September 30, 2008

Soapy's ghost robbed him...


Paul Calabrese, aged 19, was taken to jail last night hopelessly insane. Calabrese lives with his parents at 1813 Platte street. Yesterday at the city stock yards he acted queerly and was sent to jail. In the afternoon his father and sister came for him and as he seemed rational he was released.

Last night, however, he got a club and a butcher knife and said he was going to kill his father, but a policeman arrived in time to prevent the tragedy. All night long Calabrese raved in his cell and his ravings kept all the other prisoners from sleeping.

Calabrese has been working on a ranch near Fort Lunton. He came home a week ago without any money, and said the man for whom he had been working refused to pay him. Since he has been in jail he blames Soapy Smith and Gus [Ed] Chase of buncoing him, and calls up Smith's spirit to argue with it at the top of his voice. He will be sent to the county hospital.
Denver Evening Post, 08/13/1899. p. 8.

September 26, 2008

Quick Quotes...

He had the reputation of being afraid of neither man not devil. No one was ever more ready to draw his gun and fight to the death; death mattered little to him if while he lived none dared to dispute his courage and his readiness to do, dare and die.
~ George T. Buffum, Smith of Bear City and Other Frontier Sketches, 1906.

September 24, 2008

"Bunko Business"...

Bunko Business

Two Gangs of Confidence Men Working
the Traveling Public in Denver

Denver seems to be peculiarly the chosen field for bunko men. Scores of credulous travelers are swindled every week out of sums greater or less in amount, who make no sign, the sentiment of shame over the result of their verdancy making them pocket their losses with what grace they can. Certainly for every ten cases of impudent fraud of this kind scarcely one is reported ... The business is regularly organized by some accomplished leader with from three to five assistants, who work the traveling community for all it is worth ... At present there are two gangs working the town and, from all accounts to considerable profit. Some of the schemes are magnificent in their conception and results, others consist in swindling the unwary with bogus railroad tickets, at so-called ticket broker offices or at employment offices, filching from the poor railroad laborer the last $2 he has to his name on the pretext of obtaining for him employment which never comes...

It is very rarely that any one of either of the classes of confidence men is brought to justice ... That all of these confidence dens are well-known to the police goes without saying. Why they are allowed to exist is a conundrum which all good citizens would like answered.

Rocky Mountain News, April 19, 1884.

September 23, 2008

Soapy in Tombstone...

It is known that Soapy was in the famous mining town of Tombstone, Arizona in 1883 grafting the populace with his games of "chance." At this time the only record comes from a few notations he made in a personal notebook.

On October 26, 2008 Jeff Smith will be visiting Tombstone with Phil Gessert and PharoBank Phil will be setting up his period gaming tables which will include four blackjack tables, two faro tables and a full size roulette table. Jeff will be dealing Blackjack...who has promised not to cheat. He says he will also be bringing out his "tripe & keister" for a few plays of the shell game.

Talking about the event in Tombstone, Phil had this to say,

Thanks Jeff,

It’s about time we officially join our syndicates together. We are pleased to have you and the rest of the Soapy Smith gang join our anti-Gambling organization. I say anti–Gambling because we promote the pure pleasure of the gambling experience without the “losing your money part”. They say many a young man has fallen into poverty over the ivory and the pasteboards. That Pharo was bucking the tiger. But now all the pleasure, excitement, romance, thrills and bravery that is instilled into the gambler; can be experienced without the defeat. At a Pharo Bank event even losing is fun.

Nonetheless, I am established with Tombstone especially Big Nose Kate’s saloon and the manager Johnny Martin. We go back to the Oriental Saloon where I ran a stiff Faro game. It has been said that Tombstone is steeped in political shenanigan’s, but Big Nose Kate is aligned with a couple fellows named Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, and I have known them to be a formidable ally when given a part of the take. We run only a square game so cheating is strictly forbidden, unless it is in our best interest.

Therefore, anyone who wants to have the time of their lives should come to Tombstone and join us on Allen Street.

September 22, 2008

Quick Quotes...

