May 29, 2009

Soapy Smith Wake

From the cover page of the June 2009 Magic Castle Newsletter.


Soapy Smith's Law & Order Committee was truly the scourge of the Klondike, but they believed strongly in good woman, good booze and a good con! Join your fellow grifters, rogues and vegabonds at the 5th Annual Soapy Smith Costume Party July 8, 2009, a benefit for the Dai Vernon humanitarian fund.

It may be hot as hades in LA, but inside the Castle you'll feel the chill of the frozen north, enjoy turn of the century gambling and drink a "toast to Soapy's Ghost!"

There is an extra $5 door charge for everyone entering the Magic Castle on the night of Soapy's soiree - an extra fin will get you in. Wear your favorite Klondike costume and win valuable prizes.

Lay your poke on number 8 - July 8 - and join us in a night of revelry to commemorate America's first gangster, the notorious Soapy Smith.

May 25, 2009

Quick quotes...

(click image to enlarge)

Here “Soapy” Smith and his gang of outlaws and murders operated along the trail; here he was killed; here is his dishonored grave, between the mountains which will not endure longer than the tale of his desperate crimes, and his desperate expiation.
Alaska The Great Country, Ella Higginson, 1917

May 22, 2009

Likeable links...

(click image to enlarge)
The Skaguay News, December 31, 1897

A very nice link on the main website is Alaska's Gold an educational site developed through a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission by the Division of Libraries, Archives and Museums for teachers to aid in talking about the Klondike gold rush.

This website is designed to provide students and other learners with a unique way to understand Alaska's history and people. Website visitors will use historic primary source material from the Alaska Gold Rush period of 1880-1915 to explore untold stories and facts that broaden the history taught in textbooks and schools. The LET'S EXPLORE activities are organized around compelling questions in five Alaska Gold Rush Themes: The Discovery of Gold, Getting to the Gold Fields, Gold Mining, Daily Life and Our Legacy. A Teacher Guide provides additional information about the Let's Explore activities for classroom use.

Although it may not look like there is not much to see at first glance, don't be fooled. Take some time to explore and you will surely come across some very interesting information and historical documents and photographs. Be sure to click every link inside the site as each holds something of interest. The image archives in "Alaska Gold Lode" page holds all the photographs of artifacts, including a complete issue of the Skaguay News.

The Soap Gang being deported from Skagway, Alaska
after the death of Soapy Smith

Naturally, I would not be advertising a link here if there was nothing in it about Soapy. The page, "Soapy Smith and Other Bad Guys," is not the most exciting page on the site but the important fact is that he is noted as an important entity in the history of Alaska and the Klondike gold rush.

May 20, 2009

Quick Quotes...

(Image from The Gentle Grifter, 1919)

With regard to Mr. Soapy Smith’s business, to be sure he wraps up a $50-bill in a soap package, puts it down in his bag, and the person that buys it probably don’t get the $50; but if people don’t want to lose they shouldn’t buy a package of soap. If they don’t want to lose a jack-pot, they shouldn’t put up their ante. I have often backed three queens with a $50-bill and lost the pot, but I had no one to blame but myself.
Judge Belford (Soapy’s attorney)
Rocky Mountain News, August 6, 1889.

May 18, 2009

The Hot Cake Kid

The following story comes from Robert N. De Armond's book, “Stroller” White: Klondike Newsman, Lynn Canal Publishing, 1989.


A recent mail brought the Stroller a letter from far off Australia. It was signed by one J. H. P. Smythe who was inquiring about his brother, Henry William Otis Smythe. The latter, according to his brother, was a baker by trade, had started for the Klondike early in 1898, and had written home but once since then. The name Smythe failed to stir up so much as a tinkle under the Stroller's bonnet and he was about to drop the letter into the wastebasket when a postscript caught his eye:

"My brother said in his letter that he was sometimes known around Skagway as the Hot Cake Kid."

The Stroller's memory picked up with that and began to hit on all of its cylinders as it spun back over the years. The Hot Cake Kid! Of course he knew the Hot Cake Kid, and so did a lot of others in the North, many of them to their sorrow. He was one of hundreds of Australians who landed in Skagway in the year 1898 enroute to the Klondike. And the Australians were reckoned "easy pickins" by Captain Jefferson Randolph Smith and his crowd, who were picking everything pickable in Skagway at that time, because they were all anxious to get maps of the Klondike country so they could see where they were going. No maps of the Klondike existed at that time, but the Australians did not know this and they were directed to a "specialty store" just around the corner and told they might find maps there. The "store" had a specialty, but it wasn't maps, and what happened when a trusting Australian or anybody else entered the place is another story. Usually he came out on his ear a few minutes later and with a warning that he should never again start anything just because he had made a bad guess as to which shell concealed the pea.

