December 31, 2008

Denver saloon, 1885...

The photograph of an unnamed Denver, Colorado saloon taken in 1885 is typical of the average saloon anywhere in the west. It is very possible Soapy Smith drank here. (Denver Public Library)

December 28, 2008

Glass slide photograph of Larimer Street

(Click to enlarge)

A nice glass slide photographic image of Larimer Street, Denver, Colorado (circa mid to late 1880s). The photograph was taken looking east on Larimer, from a spot just west of the intersection at 16th Street.

The Arcade Restaurant and Club Rooms (upstairs) are seen on the north side of the street. This is previous to the very ornate "Arcade" cornice construction of 1890. The Arcade is perhaps the most famous sin-den of early Denver history. It was also one of Soapy Smith's favorite hang-outs, along with members of the Soap Gang and other underworld notables. Further up the block, at the intersection of Larimer and 17th streets, the three-story Chever Block can be seen. Soapy leased one of the offices on the second floor from which to coordinate his operations. By turning left at this corner and traveling one block to the south-east corner of Market Street, one would arrive at Soapy's Tivoli Club (Caveat Emptor). One more block east on Larimer is the famous Windsor Hotel, at one time considered the most elegant hotel west of St. Louis.
The Windsor, internationally noted, with its 300 rooms and staff of 140 persons overseeing a miniature city including a Western Union Office, a barber shop, two bars, three restaurants, a library, a laundry, a wine cellar, a tobacconist, and a maze of parlors, meeting rooms and suites, Denver became a destination in itself.

December 23, 2008

The set-up...

Fatal Duel historical marker

In 1998 I took my daughter to Skagway, Alaska for the centennial observance of Soapy’s death. We were joined by other members of the family. On the afternoon of July 8, the unveiling of plaque commemorating the approximate spot to the entrance of Juneau wharf, where another 60 feet into the bay Soapy met his fate. The plaque was fastened to a large boulder by the city of Skagway.

While browsing the net I came across the site for The Historical Marker Database ( They advertise that they are “an illustrated searchable online catalog of historical information viewed through the filter of roadside and other permanent outdoor markers, monuments, and plaques. It contains photographs, inscription transcriptions, marker locations, maps, additional information and commentary, and links to more information. Anyone can add new markers to the database and update existing marker pages with new photographs, links, information and commentary.”

I performed a search under the keywords, “Soapy Smith” and nothing came up. I was sort of surprised as I had just assumed all such historical plaques put up by cities would be placed on some sort of marker listing but this is not the case. I joined the organization (free) and filled out a basic marker application for acceptance in on December 17, 2008 and five days later it was accepted and published for all to see under the plaques title, FATAL DUEL.

December 22, 2008

July 4 1898 dance card bids for $787.77

A very interesting eBay auction finished up on December 22, 2008 for $787.77. I apologize for the poor photographic quality. They came from the seller this way.

An original dance card from the Skaguay, Alaska, First Annual July 4, 1898 Commercial Club Ball.

As you may know, Soapy Smith was instrumental in making the July 4 event a success. As "Captain Jeff Smith," Soapy led his private army, the Skaguay Military Company in the parade that morning. The ball took place that evening.

This is the very first good look I have seen of this item. The only other one I have seen was on page 49 of Martin Itjen's, The Story of the Tour on the Skagway, Alaska Street Car. It only shows the front and back covers and Itjen altered the photo showing a picture of Soapy on his horse, giving rise to the short-lived belief that the photograph of him on his horse may have been taken at an earlier date.

Inside the document is a dance program listing the planned dances for the evening with space for the filling of dance partners for each dance. There are 18 signatures in the card which surely added to the value and might explain why the item sold so well.

