an investigation and launch a vendetta against the culprit,
John R. Middlemiss. Smith, acting as a private detective, began to gather
evidence and circulated an inquiry letter to Utah and
police departments. Parts of Smith’s letters were held to be criminal libel and
he was so charged in court. A jury found him guilty and the judge fined him but
the Swan interests paid it.
By 1891 Smith, apparently tired of stress, became a
prospector for mineral deposits in Utah. He was
successful and located several claims. After settling legal disputes over them
he sold these properties to the Pleasant Valley Coal Company at
Castle Gate and
again became a railroad detective, this time with the Denver & Rio Grande. That
railroad had as one of its best customers the Pleasant Valley Coal Company to
whom Whispering Smith had sold his mining claims. That company soon hired Smith
as their security officer.
The Castle Gate area was infested with outlaws and
the Carbon County Sheriff, Gus Donant, was thought to be corrupted. When Donant
tried to have C. L. "Gunplay” Maxwell, a known rustler, appointed as his deputy,
Whispering Smith launched a campaign to have Donant removed. The effort was
eventually successful but placed Smith into a continuing conflict with two local
attorneys, J. W. Warf and M. P. Braffet.
Train tracks running outside of Castle Gate, Utah,
1900, photo by William Henry Jackson.
1897, The Pleasant Valley Coal Company payroll was robbed by
and members of his gang. Smith and his friend Cyrus "Doc” Shores were involved
in the investigation but without success.
The verbal feud between Smith,
Warf and Braffet continued throughout the year and was climaxed by a gunfight at
the Denver & Rio Grande Railway station in Price, Utah. Whispering
Smith was arrested for attempted murder and tried during February, 1898. He was
acquitted but his employment with the Pleasant Valley Coal Company ended.
Smith then became
a resident of Denver,
was hired by a newspaper editor to drive
Masterson out of town. Following this confrontation, and at the age of 72,
Smith became a prison guard at Buena Vista,
where he shot and killed an escaped prisoner.
This incident closed Whispering
Smith’s adventurous career and he retired to Denver in poor health. Destitute
and ill, Smith conspired to be jailed in the Denver County Jail to receive
medical aid. He committed suicide there on August 27, 1914, and was buried at
the Riverside Cemetery, Section 2, Lot 205, Block 12. Efforts are underway to
obtain a Civil War
headstone for his unmarked grave.
Frank H. Spearman,
an unknown author, determined to write a novel about the heroic adventures of a
railroad detective. He had heard the name "Whispering Smith” but knew nothing of
his life. To obtain background for his story Spearman arranged to confer with
two prominent railway detectives, Timothy Keliher and
Joe LeFors. Based on
their stories Spearman crafted a novel. His hero was named "Whispering Smith”
but this fictional character was a composite of Keliher and
LeFors. Spearman never
met James L. Smith and the real Whispering Smith seems to have had no knowledge
that his title was used.
Whispering Smith, was published in 1906, became the best-seller that year
and continued in popularity for many years. Hollywood pounced on Spearman’s
catchy title and repeatedly obtained filming rights. Over five motion pictures
were made plus a television serial as late as 1961. Neither the novel nor the
films based on it relate to the actual adventures of Whispering Smith.
© Allen P. Bristow,
the Author: This article was submitted by Allen P. Bristow, who
recently wrote the book
Whispering Smith: His Life and Misadventures,
published by Sunstone Press of Santa Fe,
New Mexico. Bristow's
work documents in detail the adventures of James L. Smith. A reprint of the
original Whispering Smith by Frank H. Spearman will also be available from
Old West Outlaws
Old West (main page)
Legends' Photo Print Store
Photographs of the Old West - From Legends'
Photo Print Shop, you'll
find hundreds of
of the Old West
that can be ordered in prints or downloaded for commercial use. Providing
dramatic glimpses into the rich heritage of the
famous characters including notorious
and trailblazers, and more;
including covered wagons and stagecoaches;
Saloons, Gambling &
Westward Expansion, and everything in between.