January 5, 2012

Hollywood is missing some good Alaska stories.

Clark Gable as Soapy, and Frank Morgan as
reformed judge who once belonged to Soapy's gang
in the 1941 MGM film Honky Tonk.



An article in the Anchorage Daily News caught my eye today. The title, Hollywood is missing some good Alaska stories, would include the story of Soapy Smith and it surely did. The newspaper staff looked over a list of Alaska-based films and TV shows helped along by state subsidies and combined their efforts into another list of "films about Alaska that Hollywood ought to make." Scott Christiansen decided to write about the possibility of Soapy Smith as an idea for a film. Here is what he had to say.

Paint Skagway red

It's difficult to suss out truth from legend when it comes to Jefferson "Soapy" Randolph Smith, the famous con man and gang leader who arrived in Skagway in 1896 to seek-or fleece from his dupes-a small fortune during the Klondike gold rush. Smith's is a short, but complex Alaska story. He was shot dead July 8, 1898, just four days after being grand marshal in Skagway's Independence Day parade. It's a perfect tale for a dark spaghetti western treatment, but only for producers who can stomach adding more dark deeds to an already bizarre true story.

This gangster was beloved by some and hated by others, specifically a group of vigilantes who papered Skagway with handbills headlined "Warning!" and advising "All Confidence, Bunco and Sure-thing Men" to leave town-immediately. Some believe the vigilante troupe were promised, or at least expected, job security from the just-incorporated White Pass and Yukon Route railroad.

Skagway was full of desperate people in 1898, many were sick and tired of traveling and prospecting, and hoped for steady income in a safer town. A $10 million construction project was coming their way. That's the sort of thing that to this day makes some Alaskans spittin' mad at anyone who might get in the way. Smith and his gang were in the way, but Smith decided they would stay. Tensions boiled until he was shot dead in a town with no law.

But who pulled the trigger on the killing shot? Frank Reid? That's the man the newspapers gave credit to, but Reid also died in the shootout. (Elevating Soapy from con man to killer on his final day.)

A man named Jessee Murphy was also on Skagway's Third Wharf that day. He was one of the vigilantes who, along with Reid and two others, guarded the door at a meeting Smith's gang was to be kept out of. One history maintained by Jeff Smith, a Californian who claims to be Soapy's great-grandson, suggests Murphy may have killed the gang boss.

More importantly for our movie's purpose is this: There's nothing quite like a three-way shootout in the final act. If there are too many questions for a Hollywood writer to sort out, they could take their traditional way out and make a fiction of the whole thing. Leave Smith, Murphy and Reid's names out of it, and throw in some disloyal thugs and back stabbing swindlers. The film gets extra points if there's a vengeance subplot and if the script includes an ambitiously evil railroad boss with mutton chops and a craggy face. Leave no one innocent. Paint the wharf red with blood.

GENRE: Spaghetti Western

I am thrilled that people are seeing the exciting adventures of Soapy Smith as movie material but I honestly admit I was a little annoyed at what Scott had written. I can't blame the man for not knowing about my book, or the true history of Soapy. Hell, he even mentioned Jesse Murphy and ME! With on-line newspaper articles you have to act and write fast while people are still reading today's news. Tomorrow it will be old news. With that in mind here is what I wrote in response.

S.C., the person who wrote the idea about making a film based on Soapy Smith, While I thank you for including Soapy's story for film there are a few things I'd like to add.

1) I am indeed a great-grandson of Soapy Smith, there's no questioning the genealogy. One of Soapy's 3 children was Jefferson Randolph Smith III (Soapy was actually the "II"). Jeff Smith III had a son, named John Randolph Smith, who fathered me.

2) You wrote, "It's difficult to suss out truth from legend when it comes to Jefferson 'Soapy' Randolph Smith..." Please read my book, Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel, published by Klondike Research (http://www.klondikeresearch.com) in Juneau. It is 628 pages of well sourced and fully footnoted information and the life and death of "Alaska's outlaw," that I spent 25-years researching. You also mentioned that producers will need to add more dark deeds. In reading my book you will find more than enough for one film.

3) You wrote, "But who pulled the trigger on the killing shot? Frank Reid? That's the man the newspapers gave credit to, but Reid also died in the shootout. (Elevating Soapy from con man to killer on his final day.)" Actually, Soapy's history contains more than this one shooting. His Colorado and stateside history is massive.

4) Thank you very much for mentioning Jesse Murphy, although you wrote that I merely "suggest" Murphy killed Soapy. My book, through contemporary letters and witnesses pretty much proves that Jesse Murphy not only shot Soapy, but that it was technically murder. This is not fantasy thinking on my part. My book has enough documented evidence to change minds at the Skagway Historical Society and the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.

5) Shame on you for proposing that Hollywood make Soapy Smith's great story into fiction! Truth is stranger than fiction, it is said, and Soapy's story is dead-on proof. You wrote, "The film gets extra points if there's a vengeance subplot and if the script includes an ambitiously evil railroad boss with mutton chops and a craggy face. Leave no one innocent. Paint the wharf red with blood." You really need to read my book. Soapy's partners in Skagway, John and Frank Clancy, fit the bill perfectly as the "vengeance subplot." The railroad backed the vigilantes and considering Jesse Murphy worked for the railroad, I think it safe to say they had a hand in Soapy's death.

Three hours later, after calming down a bit, I posted the following underneath my original comments.

Scott, I apologize if I came off a little strong in my original post. When it comes to Soapy I tend to get a tad bit excited (who can blame me?). Thank you very much for including me in the article. Your work is appreciated.




JANUARY 5
1895: Bascomb Smith, younger brother to Soapy, is arrested in Denver, Colorado for malicious mischief. He smashed furniture in a house (bordello) on Market Street during a quarrel and slashed the arm of Georgie Roe, a resident prostitute, with his knife.

Jeff Smith









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