Captain Smith employed steerers to direct likely customers to the place, any customer being considered "likely" who had money in his pocket. So it was quite natural that Smith, who was known as Soapy, should employ Smythe, who soon became known as the Hot Cake Kid because that is about all he lived on. Smythe's countrymen were so pleased to find a fellow kangaroo who knew the ropes that they put themselves wholly in his hands, and he took them to where their chances of getting out whole were slim indeed.

Smythe worked on a percentage basis but Smith always had a plausible reason for postponing payday and all the Kid ever got were orders on the Pack Train Restaurant, signed by Soapy and saying "Give him all the hot cakes he wants." In later years, the Hot Cake Kid told the Stroller that if he could collect the percentage due him he could "go back to Austrylia and buy a bloomin' 'ot cyke 'ouse."

But the Hot Cake Kid did not return to Australia, then or ever. After the late Soapy Smith had been laid away, his picking days ended, and his crowd had been dispersed or jailed, Hot Cake went on to Dawson where his skill as a steerer of easy marks found no market at all. In fact, his reception there was extremely cool. Many of his Skagway victims were then in Dawson and some of them had put two and two together. In consequence, when Hot Cake applied for membership in the Sons of the Kangaroo, a fraternal organization then very active in the Klondike, he was overwhelmingly blackballed. He thereupon took to denying his nativity and claiming to have been born and raised in Arkansas, but that also was of short duration. The Amalgamated Brotherhood of Possum Hunters, which also flourished in Dawson, put him through an examination and he described Arkansas as a strip of country joining Pennsylvania on the north and Puyallup on the south.

Thus, when the Stroller came across the Hot Cake Kid in Dawson, the latter was a social outcast, sleeping under the crap tables in the lowest rank of gambling houses and attempting to sustain himself on the soup furnished by those houses to their blackjack boosters. The ingredients of the soup were two gallons of water to one onion and while the resulting product was warming, it was short on nourishment and Hot Cake complained that he was dying of slow starvation. The Stroller took pity on him, staked him to a good square, and using his influence with the owner of the Old Soak Bunkhouse, got him a job as caretaker of the place. This was located, if the Stroller remembers correctly, on Second Avenue between Icicle and All Night Streets and while it advertised under the name Cosmopolitan Hotel it was more generally known by the nickname which derived from the class of patrons it catered to.

Several weeks earlier the owner, a faro dealer at the Monte Carlo, had appealed to the Stroller for advice and assistance because business had been falling off alarmingly at the Old Soak. The place was designed to accommodate a maximum number of patrons-four-bits per night, cash in advance, no refunds under any circumstances-and bunks were tiered four high around the single room. Each night the lower bunks were claimed first and customers who arrived late complained that, having been relieved of four-bits at the door, they couldn't climb to the heights and were forced to sleep on the floor. Many of them were taking their trade elsewhere. Upon learning this, the Stroller quickly put his inventive genius to work and devised a portable crane which easily lifted even the limpest and groggiest customer to the top bunk. The popularity of the Old Soak was restored. But the Hot Cake Kid, the Stroller regrets to say, proved a poor caretaker. Although he performed his other duties in a satisfactory manner, he would not oil the crane. Before long it was squealing and shrieking in every sheave and pinion whenever it was used, and since this was always late at night it was an annoyance to all of the people within a block. The thing was declared a nuisance and abated by an Order in Council at Ottawa and the Hot Cake Kid was fired.

