August 31, 2009

Did Soapy operate on trains?

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Railroad letter of recommendation, 1882

A very interesting letter from the collection of Soapy Smith's great-granddaughter Geri Murphy showing that (according to the letter) Soapy Smith worked for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. It reads,

Office Superintendent First Division,

South Pueblo, Colorado, May 12, 1882.

To whom it may concern

The barer Mr. Jeff. R. Smith has been in the employ of this company for the last fourteen months in the capacity of train baggag [sic] master. During that time he has served us it has been to the satisfaction of all concerned. He leaves our employ in good standing.

W.H. Bancroft
Div. Supt.

J.H. Walker
T.M. [Train Master]

Bancroft later became president of the line between 1884-1886. Walker was still listed as Train Master in 1895.

Although the letter is on railroad stationary and inked by the Superintendent's office official stamp it is unlikely Soapy worked for the railroad in a legitimate occupation. There are several other possibilities.
  • Soapy may have voluntarily paid for the document in order to be able to operate his short con swindles such as the shell and pea game or three-card monte inside the passenger cars of the Denver and Rio Grande railway. The letter probably could have protected Soapy from being arrested or ejected from a train when caught running games by railroad police or other lawmen.
  • The document could also have been manufactured to get out of a vagrancy charge. The same style of defense was later used by Soap Gang member, John "Reverend" Bowers.
  • The document could have been a part of an elaborate swindle. Later famed boxer, Robert Fitzimmons was conned into believing one of the members of the Soap Gang was actually the president of the railroad.

August 30, 2009

Whose birthday?

Any guess as to whose birthday
is coming up this Wednesday
September 2
(hint: he'd be 149)

Soapy Smith in Fort Worth, Texas, 1881.

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1881 letter to Soapy Smith
Jeff Smith collection

Above is a response letter Soapy Smith wrote to the state of Georgia. In February 1881 Soapy was operating in Fort Worth, Texas with John "Fatty Gray" Morris and others. At some point he desired to travel back to Coweta county, Georgia for a visit to his old homestead and family he had left behind when his parents moved to Round Rock, Texas in 1876. He obviously planned to make a little money during his venture home so he wrote to the state offices in Atlanta to find out the proper fees to operate within his old home state.

The letter Soapy received in response comes from Georgia Comptroller General W. A. Wright on stationary from his office. It reads.

March 3, 1881
J. R. Smith Esqr.

Dear Sir

Your favor of the 24th [27th?] to hand lender the uses of this state you will have to pay a sum of twenty-five dollars for each days exhibition in every city or town of five thousand inhabitants; twenty dollars in city or town of four thousand & under five thousand inhabitants; & fifteen dollars in city or town with less than four thousand inhabitants: Said tax to be paid to the tax collector in each county when the exhibition takes place.

Yours Respectfully
W. A. Wright
Comp. Genl.

From the actions taken by Soapy one can see that he considered himself a business man. He actually saw his confidence games as a legitimate enterprise and treated it as any proper businessman of his day would. He made and kept his records. In my collection are copies of numerous city license documents in which Soapy paid each city he operated in the necessary fees. It should be noted that the state of Georgia fees are very high compared to states in the west.

August 29, 2009

Dorothy Corum where are you?

Over the last quarter century I have had the pleasure of corresponding with hundreds of wonderful people relating to the research of my great grandfather. Over that period my memory has subsided a bit due to the passage of time thus I would have forgotten many of my old contacts from years ago had it not been for my almost obsessive filing of everything pertaining to Soapy Smith. One lady in particular stands out from the rest of those contacts. When I received an email from this person 17 years later I did not need to look up her file to remember this special person. Her name was Dorothy "Dee" Corum. I was so excited to receive the email from Dorothy that I wrote her immediately. Stupidly, while cleaning up my files I accidentally erased her email and my response. I did not hear back from her and posted something about it here on August 20 that I feared my email to her might have been received as "spam." So here I try once again hoping she sees this post as I would love to hear from her.

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met Dorothy when she responded to an ad I published in the February 1987 issue of Alaska magazine asking for anything relating to Soapy Smith. Dorothy lived in Massachusetts and wrote me the following letter.

February 2, 1987

Dear Mr. Smith:

... I have long had an interest in your great-grandfather and have done a lot of research on him. I have been to Alaska 9 times—with Skagway always one of my stops. Gold Rush Cemetery has always been a destination—and in '82, '83, and '84 I carried flowers from Massachusetts to place on "Soapy's" grave. (The natives wondered where they came from). I feel a very special affinity to him. (I am enclosing a picture of myself taken in '82 at his grave—showing the first bouquet I placed there for him). [see above photo].

