February 26, 2010

Soapy Smith joke...

A Soapy Smith joke

Soapy Smith noticed Joe Palmer, one of his gangsters with a nice new watch.

Soapy Smith: “Where did you get that gold watch Joe?”
Joe Palmer: “I won it in a race.”
Soapy Smith: “A race? I didn't hear about no race. How many people was in it?”
Joe Palmer: “Three, …a Sheriff, the owner of the watch, and me!”


As most of you may already know I have spent much of my life researching everything I can find on Jefferson Randolph Smith II, more commonly known as "Soapy" Smith. There is so much information I want and will share with you, perhaps too much if that is possible. Having so much information can make picking out something to write about sort of hard, believe it or not. Usually what happens is that I write about what ever pops up in front of me first which is most of the time via e-mails. My computer has been down and I just moved so as soon as things get settled I want to start publishing two mass part stories. The first will be about the "bad" Soapy, via violent saloon altercations and gunfights. The second installment will be about the "good" Soapy, catering to all of his charity work, etc. I hope this will excite some involvement and response.

By all means if there is some event in Soapy’s life that you would like to know more about or see artifacts and photographs I might have regarding your request, please write in and let me know.

Recently a batch of new stuff has come in and I will get to them first, as I am able. I am still using a computer at the library and combining information is quite a task.


February 25, 2010

Charles L. "Doc" Baggs: Part 6

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A Few Hands With the Devil

Before my computer took one of its famous dives in [date] I was about to post part 6 of my research on confidence man Charles L. “Doc” Baggs, the predecessor of Soapy’s underworld reign of power in Denver, Colorado. Without further fanfare I publish the final installment to the story. Here are the previous posts for those who missed them: Part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5.

According to the Rocky Mountain News of 1915 Baggs had made trips to Denver in the 1870s however I could not find anything on him in Denver that early. Perhaps he might have been there in the very late part of the 70s but most certainly he had arrived by 1880. He continued to travel around the country while residing in Denver. I found him in Omaha, Neb. and Minneapolis, Mn., in September 1882. From there it is believed he went to Chicago where he opened a “big store” operation before returning to Minneapolis, then Brainerd and St. Paul in 1883 (source: St. Paul Daily Globe, April 11, 1883).

In May he returned to Omaha (source: Omaha Daily Bee, June 2, 1883).

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Baggs disguised as a young man about town

“While ‘trimming a sucker.’ To use his own parlance, he was a man of many parts. His disguises were numerous and varied for the occasion at hand. He could be a ranchman, stockman, miner, banker, minister or laboring man, with equal faculty.

His two most famous disguises old timers say, were in playing the part of a stockman or a clergyman. As a stockgrower, just in from the country on business first and sight-seeing later, he not only dressed the part, but reeled off phrases of the cowboy and ranchhand. As a minister, with high silk hat, long Prince Albert coat, white tie and black gloves, he walked the streets as sedately as would any gentleman of the cloth.

His wardrobe of disguises would have been the pride of any theater property man.”

(RMN Aug 8, 1915)

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"Doc" disguised as a prosperous stockman

1884 was Baggs last hurrah in Denver. The following are 1884 newspaper excerpts regarding Baggs.

“We would like to know why “Doc” Baggs doesn’t run for alderman. He posses peculiar fitness for the position, and if he could secure a Republican nomination his election would be a foregone nomination in any ward of the city if he will only pay the price.”

(RMN Feb 27, 1884)

Doc Wins

"'Doc’ Baggs had the novel experience of getting the law on his side yesterday, the jury in the County court in the damage suit against W. B. McCrary & Co., bringing in a verdict in the doctor’s favor for nearly $300 damages. The defendant commission merchants will take an appeal to the Supreme court. Thirteen witnesses were examined in the case, and the worthy doctor displayed nearly as much talent and shrewdness as his attorney, General Montgomery. Judge Harrington had never met the doctor before and gave it as his private opinion yesterday that the so-called ‘M.D.’ was a very smart man. ‘Doc’ Baggs has evidently mistaken his profession. He should have been a lawyer.”