It was then that he cleaned his fingernails, bought a white apron and started a bakery, and before long the sun of prosperity began to shine upon him. Flour was then commonly selling in Dawson at $8 for a fifty-pound sack, but an ice jam had backed up the river and flooded a warehouse in which one of the large mercantile companies had stored a hundred tons of flour. Hot Cake bought the lot at two-bits a sack, on jawbone. It proved to be only slightly damaged and when made into bread one small loaf sold for as much as an entire sack had cost. There was no doubt that the Hot Cake Kid knew the baker's trade. He had no trouble selling his product and by the time the entire hundred tons of flour had been worked up Hot Cake had to shovel away the money when he wanted fresh air. But as so often happens, his fancy lightly turned. He married a dancehall girl known as Flying Kate and only the restrictions of the law prevented his marrying three or four more at the same time. The girls realized, however, that he was not responsible for the law and they did not hold it against him but pitched in to give him what assistance they could in broadcasting his money. It was a business they understood and worked at with a will, and it was not long until Hot Cake's poke was empty. Mrs. Hot then headed south with a dancecaller who had hit seven times straight on the black and the other girls lost interest in him. And that is about all there is to the story of the Hot Cake Kid. The last time the Stroller heard, he was still around Dawson, making a living, or what passes for a living, by doing a little baking now and then, and still wearing the same old nickname although there are few in Dawson today who know how he came by it. The Stroller will send a copy of the paper containing this story to J. H. P. Smythe in Australia for whatever it may be worth to him, but he does not propose to write a letter to J. H. P. Smythe. The Stroller was never at any time very long on writing letters and he has been mighty short on it ever since one of his love letters was read in court.

May 14, 2009

Pretty picture.

My publisher, Art Petersen is a retired English professor and an Alaskan historian. For the last several year I have had the pleasure of swapping gold rush era photographs with him. I wanted to share with you one of the prettiest photos he has sent me thus far.

Seven hard-copies of my manuscript, Alias Soapy Smith, The Life and Death of a Scoundrel. They were sent out yesterday to editors and reviewers. I am excited and proud to have completed this two decade project. The best moment will be receiving that very first bound copy.

May 12, 2009

Denver's Taney boarding house

The Taney boarding house as it looked in 1915.

Soapy Smith is listed as living in the Taney boarding house in 1883. This would only be known to someone who bothered to look it up in the 1883 Denver city directory house in the Colorado Historical Society, Denver, Colorado. As there were no exciting facts about the residence it remained just a location factoid for the manuscript. That all changed when I received an interesting email from Karen Cuthbertson a couple of years back.

Karen's great grandmother, 18-years-old at the time, worked as a maid in the Taney and had told her children of an experience involving the infamous Soapy Smith. Karen wrote to me in hopes of finding out if the story was held any water. The dates and location match so there is little reason to doubt it.

It was the summer of 1884 that young Marian Murray arrived in Denver from Central City, Colorado. She was hired as a maid in the boarding house. Although no dive, its clientele was of the rougher sort. Many years later, Marian’s son wrote that it was while employed there that his mother was introduced to Jeff, who “appointed himself as protector and guardian of the innocent young Irish girl … and saw to it that none of the roughnecks in the hotel crowd ever caused her a bit of trouble.” When Marian’s future husband, Ralph E. Cuthbertson, first began to show romantic interests,
he must have had to convince Soapy that he had the most honorable of intentions toward the Irish lass. She [Marian] always said that Soapy Smith was the product of a cultured southern family environment with all the polish of an educated gentleman.

May 10, 2009

More on Welsh...

(click image to enlarge)
Courtesy of Cliff Welsh
The 1902 capture of Ed LaBelle

I received an interesting email from Cliff Welsh, Heidi's brother. He writes,

Might as well chime in as another Welsh - Heidi's brother.

Nice site.

Don't know if you ever saw the HBO series Deadwood, but I imagine the Klondike must have had similar characters, if with a Canadian twist.

Attached are scans of a ticket to the hanging and an article about the LaBelle case.

I was named after his son Cliff, who went on to serve in The Great War in the Canadian Army, be wounded at the Somme in 1916 at Courcellette, and end up flying airplanes at the end of the war.

My brother's middle name is his first name, and my dad's middle name was his middle name also. ...

Cliff Welsh

Thank you Cliff. Great scans! The photo above also shows what appears to be a sort of rogues gallery, with a highway bandit by the name of Tom Clark, alias "Muldoon," and a burglar by the name of John C. Forb....(sic - can't decipher the last name). Below is the execution pass made out to William Welsh to witness the execution of Edward LaBelle.

(click image to enlarge)
Courtesy of Cliff Welsh
William Welsh's pass to witness LaBelle's execution.

A very interesting family history indeed.

Oh, and Cliff, yes I am very familiar with HBO's Deadwood. The soap selling "huckster" portrayed in every season was Soapy Smith.