I wrote a lengthy article about "Jefferson Randolph Smith" a few years ago and submitted it to Alaska magazine, but they said they had recently published material on him and were not interested at that time in another article.

I am a high school teacher and travel a good deal. I travel in a motorhome with my mother as my companion. On every trip to Skagway, we hoped that Jeff Smith's Parlor (Museum) would be open, but it has been closed for many years. Before my last trip there in '84, I wrote to the owner of the museum [George Rapuzzi] and asked if it would be possible to visit the museum that coming summer. I got a letter back saying he would be glad to open it for my mother and me—but that it was not open to the general public and probably never would be again. He is a very elderly gentleman—a native of Skagway, born in 1899.

The highlight of that trip to Skagway was going through those doors into yesteryear. We stood at Soapy's Bar and had a drink (root beer) with Soapy (a mannequin that turns its head and raises its arm as its eyes light up when you enter). This building was your great-grandfather's and was moved from its original location to its present site. The bar belonged to Soapy, and the entire display is quite a tribute to him and his era.

In addition to taking us through this treasure, he played an original Martin Itjen (early Skagway showman) recording of that fateful July 8 that reenacts the entire scene. He is a wealth of information and memorabilia, and he would probably be glad to share his knowledge with you. He is a delightful person with whom I have corresponded ever since. ...

I personally don't think your great-grandfather was the scoundrel that history makes him out to be, and some of my research verifies that. A fictionalized account of Soapy's dealings in Skagway and Dawson City is well written in a novel that was hailed as "The Gone With The Wind of the Yukon." It is Tara Kane by George Markstein. I have read it at least a dozen times and will, no doubt, read it a dozen more. It portrays Jeff Smith as a lovable rogue who is charmed by a young lady. It is a fantastic character study, though fictionalized, and gives the reader a lot of food for thought. Though Markstein completely changed Soapy's ending, it is an excellent account of those wild, tempestuous times. I would love to see this book made into a movie.

I wish you luck in your quest for information and relics from your great-grandfather. I certainly look forward to any book you may publish. ...

Dorothy and I began corresponding by mail carrier and I learned a passion of hers was poetry. She sent me a poem about Soapy she simply entitled, SOAPY SMITH.

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by Dorothy Corum

Along with the poem Dorthy also sent me a copy of her manuscript that she had sent to Alaska magazine. I learned that she had written to George Markstein, author of Tara Kane and visited Creede, Colorado and even my hometown of Anaheim, California the year I graduated from high school. I eagerly invited her back to Anaheim to visit the private museum/saloon my father had built in honor of Soapy but sadly Dorothy no longer had the wish to travel much since the loss of her beloved mother and travel companion.

The last letter I received from Dorothy was in January of 1992 in which she enclosed the poem below. I hope she sees this post as I would love to hear from her.

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by Dorothy Corum

August 28, 2009

The Dr. Howard Kelly diary.

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The dreaded White Pass trail

The following passages come from the personal diary of Dr. Howard A. Kelly who traveled into the Klondike in the spring of 1898.

March 25, 1898 — Conditions at Skagway and Dyea are similar. The most prominent feature of the landscape is the activity of the shell-game men and their cappers. How anyone can be deceived by these crooks is a mystery, but many are. They look evil, and are evil. Great numbers lose heavily and a good many have had to give up their journey and turn back, all funds being lost.

Later there is this entry—

Shell-game tables extend from Dyea to Sheep camp and one comes across them every hundred yards or so. The U.S. soldiers here do not look like soldiers. They are slovenly. Too often they are seen watching the shell-games and never once have I seen them do anything in the nature of police work.

August 27, 2009

Soapy Smith's dice
Jeff Smith collection

The following is from the novel Welcome Suckers, by James David Buchanan, 2003.

... Lily groaned and opened her eyes.

Jeff leaned close and asked: "You got folks, honey?"

"Nebraska, " she managed in a tiny voice, then: "Farmers."

"They good people?"

"Yes, sir. They don't know about me. I wanted to go out to see the good times I'd heard about. It was so dull there."

"I'd think the dull things might look passably good right now."

"Yes ... oh, yes."

Cy whispered in Jeff's ear: "She's got a baby, that's why she wouldn't go with Thompson."

"This sure as hell's no place for a baby." Jeff turned back to the girl. "Would they take you in, your folks?"

"I think so. But ... my baby. I don't have a husband."