On the back cover it appears to read, “from Miss Sperry,” whose husband, Charles B. Sperry headed the Citizen’s Committee to rid Skaguay of Soapy Smith. The other
signatures on the card that relate to Soapy’s history include:

  • J. G. Price” (John G. Price): Skaguay’s first known attorney. Operated several businesses with known members of the Soap Gang.
  • W. Clayson” (Will Clayson): He stated in 1936 that Jesse Murphy killed Soapy, not Reid.
  • Church” (Walter Church): Attorney hired by Soapy in libel suit. Gave speech after July 4 parade.
  • G. Kaufman”: John Stewart placed his gold pouch in the Kaufman store safe.

December 20, 2008

(Click to enlarge)

I found the following drawing of Soapy performing the prize package soap racket on the website for Denver Magazine (November 2008) The article is titled, Secrets of the City, by Brian Melton. Twelve characters in Denver history are covered but why they are called secrets I do not understand. The following is what they have down for Jefferson Randolph Smith II. Note where I inserted "[incorrect]."

The Ballad of Soapy Smith

Jefferson Randolph Smith II, Denver’s most notorious confidence man, was born in Georgia in 1860, the son of a powerful attorney whose family lost its fortune after the Civil War. The Smith family relocated to Texas when Jefferson was 16, and it was there that he began working as a cowboy [incorrect]. Adrift in the city of Abilene, Smith encountered a shell game artist, who took Smith for an entire week’s pay [incorrect]. Although Smith was broke, he looked upon the shell game as an opportunity. He had learned it was easier to swindle than work on the range.

Smith arrived in Denver in 1886 [incorrect], drawn to the city’s tolerance of gambling, and opened the Tivoli, a gaming club on the second floor of 1701 Larimer [incorrect]. To keep himself occupied, Smith would stand at the corner of 17th and Larimer streets, open a suitcase full of bars of soap and begin to gather a crowd. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness, my friends,” Smith would pitch. “But the feel of a good crisp greenback in the pocket is paradise itself. Step up, my friends, and watch me closely.” Smith would place $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills in selected pieces of soap and would sell them all for $5 a bar [incorrect]. Members of Smith’s gang would buy bars of the soap and win the hidden money, enticing the crowd to make a purchase. No one but

Smith’s confidants ever won the money, earning him the nickname “Soapy” Smith.

By March 15, 1894, Smith had nearly every politician in town on his payroll. Word of his success got back to the newly elected Governor, Davis H. Waite. When Waite threatened to remove the corrupt politicians, those in opposition barricaded themselves in City Hall while the National Guard marched on the city. Smith gathered a militia of gamblers and outlaws to ambush the National Guardsmen as they made their way down Larimer [incorrect]. No violence occurred during this “City Hall War” as Waite agreed to withdraw his troops and let the Colorado Supreme Court decide the fate of the officials. Its decision gave Waite authority to remove the offending politicians and to chase Smith out of town [incorrect].

December 19, 2008

Giving Soapy a bad name!

Former Alaska lawmaker faces trial. Pleads not guilty to felony cocaine possession.

December 13, 2008: Nick Stepovich, a former Alaska lawmaker faces a February trial after pleading not guilty to felony cocaine possession. Stepovich served for one year in the Alaska House of Representatives. Stepovich was appointed to fill the seat of Jim Whitaker, who was elected mayor of the Fairbanks North Star Borough in 2003. He was defeated in the 2004 primary by state Rep. Jay Ramras.

Stepovich is the son of former territorial Gov. Mike Stepovich.

Stepovich is on the board of directors for the Alaska Natural Gas Development Authority and was an Alaska delegate at the Republican National Convention in September.

At the time of his arrest, Stepovich was carrying more than 11 ounces of gold nuggets worth $8,000 to $9,000.

Why are we reporting this here?...


Source and story: Anchorage Daily News

December 18, 2008

"Luck handed death the loaded dice."

The following article was published in the February 28, 1907 issue of the Calgary Herald. It is filled with many mistake and reproduced here for your enjoyment, not as a factual version of the events depicted.

