April 27, 2009

Dyea, Alaska

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I found an 1898 sterioview of Dyea, Alaska that I believe dates to its founding in 1897. Dyea was Skagway's rival port to the Klondike gold fields and was located just five miles away. This was the town stampeders went to if they chose to take the Chilcoot Trail, whereas people who chose the White Pass Trail deboarded the ship at Skagway. Eventually Skagway won out as the port to stop in and Dyea quickly became a ghost town.

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A close-up shows the details of a tent town with some people in view. The photograph below, taken in 2005 shows the Dyea site as it looks today. The yellow circle indicates what I believe to be the spot shown in the sterioview.

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Alias Soapy Smith: the manuscript.

I apologize for the recent slowness of posts. I am feverishly pouring through my manuscript that the publisher needs ASAP. We are now shooting for a July publication and that leaves me little time for much else at the moment.

The very near future for this blog includes almost 200 original documents and artifacts from my personal collection, as well as that of the family, thousands of newspaper and document files, hundreds of never before published photographs and stories. You are in for a treat if I may say so myself...

Jeff Smith

April 22, 2009

Soapy Smith Museum

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I received this postcard in the mail today. The photograph, circa 1965, is of the inside of Jeff Smith's Parlor in Skagway, Alaska after it was moved to Second from Sixth avenue. George Rapuzzi, the owner stands behind the bar in front of the mechanical Soapy Smith. When a visitor open the front door Soapy's eyes light up as he turns his head to see who is entering his saloon. His left arm raises a beer mug welcoming the visitor.

In 1974 during my first visit to Skagway with my family, the Parlor was closed to the public but George let us in for a private tour. It still looked as it does in this postcard.

The building and collection is now owned by the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park (NPS) and is set for restoration, which realistically should take about a decade, perhaps longer due to the economy.

April 19, 2009

George Omer: Soap Gang member?

Another possible Soapy Smith gang member popped up, which makes two in one week. This one was found in the Omaha Daily Bee, 1898.


George Omer Held by the Police as a
Suspicious Character and
Bad Man.

George Omer, alias Elliott and Sumers, said to be one of the famous "Soapy" Smith gang of sure-thing men and grifters, is being detained at the Central station while the police are investigating his record in other cities.

Omer was one of Smith's lieuteanants at Skagway, Alaska and aided Smith, who was elected mayor of the city, is conducting the town for the benefit of the gamblers and adventurers. Smith left Skagway last March and went to Seattle, but only remained a week there. When he left the Omaha police were notified to be on the lookout for him by the chief of police of Seattle.

Yesterday Omer was located in a room on South Thirteenth street. He had reached the city but a few days ago, accompanied by a woman known as Josie Bowers, a variety performer, who he says is his wife. In his room were found, the police allege, marked playing cards, hold out devices for cheating at cards, a faro layout and an opium layout. A large number of letters were found, the contents of which prove, the police say, that Omer is a criminal, or the associate of criminals. One letter was found written by Dick Sullivan, "Denver Dick," a notorious burglar who is badly wanted in Chicago for robbery, and on whose head a price is set.
Omaha Daily Bee, June 12, 1898

April 17, 2009

John Lee Kirk: Soap Gang member?

I came upon another criminal accused of being in league with Soapy Smith and his infamous Soap Gang.

Victoria Officials Take Him Into
Custody on a Charge of Safebreaking
at Nome.

VICTORIA, B. C., March 15.- John Lee Kirk, said to have been a member of the "Soapy" Smith gang, which terrorized Skagway in 1897, was arrested here today at the instance of United States Deputy Marshal Cody who left San Francisco to-day for Victoria to take charge of Kirk. He is wanted for safebreaking at Nome. An effort is being made by a local lawyer to secure his release by habeas corpus proceedings.
San Francisco Call, March 16, 1905.

April 14, 2009

King Con: The Story of Soapy Smith

King Con: The Story of Soapy Smith
Jane G. Haigh
Whitehorse, Yukon: Friday 501 Publishers, 2006. 118 pages. Illustrations, glossary, bibliography, index. $9.95, paper.

This book actually came out in 2006 but I have spoke little of it because I was simply not impressed. I decided to speak out now because author, Clark Secrest, whom I have admired, wrote a review for the Colorado Historical Society which basically agrees with my view of the book.

