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.


  1. Is this book still availible online, where could I find a copy?

  2. Google the title, you should have no trouble finding a copy.

    However, my biography on Soapy Smith is coming out in August and I would suggest waiting for it, if the history of Soapy Smith is something you are seeking.


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