Book reveals heartbreak in Dawson City

Little did Betty Matteson Rhodes know when she and her husband Chuck purchased their first computer in 1996 that it would unlock the secrets of a long past and help her discover a distant relative, Nelson A. Soggs.

Little did Betty Matteson Rhodes know when she and her husband Chuck purchased their first computer in 1996 that it would unlock the secrets of a long past and help her discover a distant relative, Nelson A. Soggs.

Nelson A. Soggs shot his mine manager, J.W. Rogers, on May 9, 1900, on the workings of Claim No. 34 on Gold Run Creek. Soggs was a jeweler and optician with a business in Dawson City, while Rogers, a San Francisco man, used to work at the Monte Carlo Saloon on Front Street before becoming the foreman on Soggs’ claim.

The cause of the altercation is not known, but because it took place on the accumulated paydirt excavated during the winter months, it was thought to have been the result of some sort of dispute over the clean-up. Soggs and Rogers were known to have quarrelled before on several occasions.

On this day, Rogers advanced upon Soggs, threatening to throw the jeweler into Gold Run Creek. When Rogers refused to stop, Soggs took a .38 revolver out of his pocket and fired four times.

The first shot entered Rogers’ left shoulder just below the collar bone. Rogers turned to run away when the second round was fired, entering his left shoulder above his heart. The third shot missed his spine and lodged in his stomach.

Rogers was taken to hospital; it didn’t look good for him. Four doctors were consulted on his case and prepared to operate to remove the bullet lodged in his stomach. Soggs was arrested and taken into custody by the mounted police, waiting to determine if the charges were to be for murder, or attempted murder.

Rogers made an unexpected recovery and within a couple of months, was in the fittest of health again. Soggs pleaded not guilty and went to trial a few weeks after the incident. He was convicted and placed in jail, but a few months later, was pardoned and released.

Nelson Soggs was born in Columbus, Pennsylvania in 1858. His father was an inventor among other things, and taught Nelson and his brother Leslie watch and clock repair as well as jewelry making and the optical business.

When Nelson grew up, he went into the jewelry and optical businesses, operating stores in a number of different cities before coming to the Klondike in 1897. He married Amelia Excell in 1879. When he left Pennsylvania in 1897 to come to Dawson City, she remained behind until she came from Binghamton New York, to join him in Dawson in June, 1901. Sadly, she died of pneumonia a few months later on November 1. Soggs left Dawson City the following June.

After leaving the Yukon, Soggs remarried and continued his business in Niagara Falls, New York, but in 1909, declining in health and mentally unstable, he killed himself by ingesting poison.

So goes the account of Nelson Soggs’ adventures in the Yukon. The story of his life has been compiled in a book, half historical fact, and half fictionalized narrative titled Heartbreak at Dawson City. Written by Betty Matteson Rhodes and Chuck L. Rhodes, this book was self-published by Betmatrho Publications in 2014.

Betty Matteson Rhodes is Nelson Soggs’ first cousin three times removed. Digging out the details of Nelson Soggs’ life “from the archives of history” was at first to satisfy her own curiosity, but she found his story so colourful and at the same time heartbreaking, that she felt compelled to share the story through the medium of a book.

The book is an historical novel. As the author states at the beginning, the details pertaining to Soggs’ birth, as well as his personal thoughts, not to mention the dialogue are fictional, but they are built around the facts as uncovered by Rhodes during her personal quest of discovery.

The account is also filled with factual information uncovered by the author. The text of newspaper articles as well as information derived from sources such as census records and patents are inserted within the fictional narrative.

Included within the 250 pages are 58 illustrations and 3 maps. A chapter at the end of the book includes illustrations of many of the patents granted to Henry Soggs, Nelson’s father. There is also a timeline of key events in Soggs’ life.

To make it easier to separate the facts from fiction, the factual information is placed in boxes or highlighted, but the authors appear to fall victim to the curse of many self-published works; the lack of an outside editor. Citations for the sources of the information are inconsistent, and not all of the factual information was highlighted as described above, so I found myself struggling at some points to separate the factual content from the fictional account.

I have read a number of historical novels that were constructed upon a foundation of historical fact, including Gold-Seeking on the Dalton Trail, by Arthur R. Thompson, and Gold Fever, by R.M. Dickey. Where this book differs from these others is in the way that the historical information is inserted both graphically and textually, within the story. Some might find that confusing, others may consider it intriguing. It is certainly a “novel” way to meld the fact and fiction.

I found the book to be neither fish nor fowl. For someone seeking the facts of history, I have always found this kind of historical fiction a challenge. If the reader loves a good historical novel, then the insertion of the graphic historical detail might be considered a bonus.

I have long been intrigued by the story of the gold fields of the Klondike in the period after the gold rush, and was already aware of the Soggs affair. This book helped me understand the human face of Nelson Soggs, the man behind the headlines. For that, I felt that it was worthwhile.

Whether you will find this an entertaining read, I leave to you to decide.

And what about Rogers? He left the Yukon for San Francisco a short time after the shooting. Rogers proved to be something of a scoundrel, and disappeared from Los Angeles in 1904, leaving behind a pile of unpaid debts.

From L.A. he went to London, England promoting schemes in far-away Asia, and then he relocated to Africa where he became a poacher and illegal ivory hunter. He was eventually shot and killed by British troops in 1912.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net