"Yes, you do. Let us worry about that." He took Warman aside. "We'll marry her tuh Fatty or someone, but don't worry, she won't even have tuh see him, whoever it is. There'll be a license tuh show. And then she'll need a death certificate for the husband an' a good story to go with it. Fortunately we're good at makin' up stories."

They moved back to the patient where Jeff knelt and fished a vial out of the inside pocket of his coat.

"Jeff, I think you answered my question," Warman said, smiling.

Jeff didn't respond. He was busy carefully measuring out a few drops of laudanum, feeding it into her swollen mouth with unexpected tenderness. Not that he used the drug himself. He was a man who liked to keep his head when all around him were losing theirs. No, he kept the drug in his desk, available against a world where the doctoring was chancy, pain common, and palliatives rare.

Later he would give the girl five hundred dollars and arrange to have Yank and Banjo take her to where she could catch a train for Nebraska. He even had the Rev write her a testimonial as her pastor. None of this ever became popular knowledge. Warman heard rumors about those details but respected Jeff's reticence. Instead, he began to broadcast Jeff's virtues far and wide.

August 26, 2009

Quick quotes...

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Landing supplies in Skagway, 1897

Dyea and Skagway are only 5 miles apart. When the PO [post-office] in Skagway was first established a pouch was dispatched from Dyea to Skagway. By the established route the pouch had to go to Juneau 100 miles and then return to Skagway. After traveling the 200 miles, the P.M. [post master] at Skagway brought the pouch to Dyea to have it unlocked, he not having received his mail key.

Excerpts John Clums notebook, Tombstone Times, September 2009
Gary Ledoux, John Clum in Alaska – part 7

Gary Ledoux is the author of two volumes on the life of John Clum who established US postal service in Skagway, Dyea and throughout southeast Alaska. They are
  • Nantan: The Life and Times of John P. Clum Volume 1 Claverack To Tombstone 1851 – 1882.
  • Nantan: The Life and Times of John P. Clum Volume 2 Tombstone To Los Angeles 1882 - 1932.
They can be found on Gary Ledoux's website, YesterWest.

August 25, 2009

A probable animated Klondike Story.

Soapy Smith
"The main villain"
courtesy of Averyl Veliz

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here are several projects coming up that I am excited to tell you all about but sworn to secrecy at the moment. One of the newest comes from Averyl Veliz, an Alaskan born concept artist who is currently completing my MFA in Visual Development at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, California.

I found her blog a couple of days ago and immediately contacted Averyl about her project.

Averyl writes,


Thank you for your great interest in my project! You as well have a fabulous blog, and I linked you up. Just a little about me, I'm from the Denali area of AK, but my mom is from Juneau, so I spent almost all my summers between Haines-Prince of Wales Island. I don't even remember my first trip to Skagway or when I first heard of Soapy, but I've grown up with the legends. This project is a feature film treatment I'm writing and drawing myself (for the time being) as a graduate project for the Academy of Art in SF. It is something that I want to see go into production, whether that be animated of live action. It's fictional, but based off of much historical research.

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Clancy's Saloon & Jeff Smith's Parlor
courtesy of Averyl Veliz

This is the Abstract I presented to the Academy:

The Klondike Gold Rush begins in spring breakup of 1897. The native Tlingit Spirits are put to the test of dealing with human invasion in Alaska and its ensuing corruption and degradation of their beloved habitat. The Spirits are pulled into the world of mans’ greed and a town's whirlwind expansion when one of their own (Beaver) joins the men on a quest for wealth and power. The result of the prospectors’ actions is a path of destruction; their persistent selfishness keeps them from hearing the spirits’ warnings. The Tlingit spirits must save their lost spirit and the land that is suffering from his absence. The process of this salvation rids the land of the human invaders and the civilization they created ... for the moment.


Here at Soapy Smith's soap box I cater to information regarding Soapy but to get the whole story about Averyl's project and to see the fantastic artwork in creating all the main animal characters of the proposed animation you should not miss the opportunity to check out this talented artist at her blog Averyl Veliz. I am keeping close watch on this winner and will keep all here up to date on her venture. Averyl we all wish you the best of success.

August 23, 2009

The prize auction...

In July 0f 2008 I wrote an article entitled, The "Prize Auction" Swindle Continues. Here it is for those who missed it. By the way the article did little to curb the eBay auctions I used as the primary example.

“There’s a sucker born every minute…and 1,402 to take 'em.” Or, The Modern “Mystery Auction.”