(RMN March 27, 1884)

Baggs Bothered

He is Put to a Trifling inconvenience on Account of Bunkoing a Man Out of $1,000. A few days ago there arrived in Denver from San Jose Cala., a nice smoothly dressed, middle-aged gentleman named J. A. Moultrie. He stopped at the Windsor. Moultrie is an ex-prosecuting attorney and an ex-judge, and had evidently seen and heard enough of the world to know enough to take care of himself under ordinary circumstances. But the contrary appears. Yesterday morning he fell in with “Doc” Baggs, and Topper and Robertson, his friends. It was soon developed that Moultrie had money. He was induced, without any very great degree of persuasion to visit “Doc’s” rooms and try his luck in the famous old-time method of winning it at lottery. At first great luck was his. Then the system switched, and in a very short time Mr. Moultrie had lost $1,000 in good Uncle Sam greenbacks. At first he failed to tumble to the racket, but after he had thought over the matter for a short time, it began to dawn upon him that he had played a great engagement as a sucker. Then he became very warm and wrathy, and sought Sheriff Graham, to whom he related his grievances. Together they proceeded to Justice Jeffries and had issued warrants for Baggs, Topper and Robertson. About half an hour later the sheriff had the satisfaction of meeting “Doc” Baggs and placed him under arrest. He was not under arrest very long however. As is usual in such cases a compromise was effected, Moultrie receiving the most of his money and “Doc” being allowed to go free, as Moultrie would not prosecute. Thus ended another of the daily occurrences of confidence games in our city.

(RMN July 1, 1884)

Eight days later on July 8 Baggs was in the newspapers again for being accused of running the lottery racket against a victim for $400. However the police had a different view.

“The police say that they do not suspect “Doc” Baggs as having any connection with the affair and do not believe that it was any of the gang that “skinned” the victim. There appears to be a number of new bunko men about town just now and they do not appear to all belong to one gang either. … “Doc” was very stylishly dressed yesterday morning-a new gray summer suit and a white plug hat and carrying a new silk umbrella..."

(RMN July 8, 1884)

In 1884 the infamous bunco gang of Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith had risen to become the chief rival of Baggs so it is likely that the “new” bunko men about town” were members of the Soap Gang.

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Larimer Street, Denver.

"Doc" Baggs, the Denver bunko steerer has been indicted by the grand jury of Arapahoe county, and he is to be tried at the present term of court, for swindling and wholesale robbery.

The Tribune-Republican is waging war on the variety theaters, the bunko-steerers, and places of iniquity in general about Denver. It is furnishing a series of biographical sketches that is not very flattering to the individuals written of, or to the police force and members of the City Council who permit this class of people to prey upon every susceptible stranger who comes to that city. The gang of blacklegs that hover around the Union Depot in Denver should be given an application of turpentine and run out of the city, and any City Council flavored with any instinct of decency would see that their absence fill a "long felt want."

(Fort Morgan Times (Fort Morgan, Colo.) November 20, 1884.)

The Denver Tribune-Republican prints the following in bold faced type, under the head of "Warning to Strangers" and below it gives a biographical sketch of the principal operators in confidence games, including "Doc" Baggs, Ed Chase (Soapy Smith’s partner) and John Bull.

Denver is infested with bunko thieves and confidence men. The ordinances of the city forbid their presence and forbid their plying their nefarious occupation, but these ordinances are not enforced and no attempt is made to drive their violators out of the community. You are warned not to make the acquaintance of men who accost you in the hotels or on the street, and who desire to show you the town. Many of them are "cappers" of bunko houses and thieving gambling dens. You may see them in conversation with policemen and police officials. This affords you no guaranty as to their standing, for these men and their practices are well known to the police and to the city officials, yet they are not interfered with, but are permitted, unmolested, to rob and swindle.

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Those wicked games...