“Soapy” Smith's Finish
How Desperate Skagway Gang was
Exterminated by Long Suffering Citizens.

by J. P. Connell

Many versions of the histories killing of Soapy Smith, and the subsequent clean up of his gang in Skagway in July 1898 have been written or told. Recently there was a foregathering of sourdoughs in this city, just a little supper party in a downtown restaurant at which I happened to be present. In the group also was Detective W.H. Welsh superintendent of the Canadian Detective bureau. All those present had been in Skagway in the stirring times of July 1898 and all agreed that the full true story of that time had never been published. Detective Welsh who had made it his business to know all the circumstances in connection with that tragedy, the records of the men Composing Soapy Smith’s gang, its operations in Skagway, the killing of Soapy and Frank H. Reid and the subsequent apprehension and deportation of the gang, was asked to relate what he knew of it. What he said partly for his? The story here set down and is the firs comprehensive and authentic or authoritative narrative of these events which, as far as is known to those gathered together at the supper table has ever been published.

The chief actor in that drama Jeff Smith, universally known as “Soapy” was born in Portland between fifty and fifty-five years ago. At the time of his death he was between forty-five and forty-eight years old.

His record included almost every kind of flim-flam game known from gold-bricking to phony paper, though strange to say, it is not known that he ever was convicted or served a sentence. His graft was to stand in with the police of whatever city he chose to operate in. When his presence proved unwelcome he would depart for new scenes of activity.

He got his pseudonym as an itinerant soap merchant in Denver Col. He was the originator of the well know trick of selling soap wrapped in $5 or $10 bills for a dollar, but when the purchase received the goods they were always lacking the wrapper. He had a trick also of during the soap to make a lather which he rubbed on his eyes apparently to prove some wonderful quality he claimed for it.

Soapy made an ineffectual attempt to corral Cripple Creek in its boom days, but failed, and was driven out of the town. From one city to another he was invited to move until he landed in Skagway.

Skagway’s reputation though of course, It numbered some honest men in its population, was not very savory. Its authorities had stolen the land which composed the townsite from William Moore, and he has not to this day been paid for one land which he had pre-empted and occupied years before Skagway was ever thought of. So Soapy found the atmosphere congenial and proceeded to set up his kingdom of loot. From all over America crooks and rogues flocked to his standard. They organized themselves into a gang of thieves and sharpers. They grafted the civic administration, they muleted saloons, they pulled down cake off from the women of the town. They buncoed travelers and miners, they operated “fixed” Gambling machines and roulette wheels, they played the three-card game and thimble rigged the innocent chechacos, they flim-flammed the miners who brought in dust and after every other scheme has been worked, they looted the bank’s vaults and held up men at the point of the gun. Pokes of dust disappeared into the Bank’s vaults mysteriously disappeared and the claimants could never get satisfaction. It was the distrust of the local bank engendered by Soapy’s influence with it that made the opening for the Canadian Bank of Commerce of which it availed itself.

The town marshal was a member of the gang and the local newspaper of the little town was edited by another member, Doc Hornby. They levied toll on every man who came to the town or passed through it. If a man carried his grip across the wharf they controlled, it cost him two bits. If he set it down it cost him four bits for storage. To land a trunk costs a dollar.

Soapy’s Saloon the Headquarters.

Soapy’s saloon was the headquarters of the gang. There the miners and chechaco’s were rolled. There too the famous came eagle was kept. The place was arranged with a convenient back door for the escape of the con man when he had secured his plunder. Things had been running with such barefaced boldness, robberies, shootings and holdups had become so frequent that the town’s business was being injured. Threats were made to the business men to go over and resurrect the dying town of Dyea and thus kill Skagway. The business men in addition to paying tribute to Soapy’s gang saw that their business was to be ruined by the men to whom they were forced to pay tribute. Public indignation has reached such a pitch among the honest in the city that it needed only the events of July 7 to fan the sparks into a flame of action.

Such were the conditions in the town when on that morning. R. Stewart, a miner, came into Skagway, over the Dalton trail from Dawson. Stewart had a poke containing $2,800 in dust. This he cached in the safe of Isadore Kauffman, who was a reputable business man running a dry goods store in the town.

First Gold Brick Artist.