“Here is the deal! I have 1,000 numbered envelopes all with a piece of paper with an amount on it randomly placed in them. I mixed them up and don't know myself what is in each. Then I let my youngest daughter (5 years old) draw an envelope for you (she really likes to help). She will then open the envelope and give it to me. I will keep the same envelopes in play until all envelopes are gone! Just some hints on what’s inside: they range from $.xx to $xxx.xx bills. Ebay rules: I cant tell you exactly what is in them, just hints. Its all real money. No jewelry, toys, mystery junk, nothing like that. Some gifts of large value and many more with small amounts.”

The above remarks come from an actual “Mystery Auction” on eBay. It may sound innocent, honest and even fun to the unwary but it is nothing more than a time honored bunco scam. Did you miss seeing it on eBay? Don’t worry, there are were 1,402 other “Mystery Auctions” listed at the time I was writing this, all of them making money and all of them dishonest.

I bring this to your attention today as an expose of an extremely successful modern day auction swindle that has been going on every day on eBay for years. I have to admit that as a historian of nineteenth century confidence men a good part of me laughs at the victims of these auctions. After all it was their own greed to “get something for nothing” that put them in their predicaments in the first place. No one goes into one of these “auctions” thinking, “I know I won’t win but it will be fun anyway.” They actually think someone is giving away money. What bothers me is the large amount of auctions and victims there are, and the fact that these swindles are allowed to operate seemingly unmolested.

“…and 1,402 to take ‘em.”

I admit I had a personal agenda in writing this article. My great grandfather was an infamous bunco man himself. He was known as “Soapy” Smith and he sold soap in what is termed as a “Prize Package” swindle on street corners of the old west. I started this investigation hoping to find similar cons performed between today’s con men and my bad man descendant, but I was not prepared to see the grand scale at which the "industry" swindles are taking place. I use the word “industry” because I found eBay has even given these crooks their very own category under “Mystery Auctions,” and have been running legally and with the consent of eBay for years. Although called by another name these “Mystery auctions” are nearly identical to the “Prize Package” scams of a century ago. These operators are so well protected on eBay that when victims suspect foul play and complain they find they have little recourse in getting a full refund. It is not that eBay condones thievery but rather there is little they can, or will, do to aid the victims who seek retribution.

Once on eBay in the “Mystery Auctions” category you will find an assortment of “Prize Package” swindles run very similar to the ones of the nineteenth century. They even have shills writing eBay guides on “how to play and win” the games just as the cappers and shills for three-card Monte and the shell game of the old west used to inform their victims in methods to “beat the game.”

How they work. Or, “Please have your PayPay account ready”

The most popular method is the “e-envelope mystery auctions.” This is an e-mail virtual envelope that victims do not actually receive by mail but rather the seller “opens” for you and sends any “gifts” to your PayPal account automatically.

The operators offer a muti-chance sale or auction at a set price, most being .99 cents but there are numerous ones that charge a much higher price per chance, claiming better “gifts.” Some offer cash prizes while others offer goods, along with cash prizes, such as Wii game systems. These latter auctions clearly state that in the event not enough lots are sold then the cash prize will be substituted. That wording protects them from having to give-away anything of real value, minus a refund of a small amount of your own money.

“In order to comply with eBay's terms of service, this is NOT a lottery, game of skill, raffle, lottery, sweepstakes, pool, competition, or for charity. In addition, participants in this auction are not "winning" anything, as I am not distributing prizes or monetary compensation and a prize. They are only purchasing an envelope. Anything inside the envelope is a free gift to them.”

There might be upwards of 1000 individual lots to purchase in a single sale, which is to be paid with PayPal only. This solves the operators problems of dealing with the federal government postal system, bank checks and their applicable laws. PayPal’s policy is very favorable towards these swindles even if unintentional. Time is also a key factor here. With PayPal an excited “winner” who has been emailed a notice by eBay that he/she has won, can pay his/her owed amount in seconds whereas in the days of Soapy Smith, his gang had to stall their victim until a check could be cashed. Even after cashing a victims check at a local bank a stop-payment order from the victim can have authorities searching for the bunco men seeking reimbursement for the cashed check.

Most of the operators offer discounts if you buy in bulk, one operator advertising, “buy five envelopes you get one free!” After the auction concludes the victims are to watch their own PayPal accounts and within three days or so there will be a deposit of “winnings” that came from the “virtual envelope” they purchased.

