Alaska Gold Rush Tales: William “Foolscap” Wilson III
William “Foolscap” Wilson III
Steven C. Levi
“There is not a good reason for everyone to call me Foolscap Willie. I mean, I am not a fool the way the name implies. I’m called Foolscap Willie because I’m the most visible lawyer in Ophir. I take small cases and all of my cases are filed on foolscap. That’s oversized paper, legal paper, 8 ½ by 13 ½, which is also the size of the docket book.
Unlike a lot of other lawyers here in Ophir, I am not a disreputable individual who is a schemer or a scammer. I’m neither. Yes, it is true, I am a lawyer but not a scheming kind of lawyer. If I was, I’d be rich. The best crooks are lawyers; the ones who never get caught. The rest of us have to make a living one client at a time. I don’t like my nickname but that’s the nickname I’m stuck with. I didn’t create it. It created me.
You wanted to know about Judge Atchison. Well, he’s off his trolley and there’s not much anyone can do about it. He’s kind of like the mad king. Everyone knows he mad but there is not a damned thing anyone can do about it. He’s the king, and, well, he’s the king. That’s the beginning and end of the story.
There were happenings at the Blind Husky and when I got there, Atchison was, as usual, gilled. He was sitting at a table — or what is called a table in The Blind Husky — with Alexander Foxworthy. When I got there the Montana Filly was leaving the table and the saloon. She was a woman of the world who knew when it was the best time to exit the stage. Foxworthy was with six of his handpicked gang — I call them his gang, he calls them his posse — who were armed to the teeth. They were sitting behind Foxworthy, their backs to the Bering Sea.
Across the room were five or six of the men from the newly-formed vigilantes, men who were angry but not to the point of hemp. They, too, were armed. Their firearms were odd, pistols. The gang had rifles and shotguns.
It was as if Atchison was holding court. Court in the sense of an English king, not a judge of the United States court. Except he was clearly not the man in charge, Foxworthy was. And he acted that way. He used a lot of legal jargon addressing the miners who were following him. Then he asked me to translate the words into something the miners could understand.
I had to be there.
Oddly, and it is odd, because I was part of a cabal I knew nothing about.
Late June, this past June, I got a summons from Oscar Sawyer. Oscar Sawyer is the best, most expensive, brightest attorney in Ophir. You did not say ‘no’ to Oscar Sawyer.
So there I was, sitting in Oscar Sawyer’s office. It was plush, I tell you. Plush and expensive even if it had been in New York or Philadelphia. It was big time. Where I’d like to be. So why was I sitting there?
Oscar Sawyer kind of smiled and indicated a piece of paper on the desk. He said it was a check for $1,000 for my services. I said I was very happy to be at his service for that kind of money. He laughed pleasantly and said something about me being an up-and-coming lawyer and I reminded him of when he was a struggling attorney in Pittsburgh. I didn’t say anything except that ‘I was still young and learning.’
Then Oscar Sawyer got down to business. He said he was hiring me to be someone else’s attorney. I found that odd but, for $1,000, I was willing to listen. He said I was going to be the lawyer for someone I did not know, Sinclair ‘Blue Doggie’ Samuelson. Samuelson, Oscar Sawyer said, had just filed a claim at Mile 17 behind Ole Johnson’s claim. I knew Ole Johnson. He was a hoot. The Irish Norwegian who got his claim listed under a sobriquet. Not that filing under another name was unusual in Ophir. There are claims out there belonging to people who have never been in the District of Alaska. Then there are claimants who, for very good reason, do not want their real names publicized. So, for Michael O’Reilly to have a claim in the name of Ole Johnson was nothing unusual.
I was being retained, Oscar Sawyer made clear, was to file for rights of Sinclair ‘Blue Doggie’ Samuelson. He had a backcountry claim and the only access was through Ole Johnson’s claim. I was also to file a complaint stating that there was confusion as to where Ole Johnson’s claim ended and Samuelson’s began. Or vice versa. I was to make it as confusing as possible. Oscar Sawyer said.
Even more important, Oscar Sawyer made clear, I was to be the public face of Samuelson and others of his ilk. Samuelson’s case was to be a keystone and I was the man who was going to publicly fight the battle. Just as important, I would be the spokesman for a cabal of lawyers who represented clients with similar claims.