Those of Smith’s partners in the loot who took part in the events immediately proceeding to the tragedy where landed Smith into eternal disquietude that night were Deep Sea Carter, alias Slim Jim, bunco-steerer, con-game operator etc. Another was Tripp who afterwards died in Chicago, Tripp had the distinction of having been the first gold-brick artist in the United States he having imported the idea from Italy, where it originated thus founding an industry that has proved so lucrative to crookdom on this continent.

Then there were Tom O’Brien, and his partner Waddel. O’Brien afterwards killed Waddell in France and is now doing a life sentence in Paris for that crime. Another worthy was Power, who has disappeared from the ken? Of the police in recent years and has therefore probably turned over a new leaf since the halcyon days in Skagway.

City Marshall Taylor took only a negative part in the day’s tragedy but was among the fugitives after the killing that night.

After caching his dust poke. Stewart started out to do the town and encountered Slim Jim, Slim quickly made friends with the lucky miner. Old con man and Bunco artist as he was the unsophisticated man from the hills was an easy victim of the Smith one’s specious talk. The talk of course turned on dust – dust was everything in Skagway in those days and Stewart confided in Slim Jim the fact of his poke, and where it was. Slim told Stewart he could sell his dust for him at $22 an ounce. Had Stewart been a shrewd man this extraordinarily high price – gold at that time being worth about 418 should have caused him to be suspicious. He however fell into the trap and agreed to take his dust from the safe to meet Slim Jim’s friends.

Slim accompanied Stewart to Kauffman’s store and there Stewart received his poke. Kauffman had no opportunity to warn Stewart as he certainly would have done had he been able to elude the vigilance of Slim Jim. He knew that any interference in the game on foot would have been as much as his life was worth.

Slim accompanied Stewart around to Jeff Smith’s saloon, the redoubtable Soapy’s layout on Holly street. There he met Tripp and Soapy and others of the gang. Each took a turn in handling and appraising the poke.

In the rear of the room the famous tame eagle solemnly blinked at the proceedings. It was frequently an unconscious and often useful partner of the gang in their operations.

At the psychological moment Stewart’s attention was directed to some antics of the tame eagle. In that moment his poke disappeared. A few minutes afterward Tripp was seen running out of the back door with it partly concealed under his coat.

Stewart’s protests availed him nothing and he went to find Town Marshal Taylor, who was busy on a building he was erecting presumably out of his share of the proceeds of just such transactions as he had sent Stewart in search of him. Stewart could get no satisfaction out of the marshal, and returned to the business section of the town.

This was the last straw that broke the patience of the respectable element of the town. Business men had begun to realize that if the bunco card sharking robbery and murder were not summarily stopped that Skagway’s fate was sealed as a miners and others had already begun to give the place a wide berth. The reputation of the town through the operations of Soapy smith and his gang had sank to such an ebb that its effect was ever at that time to be seen in the business of the town.

The owner of the Golden North hotel called a meeting for that night in Sylvester’s hall. When the crowd assembled it was found that the hall could not accommodate them so the meeting adjourned to the wharf owned by the same firm. Although it was nearly 9 o’clock at night when they finally gathered on the dock, it was broad daylight, the artic sun lighting up the scene as at midday.

Guards were put out on the wharf sides. It being low tide and in the land approach Frank Reid was stationed. The chairman. The hotel keeper who had called the meeting, then began to address the crowd. Whatever interests his remarks may have aroused was overshadowed by the tragedy that took place within a few minutes after he began to speak.

Coming down the trail in the full glare of the Artic sun, drunk, and wagering with a Winchester rifle in the elbow of his arm came Soapy Smith. Word had brought to him of the meeting and its purpose, and with the nerve for which he was noted he had taken his ride to go forth single-handed and cow or kill those who had dared to dispute his domination and despoiling of Skagway. Scores of times in the past both in Skagway and the Western States he had faced death from the other man’s gun.

Once in Skagway a miner had got the drop on him, but he coolly looked his protagonist in the eye and without a tremor pulled his own gun, after having been ordered to throw up his hands. No man in Skagway could shoot quicker or straighter than Soapy.