In reading the auction descriptions you will notice that the auctions operators do not call what they offer as “winnings” or “prizes,” as that would imply gambling. Bidders here you will be given what they refer to as a “gift.” It is clearly stated that you are ONLY bidding on an envelope and that, “Anything in that envelope is a gift to you from me!” Every victim does win some money, but only a fraction of what the victim paid but this is enough for some victims to give them the feeling of actually almost winning something. Hopefully the thought of being swindled never crosses their minds. In fact, just the opposite might occur when the operator offers a second chance to play with an incentive of obtaining more chances for the price of one.

In every auction write-up is the “complaint and feedback” paragraph(s). These ask the victim to contact the operator with complaints so that the victim might be persuaded from causing any trouble or in giving bad feedback. Sometimes a small refund might be given along with a lecture on receiving bad feedback in return if it is given by the victim against the operator. Believe it or not this intimidation tactic works.

Shills are used in auctions to give good feedback which gives the victim a false sense of security looking over all the good feedback and seeing that apparently people do win money. In reality these shills only claim to actually win money.

As one operator wrote, “Everyone can NOT get a Great Gift please be a good sport and have fun.”

Is this legal? “This is NOT a lottery.”

How are they legally allowed to continue, you might ask? The answer is simple, they are operating within the legal confines of the law. It’s in the wording of the auction and looking at the 1,402 auctions they all read nearly identical to one another. The way in which they differ is in the spiel to catch the mark. Unfortunately, the operators keep their “word” as far as how they represent the auction, therefore there is little eBay or PayPal can do or say to compensate the victims.

In every single auction I found this statement, “As per eBay rules: This is NOT a lottery, raffle, sweepstakes, game of skill, pool, competition or for a charity. Participants in this auction are not ‘winning’ anything and are only purchasing an envelope. Anything in the envelope is a gift from me.”

If a seller is going to get into hot water with officials at eBay and PayPal it will be over mistakes, intentional and otherwise, made in their auction description. A normal seller who sells an antique chair but fails to mention a large tear in the fabric is going to get caught and be forced to make a refund. A seller can sell any allowable item on eBay as long as the description is truthful and complete. Here is the key, the “Mystery Auctions” are frauds…but their descriptions (according to eBay and PayPal) are truthful and complete. Their auction descriptions have been written up in such a way that they are fully within the legal limits of the law. They have been at this for a long time and you will find that most of the descriptions read almost identical to one another. As long as an item is properly represented by a seller and there is no evidence of fraud, there is little damage a victim can do by complaining to eBay or/and PayPal.

With the amount of gullible dupes sending in their dollars to these crooks it might be asked how they are still operating. It was my great grandfather, Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith who utilized the same methods. Rather than raking in one or two high stakes operations and then running to escape possible arrest, the bunco man collects the lowly single dollars from a large audience without calling too much attention to the operation. If a mark loses $100 in what is discovered to be a rigged deal the victim is much more likely to report the crime to authorities, but when the loss is only $1 to $10 the victim is far less interested in going through the hassle and work involved knowing that they will probably never see the return of their money anyway. No, it is easier to just chalk up the loss to experience and move on. The fact that few people will complain too loudly at having lost $1 helps maintain the status quo for these operations.

Is there really that much to be made
in “Mystery Auctions” and at what cost?

It may seem like there is not much money in it this sort of swindle, but there actually is. $1 seems hardly worth the time and effort to set up such an operation on eBay knowing that one slip could mean arrest. The take must be worthy of the work and risk…and it indeed is. Multiply that $1 many times over and the amount taken in by the operation can quickly turn into thousands of dollars each month. Operations like this are re-listed every day on numerous auction firms like eBay.

At what cost does the operator incur
in order to operate such a swindle?

The only monetary cost is the small listing fees charged by eBay and other on-line auction firms. Even the work of contacting the dupes of their loss is done by having the victim do the work by checking their own PayPal account for a money transfer. There are no envelopes to actually send out and the “work” of re-isting each auction is done with one click of a button as these auctions are written up once and saved as a draft for reuse on eBay.

Operator "Stepanhiewalters323" is just seemingly starting out. She (if it really is a woman) has operated only 10 auctions thus far. Eight of them were auctions for a mystery coin. All eight bidders paid .99 and won more than what they bid, one even claiming to have won a gold coin for .99 cents. Her newest auction is the usual envelope auction but looking at her feedback a dupe will come to the conclusion that this seller is giving money away and will likely bid hoping to get a gold coin, etc.

Operator "Rose122799" has 721 auctions under her/his belt. Selling one auction of .99 cent envelopes with 80 total in one auction 20 envelopes were sold for .99 cents that’s $20. If that was an average for each auction then this seller has made somewhere around $14,420. since being on eBay.

Operator "Melissajane123" has held 1295 of these style auctions…figure the math.