The following day Baggs was in a Denver courtroom where he tried the previously successful tactic of quashing a case against him for running a confidence game “on the grounds that the charge of practicing a confidence game was not specific enough in its character, a particular case not being set forth. His request was denied and trial was set for December 4 (source: RMN November 21, 1884).

Bags days in Denver were numbered. The outcome of the December trial is unknown at this time but by the end of the month Baggs was reported in Texas.

“Doc” Baggs, he of bunko fame, has been arrested at Fort Worth, Texas for fleecing a “sucker out of $1,000.

(Fort Morgan Times (Fort Morgan, Colorado) December 25, 1884.)

By 1885 Baggs was on his way out of the game heading towards retirement, leaving Soapy Smith the opportunity to step into the position of becoming Denver's criminal underworld king.

Baggs was such a well-known fixture to the Denver residents that during one trip away from town it was rumored he had been killed. On January 9, 1885 the Denver high school held a moot court for the pretend trial of his murder entitled, Baggs’ Body (source: RMN, January 8, 1885).

It is not known if Baggs ever returned to Denver. In March 1885 it was published in the Rocky Mountain News that he and partner, Clay Wilson, were jailed in South Carolina for selling a gold brick for $3,000 (source: RMN, March 7, 1885).

As late as 1890 the RMN expected Baggs to show up in Denver and resume his operations there (source: RMN July 10, 1890).

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Three-card monte

“Doc” Baggs had not long been away from Denver until reports began reaching here from various parts of the country of his operations in his wider gold-brick field. Associated with him in the greater number of these deals was Clay Wilson, who created a great Denver sensation in 1881 by shooting and killing Jim Moon, the police terror and gambling house proprietor.

Prior to quitting Denver, Baggs was not known to have disposed of more than one gold brick. That one he sold to H. M. Smith, a Leadville banker, for $20,000. Cal Somers aided him in turning that trick.

The carbonate camp [Leadville] was new then and every man was intent on money making. The game of selling a gold brick, playing entirely on a rich man’s cupidity, was not an old one in those days.

A Mexican, it was represented, living in a shack at the foot of Chestnut street, had in his possession a gold brick which, long years ago, had been stolen in a stage robbery while being transported under guard from a Mexican mine to a coast city. The stage holdup was captured, but not before he had buried the treasure. A few days prior to dying in prison, he had confided his secret to a fellow convict, who, on leaving the prison, dug up the plant and was then in Leadville ready to dispose of the gold at less than half its value. Such a long period had elapsed since the robbery that none of the principals still lived; the mine had been abandoned and its owner had left Mexico.

Banker Smith was willing to pay $20,000 for the gold if he were permitted to do his own testing of the gold’s value. This he did. He sawed into the brick in various places, carefully wrapped the filings in a piece of newspaper and took them to an assayer. The gold was as represented, the money paid over to the Mexican and the brick placed in the bank’s vaults.

“Doc” Baggs was the Mexican and Cal Somers his go-between. Somers had deftly substituted genuine gold particles wrapped in a piece of newspaper, for the filings that Banker Smith had taken from the brick, at some time before the filings reached the assayer.

It was two years later that Banker Smith took the brick to the mint and the fraud was exposed.

(RMN 1915)

In 1891 Baggs and Clay Wilson at the Hotel Coronado in California, swindled an Eastern man out of $80,000 by the same Mexico robbery story, and before the details became public they had caught Tom Fitch, who afterward became known as the “silver-tongued orator of the Pacific coast,” and I. R. Howard of the Cedros Island Mining company, for another $15,000. The only variation in the game was that Baggs, in this case, personated an Indian who couldn’t speak a word of English, and an interpreter had to be secured.

Not known for certain is what became of Baggs after his release. One story states he pulled one last sting coming away with $100,000 (use inflation calculator) and retired (RMN 1915). Another story states that “as late as 1930…, Baggs was in good health at the age of ninety-three, living quite comfortably under another name on an estate located near New York City.” Amazingly upon his “disappearance,” no known criminal charges hung over him.

