Book Review by Jeff Smith
I decided to write this review because it's about an ancestor of mine and because it concerns research I have conducted in a serious way for thirty years.
Jane Haigh, the author, is about as nice a person as you are going to meet, down to earth and polite. She first contacted me while working on her version of a Soapy Smith biography to ask for some of my research. Still working on my own comprehensive book about Soapy, I declined, but I did lead her to some of the usual starting points. A specific help provided, however, was my pointing out that she was proposing to publish the wrong man's face on the cover of her book.
The copyright page contains a disclaimer: "Extreme care has been taken to ensure that all information presented in this book is accurate and up to date. Neither the author nor the publisher can be held responsible for any errors." Perhaps it was known that there were errors and repetitions of fabrications because this slim volume contains many. For example, in documenting the story that Soapy was a cowboy, a footnote reads, "There is no actual documentation of this cowboying story…" (p. 105). But the story is retold anyway. Many other details from other accounts are presented without qualification or even documentation. These instances number far more than readers, not to mention historians, should be asked to accept. The unexplained disclaimer cannot excuse repeating all the old errors, fictions, and falsehoods from other sources.
For a relatively new biography, surprisingly, there is no new information about Jefferson Randolph Smith II, and there was quite a bit to be had that is in plain sight. For example, the biographer repeats the "rumors that Soapy's gang robbed the bodies" of men who died in the terrible avalanche of April 3, 1898, in a makeshift morgue set up for that purpose (King Con, p. 78). A little research reveals the actual story, which lays that canard to rest (see Alias Soapy Smith, pp. 495-97). Another example is the old story of Soapy's having planned to intercept and rob a Canadian shipment of gold coming through Skagway. This supposed event is told in slightly varying forms in other publications and is briefly retold in this book. The story is so preposterous on its face that it calls for interpretation. Fortunately, of supporting assistance is a newspaper account of the time, which helps reveal the probable nature of that event, which is far from that of an attempted robbery. (For analysis, see Alias Soapy Smith, pp. 514-16.)
In addition to no new information, also missing is some key old information. For example, there is Jeff's venture in 1896 up to Juneau (where he was arrested), on across the Gulf of Alaska to Homer Spit and Seldovia, and up Cook Inlet to the gold rush communities of Hope and Sunrise. That was a difficult and interesting journey for which there is fairly easily available and credible documentation (see Alias Soapy Smith, pp. 408-16). Another example of important historical information is the shooting of Cliff Sparks in Denver, for which Soapy was a primary suspect for a long time. This event is connected over years to a sensational situation in Skagway involving Denver Madam Mattie Silks. This incident and related happenings appear in this book but they are told upside down and with no attempt to reveal connections or nuances. (In Alias Soapy Smith, see pp. 507-13.)
The 101 footnotes mostly consist of quotes from previous biographies. Unfortunately, the footnote numbers become misaligned with the endnotes starting with #77. There are two footnotes marked #102, but it doesn't matter because the actual notes are missing from the endnotes, as is #103.
Readers looking for a quick, mostly undocumented distillation of the old, mostly erroneous details and stories about Soapy Smith may find this book worth the price. A majority of the foremost events are related and make for interesting reading—and some of them are even all true. Many, however, are in error or are outright fictions. Readers looking for a biography based in fact and that offers considered analysis would do well to look elsewhere.