December 15, 2009

1998 Who Shot Soapy Smith Symposium

(Click on image to enlarge)

On December 2, 2009 I published a piece about a few comments Cathy Spude made on her website in which she seemingly (her website is confusing when it comes to a final conclusion) changed her mind regarding who shot Soapy Smith and she once again believes Frank Reid killed him. She had made a few errors in reporting the content of the article, which is interesting in itself, so I decided to post the entire story.

In 1998 my family had a family reunion in Skagway, Alaska at the same time the city was commemorating the centennial of the Shootout on Juneau Wharf (July 8, 1898). A symposium, of which I was a member of, asked the question, “Who Shot Soapy Smith?” The following is an article about the event by Jeff Brady of the SKAGWAY NEWS. It should be noted that since 1998 a lot more information has been uncovered to link Jesse Murphy with the killing of Soapy all of which is detailed in my book.

The Skagway News
July 24, 1998


‘Who Shot Soapy’ panel: Reid did not fire fatal bullet
‘Hero’ Murphy or ‘goat’ Jackson; Could Reid fire while falling?

Skagway News Analysis

While the world still searches for the answers about the death of JFK, Skagway still can’t find a solution to the shooting of JRS.

Ever since Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith and Frank H. Reid met each other in their “Fatal Duel” on July 8, 1898, a decade has raged over whether Reid acted alone in bringing down Skagway’s legendary “arch desperado.”

A “Who Shot Soapy” Symposium was held at the Eagles Hall on the 100th anniversary of the shooting to try and reach a conclusion about who fired the bullet that killed Smith. Step aside, Oliver Stone.

Participating along with author Howard Clifford were great grandsons Jeff O. Smith of San Dimas, Calif., Jefferson R. Smith V of Torrence, Calif., Jim Carraway of Milwaukee, Wisc., and great granddaughter Shelagh Moriarty Bellack of Los Angeles. About 20 local residents and visitors attended.

Clifford, in his 1997 book, “Soapy Smith, Uncrowned King of Skagway,” explained that Reid could not have fired the fatal bullet, which entered Smith’s right side.

“My question is that Reid, with the revolver in his right hand, wrestling each other, could not have fired from his pistol through (Smith’s) right side, through the heart and out the left side. That’s the course the bullet took,” Clifford told the audience. [Jeff Smith note: The two Skagway newspapers each had the course of the death bullet traveling in opposite directions.] “This is where the contention is that possibly somebody else was involved.”

Jeff O. Smith, who joined Clifford on stage, noted that White Pass & Yukon Route doctors conducted the autopsy, which was used as evidence for the published inquest report. It concluded that Reid shot Soapy. However, based on conversations with doctors, Smith said his great-grandfather’s shot shattered Reid’s pelvis at close range, effectively paralyzing him.

“Whether with single or double action (revolver) he would have literally went numb,” Smith said. “He (Reid) would have been unable to fire.”

According to different eyewitnesses and published accounts, four to eight shots were fired, so the panelists posed the question: Who shot Soapy?

This is where Clifford and the Smith family disagree.

The family has maintained for years that Jesse Murphy, a railroad employee, fired the fatal bullet. And the railroad, in cahoots with the vigilantes led by Tanner, was behind both the robbery and the shooting and did not want a railroader taking the credit. [Jeff Smith note: I don’t contend Tanner was a leader in the vigilantes, nor behind the robbery. Since when are the leaders appointed as guards to the main meeting?] Reid, a single man with a sordid past (he had killed a man in Oregon) was not well-liked and was a safe bet to be the fall guy, according to various “conspiracy theorists.”

During the eight-hour inquest, Clifford said several people reportedly stated that Murphy shot Soapy. “He (Murphy) was a popular person. The only thing is, he was unarmed. This is the record. But when (Soapy) went down, he did grab Soapy’s rifle.”

Clifford added that while a lot of people claimed they witnessed the shooting, they probably weren’t close enough to the wharf to see what really happened. In his book, he theorized that Turner Jackson, Soapy’s body guard [no source], could have fired the fatal shot by mistake while trying to hit Reid.

Clifford stressed at the symposium that his theory can’t be proven, but that the possibility was raised at Jackson’s trial in Sitka, where he was sentenced for pointing a weapon at Tanner during the incident. [Jeff Smith note: The “possibility” was raised by Clifford not at the trial]

Jeff O. Smith, who is writing his own book, discounted the Jackson theory, saying that his name is never mentioned as a body guard in any of Soapy’s letters or papers. He sticks by the Murphy theory.

