Other than pulp Westerns, few books deserve the appellation “rip-roaring” anymore, but Howard Blum’s “The Floor of Heaven” is one of them. A contributing editor at Vanity Fair, Blum has told with flair the true story of three men whose paths crossed in the Klondike, where the last great North American gold rush took place in the late 1890s. The reader has to turn more than 300 pages before the author assembles his trio — a con artist, a Pinkerton detective and a prospector — on the same stage. But no matter. Their separate back stories are highly dramatic — more so, in fact, than their ultimate convergence.
The con man, Jefferson Smith, was known to almost everyone as “Soapy” because of his trademark scam. He would hawk bars of soap on a street corner by promising that an unspecified number of purchasers would find a banknote inside the wrapper. As his suckers-to-be watched, Soapy held up bills of various dominations, folded and inserted them into his product — or so it seemed (Soapy knew a thing or two about sleight of hand). A bidding war then broke out. The game was fixed so that a shill won the first round — say for $40; when the winner unwrapped his new acquisition, lo, there was a $100 bill. Subsequent bars of soap went for even higher prices, but there were no more winners. By the time the crowd realized it had been duped, Soapy and his boys were packing up to leave, pistols drawn if necessary. Those pistols, by the way, were not just for self-defense. Though the soap game might seem almost charming, Soapy and his crew also specialized in armed robbery and wholesale takeovers of frontier towns.
Charlie Siringo, the Pinkerton man, had the born detective’s ability to imagine himself into the crooked mind. In a long and skillfully told set piece, Siringo is assigned to save the Pinkerton Agency’s bacon: It had failed to protect a client, a gold mining operation near Juneau, from inside-job thieves who made off with a small fortune in bullion. Siringo goes undercover, masquerading as an oiler in the mine and chatting up his fellow employees as he makes his rounds. It’s hard to imagine a riskier task (or a more exhilarating one), but he pulls it off — first figuring out how the bad guys must have done it, then earning their trust and finally bringing the law down on them. The gang leader’s rage over the betrayal is both poignant and comical: “How in hell can you ever show your face in public again?” he screams at Siringo after being captured.
Prospector George Carmack’s past was tamer but almost as riveting. Though of European ancestry, he admired Native American ways to the point of living among the Taglish tribe, learning their language and taking one of them as a common-law wife. Not only did Carmack’s discovery of gold along Bonanza Creek, in the Klondike country of Yukon Territory, set off a rush; it also threatened to rekindle in him the racism insisted upon by the larger culture.
Soapy goes to the Klondike because where gold and prospectors abound, so do marks. Siringo heads there because a member of the Juneau gang has escaped from jail and is reputed to be hiding somewhere in the vicinity. Carmack is still hanging around, worried about getting his $240,000 cache of gold safely out of the backcountry. Soapy plans to rob him; Siringo decides to take time out from his manhunt to make good on a debt he owes Carmack, who once saved him from being gravely injured; and the climax comes swiftly.
It’s not Blum’s fault that this climax is a bit of a fizzle — he has facts to adhere to, after all. And the three men’s paths to their common destination are so full of incident (along with cameos by the likes of Bat Masterson and Billy the Kid) that the placid ending hardly matters. Blum’s prose is a bit ragged, but his storytelling skills see him through. The best book on the overall subject is still Pierre Berton’s masterful “Klondike” from 1958 (which gets a gracious nod in the new book’s “Note on Sources”), but Blum has performed an invaluable service: reminding us that the Wild West touted by dime novelists and movie moguls had a pretty solid foundation in fact.
THE FLOOR OF HEAVEN
A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush
By Howard Blum
Crown. 420 pp. $26