I found the book online before it was published. I wrote to the author, Jane Haigh, because the photograph she had on the cover was not that of Soapy Smith. Lucky for her I did write as that would have been an embarrassing goof. I thought she would go out of her way to talk with me but never did, or has since. She was nice enough to put my website address in her book but amazingly never utilized any of the information there. When I recieved my first copy of the book in a Seattle book store I was very dissapointed. Like Secrest, I found many errors in the book, not just historically inaccurate items, but simple publishing errors. One Secrest did not mention is that the last dozen or so footnotes don't match up to the numbers and some are missing altogether. But nothing beats what Jane did.

The Photograph to the right is of William Saportas, a prominant member of Soapy's gang in Skagway, Alaska. After Soapy was killed, he and other accused members of the Soap Gang were rounded up and deported from the city. Nine of those deportees, including Saportas, were lined up for a group photo for future identification if by chance any of them decided to return to Skagway. This photo of Saportas is the photograph of she had on her original book cover, thinking it was Soapy. To her credit she removed the photo from the cover, but it was what she did inside that had me laughing, unfortunatly at her expense.

elow is a portion of the original photograph showing six of the nine deportees, that Haigh published in her book on page 64. I circled William Saportas. Note what she wrote for the photo caption.

Above: Members of the gang pose after they were rounded up, and prior to being deported back to Seattle. The man standing in the middle wearing the hat is pretending to be Soapy.

Besides the fact that five of the six are wearing hats, anyone who knows the situation in Skagway at the time would know that no person in their right frame of mind would "pretend to be Soapy." Considering there is no provenance for such a statement, it is, in my opinion, the all time idiotic statement ever made about the photograph.

After Soapy's death the town and vigilante's went on a witch hunt riot, threatening to hang every member of the gang when found. The United States military threatened martial law and amazingly no one else was killed in the aftermath. Anyone "pretending" to be Soapy would have probably never made it on the boat out of Skagway.

Below is the books review by Clark Secrest.

Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith of Colorado was among the developing West’s most accomplished swindlers. His sobriquet came from his deceit of selling five-dollar chances to win a lucky bar of soap whose inner wrapping might be a fifty-dollar bill. Among Smith’s other scams were the old shell-game; a fake telegraph office where homesick prospectors paid to send a “telegram” to faraway loved ones (unaware that “telegraph wire” ended abruptly outside Soapy’s back door); a bogus stock exchange; impersonation as a distinguished military officer; and his scam of “discovering” the calcified “mummy” of an ancient giant-man and charging suckers two-bits to awe over it. (It was actually a casting made at a Denver concrete works.) Mostly, he gambled away his earnings.

Few street-fakirs of the late 1800s West were as slick as was Smith. Creede and Denver were his domains, but the latter was kindest to him—there, he knew the politicians and the police, he prospered and felt appreciated. Despite his forays into other markets, it was Denver to which he always returned, and indeed he had proclaimed that it was to Denver that he would soon retire after one last clean-up through the new gold camp of Skagway in the Klondike. He didn’t get the chance; it was there that he would be shot dead in 1898 at age thirty-eight.

Soapy was a charismatic white-collar racketeer. Widely read, he was said to have quoted Shakespeare by the hour; he tried not to swindle locals, confining his targets to the touring crowd; he was charitable when the mood struck; usually sober; quiet, generous, unpretentious, imaginative, agreeable yet obstinate, and an accomplished organizer and civic schmoozer. And he was forthright: “At [my] Tivoli [gambling hall]” he testified before Denver’s Fire and Police Commission in an inspired spasm of soul-cleansing, “I am running an educational institution! . . . At the Tivoli I have a cure for the gambling habit. The man who steps into my place...is not compelled to play. He must use his own judgment.... Why should we tell him it is useless to buck our tables? Let him learn for himself by actual experience.... He has, of course, no chance of winning a cent, because, in my games, the player cannot win. When he leaves, he has learned a valuable lesson, one he will never forget.... In fact, gentlemen, I should be recognized as a public benefactor!”

Soapy Smith is the subject of two previous biographies. The first was The Reign of Soapy Smith; Monarch of Misrule: In the Last Days of the Old West and the Klondike Gold Rush by William Ross Collier and Edwin Victor Westrate. At 299 pages, the book is characterized by manufactured dialogue, fabricated situations, absent annotation, and no bibliography, but is a fun read and one must hope that much of it is true.

Next arrived Soapy Smith: King of the Frontier Con Men (1961) by Frank C. Robertson and Beth Kay Harris. The book is 242 pages, characterized by manufactured dialogue, fabricated situations, and absent annotation. It has a paltry one-page bibliography, but is a fun read and one must hope that much of it is true.

