Swiftwater Bill: Klondike Casanova, or gold rush gouger?

There weren’t any takers for “Swiftwater” Bill Gates. The notable Klondike character had been in Butte, Montana, before Christmas of 1904, looking for a wife...

There weren’t any takers for “Swiftwater” Bill Gates. The notable Klondike character had been in Butte, Montana, before Christmas of 1904, looking for a wife — “a nice good little girl who will really care for him and not just his money.”

Swiftwater wasn’t ugly; in fact he was a rather smart dresser, in his Prince Albert coat with a top hat, a white shirt with a diamond stickpin in his tie, and starched collar. He was of medium height, powerfully built with bright, active eyes and a handsome bearded face.

Bill wasn’t poor either. He had become a millionaire during the Klondike stampede. He had then doubled his good fortune on a claim on Cleary Creek near Fairbanks. Everywhere he went he seemed to find more of the yellow metal.

Bill liked ladies, too; perhaps that was his undoing.

In 1896, Bill Gates was an insignificant dishwasher in a saloon in Circle City, Alaska. Like many others, he heard the siren call to the Klondike and partnered with six other men leasing unlucky claim number 13 on Eldorado Creek. Shaft after shaft they sank, each one barren and dispiriting, until Bill found himself alone to pursue the yellow metal on this unfortunate claim.

Gates finally sank a shaft that hit the paystreak. Suddenly, he was one of the richest men in the Klondike, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars (Those would be millions today, if you allow for inflation).

From inconspicuous, he became one of the liveliest men in Dawson City. Everywhere he went, he drew attention to himself by his wild and extravagant behaviour. He gambled with a passion and become known for his pricey and impulsive bets.

And oh, how he liked the ladies — one lady in particular: Gussie Lamore. Nineteen-year old Gussie had been an entertainer in Circle City who had followed opportunity to Dawson. Bill wanted her at any price; in fact, at one point, he offered her weight in gold if she would marry him.

When he caught Gussie stepping out on him, even his revenge was of the type that drew attention. Gussie loved eggs, and when Bill saw her with another man, he vowed to deny her that indulgence. At the height of the winter of 1897, eggs were hard to find, and those that were available were gamey and aromatic; but never mind, Gussie loved them anyway.

Bill bought up the entire supply in Dawson and his act became legend. He was forever after known as “The Knight of the Golden Omelette.”

The number of eggs involved and the price he paid for them varies from one account to the next, but the result was the same. Gussie had the final word on this episode in a newspaper interview a few years later:
“I went down to the store to buy some eggs,” said Gussie. “Lordy how I wanted some eggs for breakfast. Well Bill was in the store when I goes in. He sees I want the eggs and while I’m talking with the clerk, see, he buys up the whole consignment at $1 apiece. Then he says to me, ‘Now, my dear, if you want eggs for breakfast, come home where you belong.’”
“Well, say, I was just dying for them eggs and I came to my milk like a lady. I goes home with Bill.”

Bill chased her all the way to San Francisco in the fall of 1897, but she couldn’t marry Bill; she was already married, with a three-year-old child, so he married her younger sister Grace instead.

Bill indulged his new bride with a $15,000 mansion in Oakland, and showered her with gifts, but the marriage didn’t last for long. Grace was apparently a pale substitute for Gussie, and she knew it. She was prepared to stand aside and let Bill fulfil his passion for Gussie.
“This will be no sacrifice on my part,” Grace said, “for I hate the very ground he walks on and abhor him and his name.” Soon after, they were divorced.

Everywhere that Bill went, he went through his money, and that of others, at an amazing pace. Woe to those who invested in him for they seldom saw a penny of it again, including long-suffering mother-in-law Iola Beebe.

It wasn’t long before he was married again, this time to Bera Beebe, who, according to her mother, was a plump 16-year-old, with deliciously pink cheeks and great big blue eyes. But the plumpness may have been because she was pregnant.

At one point, Swiftwater took Bera and their son on a trip to Washington, DC, where he abandoned her, now expecting their second child. Back in Montana, Bill caught up with Gussie once more, and this time surprised his long time love interest and the media, by running off with another Lamore sister, Belle. Belle was also known as Nellie, and nicknamed “Nellie the Pig” because, it was said, she had once tried to bite off a bartender’s ear.

Bill didn’t marry Belle, as far as we know, but it wasn’t long before the wedding bells were chiming again. In June of 1901, while still married to Bera, He tied the knot with his 14-year-old step-niece, Adelina Boyle (also referred to as Kitty), in Chehalis, Washington.

Now a bigamist, Gates was arrested in San Francisco, for abducting his niece, but no one was willing to press charges, and soon he was up to his antics again. Eventually divorcing wife Bera, he remarried wife number three, Kitty, making her both wife number three and wife number four. By 1906, they too divorced and he found himself in bankruptcy court.

He must have had something special because, before committing suicide, wife number two, Bera, vowed undying love for Bill and wished to marry him again. Gussie had a lasting soft spot for him, too.

Bill lacked either good judgment or common sense, or both, for two years later, in 1908, now almost 40 years old, and burning through his third fortune, he married again, this time to 18-year-old Sadelle Mercer at Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

By 1915, he added another credit to his reputation, that of deadbeat dad. When in Seattle in that year, preparing to sail to Peru for more adventure, he was arrested by persistent ex-mother-in-law Beebe. This time the charge was child abandonment. I don’t know what happened in this case, but Bill eventually made it to Peru where he lived out his remaining years, still looking for gold, until he was murdered, February 21, 1937.

So I ask you — if you were a decent woman looking for a good husband to marry, would you choose Bill?

And by the way, he’s not related to me in any way.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer

based in Whitehorse.