Jeff R. Smith V interjected that it is highly possible that Murphy may have picked up the rifle while Soapy was down and shot him.

Jeff O. Smith said he has two letters to back this up from Superintendent Samuel Steele of the Northwest Mounted Police. He quoted from a letter Steele wrote to his superiors in Ottawa not long after the incident.

“Soapy Smith attempted to murder a Mr. Reid who was organizing a party to recover money from a returning Klondiker named J.D. Stewart that had been robbed of same by some of Smith’s gang. In the struggle … Soapy Smith was shot and killed from his own gun by a man named Murphy,” the letter stated.

In another letter later in the month, Smith said Steele backed up the Murphy allegations, based on an interview he had with Tanner, who had been appointed Deputy Marshal after the shooting. “A man named Murphy is credited with the killing of Smith, and not Frank Reid, as reported in the newspapers.”

Each of the panelists noted that the newspapers of the day could not be trusted. Indeed, J. Allen Hornsby, the assistant editor of the Daily Alaskan, was one of the “unwanted” shipped out a few days after the shooting. His crime: not reporting the robbery of J.D. Stewart in a timely fashion. Skagway News associate editor Elmer J. “Stroller” White escaped a similar fate, probably for getting an “Extra” out on the streets the evening of the shooting. White did move on, to Bennett and Dawson a couple months after the shooting, and made hay on his retelling of Soapy tales years later in his columns in Stroller’s Weekly.

As often is the case, newspapers are looked upon as the first draft of history. The Skagway papers were born in the age of “yellow journalism.” The most renowned editors of this era like James Gordon Bennett, Horace Greeley and William Randolph Hearst were in the business of creating heroes and villains every day and “never letting the truth get in the way of a good story.” So when Skagway had its own national story — the rise and fall of one of the last desperadoes of the American West — they latched onto an unlikely hero. Reid reportedly was heard to say “Did I get him, boys?” as he was being carried off, so he never knew if he fired the fatal shot. He lived 12 days and the papers reported on his progress and then rapid decline as if he were a saint — singers even comforted him with hymns and he supposedly repented for his past sins. After he died, he was buried a hero in the town’s largest funeral to this day. Later the newspapers supported a fund-raising drive to erect a monument above his grave.

Ironically, Soapy had been one of the parade marshals on the Fourth of July, was offered a job in Sitka that celebrated day by Gov. John G. Brady. If Soapy had taken that job, reportedly with the marshal’s office, it’s safe to say his gang would have scattered and there would have been no robbery on July 8. Soapy could have risen to the same pedestal Wyatt Earp enjoys to this day.

Soapy was buried outside the cemetery. Only three people attended his funeral, including his unnamed mistress who left town after her bags were searched. Rev. J.A. Sinclair eulogized him with the passage: “The way of the transgressor is hard.” Soapy’s estranged wife [Jeff Smith note: no source to say that] came north from St. Louis that August with one of her three children to settle what was left of her husband’s affairs and found, according to family records, the estate in the hands of Soapy’s partner, John Clancy. The Smith family and Clifford believe Clancy, because he escaped prosecution, was a possible informant, and was allowed to retain Soapy’s Parlor as payment for his cooperation.

In the newspapers’ defense, it certainly is possible for Reid to have killed Smith. As both men struggled and then fell, their bodies could have been positioned to allow a shot from Reid’s gun to enter Smith’s right side. But it’s safe to say shots from others were probably fired.

Without the possibility of forensic evidence, there is no way to prove any theory. Soapy Smith can’t be dug up like Jesse James and probed at a DNA lab, Soapy’s grave washed down the Skagway River during a flood on Oct. 3, 1918. His remains are at the bottom of Taiya Inlet, and the two bullets have never turned up. The disappearance of the bullets, under a railroad-supervised autopsy, certainly lends credence to the conspiracy theory that the fast paced rail builders could have set up Soapy for his fall, and covered their tracks.

When an hour was up, most in the room agreed that the headlines from July 1898 were probably wrong: Soapy was not “Shot through the heart by Frank Reid.”

They adjourned to go see Soapy get shot again, at First and State, the site of the “Fatal Duel” monument which was unveiled that night.

Others were lurking in the crowd with guns, but when they tried to fire, their guns jammed. One hundred years later, it was still Reid who killed Soapy.

Publisher Jeff Brady was moderator of the “Who Shot Soapy” Symposium and portrayed the “arch desperado” during the centennial shootout.


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