May 8, 2009

William Howe Welsh - revisited.

courtesy of Heidi Welsh
(click image to enlarge)
The group photo of North-West Mounted Police (N.W.M.P.) detectives.
Heidi recalls that William Howe Welsh is the one in the front row holding the dog.

ack on March 25, 2009 I posted Welsh’s Fiction, an interview of famed detective, William H. Welsh in which he, or the writing reporter, messed up a few of the historical facts regarding Soapy Smith, which is the main reason I post many of these articles. Thirty-six days later, on April 30, 2009 I received something I did not expect, a response to the post from the great-granddaughter, Heidi Welsh, of detective William Welsh. I love hearing from descendants of persons who had some connection to Soapy and the cities he controlled so here, in her own words through our correspondences is a tip-of-the-iceberg hint of this extraordinary last-frontier career detective. Heidi explained to me that he was not in the Mounties, but was one of the several private detectives to whom the Mounties contracted out work—such as the LaBelle case. for which Welsh is most famous. She thinks the photograph above may be a number of these particular detectives.

he response post:

I am the great-granddaughter of the above-mentioned and maligned (!) detective William Howe Welsh. He definitely was in Skagway in 1898, as I've seen the records in Skagway to prove this. He was on his way to the Yukon and brought his family there. Whether or not he witnessed the events, I don't know, but he was a highly respected detective in the Yukon and responsible for tracking down a murderer in a famous case, going all the way to Utah before he brought him back to Dawson for hanging. We have a scrapbook of original clippings from his cases--although there's nothing in there about Skagway. He was from Portland, Ore., however, so it seems likely he was familiar with Smith and this case.
--Heidi Welsh

An email:

Dear Jeff,

My husband just ran across your website on Soapy Smith, and I just posted (I think) a comment. I’ve been doing a lot of genealogy research of late and am familiar with many of my great-grandfather’s exploits in the Yukon since he kept a scrapbook of his famous cases that we still have. (I grew up in Sitka, Alaska, but now live on the East Coast.) I said in the post, in response to a skeptical comment about a 1907 article about Detective W. H. Welsh’s recollections of Soapy, that it seems quite likely that Welsh was familiar with Soapy because they both were from Portland, Ore., originally. My great-grandfather went up to the Yukon in 1898 along with some relatives, never struck it rich, and went back to being a detective. He traveled back and forth a few times to Oregon to get his family (my grandfather went over the Chilkoot Pass when he was just 6 months old), so he would have passed through Skagway and would therefore have had ample opportunity to find out about Soapy’s storied career.

Anyway, I love your website and look forward to reading more of it. Just wanted to put in a plug for my great-grandpa….he died young in Vancouver and I never met him, but love the stories I’ve been able to collect.

Best wishes,
Heidi Welsh

rom the start of our correspondences I had decided to write a short article on Welsh but quickly found that personally hearing about him directly from his g-granddaughter was a much more interesting choice.

Courtesy of Heidi Welsh
(click image to enlarge)

Heidi writes,

There’s a bunch of stuff I’ve uncovered about my g-grandfather that might be of interest (although I’ve discovered in this genealogy hunt that even one’s family members can think you’ve gone off the deep end at times…) Here’s a great account of his most famous [1902] case about LaBelle and Fournier, in a book about crime in the Yukon called Strange Things Done [link to the book in Google Books]

I look forward to our continued conversations, and best wishes on your book.

(click image to enlarge)
from Strange Things Done
He got his man!

egarding the original newspaper article I posted, Heidi writes,

I suspect that, given the date of the article you discussed (1907), it could well be that the writer was trying to trade on my g-grandfather’s reputation as a detective for the Mounties, as his big case with LaBelle-Fournier was in 1902 and it was widely covered. I don’t have any evidence to show he might have been in Skagway at the time of Soapy, at all, and it could very well be that the whole 1907 article was made up out of the whole cloth—that seemed to be the style in those days. You should read some of the articles in our scrap book!

I haven’t been in touch with anyone else in Skagway about any of this—since it was really a stopover for W. H. Welsh, whose experiences pretty much all related to his time living in Dawson and what he did there. We did get in touch with Prof. Ken Coates, a dean at the University of Waterloo in Canada, who wrote the book I noted below about crime in the Yukon, and got a nice response back. I’m always happy to chat with people about these things—great fun—so if you want to put me in touch with people, that’s fine.