Now comes King Con: The Story of Soapy Smith by Jane G. Haigh (2006), a slim ninety-one pages of text, padded with twenty-three pages of backmatter (not counting the very basic index)—an epilogue, chronology, statistics, census of henchmen, notes, glossary, bibliography—some of which could have been effectively integrated into the text; others of which could have been trimmed or omitted. The raison d’etre of King Con, as stated in the preface, is that there is “no good book in print about the most famous bad guy in Alaskan history”—which doesn’t say much about the class of early Alaskan bad guys. One would think that Alaska history must have had worse rascals than this rather inoffensive Soapy Smith, whose prevailing sin was simply to fleece greedy suckers who deserved it.

Smith’s glory years were in Colorado, but King Con’s stated focus is upon his ten-month tenure in Alaska, which necessarily limits the book’s scope. King Con certainly is better acquainted with early Alaska than early Colorado, the latter upon which it inflicts notable glitches—Leadville’s famed Clarendon Hotel is presented as the “Clarion” and the town of Creede—central to the Smith story—is spelled three different ways. Denver’s Larimer Street was not the town’s brothel district, as the author asserts, and additional stumbles are evident: The Collier-Westrate Smith book was initially published in 1935, not in 1937, and in New York, not in Denver, as stated, and the Robertson-Harris book was published, as well, in New York rather than Denver. (A curious disclaimer on the copyright page states that “Neither the author nor the publisher can be held responsible for any errors,” so I don’t know upon whom we can pin all this.) First names frequently are missing, and the book succumbs to curious typographical oddities, one of them the presentation in italics of place, organization, and other proper names; and in one case the text manufactures a new word—“disinformation.” Annotation is sparse, complicating attempts to determine origins of data, and the prose sometimes wanders far from the subject.

King Con is at its best when discussing the Skagway gold rush. The book presents itself (p.5) as a “complete” Smith biography, an assertion that the text far from justifies. While King Con is much less thorough than its forerunners, it will be, if judiciously utilized, a useful addition to the Soapy Smith historiography.

Clark Secrest, former editor of the Colorado Historical Society’s quarterly magazine, Colorado Heritage, is the author of Hell’s Belles (University Press of Colorado, 2002) and Children of the Storm: The True Story of the Pleasant Hill School Bus Tragedy co-written with Ariana Harner (Fulcrum Publishing, 2001).

Published online September 2007
Colorado Book Review Center.

April 13, 2009

Quick quotes...

"There was never a better manipulator of the shell game, and Smith could draw a gun as handily as he could deal four aces from the bottom of the deck."
Sam Howe, Denver Police Detective
speaks about knowing Soapy Smith
Denver Post, November 15, 1914

April 12, 2009

Soapy Smith's watch.

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Bruce Merrell holds the watch of legendary con man Soapy Smith in the Alaska collection of the Loussac Library. Merrell has retired from the Z. J. Loussac Library as the man in charge of the Alaska collection after 30 some years. The watch can be seen in the Alaska Collection of the Z. J. Loussac Public Library, 3600 Denali St. Anchorage, Ak. 99503.

Unfortunately while I was up in Anchorage recently I had completely forgot the watch was even there. You see, it's been 19 years since the subject of this watch has come up.

The story of the watch.

According to Harold R. Smith (see letter), Dr. Fenton Whiting gave him the watch that he had taken from the deceased body of Soapy Smith during an autopsy examination. At some point in time Dr. Whiting gave the watch to Harold Smith. In 1949 Smith gave the watch to Paul Clumpner and wrote him the following letter.

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Mr. Clumpner gave or sold the watch to the Alaska collection of the Loussac Library in 1952. The watch remained unknown to the Smith family until 1987. I had placed an ad in Alaska magazine searching for Soapy artifacts. Al Minnick, the Archivist of the Alaska Collection of the Z. J. Loussac Library sent me a letter informing me of the watch, but at the time there were no photographs of it to obtain. In another letter (June 8, 1987) Minnick informed me that they had a photographer set up to take photos of the pieces in their collection and that he would let me know when I could purchase prints. Two years later I found that Bruce Merrell had taken Minnick's place and still no photographs could be purchased. However, he put me in touch with an author, Charles Forselles of Anchorage, Alaska who had taken a photo of the watch and by August of 1990 I had seen the first photos of the watch (below).

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here is a huge hole in the story...

