June 27, 2009

Another Soapy Smith book?

(Click image to enlarge)
Cathy Spude's book cover

Author, Cathy Spude is coming out with her own book on Soapy Smith. The book is called, Soapy: Truth Stranger than Legend, 1898 and is due out sometime in "late 2009. " Her book centers around the time my great-grandfather was in Skagway, Alaska where he was killed in 1898. Although his Skagway days are filled with great stories that many books have centered on, there are even far greater stories to expose about the two other criminal empires he built in the lower states from 1884 to 1895, which all will be covered in great detail in my upcoming book, Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel.

From reading Cathy's website page about her book one will quickly see that she does not believe a lot of the stories, or that Soapy Smith was much of an influence in the local power structure of Skagway, calling Soapy a "petty conman." However, he indeed was the leading underworld crime boss of Denver and the "king of Skaguay."

It is my observation that Cathy's goal is to knock the legend of Soapy Smith down a few pegs in order to raise her idol, Skagway vigilante and later appointed deputy US marshal, Josias M. "Si" Tanner, up the latter of hero-dom. Here is what her website says about her upcoming book.

Jefferson Randolph Smith, the Uncrowned King of Skagway in the spring of 1898 saved bartender Ed Fay from a lynching by an unruly band of vigilantes in February;

He organized the first Alaska Guard and a grand memorial Day Parade in May;

He led the Fourth of July Parade, and stood on the podium with Governor Brady, to hear his praises sung;

On July 8, he was gunned down in cold blood by Frank Reid, leading a gang of vigilantes after Soapy's colleagues conned a gold miner out of almost $3,000 in gold dust behind Soapy's saloon. His body lay neglected on the Juneau wharf while the vigilantes hunted down dozens of Smith's gang.

It's a Legend, all of it. Want to learn the Truth? Here it is told, unadulterated, for the first time since it happened over a century ago. Dr. Spude exposes who really ran Skagway between January and July 1898; the truth about the Alaska Guard and the two parades; how the Committee of 101 and the Skagway police force became confused with a vigilante force; how Smith and his friends started a legend and how tourism and town promotion prompted it to grow; and how a petty con man became something of an anti-hero in the wake of a political satire and in the hands of writers eager to discover eccentric characters of the wild old west. Finally, the fascinating truth of Soapy Smith is revealed, without all of the idolatrous hero worship of family and friends.

Actually, Ed Fay's name was John. The Seattle newspapers mistakenly reported that his name was Ed. The "Guard" was called the Skaguay Military Company. Cathy states "It's a legend, all of it. Want to learn the truth?" Yes, it is legend, but I wonder if Cathy understands this word. She uses it as if it meant untrue, fictional, or unwarranted. Some of it is, but most of it is true--and there is more, ...so much more. There usually is not just reason but good reason for legends. The Greek and Trojan War was though to be just a legend--until the city of Sparta was discovered by an amateur anthropologist.

Her last statement above sort of irks me, "without all of the idolatrous hero worship of family and friends." As she knows no other members of my family I have to assume she is talking about me. I certainly do not hero worship my great-grandfather. I state several times on the main website that "I don't pretend that Soapy was one of the good guys." I will admit it is a lot of fun having a bad guy as a descendant and like I write on the home page of the website, "If you have a skeleton in the closet, you might as well make it dance." To be honest I don't need to MAKE it dance as Soapy's history does a pretty good job dancing all by itself. I'm not proud of what Soapy did, I'm proud of what he left behind. As I write on the website, "He left his mark on history, so we won't become one." Because I knew my every word would be scrutinized, That by being a descendant, I would be considered automatically biased by the historical community, I had to be above suspicion of falsifying or hiding bad deeds and over-playing the good deeds. My publisher, also an Alaskan historian, has made sure I stuck to my goal of writing an unbiased account of a very complex man.