Best wishes,

I suggested Jeff Brady at the Skagway News and the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park for starters. After that Heidi should seriously consider writing the biography of her great grandfather and of the private detectives. We wish her all the luck in the world, although she doesn't seem to really need it...

May 6, 2009

Did Soapy Smith have plans to invade Canada?

(click image to enlarge)

t the start of the Klondike gold rush in 1896 the boundary lines were not clear between the United States and Canada. Canada claimed the port towns of Alaska, including Skagway, were within Canadian territory, while many Americans felt that the Klondike region was within the US. Canadian police, the N.W.M.P., were stationed in Skagway until they were forced to withdraw. Rumors of the possibility of war over the border dispute simmered.

In 1901 plans were "uncovered" that the "Soapy" Smith gang was planning an assault on the Yukon in an attempt to overthrow the government there. This is not all that far-fetched. In my upcoming manuscript I show several plans Soapy had to either aid, or overthrow foreign nations. I hope you find the following interesting.

Toronto, Ont. Nov. 20.—Special dispatches from Vancouver, published here, says: The Yukon insurrection story is not altogether without foundation. Some half-brained Americans drew up plans for forcibly overthrowing the police and government in the Yukon, somewhat similar to the historical Jamestown raid in the Transvaal. Major Woods, N.W.M.P., discovered the scheme and took prompt steps to suppress it. American officials at Skagway co-operating.

The discovery of the scheme is supposed to have nipped it in the bud. The Yukon police force consists of about 250 men, who are provided with Lee-Enfields. When the scheme was first discovered Maxim and Colt guns were mounted at White Horse, which was the first place to be attacked. Major Snyder, in charge of the police there, also received police reinforcements, and patrols were kept on duty night and day.

It is said the scheme originated in Seattle and $250,000 was available to aid the venture. The information has been obtained from ex-police officials of the Yukon force and members and members of the gambling fraternity, who have come to the coast cities for the winter, and is guardedly confirmed by the officials who have just come down from the north.


Alaska Man Says It Was Formulated by “Soapy” Smith’s, Gang.

Victoria, B.C., Nov. 20. —C. D. Newton of the Atlin board of trade, who arrived recently from the north, speaking of the alleged conspiracy to overthrow the Yukon government, said he had heard of it before he left the north, but had paid little attention to it. The “Soapy” Smith gang, he says, is still to be found at Skaguay [old spelling] in considerable numbers, and although they have few sympathizers, they are by no means the dominant element there.

It was to them that Mr. Newton attributes any conspiracy now threatened, while the same element were at the bottom of the flag incidents. Should they ever attempt to rise in rebellion he believes that the good American residents would be among the first to suppress them.
The Salt Lake Herald, November 21, 1901.

May 2, 2009

This year's Soapy Smith Wake

That time of year is approaching. The annual Soapy Smith Wake at Skagway, Alaska and the Magic Castle in Hollywood, California. The first notice came in today's mail by way of the Magic Castle Newsletter (May 2009). The short first notice reads as follows

July 8, 2009 is the 111th anniversary of the famed shoot-out on the Juneau Company Wharf in Skagway, Alaska, where Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith, the Monarch of Misrule, cashed in his chips.

To commemorate the shooting of the Klondike's most infamous con man, the entire Magic Castle will be transformed once again into an 1890s gambling den, filled with the cons, scams and bunko operations that Soapy made famous as America's First Gangster.

Come dressed as your favorite prospector, dance hall girl, grifter, rogue, vagabond, soiled dove, vigilante or a member of Soapy's notorious gang, the "Law and Order Committee of Three Hundred and Three" and you'll have a chance to win valuable prizes! This annual turn-of-the-cantury costume and gambling party is the AMA's fundraiser for the humanitarian Dai Vernon Fund. An extra admission fee of $5 is charged, which provides every guest with a hundred Soapy Dollars to spend on the vintage gambling cons presented by students of the School for Scoundrels throughout the Mecca of Magic.

Save the date - July 8, 2009 - for the Magic Castle's 5th Annual Soapy Smith Costume Party.

The story behind the Wakes along with pictures can be found on Alias Soapy Smith. More news and details of the nights festivities will be posted on this blog as they come in. I hope to see you there!

May 1, 2009

Quick quotes...

"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