Probate book A, 1898 - 1903, pp. 53-54 specifically states that one one watch was listed in Soapy's estate and that it was "given to Mrs. Smith" (the widow). It is very possible that Soapy had more than one watch, which means that Dr. Whiting stole it. If there was only one watch then this would mean that Harold R. Smith's/Paul Clumpner's watch is not Soapy's. Either one of them were pulling a fast one or were duped by Dr. Whiting. It is known that this is/was not an uncommon practice. Guns and personal items were often given away and sold as having once belonged to the infamous.

April 11, 2009

Meet Emmett Miller, soap pitchman...

I received an email from chicago based magician, Emmett Miller who performs a version of the prize package soap sell racket.

He writes.
Dear Mr Smith my name is Emmett Miller I work as the Windy City Wizard. I was reading your post on scoundrel's forum. And I thought you would like to know that I still actively perform the soap pitch a number of times each year.

I started the pitch about 5 or 6 years ago. My problem was finding a way to do it ethically and in the right place to give it some historical content. In short it needs to be done in the right place. I work a number of historical events each year many of them are Civil War events or 1900's style events. This gives me the right kind of back drop for the pitch.

In side each of the bars is a $100 confederate bill with short explanation printed on the back with my contact information. I am selling them my business card.

In side the soap it self is a coin, this allows me to stay true to my claim that each and every bill contains real American currency. I only perform this when I am working a historical venue. I have done this at Civil war event Jubilee events & Chautauqua's oh and an event in Chicago called Reenactorfest. The soap pitch has gotten me work in other venues such as museums and heritage festivals. Each time it was an audience member that called me because of my contact information in the soap.

This year I will be taping a number of my shows I am sure that the soap pitch will be taped at some point this year. So some time around Jan of 2010 I will have the time to send you a copy if you like.

Best regards

Emmett L. Miller
Magical Entertainer
The Greatest Magician You've Never Heard Of!

Emmitt's website reads.
Step into the past with this vintage magical act! This performance echoes from a time of the classic traveling shows of the 1860's, imitating the classic illusions of Gus Rich, a famed Civil War Magician. Performing as "Swin D. Lure," the Windy City Wizard educates his audience about the trade of a con-man. He will demonstrate card manipulation along with a variety of other con-games, some which are still played today. If demonstrating his talents on a small scale is not enough, then his traveling "Medicine Show" is sure to be deceptively entertaining. This comedic act, praising magic elixirs and wonder tonics, may make you a believer or at least give you some insight into the traveling Kickapoo medicine shows of the 1890's.

I look forward to hearing from Emmitt.

April 9, 2009

Quick quotes...

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"Among the other casualties reported from the Klondike must be reckoned the circumstance that Soapy Smith has not yet been lynched."
The San Francisco Call, June 04, 1898

April 8, 2009

"..one of the best Old West historical sites on the entire Internet.."

Wow! the kind words come from Dave Kolonich, creator of the Cleveland Historical and Pop Culture Mock Draft that included Soapy Smith as a running back, posted below. I had contacted and thanked Dave for his fun contribution to Soapy's lore. He then responded on his blog, Cleveland Reboot, with the following.

Talk about a small world. It turns out that Jefferson "Randolph" Smith II, alias Soapy Smith, is the subject of one of the best Old West historical sites on the entire Internet, Alias Soapy Smith. The site is part of the Soapy Smith Preservation Trust, run by family descendants of the famous outlaw and features volumes of history, beautiful photographs and other great links. If you're a history nerd, check out the site. You won't be disappointed.

If things don't work out for Smith in Denver's backfield, as projected in Cleveland Reboot's Historical and Pop Culture Mock Draft, Smith's future and legacy is in safe hands.

I am humbled and proud.

Soapy picked as fantasy running back.

See, I told you Soapy Smith was coming into his own, but I never imagined he'd be considered as a running back for the Denver Broncos!

Dave Kolonich created the 2009 Historical and Culture Mock Draft over at The Cleveland Fan.com site. Of the 32 picks, which include Jesus of Nazareth, Soapy is #12. Here is how it reads.

12. Denver - Soapy Smith

Running Back
148 Years Old
5'6, 155 ibs.


Not a surprising move here considering the moves the Broncos have made in the 2009 offseason. Smith's shifty running style should help the Broncos as they adjust to life after Mike Shanahan. Smith is not a typical NFL power back, due to his size and nature. He will be counted on to run outside the tackles and should be utilized on draw plays and screen passes. New Broncos coach Josh McDaniels already has plans for a Wildcat type package featuring Smith. The formation will be called The Prize Package Soap Sell Swindle. For the offensive-minded McDaniels, the pick was a no-brainer.

