December 29, 2011

The confessions of a con man as told to Will Irwin (1909)

Artwork from the book Confessions...



I ran across a book from 1909 that contains a little about Soapy Smith and his time in Skagway. The book is titled The confessions of a con man as told to Will Irwin. I had actually heard about the book some years ago but could not find out if it had anything on Soapy or not until recently. The author, Will Irwin, does not disclose the name of the con man the book details.  Following is the complete text of the section regarding Soapy and Skagway. I hope you enjoy it.



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On Saturday, no one had ever heard of Dawson City. On Sunday morning the papers were full of it, and the overland trains were jammed with mushers hurrying to Alaska. At the time, Jeff Steers and I were working about Chicago, playing mainly for the truck-farmers. We hadn't been doing very well, and we decided that a mining country with a strike was just about the place for us. Steers was a friend of Soapy Smith. He figured that you couldn't keep Soapy away with a twenty-mule team. We got him on the wire. He answered: "Meet me in Seattle."

AN ALLIANCE WITH SOAPY SMITH

At the time we were just about broke, but we hooked a German truck-farmer, beat him out of six hundred dollars, left two hundred of it behind with our families, and started. Soapy met us at the train. He had Just money enough to get himself to Skaguay. The police of Seattle were pretty strict, and we couldn't find anything to do. However, Steers and I proceeded to a lumber town near by, caught a sucker, and, by playing the card game which we call "giving him the best of it," we raised three hundred dollars―enough, with what we had, to take us into Skaguay.

A lot of foolishness has been written about Soapy Smith. As a grafter, he was nothing more than a poor fool. He couldn't manipulate, he couldn't steer, he couldn't do anything. But he had a lot of nerve and fight, and he was just conceited enough to pose as a bad man. That made him valuable wherever the grafters needed a head and protector. When we reached Skaguay we found a job for Soapy at once. The town was only a transportation point, a stopping place for the mushers who were going on into Dawson. They all had money; and most of them were reckless with it. There was hardly any city government, and the permanent citizens, who were living off the mushers themselves, didn't particularly object to our game. I played three-card monte myself, picking up my steerers from two or three excellent ones who had come up independently. Even as early as that I was acting the innocent Texan; and though I hadn't worked my spiel up to perfection yet, it was pretty entertaining. Well, I've had a gang of twenty or thirty Skaguay business men stand around and watch me work, just for the fun of the thing!

Still, there was always a Purity Brigade which wanted to stop us. Soapy's job was to act, as protector for the whole gang, bribing official who would take money, and intimidating those who wouldn't. For that he charged a sixth of our profits, after the nut was taken out. Many kicked at the price. A gang of shell-workers struck out on the train toward Dawson and worked independently. I've heard that they made twenty thousand dollars while the graft lasted. I started once to try Dawson on my own hook. I was half-way up the pass when some Northwest Mounted Police told me that a man couldn't get out of Dawson all winter. No town for me where I couldn't make a quick getaway! I doubled back to Skaguay.

I found trouble in the air. The official who was most troublesome to us was the surveyor-general. He warned Soapy to quit, and Soapy warned him to look out for bullets. Business men who had been my friends began to cut me on the streets. Every day you heard rumors of a vigilance committee.

I stopped one morning for breakfast at the restaurant of a Jap who stood in with us. As he laid down my ham and eggs he made a circle around his neck with his finger and pointed heavenward.

"The deuce you say," said I. "When?''

"Yesterday,'' said the Jap.

"How many?" said I. He counted on four fingers.

"What for?" said I.

He imitated the motion of a man manipulating the shells. And the grin of the simple-minded Oriental showed that he thought I was in bad.

I went out on the street. The people looked at me crosswise. Every one had heard that the four shell-workers who worked on the Dawson trail had been lynched. As a matter of fact, they had only been run off the trail; but Skaguay didn't know any different as long as I lingered.

I hunted up Soapy, and told him that we were overdue in Seattle.

"You ain't got no nerve," said Soapy.

"No," said I, "maybe not. But neither do I want to secrete a parcel of bullets in my inside from somebody's shooting- pistol.'' I took passage on a steamer which left that afternoon.

Two days later Soapy got his. The vigilantes were meeting on a wharf. Soapy walked straight up to them with his gun―he surely had nerve, that fellow. The surveyor-general was the man he wanted. They drew simultaneously. The surveyor-general dropped, but he shot Soapy from the ground. Both died that day.

Alaska people have talked like a dime novel about the Soapy Smith gang in Skaguay. Only lately, a paper said that our "coffee and doughnut men'' used to rob and kill people, and drop their bodies into the bay. That is rank foolishness. Grafters don't work that way. Soapy wouldn't have protected any man who did. The straight money from three-card monte and the shells came so easy that we would have been crazy to take such risks, even if we had been thugs and murderers. A man who knows anything about graft realizes the rattle-headedness of such talk. And I know better than any one else, because I was on the inside.
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The only clue there is in regards to the identity of the con man is his partner's name, Jeff Steers. I checked the Skagway name list from the historical society and found no Steers or anything similar. I check the internet and found only references to this book.

If author Will Irwin wrote down the story exactly as the anonymous con man told it then for some reason he places Soapy pretty far down the ladder of importance, obviously to make himself out to be the more important person in the telling of his story. It is possible this con man never knew Soapy but if he indeed spoke the truth and had actually traveled to Skagway with Soapy then I believe he was not on the best of terms with Soapy to begin with and certainly not a friend or regular member of the Soap Gang. The first time Soapy went to Skagway he went with two other men. They stayed for one month and brought home around $30,000. If this con man had actually gone to Skagway with Soapy then it was most likely not on Soapy's first trip. The man's comments about Soapy's abilities teeter towards the ludicrous. If he knew Soapy he did not like him. I believe he may have been one of the many independent bunco men who flooded Alaska in the hopes of finding easy money and work in general. He may have worked for Soapy or he may not have, there is no way to know for certain. He admits at one point ("... and though I hadn't worked my spiel up to perfection yet, it was pretty entertaining.") that he is new in the field and because of this I believe he was rejected by Soapy, who was already over-loaded with men wanting to work for him, and this is where the loathsome comments stem from. Further into the story the con man mentions that Soapy "charged a sixth of our profits" leaving me leaning more towards the idea that this man was an independent operator. Another comment that got me to thinking was when he said that a "gang of shell-workers struck out on the train toward Dawson and worked independently." This is odd as the first passenger carrying train left Skagway on July 21, 1898, which is after Soapy was killed and the train only went four miles outside of the city. According to the con man he had left two days before Soapy had been killed.

The one comment made by the anonymous con man that I believe was made at the end of his story on Soapy.

Only lately, a paper said that our "coffee and doughnut men'' used to rob and kill people, and drop their bodies into the bay. That is rank foolishness. Grafters don't work that way. Soapy wouldn't have protected any man who did. The straight money from three-card monte and the shells came so easy that we would have been crazy to take such risks, even if we had been thugs and murderers. A man who knows anything about graft realizes the rattle-headedness of such talk.



Source: The confessions of a con man as told to Will Irwin (1909)
California Digital Library:













Will Irwin, The Confessions of a Con Man: pages 531, 599.






Jeff Smith









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