Soapy's bartender (Nate Pollack or John Clancy)
stands in the doorway of Jeff Smith's Parlor with a
probable member of the Soap Gang as a man walks by
I was content to let the Soapy Smith legend be told whatever way the folks of Skagway, Alaska wanted to tell it until the Jeff Smith Parlor became the property of the National Park Service. As a retired employee of that agency and someone who had done a significant amount of research about the early life and times of the community, I knew a thing or two about those early days. I thought everyone knew that most of what appeared in the books about the Klondike gold days was pure hype – just an exaggerated story. But when I read the following, coming from the agency where I had worked for thirty years, I knew things had to change:The Jeff Smith Parlor Museum was the headquarters for Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith during his tenure as self-anointed mayor or king of Skagway, Alaska during the first years of the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush. From there he controlled a gang of con men, thieves and cutthroats variously estimated at between 200 and 300 strong. Also there, J.D. Stewart, a returning gold miner, was robbed of his gold, which led to Soapy’s death in a gun battle with Frank Reid at the front of the Juneau Wharf, in Skagway on the evening of July 8, 1898. The Parlor was intimately associated with Soapy and his gang during that early lawless period of Skagway’s existence when “hold-ups, robberies, and shooting were part of the daily routine.” Soapy, of course, was one of the main characters of the Klondike stampede. The story of how he took on Skagway and ran it to suit his own needs and how he died is found in virtually every book on the gold rush.
“Lies!” I thought when I finished reading the introductory paragraph. “Eight of them in five sentences, and only one truth.” Smith’s story does indeed end up in every book on the Klondike gold rush.
“It’s all a legend,” I sighed. It’s time. Time to tell the truth. I just cannot sit on it anymore.
INTRODUCTIONA visitor to Skagway, Alaska, cannot go very long without hearing about Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith. The confidence man would have delighted in the notoriety he has achieved in the more than a hundred years since his death. His fame is due as much to his own efforts as to those of his many friends, colleagues, descendents and the hagiographers they spawned after law-abiding men and women thought they had laid him to rest. Putting a bullet through his heart only immortalized him and put a capstone on a legend that he himself had started to build. There has been no end to the embellishment that others, some with substantial credentials, would put on the story that Smith had created for himself.
I first heard the legend of Soapy Smith in October 1978 when I traveled to Skagway to conduct some archaeological excavations for Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, which was then only two years old. Like most professionals who were trying to learn as much as they could about one of our newest National Park Service areas, I read most of what I could get my hands on. That included the study that National Park Service Chief Historian Edwin Bearrs had completed for the park in 1970, along with Pierre Berton’s seminal work, Klondike Fever, which was published in the United States in 1958 and revised in 1975. I had a great deal of respect for both gentlemen, the first for his obvious scholarly position within my agency, and for Berton for his gift with the written word and knowledge of his subject. Bearss relied heavily on the latter, in addition to his own first-hand research in our nation’s capital. I had no reason to doubt either’s depiction of Jeff Smith’s exploits in Skagway in the winter and spring of 1898.Twenty-seven years later, I retired from the National Park Service, still fascinated with the Klondike gold rush, and still conducting historic research on the lives of the people of Skagway. It was not until I became interested in Skagway’s mayor Chris Shea, who wrote one of the first published versions of the Smith story, and Josias M. “Si” Tanner, who was instrumental in rounding up Smith’s gang in the days after the con man’s death, that I began to understand the contradictions in the various versions of the story. These were not minor alternatives, simple variations that might occur because different people observed the event from different vantage points. These were major gaps, deliberate miss-tellings, sometimes lies meant to obscure a truth to which no one meant to admit. What were these truths that were being withheld? And why?
As I began to ferret out the hidden truths of the Soapy Smith story – such as the fact that Frank Reid was not the only one who killed Soapy Smith – it became obvious that those who wanted to protect Reid’s honor were so intent on doing so that they were willing to raise Smith to the status of a legend in order to elevate Reid to the standing of a hero.
What a thought.
Take a petty criminal; turn him into a super Bad Guy. Take a tough Good Guy who dies in the process of killing the Bad Guy; turn him into a martyr. Ten years later, about the time everyone is starting to forget all of this happened; write the story down and celebrate it. Make sure the town historian continues to tell the story over and over again, adding her own embellishments.
Then, another few years down the road, have the petty criminal’s home town library index its newspapers, magazines and books. Every time someone wants to write a reminiscence of the Wild West days, because this index exists in one of the best western history libraries in the country, our Hero and our Bad Guy get mentioned. Ensure that an associate professor of English literature, one who likes the Robin Hood stories, uses that index. By the time a Really Good Writer gets a hold of the story, it has become an American legend.