"Jesus, Pat Bowlen is dumb. First, he hires a 32 year old to run the team, then he lets Cutler walk. And now this. Maybe I should try to sell him my old I-Pod."

April 6, 2009

Jason Hahn and his ALASKA OUTLAW playing cards made the news once again. This time on channel 2 KTUU in Anchorage. Hahn has been very successful selling these decks, featuring Soapy Smith on the ace of spades, that he is about to come out with a third edition, the first two nearly being sold out. Buy your deck online HERE!

April 4, 2009

The trip to the Earp mines and camp-ground.

Between March 26 and 29, Phil Gessert of Pharobank.com and I went out to Vidal, California for four days of historical fun and treasure hunting.

Our camp

Phil Gessert owns the mineral rights to the Lucky Day mine and we went out there to seek out the second mine shaft known to exist. We had hopes of also locating the Earp trash pit.

The first night we arrived before sunset into the desert camp site used by Wyatt and Josie Earp in the early 1900s. I was very skeptical (naturally) at first. I admit thoughts crossed my mind that my friend had been duped. That all changed when I saw his comparison photographs of the campground. There are at least two known photographs showing Wyatt and Josie in the very location we were to camp in.

Shaft #2

I helped Phil set up his period wall tent and then quickly erected my simple dome tent. I knew I did not set it up right and it was beginning to get pretty windy. Phil and I sat in the quiet windy night looking up at the stars and talking. The discussion of animal like in the area came up and I mentioned the possibility of bob-cats and mountain lions. We had a toast and set off to our respective quarters for a good nights sleep so that we could begin the adventure in the coolness of the morning.

In the wind I knew there was a good chance that my tent might collapse in but I didn’t care much. I’d fix it properly in the morning. As predicted my tent did collapse around me and I drifted off to sleep. What I didn’t know is that my tent was not yet done falling in on me.

Hoping against all odds to find gold

Some time after I fell asleep the rest of the tent fell in on me. The top outside of the tent has an upside down bowl looking thing that hit me on the upper back. It didn’t hurt so much as it felt (in my mind) just like the paw of an imagined mountain lion trying to pin me down for a bite. I awoke … and screamed like a little girl. I laughed myself back to sleep … keeping one eye open.

The second day (Friday) was filled with mine hunting, ore crushing, gold panning, and using the metal detectors around the mines and camp area. No gold or great artifacts were found, minus cans and nails. Unfortunately, in the 1930s, after the Earp’s time, the mines were again worked by a company so the items we did find may have been from either period.

Some of the interesting finds
including the dead turtle in shaft #1.

The two mine shafts are pretty easy to get into. It is volcanic rock and they have been there since at least 1908, which means they have survived 3 or 4 major earthquakes in that area. I felt they were rather safe to go into, although my back injury kept me from going deep into the main shaft due to a small drop that I was not about to try. It was about a 45 degree bank to climb down using a rope to hang onto. The walls are covered with veins of quartz and turquoise or copper. Bats kept Phil from venturing too deep into the mine but he was able to reach the end the following day when David and Andrew, friends of Phil’s came out. David video taped their underground excursion which is currently on Youtube.

Friday night we BBQed up some steaks and had a nice star filled evening. My tent was properly set up and I slept soundly.

Me by the historical marker to the Earp house, Vidal, Ca.

Saturday I went to the Wyatt Earp house in Vidal, owned by Terry Clanton. He has really fixed up that property. The house has been nicely restored with a large marker outside. I had a nice afternoon with old and new friends.

Me, Terry Clanton and Gilbert at the Earp house

Sunday we poked around the area more with metal detectors and then prepared for the journey home. I began to get ill in the afternoon. I guess it was just too much sun. Once home I slept for 12-13 hours and it took me a couple of days to get back to normal.

The photograph below shows the comparison of two taken nearly 90 years a part. The circled rocks have hardly moved in that time.

April 1, 2009

Wyatt Earp's mine video

I came back from the southern California desert Sunday, very tired and worn out. I will have more photographs and the story of camping and mining at Wyatt Earp's Lucky Day mine in Vidal, California soon. In the mean time here is a video Phil Gessert (owner of the mineral rights) took while we were there. I was over in Vidal touring the Wyatt Earp house at the time this was shot, not that my injured back would allow me to get down there anyhow, lol. Enjoy!