Members of the Baggs gang who stayed behind in Denver after “Doc” Baggs left town included “Troublesome Tom” Cady, Gene Laughlin, Cliff Sparks, Tom Daniels, Joe Armstrong (alias George Millsap), Cal Somers, George Wilder, John L. Bowers, J. B. Parmer, Bill Kelly, and Con Sullivan. Daniels reorganized Baggs’ outfit under his own leadership. Some stayed with him while others applied for membership in Soapy Smith’s gang. By the end of 1885 Soapy was recognized as Denver’s new underworld boss.


February 24, 2010

Soapy Smith's Poker Chips?

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Lot #296:
Two Soapy Smith gambling chips

A post on True West Magazine Forum led me to the Mangold Auction firm where lot #296 had two gaming chips said two have been Soapy’s. The description reads,

Display of famous "Old West" conman Soapy Smith pics, postcards and two poker chips owned by him. Molly of Fly Photography, Tombstone, Arizona postcard of Ed Schiefflin, the founder of Tombstone. Antique booklets, calendar and more.

I wrote to Mangold’s asking about the chips and here is what they had to say.

Soapy Smith: Here is the reply from the consignor on lot 296.
Subject: Re:
Lot 296

At one time we did have a letter but don't know what happened to it. We bought the chips from an antique store in Globe AZ. We have no reason to doubt his word. He also told us that he had sold Doc Holliday's dentist tools which we found out was true from soneone else. We had never heard of Soapy Smith until he told us about who he was and that he knew Wyatt Earp so we bouoght them. He had a stack of chips but we just bought 2. We later bought the postcards off ebay or made copies of the photos from books.

The photograph is poor but having collected gambling artifacts in the past I’d say they sort of look like the wood/paper pulp compressed chips of the mid 1900s, well after Soapy was deceased.


February 13, 2010

William "Klondike" O'Donnell: Update #2.

Yesterday, I sent author Robert Schoenberg the contents of the e-mail I received from author John Binder (see HERE) and quickly received a nice reply.

John's a very conscientious and reliable researcher, and my only (faint) hesitation in taking that birth date as gospel is the fact that it would have made K. [William "Klondike" O'Donnell] only five years older than Capone, and barely in his 30s when most of the action was going on; for instance, McSwiggin was killed in 1926, when K would have been only 32 if the birth date is correct. Yet the picture I got from the Sun-Times files shows a man who (at least to me) looks to be at least in his 40s. At this remove, I don't remember the details or where I got the information, but on p. 82 I wrote that he "was older than the general run of gangsters" and "much older" than Myles. OF course, can't say how much older.

The fact that your O'D was not nicknamed "Klondike" after all makes the coincidence much less startling, in fact barely a coincidence, neither "Wm." nor "O'D" being terribly rare.

SO I guess I have to backtrack and say the order of likelihood that they are the same person has become--in light of John's findings and the non-shared nickname--much diminished, maybe to the vanishing point.

Good luck with your book.
Robert Schoenberg.

For now that pretty much concludes the current research into William O'Donnell. In the 25 years I have been dealing with history, authors, and historians, I know how "facts" can be mistaken by those who collect them. Therefore this is not a closed subject. I believe I have gone as far as I can for now. The information will be filed under Soap Gang member William O'Donnell for future research.

I want to publicly thank Marlene McCluskey of the Skagway Historical Society for making me aware of "Klondike" O'Donnell of Chicago gangster fame. I also wish to thank John Binder and Robert Schoenberg for taking the time to answer my questions thoroughly. Thanks to The Real Deal: Organized Crime Forum for allowing me to join their group and post my questions.


February 12, 2010

William "Klondike" O'Donnell: Update.

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"Place yer bets!"

Yesterday (see here), I reported on the possibility that Skagway Soap Gang member, William O'Donnell, evicted and forced to leave the city with other gangsters after Soapy was killed, may be William "Klondike" O'Donnell of Chicago mob fame that includes the likes of Al Capone.