The “industry” is so big that I posted a request for victims of this scam to step forward with their stories. Immediately I received three responses, all of them hoping I could help them get their money back and angry as hell.

One victim, who shall remain anonymous, shelled out $151.51 on February 27, 2008 with the hope he would win a brand new Wii game system with lots of extras. He was notified by PayPal that he had won and happily paid his money. Then came the bad news from the seller that in fact he had lost, but was willing to refund 1/3 of the victims money back.
The victim writes,

“I was ripped pretty good. I bid on the xbox360, was awarded the bid from e-bay-invoice, was sent requesting payment from e-bay.-I contacted the seller to find out what was included, which was all the normal accessories. I paid the invoice $151.50 and the next day I was informed I didn’t win and he was going to send me back a refund of $50. I just lost $100.50 and no X-box. I contacted the seller and he wrote back I bid on a E-envelope. The invoice said I won an X-box 360 and have to pay the price I bid. The invoice said I won the X-box 360 not a F****** E-envelope.”

He was promptly sent an email by the operator that if he chose to try again his chances of winning were all but guaranteed. How could anyone resist what the confidence men used to call...a sure-thing.

August 22, 2009

He had lost the church fund...

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Soapy Smith's match safe, side one
from the Jeff Smith collection

The following story comes from Judge Wickersham's "Old Yukon" Tales — Trails — Trials, 1938 by the Hon. James Wickersham, the District Judge in Alaska from 1900 to 1908. I consider it fiction as there is no other known source of this having actually occurred. I guess the judge heard so many stories being told in court that he figured he could tell some too. Enjoy it none-the-less.

A Presbyterian missionary came to Dyea in the fall of '97 en route to Dawson to establish a church there. He was accompanied by a lay brother, who carried the church fund. The latter was both inquisitive and social, and readily talked with strangers about the trails, the scenery, or matters of current interest.

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Soapy Smith's match safe, side two
from the Jeff Smith collection

One day on the trail he fell behind his shepherd and met a well-dressed and aggreeable gentleman who was giving three roughly-garbed men, carrying heavy-looking miners' packs, information about the trail to the summit. Being natrually interested the guardian of the church fund stopped and joined in the conversation. It appeared that the very agreeable gentleman had been eating English walnuts, for some shells were on the ground at his feet. A short piece of board also happened to be nearby. Picking up the board and three half shells, the agreeable gentleman sat down on a boulder and laughingly explained to the simple-minded miners a childhood game called "where is the pea?" Before the inquisitive lay brother solved that simple problem he had lost the church fund he was carrying to Dawson.

August 20, 2009

Guess the caption...

(Click image to enlarge)
Guess the caption

I posted the above print with some additional Paint Shop Pro work so that it appears that one of the players is reading my book. Although, in my own mind, the artwork idea was brilliant, I could not think of a good caption for it. I asked the forum members at True West magazine to help me out and here are some of the replies.

  • "Ok, here's what Soapy said about faro..." by me.
  • "Hey! This 'centerfold' gimmick may just work out after all!" by Wacco.
  • "Ya gotta read chapter 2! Nobody but Soapy could pull that off!" by Rick Fritz.
  • "...Oh crap, all our names are in here!" by me.
  • "Gamble without me boys, this here's to damn interest'n to put down." by me.
  • "... according to Soapy, when a player calls for a 'Snowout' you have to spread all the cards face-up on the table." Does he say any thing else, yea, "when this happens, shoot all the lights out and run." by Bob Wood.
  • " sez, then D-U-C-K! And I don't think it means the water fowl!" by Rick Fritz.


Edward Lung's run-in with the Soap Gang

John and Frank Clancy's
original business card
(Jeff Smith col.)

Edward Lung exited the Cottage City in Skagway, Alaska 1898. It was his second trip to the camp, the first being late 1897, soon after its founding.

Now I was walking along a dimly lighted, crooked street. All at once, I found myself in a knot of men. One on either side grasped me firmly by the elbows.

"Say, Pardner," one of them said in a low tone, "saw you come in on the Cottage City. Now, wouldn't you like to join us in a little fun tonight? Meet the boys, play some games—and the girls—oh, la!la! they're dolls! You know, It's a long, hard trip to Dawson," said the other fellow persuasively, "and it'll be your last chance to really enjoy life for a while. Come on with us to Clancey's [Clancy's] Saloon. The drink's on is!"