But that night he was up against a man whose gun play was so fast and sure that given the least bit of luck, it was almost a certainty that if shooting commenced Soapy’s fate was sealed.

That man was Frank H. Reid, surveyor and engineer of Skagway who had roughed it out ant toughed it through out the Western States. Reid was a gun man quick as lightning in action. At least one man had had death pumped into his system from the muzzle of Reid’s 45 caliber Colts, which he carried in a holster at his hips.

Soapy surged on in his reckless in Reid who peremptorily ordered him to stop. His answer was a point-blank shot fired at close range without leveling at Reid.

Overconfidence perhaps at such short range or the fatal atom of luck, which swings the balance one way or another, spelling life or death for him who wins or loses, may account for Soapy’s failure to hit Reid in that first surprised shot.

Soapy made a frantic effort to pump a fresh cartridge into the chamber of his rifle. In that instant Reid’s revolver spun on his hip, clicked and missed fire. Surely was the goddess of luck distributing her favors equally to both antagonists. Reid’s luck had been handed to him when Soapy’s first shot missed him. Soapy’s came when Reid’s revolver missed fire. Then luck handed death the loaded dice.

Two shots one from Smith’s 30-30 Winchester, the other form Reid’s 45 caliber colt rang out and the horrified men gathered on the dock saw Smith spin round and pitch forward and lay still while Reid sank slowly to the ground.

The bullet from Reid’s revolver had passed through Soapy’s left coat sleeve into his brest through his heart and lung and lodged in the ribs of his right side. He fell without a groan and as he fell he lay composed as in sleep, one hand crossing his breast. Soppy’s career of crime was ended. A man came along eyed the corpse contemptuously and said. Good enough for you _____ _____ ____ shoving it with his foot. Reid had been hard hit in the hip. The assembled men rushed up to him and immediately carried him to his own office opposite Clayson’s stores. All that medical aid could do for him was done, but in two days he cashed in and the wharf tragedy became a double one.

Word quickly reached the gang at headquarters that Soapy was killed, and that the citizens had organized a vigilante committee to clean out the rest. That was the signal for a stampede and they all took to the hills.

Meanwhile the citizens had lost no time. Captain Sherry, since dead formerly police captain in Portland ore. Took the leadership and called for volunteers to act as guards and to hunt down the fugitives. Two men were detained to each of the four wharves to see that none of the gang escaped to sea. The Dyea and White Pass trails camp No 1. The White Pass & Yukon railway were then guarded and searched for the fleeing members of the gang. The mounted police station at White Horse was telephoned to and police guards were set to watch the trail and turned back some of those who tried to cross the summit. A day or so 37 were rounded up the last three being Slim Jim, Bowers of many aliases and old Tripp.

These last three were starved out and came down the trail Sunday evening, where they were observed by E.R. Peebles and his wife and family who were up to the graveyard and saw the trio making their way along the face of the mountain. Word was at once brought to town and the men were captured that night at 9:10.

Of the 40 men captured and tried before Judge Shellberg most of them were allowed to leave the country which they did in bunches of six or seven.

Among them was Dr. Hornby, editor of the Daily Alaskan, who however was lined up and photographed along with the rest. The last three of the gang were convicted of robbery and sent to McNeill’s Island.

And thus was completed the destruction of a gang of organized criminals unique in the north or for that matter perhaps on the continent, yet lacking in the finish and subtlety of the gang which later dominated Nome and despoiled the placer miners of Anvil Creek.

But the troubles of the gang were not over when they were deported from Skagway, Not a town on the coast wanted such men. The police of Seattle, Tacoma, San Francisco and all the other ports refused to allow them to land. Juneau wanted them not, and Nome was only an undiscovered wilderness at that time. One of them committed suicide on board the boat, which had become for him only a floating prison.

Interesting sidelights are thrown on the narrative recalled by the mention of the names of those who took part in the events narrated. For instance the hotel keeper who had acted as chairman of the citizen’s committee was himself destined to meet death by falling off that identical wharf.