I spent the day finding Chicago mob historians and discussion boards to obtain some facts that would answer the question.

I joined The Real Deal: Organized Crime Forum, posting my search for information and some of the members e-mailed me with several authorities on the subject who they felt could help me.

My first response came from John Binder, author of The Chicago Outfit. Mr. Binder needed to "double-check his birth year. But as of right now Klondike was almost certainly too young to be the guy in question...". I thanked him and as of writing this I am awaiting his answer and hope he has a good source for the year of birth and/or death. I admit I was somewhat disappointed in reading Mr. Binder's e-mail and was nearly giving up hope when I received an e-mail from Mr. Robert Schoenberg.

Robert Schoenberg is the author of Mr. Capone: The Real and Complete story of Al Capone. Mr. Schoenberg writes

Dear Mr. Smith:

My Web site derives from my book, MR. CAPONE, which I believe is generally reckoned the standard biography--because of the extensive research that went into it, reflected in the 93 pages of source notes at the end. My note, on page 386 of the notes section, referencing page 82 of the text, which is the first mention in my book of O'Donnell and his west side gang, reads like this: "No source even speculated on the origin of his nickname; description (also of Myles, below) DN 5/27/26; no source gave exact ages or background of either". DN = Chicago Daily News, with the date of the issue; it was cited specifically for a description of K [“Klondike”].

Kind of slim pickings. There were three west-side O'Donnell brothers. In the text, K. is called the oldest brother and only one of much account, Myles being much younger and rather sickly, and the middle brother, Bernard, being "lucky to have a job." After K., in fact, the most capable gang member was James J. Doherty, who was killed in the famous ambush that Capone orchestrated in which Bill McSwiggin, an asst. state's atty (Chicagoese for DA) was killed, McSwiggin a boyhood and ongoing pal of gangsters, out for an evening with his pals when Capone struck.

Now, as to your specific question. It seems to me very possible that the two were the same man. You wrote that your Klondike was deported. Now, "deported" generally means sent back to the country of origin. Do you know where K. was deported to? If to Ireland, that would weigh heavily against they're being the same person. If to the U.S. it strengthens the supposition. It would certainly be a striking coincidence if there were two Wm O'Ds who had the same (surely not very common) nickname and-- unlike the vast majority of people--were criminals. If they were the same person, that would explain what is a passing strange nickname for a Chicago fellow. In my text (all of which derives from contemporary newspaper accounts, like that DN reference) I wrote that K. was much older not only than his brothers but also than the general run of that era's gangsters. I have a picture (in one of three 8-page picture forms, this one after p. 192) of both K. and Myles, and K. is, indeed, visibly older. If we can assume that he was no more than in his early 20s in 1898, he would have been about the age shown in his picture.

Although I'm not a crime buff (I wrote the book because I thought it was a good idea and my agent agreed), out of curiosity, sparked by your e-mail, I Googled K. and read the first hit, the Wikipedia entry. I was mildly flattered to see that one of the two sources cited at the bottom was my book. The other was a recent '06 book than I've never heard of PADDY WHACKED, I think the name was. You might consult it as a source. Trouble is, the book evidently has Myles as the oldest brother and founder of the gang--which certainly is at odds with what contemporary newspapers said. So I don't know if the other book is reliable. The part they used mine for was the episode with Eddie Tancl. Unless the other book gives some pretty convincing sources, I would believe reporters who, after all, lived there, knew and covered the O'Ds. (And in the two contemporary pictures that I found, Myles is clearly very much younger than K.) The Wiki. entry says (source, I assume, the other book) that Myles was born on the west side. If so, then presumably so was K., but that doesn't mean much, since he could very well have lit out for Alaska with news of gold.

In short, I don't know how you can, at this remove, prove the case either way. But it does seem likely (maybe even probable) that they are one person.