Boy, talk about a good prediction...

The Killing of Soapy Smith, and the clearing out of the city of the other suspicious characters, will be a great advertisement of Skaguay.

~ Daily Alaskan, July 25, 1898.

September 19, 2008

"Hands up!"

It is reported that there was an attempted hold up on Third street west of Main, Wednesday night, when a stranger alleges that he was stopped in the darkness with the command "hands up." It may be that the stranger was romancing, but if any man or set of men think they can work the hold up business in Skaguay successfully, they will soon realize their mistake. there are still a few trees with good, strong and spreading branches in the city, and rope is to be had at one hundred stores in the town. Our people will not stand any such work as hold-ups. That day has "done" gone.

Skaguay News, December 9, 1898

September 18, 2008

My publisher found this article by Tom Noel ( who teaches history at the University of Colorado, Denver and appears as Dr. Colorado on Channel 9's "Colorado & Company" every other Tuesday. I thought you would enjoy it.

"Soapy" Smith was Denver's original tourist attraction

By Tom Noel
Article Launched: 09/14/2008 12:30:00 AM MDT

Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith, the king of all Western con-men, ruled Denver in the late 1800s.

Denver needs a celebrity bad guy — someone who will draw in the tourists.

Chicago has Al Capone and Glenwood Springs has Doc Holliday, the gun-singing dentist. After the famous Tombstone shootout, Doc came to cure himself in Glenwood's hot springs and wound up as the star attraction of the town's cemetery. Glenwood celebrates not only his tombstone (even if the body may not lie under it), but there's also the Doc Holliday Saloon — just look for the 5-foot neon pistol on Main Street.

Once upon a time, our town had a most colorful villain, Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith, the king of all Western con-men. In Denver, Soapy earned his nickname, opening up a suitcase and offering downtown crowds a chance at easy money. He would flamboyantly wrap a $100 bill around a soap bar before sealing it with pretty pastel tissue. That bar would go on display with the other soap bars. Soapy sang out ads such as: "When you raise your arm, do you lose your charm?" For a mere $1, anyone could pick any bar and take it home.

Soapy's bills, of course, went only to his confederates, whose whoops of elation could be heard for blocks away. Two Denver police officers were among Soapy's early customers. When he balked at giving them his name, they booked him as Soapy Smith. The name stuck.

Soapy became a star at recruiting, registering, instructing and shepherding voters to the polls where they voted early and often. He masterminded the 1889 election of Mayor Wolf Londoner, an election so blatantly crooked that Londoner became the only Denver mayor forced to step down.

During Denver's notorious City Hall War of 1893, Soapy defended a corrupt city hall against the reform troops of Gov. Davis H. Waite. Supposedly while waving a stick of dynamite from atop the old city hall at 14th and Larimer, Soapy Smith yelled down at the forces of reform, "I'm closer to heaven than you are, but if you come any closer, you will get there first"

When reformers prevailed, Soapy was run out of Denver. He headed for Skagway, Alaska, where he is now the town's pride and joy. The National Park Service is restoring Jeff Smith's Parlor, a saloon, gambling hall and "business office" for Soapy's gang, which ran the town and fleeced the thousands of fortune seekers pouring into this base camp for the great Klondike Gold Rush of 1898.

Homesick hordes of lonely miners were desperate to get in touch with loved ones, so Soapy obligingly set up a telegraph office in his parlor. There he would relay messages back to the states. Astonishingly, the senders would get immediate replies such as "Little Billy is sick. Please send $100 as soon as possible to pay the doctor." Even after losing their last dollars on such scams, few checked out the back of the parlor to see where the "telegraph" wire disappeared into the cold, salty waters of Alaska's Inland Passage.

Skagway features a "Dangerous Days of '98" melodrama centered on Soapy's shenanigans and a "Ghosts & Goodtime Girls" tour with a visit to his grave. Townsfolk buried him just outside the cemetery, putting Jefferson Randolph Smith where he had long belonged: behind bars. Heavy metal bars enclose his burial plot.