While they talked, I was being expertly propelled down the street toward the saloon. In less than a minute, if I didn't do something quick, they'd have me inside, and, once there, it would be difficult to deal with them. So, with a sudden double twist of the elbows and a quick jerk, I freed myself and stopped short. "No, thanks," I said in a steely voice. "I don't drink or gamble and I have a fine wife at home. Besides, I know who you are. You're Soapy Smith's gang. You see, I'm not a green Cheechako like you think! I've been here before! And yes," I said as I leaned forward, scrutinizing one of the fellows closely, "remember me? Two months ago on White Pass? Yes, by golly! It was you who gave me that letter to deliver to Clancey's [Clancy's] Saloon. And it wasn't your fault I wasn't robbed of every speck of gold I was carrying! You dirty dog, you were sending me into a den of cutthroats and thieves ... and I've wanted to punch you in the nose ever since. ... So, here goes!" and as I spoke, I jammed my fist into his face and he went down in a surprised heap. (I confess, quite unexpectedly!)

Then I whirled on my heel, leaped out of the crowd before anyone could grab me and took off on a fast dog trot down the street...

(Black Sand and Gold by Ella Lung Martinsen, pp. 381-2.)

Dorothy Corum

A message to Dorothy Corum

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In the news...

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The Big Skagway Four Skagway, Alaska, July 1898

From the Inter Ocean (Chicago) January 1876.

Van H. Triplett, Frank Wilson, and H. H. Martin, gamblers and reported bunko men, were fined $20 each by Justice Summerfield yesterday for vagrancy. John Martin, another of the gang got thirty days in the Bridewell.

August 19, 2009

Does patriotism or sex sell better?

How about both!

Soap Gangster John Bowers

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Foster and Bowers handcuffed together
(After Soapy Smith's death)
Skagway, Alaska, July 1898

The "Reverend" (and sometimes "Professor") John L. Bowers is perhaps the most infamous of Soapy Smith's Soap Gang. In the gang he was known as a "grip-man" or "glad-hander," who steered victims to one of Soapy's many prepared to swindle establishments by pretending to become a new found friend of his prey. His occupation in city directories in Denver was listed as an auctioneer and he worked as such in Soapy's famed auction houses on Seventeenth Street. He was loyal to Soapy to the very end.

Before Bowers met and joined the Soap Gang he already had his own past record of a criminal persuasion. The earliest known crime involved breaking and entering in 1875 of two businesses under the alias of "Henry Ballantyne."

My book goes into great detail about Bowers and his time with the gang. Below is a clipping from the Rocky Mountain News.

Selling Snide Watches.

On complaint of William Nicols, a gentleman from the rural district, John H. [sic] Bowers, as auctioneer, at the corner of Seventeenth and Market streets, was arrested on the charge of obtaining money under false pretenses. Nicols claims that he bought a watch for $25 which the auctioneer represented as solid gold. Nicols took the watch and walked away as proud as a king, only to find a few hours later that all the gold had worn off his watch and that instead of being solid gold it was common dingy brass. He returned to the auctioneer who politely informed him that he could not buy the watch back as he was selling and not buying such articles. Bowers was placed under $300 bonds for his appearance at Justice Simmonds’ court….

August 18, 2009



I love playing around with my Paint Shop Pro...

Passage from Welcome Suckers...

In the novel, Welcome Suckers by James Buchanan (2003) Soapy meets with the Creede, Colorado "city council" with a plan to help himself as well as help the town rid itself of the dreaded tyrant, Robert Ford the man who killed outlaw Jesse James.

Jeff shook his head. "Gentlemen, y'all are not a town council." He held up a preemptory hand as thet started to object. " 'Cause yuh don't have a town here, just a bunch uh holes in the ground. An' yuh never will have, long as Bob Ford's runnin' things."

Moses, his folksiness aside, was obviously too shrewd to take offense. "That's mighty plain speaking."

"Bob's 'fraid uh civilization the way a grizzly bear is. Civilization shows up, Bob'll shoot it. Now me, I like a little law, things peaceable so people can have their innocent fun without fear uh harm."

Moses smiled appreciatively. "And you sure ain't afraid of Ford, neither. That's what it'll take."

The others nodded fervent aggreement.

Jeff managed to mask his wariness. "What it'll take for what?"

"Bringing in the telegraph," Moses said, his jaw outthrust.

Jeff, for once, was behind the wave. "Well, I dunno now, yuh might just have the wrong fella ... see, I'm just a gambler and a confidence man."

Cameron led the approval: "By God, how can you not trust a man who says a thing like that?"

August 17, 2009

The shell game

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Two shell men along the Alaskan trails, circa 1897-1898.