If you want to read more about the brothers and the gang, you should be able to find my book in any fair-sized library. Or, if you want to own a copy, go back on my Web site, go to the "Know More" page, and you'll find links to the apposite page of Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Boarders. I believe Amazon offers the best deal.

Good luck with your research.
Robert Schoenberg

That e-mail boosted my mood and I quickly shot him a response.

Hello, Robert.

Thank you very for your detailed and sourced information. It is greatly appreciated. I will forward this to the Skagway Historical Society and place a hard copy in my files.

It seems possible that another mystery has been solved. My g-grandfather's gang is as interesting to study as he is. A number of years ago I opened a can of worms in the western genre when my research led several of the gang directly to Wyatt Earp's "gang" which strengthened the concept that the Earp's were not the pristine lawmen many believed them to be. I made enemies with that one but it sure was fun.

My book just came out this last October. I spent 25 years researching and am still finding new information, as you are aware.

To answer one question and correct a comment, the O'Donnell in Skagway was not nicked named "Klondike." The word deported was the wrong word. Perhaps evicted would have been a better choice. William O'Donnell was evicted from Skagway (by vigilantes) and sent by ship along with others to Seattle, Washington.

Jeff Smith

Now I sit back and wait for more information that will hopefully put the question to rest.

And here it is...

As I published this post John Binder e-mailed me with the following.

Klondike O'Donnell, according to two different official records, was born May 12, 1894. This is also consistent with information in the U. S. Census.


Well don't that beat all... I'll let Robert Schoenberg know about this new information and give him a chance to respond but right now it looks like there are two criminals name William O'Donnell. It wouldn't be the first time this has happened and it surely won't be the last.


February 11, 2010

William "Klondike" O'Donnell: Soapy Smith's connection to Al Capone.

I have been working closely with Marlene McCluskey of the Skagway Historical Society and proprietor of the Skagway Historical Society blog. Marlene has been researching and collecting names of early Skagway for over three years now and kindly sent me some of her updates and I am absolutely impressed with her findings. She has grouped 8,219 people into categories, including a list of 112 who worked or had an association with Soapy Smith. I predict that by the time her and I are completed with that gang list it will be the most "precise" directory of the Skagway Soap Gang known.

One of the interesting sidebars of studying the Soap Gang is that most of the men have exciting histories of their own. In the past I have uncovered members of Soapy's gang that had association with Wyatt Earp, the Blonger brothers and other characters of the old west. Some went on to continue a life of crime long after they left Skagway. Just how further in time did they go? Most ended their careers not to long after Soapy's death but a few continued on and I lost their trails. Marlene has been doing her own research and sent me an email that suggests that one of the gang may have continued on into the era of Chicago's "roaring 20s," and Al Capone.

William O'Donnell, a member of the Skagway Soap Gang was among those deported after Soapy was killed in the shootout on Juneau Wharf in 1898. Marlene asked me if I had "ever heard of "Klondike O'Donnell" the leader of the west-side O'Donnell mob of Chicago/Cicero?" She questions that the two men could very well be one and the same. If O'Donnell had been about 18 in 1898 then in 1920 he would be about 39. It's enough to take a hard look into. I am currently working with several Chicago gangster historians to see if there is a possibility.

On-line there is little recorded about the early of William "Klondike" O'Donnell, the gangster of Chicago fame. The above photograph, an obvious cropping of a larger photograph, is the only one I could find so far. Wikipedia (always unreliable) says that William was the younger brother Irish born American prohibition bootlegger and mobster Myles O'Donnell. Shootouts with rivals will be very recognizable to patrons of my book on Soapy. In March of 1933 William took over Chicago's west-side operations but eventually failed and ended up penniless. Another website states he died in December 1976.

I should have more to report soon.


February 10, 2010

Ed Burns, Soapy Smith and Leadville, Colorado

Ann Parker over on her blog, The Silver Rush Mysteries, posted a nice piece on "Big Ed" Burns while he was in Leadville, Colorado. She posted a great quote on Burns from the Carbonate Chronicle, February 1880.

