February 4, 2010

The guns of bad man Soapy Smith?





The Alaska State Museum in Juneau, Alaska opened a temporary exhibit last year. It was called Historic Firearms From Alaska. They had on loan two weapons reportedly owned by Soapy Smith. Lucky for me my publisher, Art Petersen lives outside of Juneau and attended the showing. I already knew about these two Soapy related firearms and discuss them on the main website page, Soapy's Weapons. The photographs here, taken by Art are better examples of the ones shown on the website.


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The Guns of Soapy Smith display
Photo by Art Petersen


The weapons supposedly once owned by Soapy were on display separately from the other guns in the exhibit. The introduction in the case reads.

PRIED FROM HIS COLD, DEAD FINGERS: SOAPY SMITH'S GUNS
Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith arrived in Skagway in 1897. He was slain in a shootout less than a year later, on July 8, 1898. In that brief time, he carved out an empire that would make him the most colorful and memorable outlaw of the gold rush. Within months of his arrival, he and his cronies virtually ran Skagway employing robbery, extortion and even murder. While robbing the weak and gullible, Soapy made a show of helping widows, children and animals, a role he relished. Pressured by a vigilante committee after a particularly outrageous robbery, Soapy met his end in a gunfight with city surveyor Frank Reid, who also died. Citizens rounded up and jailed Smith's gang, which included the local deputy U.S. marshal. A new deputy marshal, J. M. Tanner, took over, and law and order finally ruled in Skagway.

These firearms were reportedly removed from the body of Jefferson R. "Soapy" Smith following his death in 1898.



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Soapy's Colt revolver?
Photo by Art Petersen



The display tag reads.

COLT REVOLVER, SINGLE ACTION ARMY
.41 caliber, single action, circa 1890s
Loan Courtesy of Maxine Selmer

This revolver was reportedly removed from the body of Soapy Smith by U. S. Marshal J. M. "Si" Tanner. Tanner led the roundup of Soapy's gang and helped prevent the outbreak of vigilante revenge. Tanner was deputized to replace the previous deputy marshal, who had been a gang member. Tanner kept Smith's revolver, and was later presented with a custom-made gold badge made of gold dust and nuggets from Soapy's poke.



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Another view
Photo by Art Petersen



This single action revolver is said to have originally belonged to Josias M. "Si" Tanner, who claimed that it once belonged to Soapy. The gun was later acquired by Harriet Pullen and showcased in the famed Harriet Pullen Collection.




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Another view
Photo by Art Petersen




Engraved on the butt of the gun are J. M. Tanner Deputy U.S. Marshal. On the gun butt, near the hammer, it is engraved Soapy Smith and H.S. Pullen 1898. The gun used to reside in a retail shop in Skagway on display in a glass case along with other Soapy mementos and the Colt manufacturing paperwork. It is owned by Maxine Selmer.




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The "notched" grip
Photo by Art Petersen



The infamous notches on the grip do not help the case of ownership by Soapy but even more damaging is the double action revolver placed on Soapy's corpse the night of the shootout.






The newspapers that reported the gunfight made no references to any pistols on Soapy's person and the estate reported only one pistol having belonged to him, though he probably did have more. The most important piece of evidence comes from one of the several photographs of Soapy in the morgue. A pistol, assumed to be Soapy's, is laying next to him. This weapon is a double action revolver not a single action Army displayed in the museum exhibit.

My book, Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel, shows how patriotic he was throughout his life. After the sinking of the battleship Maine in Cuba at the start of the Spanish-American war Soapy created a volunteer private army for the war effort. The double action placed on Soapy in the morgue is believed to have been either a Colt's model 1889 New Army (.41 caliber) or Colt's Navy (.38 caliber) double-action as they look very similar. These models very popular in 1898 and during the war. Teddy Roosevelt carried one in battle that had been salvaged from the USS Maine. Records show that Soapy was very economically successful in Skagway. He easily could afford the most modern up-to-date armory for his personal preservation. It's just more circumstantial evidence that the pistol on his body was actually his.

The fact that the gun may have belonged to Tanner does cast some doubt on whether it was actually once owned by Soapy. Tanner has been accused of giving away several guns to people, claiming that they were once owned by the legendary bad man. The authenticity of this revolver remains a mystery.



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The accompanying holster
Photo by Art Petersen



The other weapon in the case has an interesting story behind it, as it belonged to Reverend John Sinclair of Skagway ... and whose going to accuse a man of the cloth of lying? He's not lying but the gun most likely did not belong to Soapy.



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Soapy's Derringer?
Photo by Art Petersen



The gun in the exhibit case is a Colt Model 3 Derringer .41 rim-fire that appears in Mission: Klondike, the story of Reverend John A. Sinclair's adventures in Alaska and the Klondike during the gold rush, written by the Reverend's son in 1978. The tag in the case reads.

COLT DERRINGER MODEL 3
.41 caliber, single shot, circa 1877 Loan Courtesy Skagway Museum 1999.016

This derringer was pulled from Soapy's pocket after the fatal shootout with Reid. The Reverend J. A. Sinclair, who officiated at Smith's funeral, received the gun as a gift.



The derringer is said to have been on Soapy when he died. There are two stories in the sons biography of his father as to how he obtained the gun. In one chapter it is explained that in lieu of payment for his services in the burial of Soapy, he asked for some personal memento of Soapy's. A vigilante gave him this gun and said it was Soapy's. However, the caption with the photograph states that the gun was given to Reverend Sinclair by the widow Smith.



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Certification of provenance?
Photo by Art Petersen



In 1900 Reverend Sinclair had the derringer certified that it was indeed Soapy's. However, this proves nothing as Commissioner Sehlbrede was not present in Skagway. What criteria did he use to ascertain that the firearm was Soapy's?

It is my belief that the derringer was not Soapy's. However, I also don't discount the reverends story of how he obtained it. Like Soapy's swindle victims, I believe the man of God was simply duped.

The main reasoning behind this is that the weapon is a rim-fire derringer made in the 1870s. In 1898 the primary cartridge was the center-fire. The mere fact that Soapy might have owned such an outdated gun. and a single shot, is ludicrous. Not to mention that anyone the slightest bit knowledgeable about the conditions of getting to and surviving in Alaska and the Klondike during the famed gold rushes would know that merchants and suppliers paid a fortune to get their merchandise shipped north. Room on ships was at a premium thus store proprietors only stocked items they knew would be needed, therefore obtaining ammo for an outdated rim-fire derringer in Alaska and the Klondike would have to be next to impossible.

It is believed that when the reverend asked for a personal item of Soapy's in lieu of monetary payment, one of the vigilantes duped Sinclair into accepting a "worthless relic" as payment for his labor.










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