As we newspaper readers know, bad news sells better than good. Sinners are more fascinating than saints. Denver needs a new heritage tourism magnet. Bring back Soapy to bring in the tourists — and the voters. When he ran Denver elections, we had more than a 100 percent turnout!

September 16, 2008

Quick Quotes...

Smith may be a grafter, but he is one of the most generous, kind-hearted men I ever met in my life. He is always ready to help those in distress and he loves his family. To know Smith is to like him.
-Sylvester Scovel, New York World reporter, 1897.

September 14, 2008

Is that Soapy on the cover?...

The cover of Pierre Berton's, City of Gold, a children's book, appears to have Soapy on the cover. Stuff like this always excites me easily... Below is a close-up of the face in question. What do you think?

*Berton, Pierre, City of Gold, McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1992
ISBN: 0-7710-1445-7

September 12, 2008

Deputy US Marshal James M. Rowan

Holly street, Skagway 1897
The People's Theater (right side of street)
where Deputy Rowan was shot

I'd like to introduce Renee Rowan, who is newly researching her great-grandfather, Deputy US Marshal James M. Rowan shot and killed by John Fay (who also shot and killed Andrew McGrath) in Skagway, Alaska on January 31, 1897. Soapy protected Fay from a lynching by the newly formed vigilantes until he could safely hand him over to Commissioner John Smith for a fair trial in Sitka. He then started up a collection for Rowan's widow and new born.

Renee contacted the Soapy Smith Preservation Trust for help in locating new information about her famous Skagway descendant. As there is so little known about Rowan's time in Skagway except for his death there was little new we could provide her. However, there might be some information by way of letters or documents in the various Soapy collections in the hands of the family. If you have something please let us know and we will forward the information to Renee, Thank you.

Close-up of the People's Theater

The large photograph at the top of this post also shows another building of special interest. To the far right of the photograph is the First Bank of Skaguay. In the spring of 1898 it would become Jeff Smith's Parlor.

The First Bank of Skaguay

Photographs are property of
Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park

September 10, 2008

Wilson Mizner - Wyatt Earp's pall-bearer & member of the Soap Gang...

Wilson Mizner, friend of Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp and Jefferson R. “Soapy” Smith. who was this man, a pall-bearer for Wyatt Earp? The above newspaper drawing is possibly the only known likeness of Wilson Mizner in the Klondike (San Francisco Weekly Examiner, September 23, 1897).

In 1942 Mizner worked with author, Alva Johnston in publishing his life story. Some historians might think it strange that Mizner chose to talk more to his biographer about Soapy Smith than of Wyatt Earp or Bat Masterson, whom are only mentioned by name throughout the book.

Time in the Klondike.

Wilson’s brother Edgar was a mining engineer and a representative in the Yukon Valley of the Alaska Commercial Company. Anticipating the gold rush before it occurred the firm set up trading posts in the area and Edgar was sent there to supervise. Edgar wrote his family asking his brothers to join him to make their fortunes but by the time the brothers received the letter and prepared to go the gold rush had already begun.

Wilson Mizner shipped out from San Francisco to Skagway, Alaska in 1897 to help handle company business and prepare for the expedition into the gold fields. In the states Wilson had been well versed in criminal and underworld activities but it was in Skagway where “he received a polishing and finishing from the greatest American professor of sharp practice, gentle larceny, and all-round crime—the celebrated Jefferson Randolph (Soapy) Smith, the real-life American version of the Man Who Would Be King. … Of all Mizner’s idols and mentors, none had a greater influence on his life than Soapy.” In his biography Mizner spoke of Soapy’s escapades. Although possibly just a story the following example is just too classic not include here.