. . . His strength was something terrible, and his deep chest was a human embodiment of Hercules . . . but with all his massiveness of frame he was agile and quick as a ballet dancer. Standing by the bar in a saloon he prided himself upon the fact that he could kick a man’s hat off with a single sweep of his foot. . . .

Burns did anything to make money, and as he seldom had the cash to engage in any of what are termed square gambling schemes, he earned a precarious livelihood by “skingames.” The old Theatre Comique was his favorite haunt. In a little side room known as “the joint,” many is the honest miner whom Big Ed robbed by dice, bunko or crooked poker. A cabinet of mineral specimens in one corner was always the pretext under which the victim was enticed into the den, and the gigantic form of the swindler did not make it desirable for the “sucker” to kick very loud or long.

. . . Might was right, muscle was master, and wherever brute strength was needed, Big Ed was called upon. The quieting effect that his massive form had upon a crowd, was something not readily expressed in words, and when he leaped into a wrangling circle of men, flung a chair out of the window, and said: “Let there be peace,” the silence was painful.

Thank you Ann!

Fans of Soapy might know that Burns has a history of association with such notables as Wyatt and his brother Virgil Earp in Arizona. In fact it was Burns who warned Wyatt of threats being made to the Earp's by the "cow-boy gang." Later in Denver and Creede, Colorado Burns joined the Soap Gang and followed Soapy to Alaska and joined his private army, the Skaguay Military Company.

pp. 43, 77-79, 101-02, 120, 176, 210, 405, 487, 489, 571.


Soapy Smith question...

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Skagway Bay

Most of my correspondences regarding Soapy come to me via private email. I value other peoples input and opinions whether they agree with me or not. Many are interesting enough that I feel others might want to read them as well and I entertain the idea of posting them here on the blog hoping they may answer questions others have, or better yet, bring up new ones. I always ask permission from the sender to post their words here, minus contact and other private information. I've had a few refuse me permission and I respect their privacy.

I sincerely invite you along on the quest to uncover the real story of Jefferson Randolph Smith II, alias "Soapy."

The following is an example from Ron who allowed me to post his email. Ron had purchased my book and had some questions for me. He writes

Dear Jeff,

I wanted to write to you for a long time.

Let me first say how wonderful your book on "Alias Soapy Smith" is, which I obtained through Klondike [Klondike Research]. I have read most of it thoroughly. It is wonderful to have all this material available, and it is good to have all the primary references (such as RMN [Rocky Mountain News]). Many books without primary references turn out to be useless in the long run.

I had asked DeArment ("Knights of the Green Cloth") [Robert DeArment] about primary references, and he replied that he wrote the book a while ago, and did not keep the primary references. Thus, whatever he writes in the book, has to be taken in good faith.

Let me tell you a few things about myself. I have been interested in magic and gambling for maybe 50 years, and have been an avid collector. I have one of the biggest (and one of the few) collections in gambling and confidence games. (Perhaps ca. 800 volumes, in many languages).

One of my main interests have been "3 Card Monte" and the "Shell Game". Hence my familiarity with many aspects of Soapy. I am a friend of Whit Haydn, and, e.g., if you look in his book on "3 Card Monte", you will find my photos and antique illustrations. The same goes for photos of the "Shell Game" in more recent releases. He wanted to introduce us during several visits of mine to California but somehow this never was possible.

I was particularly intrigued by the reproduction of the photo of a 3 shell man (facing p. 353).

Here is perhaps an interesting tidbit. I have witnessed an actual "Soap Scam", as described in your book. This was in London, in the 50ies (presumably on Pettycoat Lane. One of my magic friends in London, Patrick Page, will know all about this scam in England. The scam I observed used soap in wrappers.

Incidentally, nobody seems to know where the now ubiquitous word "Scam" suddenly came from, about 35 years ago. It should be absent from all your original sources.

Obviously, you know much more about "Soapy" than I ever will know, and you have all the original materials. Nevertheless, let me make a few comments at this time.