In doing the research for my biographies of J. M. Tanner and Chris Shea, I found more than a hundred descriptions of the Soapy Smith story. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of them were not footnoted, nor did they have bibliographies. Curiously, though, most of them sounded alike, and it became relatively easy to figure out where each writer had obtained his or her information. After 1934, it appears that most authors used the sources listed in the Denver Public Library subject card index, which almost necessarily restricted them to the Denver newspapers and national periodicals (or more likely, they copied people who had used the Denver Public Library). Surprisingly few biographers of Soapy Smith used the informative and often refreshing articles that were published in The Alaska Sportsman between 1935 and 1970 by people who either witnessed the events or who were direct descendents of witnesses.
Who was Soapy Smith? Born Jefferson Randolph Smith in Coweta County, George in 1860, his family moved to Round Rock, Texas in 1876. Not to stay in one place very long, the young man soon picked up and moved about the Middle West where he earned a living as a bunco and sure-thing man, learning to bilk gullible people from their hard-earned dollars with card tricks and slight-of-hand. By 1879, he had found his way to Denver, Colorado, where he learned the trick of wrapping a cake of soap in a five dollar bill, covering that with a plain paper wrapper, mixing it with a number of other plain-wrapped cakes, and selling off soap for a dollar apiece. It was in Denver that he earned the nick-name “Soapy.”In the years that followed, Smith set up his soap-selling, pea and walnut shell, and three-card monte games in Denver, Leadville, and Creede, Colorado. Each place he went, he earned a reputation for petty con games and graft ameliorated by an indubitable charm. In each of these mining camps today, the modern tourist will find odes and tributes to a legend created by a mixture of his roguish charm and Robin Hood-like deeds. It is no different in Skagway, Alaska. In those places, as much as in Skagway, his legend is due as much to the fact that he died a violent death as to his personal charm. I do not believe that it owes anything to any greatness on his part or the fact that Jefferson Randolph Smith was a cut above anyone else who was born and lived during the late nineteenth century.
Cathy states Soapy is a legend partly because of his violent death. That he was brave there can be no doubt. Telling his men to stay put while he faced four vigilante guards alone is either brave or fool-hardy. Either way he is definitely remembered for the way in which he died, face-to-face with his foe. His infamy is growing even greater now that it is known that Frank Reid was not the man who killed him, that he was shot with his own rifle while himself wounded and unarmed. A movie couldn't get much better of a duel to the death.
Cathy writes, "I do not believe that it owes anything to any greatness on his part or the fact that Jefferson Randolph Smith was a cut above anyone else who was born and lived during the late nineteenth century." Oh, I strongly disagree...
To my considerable surprise, I discovered that the Smith legend has been told and retold in print about a hundred times (see my Chronological Bibliography). Within these pages you will find a version that you have not yet encountered, at least not in its entirety. I have attempted to separate out those sources that are derivative of previous versions, and have gone back to either original newspaper accounts by direct witnesses or people who talked to direct witnesses. I have also looked at the other major issues with which the businessmen of Skagway were dealing during the winter of 1897-1898 to show that it was not possible for a man like Jefferson R. Smith to be “ruling” Skagway between January and June of 1898. What with the controversy over the platting of the townsite; the lawsuit in which the Moores, the White Pass and Yukon Route railroad (WP&YR) and a good quarter of the property owners and merchants were engaged; the battle over rights-of-way for the Brackett Wagon Road and WP&YR; the controversy over control of the city council; continuing problems with lot claim jumpers; and U.S. government concern over starvation in the Klondike; not to mention the daily arrival of crowded ships, providing electricity, water and sewer systems in an unincorporated city with no sanctioned government, and, well, there was no opportunity for a man like Smith to become “uncrowned king.” The notion is pure nonsense, one of Smith’s pipedreams, part of the legend promulgated by himself and boasted to his friends in Denver.
Well, of course I strongly disagree, lol.
Jane Haigh has done a quite worthy biography in recent years, and her version, King Con, has all the advantages of including Soapy’s early years, and doing so with clear cittions. I understand that Smith’s great grandson, Jeff Smith, will soon be publishing his own version of the story. Many of us look forward to seeing how that account will treat the legend.
You needn’t take my word for it. You can compare the legend with what I believe is the truth. Continue reading. In my mind, the Alaska story started in January 1898, after Smith had been in Skagway for about two months.
Cathy is off on Soapy's arrival in Skagway by about 4 months.