“Mizner told how Soapy was once arrested in Chicago on a charge of operating with confederates [shills] and obtaining money under false pretenses. According to Mizner, the judge was confused. ‘I can’t make head or tail out of this testimony,’ he exclaimed. ‘Let the defendant show me how it works, and let the police officers tell me how the law is violated.’ Soapy wrapped up several cakes of soap, first putting a fifty-dollar bill around one of them. ‘Now, your honor,’ said Soapy, ‘you give me twenty-five cents and choose one of these cakes.’ The judge handed over a quarter and chose the fifty-dollar cake. He shook his right fist at the police officers as his left folded up the bill and placed it in his vest pocket. ‘You!’ he shouted, ‘You have been hounding an honest businessman for pursuing his lawful calling. His merchandising methods are obviously fair and honorable. Case dismissed.’”

Once inside the Klondike region Wilson worked at various professions, including that of a faro dealer, a singer, and even a gold scale “weigher” at the famous Monte Carlo saloon in the city of Dawson. When the Nome, Alaska gold strike hit it big Wilson packed up and moved there. Unfortunately the biography chapter for Nome only mentions Wyatt Earp’s name once and the biography never mentions Mizner was Wyatt’s Pall-bearer many years later. It is Soapy Smith he remembers most.

Jeff Smith

[Source: Johnston, Alva, The Legendary Mizners, Farrar, Straus, and Young, New York, 1942.]

September 7, 2008

“The police force being ‘sicked’ on Soapy’s trail.”
(A fearful officer is coaxed to go after Soapy)
Denver Republican, January 30, 1896.

The beating of John Hughes in 1895 by Soapy and his brother Bascomb was the last step downward from their reign of power in Denver, Colorado and the rise to power of the Blonger brothers, Lou and Sam. Bascomb ended up in prison and Soapy became a fugitive from the law.

While away from Denver Soapy was involved in several adventures in Mexico, and Cuba and Colorado where he became involved in the very first bullfight to take place on U.S. soil. His legal dilemmas across the U.S., included arrests in New Orleans, Dallas and being beat-up by police in St. Louis along with a gunfight/assassination attempt in Houston, Texas with gambling underworld boss John Dalton.

Soapy longed to return to Denver and regain his throne as well as obtain the release of his brother from prison, but doing so and getting caught would surely mean prison. He did make several “business” trips into Denver unmolested by the city police. This angered the residents and some of the newspapers of the city knowing that Soapy still held some power there even though he was a wanted man.

In a letter to Soapy his attorney told him to disconnect himself from Bascomb. This no doubt shocked Soapy into the realization that he had lost any chance of freeing his brother and of reclaiming Denver as his own. In a last ditch effort to free his brother, on January 30, 1896, accompanied by ten to twelve “fierce looking men, and a woman,” which is believed to have included the very dangerous, “Big Ed” Burns. Soapy secretly returned to Denver hoping no one would recognize him. They disembarked off the train and hopped into a waiting closed carriage that had been previously arranged to meet them. However, a special agent did see Soapy and telephoned to police headquarters. A widespread manhunt by Denver detectives combed the city looking for Soapy and his associates. They would not admit it but most of the officers feared being the one to run into Soapy as he was always armed and very dangerous.

Soapy stayed in the city all day and eventually ran into at least one policeman. Officer Kimmel came across him as he was entering the Brown Palace hotel. Kimmel later claimed that he was unaware that Soapy had returned and that his superiors were searching for him. “Won’t you come in and have a drink,” Jeff is said to have remarked to Kimmel. The officer declined the offer and Jeff went on his way. Under cover of darkness Jeff and his entourage, minus Bascomb, boarded a train headed for Cripple Creek, Colorado.

Within a couple of days the Denver police publicly stated that the whole affair was a hoax and denied Soapy had been in the city. When Soapy and his followers reached Cripple Creek they ran into more trouble…but that’s another story for another day.

[These adventures will be explained in great documented detail in the upcoming Soapy Smith biography by Jeff Smith.]

September 5, 2008

Sarah Palin lived in Skagway...

Alaskan governor and vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin lived in Skagway, Alaska for the first fives years of her life. Her parents, Chuck and Sally Heath first brought her with them to Skagway in 1964, when Alaska’s first female governor was just three months old. For the next five years, they lived in Skagway.

Jeff Smith