June 18, 2009

"Soapy Smith" letter on eBay

(Click image to enlarge)
Letter by Hiram Folsom
June 5, 1898.


Dick Wood is an Alaskan historian, collector and merchant dealing in all things Alaska. I first met Dick a number of years ago when he first advertised the following letter and its accompanying collection of personal artifacts. I questioned the authenticity of the ribbon story (paragraph 3 below). I think some of you will find this an interesting read. I quote from Dick's eBay auction.

Here is an important collection of material from Juneau Judge Hiram Folsom's estate. Included is a genuine piece of Soapy Smith memorabilia, with the important historical context of scandal between Soapy Smith and the U.S. Commissioner’s office in Juneau. The highlight of the collection is a letter from the young, newly hired attorney Hiram Folsom, Alaska Department of Justice, to his wife back home. She was waiting for him to get settled in Alaska before she would join him in Juneau, where they would make their home for a number of years. The 6 page letter was written on the stationery of the "Department of Justice, Office of the United States Commissioner, Territory of Alaska, J. Y. Ostrander, U. S. Commissioner."

The letter is dated June 5, 1898 , from Juneau. In the letter Judge Folsom states: "I have just returned from the world renowned Dyea and Skaguay.... I became acquainted with the notorious 'Soapy Smith' of Skagway the 'Mayor' as they call him. He is at the head of the gamblers fraternity. He took quite a fancy to me and asked me to locate there and said he would bring me lots of business. He bestowed upon me a red, white and blue badge- one of his most courteous and favored acts. Many people talk against him but want his assistance. He is a model of his kind. Generous, frank and faithful to his friends; a college man, refined in his manner, and intelligent."

The red, white and blue badge came pinned to the letter. The pin is now in the lap desk. This patriotic badge that Soapy himself gave Judge Folsom is included!

It's not surprising that Soapy wanted to take Hiram Folsom under his wing. In Melody Webb's book "The Last Frontier: A History of the Yukon Basin of Canada and Alaska" (page 145), she states "When one of his [Soapy's] bartenders killed a deputy marshal and another man, Soapy adeptly hid his employee but headed a subscription drive for the deputy's widow. Then he convinced the United States Commissioner, a good friend, to deputize ten guards to escort the accused murder (sic) to a steamer ready to debark. To no one's surprise, the man escaped while in their custody." Webb, in her fine book, further discusses the corruption, including that of the U.S. Commissioner, that allowed Soapy Smith to operate.

So, Soapy was in cahoots with the very law officials in Juneau that should have been working to stop his criminal activities in Skagway.

The letter also has other interesting observations, such as the statement that “About 400 men are building the railroad (Most people think it is a fake). I do too.”

A great lot of early Alaska history. Genuine Soapy material is so rare that even in Skagway there is very little.


(Click image to enlarge)
The entire lot offered

Also included in this collection is the Hiram Folsom Family lap desk. It's in poor condition but would look great when restored. The original purple felt writing surface is intact (maybe the letter was written on it), and the wood is lovely rosewood veneer.

In the desk is a Rexall fountain pen that says "Elf-Filler", and some sewing things.

A gem tintype album with 22 gem tintypes of people. Inside front cover says "Edith Jacka by her friend Evadne A. Shirly". Title page by album manufacturer "Lovewell's Gem Album, 198 Maine St, Stockton, Cal." At the end of the album is written "Edith Jacka, Stockton". Perhaps the Folsom's were from Stockton before moving to Juneau.

A cabinet card portrait of Hiram Folsom by Lanier of San Francisco. Another portrait of a well dressed man (with a mining pick in his tie) by Winter & Pond of Juneau. Folsom had mining interests in Juneau and perhaps this man is one of those partners. A SF cabinet of a woman (Mrs Folsom?), a picture of a family outing by a waterfall, a picture of people in Juneau at Folsom's office(?), A picture of the interior of the Folsom home (Tlingit baskets on top of the china cabinet). An 8 X 10 (mounted 11 X 14) by W. H. Case titled in the negative "RES'D H. H. FOLSOM, JUNEAU, ALASKA".

A pair of silhouettes of the Folsoms (4X5). A great photo of a baby in a wicker stroller with parasol on the dock in Juneau (6X8, corners off).

An early Juneau photo album with 21 snapshots, including Tlingit Indians in a canoe, fishing at Sheep Creek, interior of their house, corduroy road, cows, ladies on a boat with a large box camera, a family outing, people along a trail that looks like it could be what we call Perseverance Trail today.

Judge Hiram Folsom's fur hat.

Three days after this letter was written, my great grandfather, John Wood, passed through the NWMP check point at the top of the Chilkoot Pass on his way to the Klondike. A few weeks later Soapy Smith was killed.

My issue with the "patriotic ribbon" listed was in Dick's original listing years ago in which he said it was one of the ribbons Soapy had given out to people in Skagway, however the ribbons known to be given out were full of text and this ribbon offered has none. Dick took my word for it and changed his description. He is adamant that Soapy gave this ribbon to Folsom, stating that Soapy ran out of his custom ribbons and began handing out regular red,white and blue ribbons, which is very possible.

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