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Rare historical letter from Vancouver’s Gassy Jack sells for $44K in auction

A 141-year-old letter from John Deighton, otherwise known as Gassy Jack, sold to a Vancouver buyer for $44,000.

A statue of John “Gassy Jack

Robert Giroux/Getty Images

A statue of John “Gassy Jack" Deighton stands in Gastown, the neighbourhood named for him.

A 141-year-old letter written by chatterbox saloon owner John “Gassy Jack” Deighton in Vancouver’s post gold rush, Wild West, early logging era sold for $44,000 in an auction this weekend.

A local collector purchased the March 11, 1875 letter after more than a dozen bidders, including two serious collectors very interested in the item, pushed up the price by more than $42,000 in less than a week, All Nations Stamp & Coin owner and auction-holder Brian Grant Duff said Sunday.

“To me, frankly, it was a priceless artifact,” Grant Duff said. “It’s just one of those amazing pieces of history.”

The letter, where Gassy Jack explains he can’t pay a bill but has $1,000 worth of liquor on hand, is one of the only known artifacts belonging to the man who Gastown is named for, Grant Duff explained. (Gassy Jack’s trunk is part of the collection at the Museum of Vancouver.)

Gassy Jack and a partial scan of the letter.

Contributed

Gassy Jack and a partial scan of the letter.

Grant Duff tried to convince numerous Gastown bars to “host” the letter for one night so he could introduce history to a younger audience and fulfill the romantic notion of returning Gassy Jack to his old saloon near Water and Carrall streets. But he got rejected, with one bar telling him Gassy Jack was “a bit of a rogue” and they didn't want bad karma.

“As is so often the case in my field, it’s the collectors who appreciate these things the most,” Grant Duff said.

Indeed, the letter had no problem attracting attention among history buffs. The fact it survived the Great Fire of 1886 – the year the City of Vancouver was incorporated – is remarkable, Grant Duff said, and gives people a glimpse into the city’s prehistory when it was known as the Town of Granville.  

He was not surprised by the final price, as a letter from Vancouver’s namesake George Vancouver previously sold for about $34,000 in an auction.

The letter comes from the collection of Gerald Wellburn, who carefully curated postal history until his death in 1992. Other letters from his collection will be sold in the coming weeks, including one from former B.C. governor Anthony Musgrave and one from Sam Greer, the homesteader who claimed Kitsilano Beach and became a bit of a folk hero for shooting a sheriff when CP Rail tried to kick him off the land.

Following is the full transcript of the letter, courtesy All Nations Stamp & Coin:

Burrard Inlet

March 11th 1875

Dear John,

I have been expecting you over here or I should have written before. You will think it strange of me not sending you the money I got from you before this. I had it in the bank last fall all ready to pay you, but I had some unexpected bad luck and had to draw it out to pay my debts in Victoria to save my credit, in fact it will take me a year from the time I left the Boat last fall to be in the same position I was last spring, but that is all right. I have got clear of that crowd I had round me and have got strangers and am getting along all right. I have got from 800 to $1000 worth of liquors on hand and all paid for and all the money I owe of any account is what I owe you and you shall be secure if anything should happen to me. John I shall never forget your kindness towards me, depend upon it and if there is anything I can do for you let me know and I shall be most happy to do it. It was a sad affair poor Jim Armstrong's death, it took me by surprise, it was impossible for me to leave home at the time or I should have attended his funeral. He was a good and a faithful man and his equal hard to find. How did you come out with The Custom House Office at Wrangell. It is reported here Otis Parsons had a hand in that with other dirty work. Keep your eyes open and attend to business,. Such men as them have had a long experience in roguery, hoping you are in good health.

I Remain Your,

Respectfully,

John Deighton

Update: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Gassy Jack's trunk is on display at the Maritime Museum. In fact, it is part of the collection at the Museum of Vancouver.

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