And I was to be paid very well. As long as I kept up the pressure on Ole Johnson and kept the other lawyers out of the public eye, I would receive $1,000 in July and another $1,000 in August along with a third $1,000 in September. If I did my job very well, I would also receive a gift of $2,000 in October.
If all went well.
So, for $6,000 I was doing as well as I possibly could
That’s why I was in The Blind Husky.
I was going to earn my money. I was standing in the parting of the Red Sea. I had towering, angry waves of men on both sides of me and both sides were armed. I could feel the anger. But then, I was a lawyer and in no case in any city in America are both sides happy about being in court.
Or paying for a lawyer.
I did what I was paid to do. I gave an explanation of the issue at hand. I urged both sides to be calm and understand the legal issue and ramification. Sadly, the original claimants on many, too many, plots of land had been imprecise in their metes and bounds. (I had to explain what metes and bounds were.) What this meant in the legal world was some claimants may be taking gold that did not belong to them. Or, some claimants were denying legal and legitimate access to other claimants across their property. Or diggings underground was impinging on another claimant’s property. Or the diggings on one claim were causing damage on another.
As I told them, there were a host of problems that could only be resolved with legal remedies. So far, there had been no legal remedies offered. All parties were still fighting each other and there did not seem to be a way to resolve these issues without a judicial hearing. The judicial hearing was the right of the federal court because Alaska was a District of the United States.
In the vernacular, I told them it was just like the end of the Wild West. In the free and easy days cattle could roam anywhere because the only people there were cattle men. Then came the farmers and homesteaders. With the farmers and homesteaders came fences. The cattlemen did not like the fences because it meant an end to the old ways. The homesteaders and farmers needed the fences to keep the cattle out of their fields of wheat, barely, corn and vegetable gardens of carrots, radishes and whatnot. It was a clash of cultures, cattle versus crop. In the end, both sides won. The farmers and homesteaders got fences to keep their fields secure. The cattlemen continued to graze their cattle on federal land. Even better, the railroad came and the farmers made money because they could ship their crops out quickly. And the cattlemen made money because they did not have to drive their herds all the way to Kansas City. Locally, the cattlemen bought crops and vegetables from the homesteaders and farmers and the farmers and homesteaders bought beef from the cattle ranches. It was all in the history books.
I finished by stating that this moment in Ophir history was but a dollop of history. It was a momentary pause in a very bright future for Ophir. The courts were involved just as the fences of the Wild West were involved. The cases were going to be decided and then things would get back to normal. The only difference would be that lingering questions of who owned what would be resolved.
Then someone snapped, ‘Well, what about the gold the court’s got?’
I told the unknown voice that the court is only holding the gold. It was not the court’s gold. It belonged to the claimants in some percentages. The bank can only release the gold to the claimants in the percentages decided by the court.
This did not satisfy the voice. ‘But if someone leaves Ophir with the gold, there is no gold to be returned.’
I said this was true. But the gold had to leave town which was not going to happen. The gold was in the Ophir Branch of the Seattle and Portland Bank of Commerce and Investments. It was under guard there and, as I made a sweeping gesture with my right hand and arm toward the armed miners, I said that I was sure someone was watching the Ophir Branch of the Seattle and Portland Bank of Commerce and Investments to make sure a ton or so of gold was not spirited out in the middle of the night.
It was deathly silent for a moment and then another voice chimed in, ‘But a Letter of Credit could still move the value of the gold outside, to the lower states.’
It could, I responded. But first, the letter of credit had to be through the Ophir Branch of the Seattle and Portland Bank of Commerce and Investments. No bank in Seattle or Portland was going to cash a letter of credit without the OK from the Ophir Branch office. Further, a letter of credit sent to Seattle or Portland could not be written to an individual. It had to be written to the federal court. That was because the money was still owned by individuals in Ophir. The letter of credit to those individuals would be from the federal court.
Further, I continued, it will take time to cash any letter of credit. And long before any letter of credit can be converted to cash — I again made a sweeping gesture with my right hand and arm toward the armed miners — someone at the federal court will notify your attorneys to make sure there are no shenanigans.
I finished by stating as succinctly as possible that the danger of a robbery of their gold was minimal.
They did not believe me.
I do not blame them.
Even I was unsure it was true.
But I had 6,000 reasons to hope what I was saying was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”
— 30 —
[This is a chapter from Steven Levi’s Alaska Gold Rush collection of stories JUDGE XENOPHON AND THE FOXWORTHY CABAL available on Kindle.]