My book received a very nice review from the Colorado Book Review that is co-hosted by the Center for Colorado and the West at the Auraria Library and the Colorado Historical Society.
By Dick Kreck
There may be more biographies of Soapy Smith to come but none will flash the resources, research, or passion of Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel.
The biography of Jefferson Randolph Smith II, widely known as “Soapy,” who was one of Denver’s and the West’s most notorious con men, consumes a staggering 592 pages. It is the work of Jeff Smith, Soapy’s great-grandson, who spent twenty-five years gathering information about his ancestor.
Young Smith had the advantage of trolling collections of letters, newspaper clippings, and other memorabilia held by a wide-ranging cast of family members, some of whom kept their treasures stashed out of sight for years. This volume is the first time many of the letters, notes, and photographs have seen the light of publication.
The author says in a preface that he undertook such a gargantuan chore, in part, to set the record straight. “Scores of stories about him,” Smith writes, “are either faulty or based on faulty information”(v). Smith does his best to unravel the myths and outright lies about the man many consider nineteenth-century America’s premier con man, card shark, and “sure thing” practitioner in the West. But even he admits that after plowing through ninety thousand pages of documentation, he was sometimes forced to speculate on what actually took place. Soapy was a complex character, at once loyal—one of his henchman said of him, “He never threw down a pal”(592)—and, at the same time, eager to take advantage of any sucker who came his way.
Soapy’s nickname came from his early street con game, a sleight-of-hand bit of trickery that involved appearing to hide a five- or ten-dollar bill inside a wrapped bar of soap, then charging would-be suckers a fee to pick out the winning bar. Very few won.
Smith first appeared in Denver about 1879 and plied his trade off and on with his band of rogues, picking off unsuspecting victims as they exited trains at Denver Union Station at the foot of Seventeenth Street until he finally departed for the Klondike in 1897. Though he was best known for his soap swindle, he was also behind crooked card games, stock frauds, and even outright robbery. His lower downtown hangouts on Larimer and Market streets included saloons and gambling dens with colorful names like The Arcade, Chicken Coop, White House Club, and, the most murderous of them all, Murphy’s Exchange.
It was Smith who, after things got hot for him in Denver, fled to the boom town of Creede, Colorado, where he is alleged to have penned a famous ode to the wide-open town: “It’s day all day in the daytime/And there is no night in Creede” (200).
The author tries to put the best light on Soapy, citing his frequent charitable donations (a trait found among many gamblers and con men) and his numerous lifelong friendships; but, at the same time, he admits, “I do not pretend to believe Soapy was ‘a good guy’ or someone to be admired” (6, preface). He criticizes the Rocky Mountain News for its long-running campaign to chase Smith and his minions and their rackets out of Denver. He portrays Soapy as a devoted family man who loved his wife and kids, but writes that after he parked the family in St. Louis, the affable con man spent his time roaming the country and working his scams in various cities. He even concludes that Soapy had at least one mistress in his final days.
Author Smith doesn’t buy into the generally accepted account of his great-grandfather’s messy death in Skagway in 1898. The popular version tells of a confrontation between a drunken Soapy and vigilante Frank Reid on the Juneau Company Wharf that led into Skagway. The two men wrestled for possession of Smith’s rifle, a struggle that ended with both men firing their guns simultaneously. Reid’s bullet found Soapy’s heart and he died instantly. He was thirty-eight years old.
Smith devotes two chapters to various alternative endings to his ancestor’s demise, including dark theories about powerful behind-the-scenes politicians and businessmen who conspired to have him murdered to save the future prosperity of Skagway.
Smith could have benefited from a cold-eyed editor with less at stake in the telling of the story than he had. Alias Soapy Smith is far lengthier than it needs to be. For example its thirty-one-page chapter on Soapy’s role in Denver’s City Hall War veers far off the thrust of the story. And Smith never met a footnote he didn’t love, sometimes a dozen or more per page, many of them unnecessary (as when he explains backgrounds of some characters who have no central role in the narrative).
Those, however, are small matters. Jeff Smith has pulled together as complete an account of Soapy’s complicated, checkered life and career as is possible.
Dick Kreck, a former columnist for The Denver Post, is the author of five books on Colorado history, including Murder at the Brown Palace and Smaldone.