I have made diligent effort to learn his name, but not one man who was in Skagway at the time, with whom I have talked can remember it. Even a contemporary hotel keeper, and a man who boarded in his hotel, were unable to recall it.

One of the Claysons, a Skagway merchant was subsequently murdered on the Dyes Trail.

Stewart recovered all his dust except about $600 which was never accounted for. The poke, with much other loot was found in a trunk in Tripp’s shack.

Both Soapy Smith and Frank Reid are buried in the little cemetery near the town, Skagway after the tragedy became a safe and normal place and fully recovered from the effects of the evil doings of the gang.

December 14, 2008

Modus operandi...

A very interesting and typical modus operandi of the Soap Gang. In 1894 Soapy Smith took on the title of "colonel." It was very common to use different last names for obvious reasons. In my opinion, "Colonel Johnson" in the newspaper article below is in fact Soapy, and the steerers are members of his bunco gang. Enjoy!
A Rio Blanco Stockman Pays $360 to see the Colonel.

The moral cleanliness claimed to have been inaugurated in Denver by the populist administration, chief of which was the driving out of bunco men and gamblers, will hardly be vouched for by Mr. Bainbrich, a well-known stockman who lives near Craig [Colorado], as the following from the Denver Republican shows:

"He said he came to Denver Saturday morning and about dusk met two men near the Albany hotel, who stopped him to enquire about what would be the probable result of the late election in Rio Blanco. A word led to a conversation and soon Bainbrich and his street acquaintances were like old friends.

"The strangers talked mining to the ranchman, as such strangers are prone to do on occasions of that kind, and then one told him about the splendid gold ore specimens that were in the safe of his friend, Colonel Johnson. If Bainbrich would accompany them to the colonel’s office they would give him some of the specimens. Bainbrich went.

"The 'colonel' is never in, and he was not in on Saturday evening. To kill times while waiting for him, bunco steerers always play poker with ranchmen. Bainbrich’s bunco steerers roped him into a game. When they showed down on the last pot played the Rio Blanco man was minus $160 cash and a $200 check and he hasn’t seen the colonel nor the specimens yet."
New Castle News, November 17, 1894. Page 4.

Alaska Outlaw playing cards...

(Click to enlarge)

"S" from Alaska sent us word that a deck of cards called, Alaska's Outlaws, Rebels and Cons featurs Soapy Smith on the cover and inside the deck as the ace of spades, has made the website of the Anchorage Daily News on December 10, 2008. On the site is a video by Kyle Hopkins who explains a little about the cards which includes modern day Alaskan politicians as well as historical Alaskan figures like Wyatt Earp.

(Click to enlarge)

The company website that manufactured the cards is called, Alaska Outlaw Cards. They ask, "What do Sarah Palin, Soapy Smith, Ted Stevens, Wyatt Earp, and Steve McQueen all have in common?" The answer, according to their website, "At one time they were Alaska outlaws, rebels or cons, bucking the establishment, living outside the law or swindling Alaskans with old-fashioned luck and charm." The price of the deck is $9.95

December 13, 2008

Did you know...

Soapy Smith publicly offered the managers of boxers Robert Fitzsimmons and James Corbett, $50,000 to hold the 1898 rematch in Skagway, Alaska (Skaguay News, 06/17/1898).

See sections of the 1897 fight below.

December 9, 2008

Quick quotes...

My business is selling prize packages. No one is obliged to buy.

~ Jefferson R. Smith, Weekly Register Call, 1889.

A Tivoli Club token?

Here is a token recently sold on eBay. The use of the name Tivoli in the saloon and gaming business was wide spread in the west. Although this token could be for any of them, it is oh so nice to imagine that Soapy Smith had some made for his Tivoli Club in Denver.

December 3, 2008

Soapy Smith humor...

(Click to enlarge)

Well I thought it was funny. I made this cartoon a while back using an Ivory soap ad from the Rocky Mountain News, November 27, 1888.