Cathy and I do not see eye-to-eye on either Soapy nor Tanner and we've had a few personal disputes in the past. The following is my opinion about her coming works and I thought you should know where Cathy is "coming from," especially if you are a member of Friends of Bad Man Soapy Smith, or just a fan in general. Cathy is in the process of writing Tanner's biography as well as several novels in which Tanner is a strong secondary character , no doubt saving the day in each one. If you read her website page devoted to her research on Tanner and the Tanner Chronicles, you will quickly see that she believes Tanner was the real political power in Skagway, as well as it's savior in 1898. It's phrases about Tanner like, "the man who truly owns Skagway, the man who bought and paid for her with his soul ..." that have me imagining thunder pounding and angels singing at his every footstep. Needless to say I do not share her opinion.

Some of the comments on her website I disagree with: Note: all instances here are dealt with in greater detail in my manuscript, Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel.

  • law and order committee leader Si Tanner to revive the citizens group they called "The Committee of 101"
There is evidence that Tanner was a member of the vigilantes (Committee of 101) but none that he was ever a leader. He was appointed as one of four guards at the entrance of the Juneau Company Wharf the night Soapy was shot dead. Cathy once told me that as leaders of the 101 Tanner and Reid opted to guard the Wharf entrance from Soapy and his gang rather than attend the meeting, the most important meeting to date in Skagway. Seems to me that the "leaders" would want to be inside, making the important decisions rather than letting the regular members run the show. In reality, Tanner was just a member. It is not even known if Soapy knew who Tanner was when he brushed right passed him, not acknowledging him, as he walked down the wharf boardwalk towards the meeting and his death. It is known that gang member , W. Jackson pointed his pistol at Tanner after Soapy was shot, and in court records testifies that he did not know Tanner. Tanner became known when he was shoed in as temporary and later officially appointed as deputy US marshal.

  • "Soapy" Smith, a notorious conman from Denver who had taken up residence in Skagway, and taken advantage of contentious judicial and police jurisdictions, thought he could take over both the city council and the local police force, the "Safety Committee." For the next five months, Tanner's people kept the petty gamblers and con men under control.
As stated above, Tanner was not a leader. By no means did the vigilantes control the gamblers or Soapy and the con men. In fact, Soapy had control of the police and the city council, of which all were forced to resign their posts after Soapy's death, minus one.
  • Smith, bearing a rifle and a revolver, brushed past the unarmed Tanner. Reid, holding up his Winchester rifle, wouldn't let the leader of the gang advance down the wharf.
Frank Reid had a pistol, said to be borrowed, but not a Winchester rifle.
  • As an an experienced lawman, Si Tanner became a logical member of the law and order committee appointed by Skagway's city council in November 1897. At first this ad hoc police force had little to do. That would all change when Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith and his gang came to town.
I have no records or newspaper articles showing that the "committee" was appointed by Skagway's city council. As far as them having nothing to do until after Soapy arrived, well he was already there, and had been since near the time of Skagway's founding.
  • "Soapy's" man Van Tripplett [Triplett] stole the poke in the yard behind Smith's saloon.
Actually, the poke was stolen in the ally alongside the Parlor.
  • Tanner sent for U.S. Commissioner Charles Sehlbrede in nearby Dyea. Separately, and then together, they warned Smith to return the gold.
I have no record of who contacted Sehlbrede, nor that Tanner was there or involved with warning Soapy to return the gold.
  • Tanner deputized a dozen men, and they began to round up the Smith gang.
More of a clarification than a mistake; Tanner was ordered by Sehlbrede to deputize men and hunt up the gang. The point being that Tanner was not in control, Sehlbrede was, after Soapy died.
  • When one "Slim Jim" Foster escaped his place of imprisonment in the Burkhard Hotel, Tanner assisted in his capture, calmed a crowd bent on a lynching, and assured the U.S. Army, which had "come to the rescue" that martial law was not needed.
At the point of sounding petty and repitious, details mean everything. According to the newspapers and two witnesses, Tanner did not "assist in his [Foster's] capture," or assured the US Army martial; law was not needed. Again it was Sehlbrede.

On her page, Who Killed Soapy? Cathy can thank me for leading her to the little information she does have on Soapy's real killer. Again, my maniscript, Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel goes into the Gunfight on Juneau Wharf in massive detail.

Cathy and I vastly differ in regards to how we view Soapy Smith, and her idol, J. M. Tanner, much as many historians do with Wyatt Earp and the gunfight on Fremont Street, behind the OK Corral. Because of this I look forward to future debates as it is how we learn.

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