The above photograph comes from the Vogee collection of the Yukon Archives, showing two operators of the shell and pea bunco game during the Klondike gold rush, probably along either the Chilkoot or White Pass trails close to Skagway and Soapy Smith's protection. It is certain that some, if not a majority of the men in the photograph are steerers and shills working for the gang. Very few shell men operated without assistants as shills or strong-arms in the event of trouble. None of the men are recognized by me as members of the Soap Gang but most likely are. Note the armory of rifles.

Close-up of the shell men

lthough the old shell and pea game is clearly a swindle, the operators honestly believed they were not doing anything so wrong. That if a mark was dumb enough to play another man's game then they had the right to take their money. The main website has The shell game that you can play. Don't worry it is an honest one, which is something you won't find on the street.

August 16, 2009

Thank you: Old West Antiques...

Thank you OLD WEST ANTIQUES for your wonderful order!

More on Ned "Banjo" Parker...

From The Yankton Press and Union and Dakotaian (South Dakota), July 1874.

A chap called Ned Parker amused the people two evenings last week by selling tooth-paste, singing songs, and selling one dollar chances for drawing money prizes in a lottery which was of course so arranged that he must win. He had an arrangement made with a Yankton man, to let him draw the $100 prize and pay back to Parker the most of it. This of course is the usual practice of all such swindling games, but this time his game did not work very well. When Parker came around to claim the return of the money used as a decoy, our sensible Yankton man told him the less he said about that, the better for him, for it might get him into trouble and spoil his lottery trade. Parker didn't get his money back.

he newspaper man was mistaken that it was a "usual practice" to use residents as shills. The report has me wondering where the reporter obtained his information. Certainly not from Parker himself. If it was from the Yankton man then as an accesory to the swindle would he not be at the very least, asked to hand back the money to some of his fellow citizens who lost their money so he could gain $100?

August 15, 2009

Ned Parker alias "Banjo"

Nearly all the members of the notorious Soap Gang had their own criminal pasts and unique histories before signing up with Soapy Smith. Ned "Banjo" Parker was a confidence man and horse-thief. The following is the earliest accounting I have of "Banjo."

From the Daily Arkansas Gazette (Little Rock, Arkansas) February 1873.


A Missouri Confidence Man Caught — Fort Smith Officers Catch the Bird.

The boarders at the Central house, in this city, yesterday morning were treated to a little scene resulting in the arrest of a noted confidence man and patent medicine swindler. The principal actor in the play was a man named Ned Parker, from Springfield, Mo., where he stopped recently. While there he took a fancy to a pair of horses and a buggy, belonging to a well known citizen of that place named A. Stoughton. The fancy man had not the "wherewith" to buy the coveted horseflesh, and so concluded to appropriate them and skip out. He managed to get the horses all right, and from Springfield he went to Greenfield, Mo., where he was followed. From Greenfield he went to Fort Smith, but there the Missouri officers lost the trail and put their papers into the hands Frank Taylor and W. H. Johnson, United States marshals for that district, who, as the sequel proves, were too much for the confidence man. The marshals left Fort Smith and went to Ozark, which place the horse-thief visited but two days before. From Ozark the officers followed close on the heels of the fugitive, through Dover,Roseville and Clarksville to Little Rock, they arriving here two days after Parker reached the city, he having arrived Friday and the officers Sunday. On arriving here the officers quietly proceeded about their work, and at length the search was rewarded by capturing the bird at the Central house. The marshals saw Parker standing in front of the hotel, walked up and obtained the "drop" on him before he was aware of their presence. Taken completely by surprise, he did not offer the least resistance, but surrendered himself, and turned all the property over, making a clean breast of the whole affair. the swindler is about five feet eleven inches high, light complexion, and weighs about two hundred and twenty-five or thirty pounds, and would no doubt have made a desperate fight for liberty if he had not been captured by surprise. Mr. Stoughton is to be congratulated on the recovery of his horses, while Messrs. Taylor and Johnson, as skillful officers, should receive the thanks of the people. The officers, with their prisoner, leave for Fort Smith this morning.

"Banjo's" time with the Soap Gang is dealt with prominently in my book.

August 14, 2009

Quick quotes...

From the Rocky Mountain News, 1884 a prominent Denver hotel keeper speaks.

"What is to become of the city if bunko men are to be allowed the swing they have now?

We have had over a dozen guests of our hotel bunkoed in the fortnight and travel is actually falling off on account of it. People are getting afraid to come to Denver.... There are about a dozen bunko sharks hanging around this hotel all the time, and by the time a guest gets in he is either robbed or talked to death."