You acknowledge Darryl Beckmann with respect to Alexander (alias Conlin). At one time, the hypothesis was put forward that Alexander in his youth was a member of the Soapy Gang in Skagway. This hypothesis would have been extremely interesting, because Alexander at one time marketed a "Shell Game Routine" through Thayer (under the pseudonym "Dr. Q"), and some people theorized that this routine may be related or have originated with Soapy.. The current expert on Alexander, however, is David Charvet. He has written a comprehensive book on Alexander. A revised second edition appeared a couple of years ago. While the first edition still maintained the Alexander hypothesis, this aspect since has been refuted (also by the family of Alexander), and seems no longer valid. It is not contained in the second edition, to the best of my knowledge (I have the book somewhere, but cannot lay my hands on it right now. I also met Alexander's remaining family members at the Magic Castle some years ago). (By separate memo, I am sending you an e-mail; concerning the first edition of the Charvet book).
(The photo from Skagway, in the bar, has been trimmed on the right side so as not to contain any "unknowns"). (I have discussed this aspect with Charvet).

I have also briefly looked in my library for references to Soapy that you do not include in your bibliography. (You may have your own reasons).

Mike Miller and Stan Sauerwein have published books on Soapy. (You allude to Clifford in your forward to the book).

Herbert Asbury may deserve mention. His "Sucker's Progress" is the best known history of gambling in the United States, and contains a chapter on Soapy. (Herbert Asbury wrote many other books, including "Gangs of New York", which was made into a movie a few years ago).
Generally, Herbert Asbury was a careful researcher, depending mostly on primary sources. His book has been accepted as the gospel not only by many gambling devotees, but by practically all Departments and Libraries of Western History . Unfortunately, if Asbury is wrong on any issue, the resulting wrong opinions seems pervasive in the U.S.

Irvin, "Confessions of a Con man" , which you include, is an interesting and somewhat unexpected (to me at least) reference.

Here are some others, that you do not include:
Alexander Klein, "Grand Deception" , on the legendary Mizners, which includes Soapy. This chapter is based on the New Yorker magazine.

Henry Chafetz, "Play the Devil, a History of Gambling in the United States from 1492 to 1950" is one of a small number of histories of gambling in the States (I probably have them all). and has a chapter (p. 131 ff)on Soapy . (P.S. I knew Henry Chafetz, who used to work at the fourth Street Bookstore in New York City. Henry died a long time ago; the bookstore has been closed for almost the same amount of time)..

Bill Kelly, "Gamblers of the Old West" mentions Soapy.

P.S. I have followed your wonderful web pages for quite some time.


Here is my response I sent to him.

Hello, Ron.

I am very glad you liked the book.

I have kept all my primary references used in the book, plus just about everything I have ever come across about Soapy. Naturally my situation is different from DeArment's, whom I know. He and I have had numerous conversations and I trust his book(s), although I completely understand and agree that authors should keep their files. Then again if you write as many books as DeArment has then you end up needing storage units, lol.

I too (once) collected gambling and gaffed items but divorce cured me of that habit. Now I stick purely with Soapy and his associates.

As you know already, I know Whit too. We met for the first annual Soapy Smith party (Wake) at the Magic Castle. I am sorry we did not find the time and place to meet.

You mentioned that photo of the shell man facing page 353. The suit and hat are identical to what Soapy wore. It could be him, however, that was a common outfit for many 'Klondikers' and businessmen at the time in Alaska and the Yukon.

I have witnessed three-card monte and the shell games in New York and Los Angeles but never had the pleasure of seeing the prize package soap racket! On-line you can find "Money Soap" which is the same principal and is obviously a swindle as they advertise that you can win a fifty dollar bill.

I disagree that David Charvet is the leading expert on Conlin. I have personally known Darrel for a number of years now and he has impressed me with his knowledge and sources. On the other hand, David, whom I have met only once but have exchanged many emails with, continues to mislead his readers with bogus information about Soapy's death using my own words out of context. Although for several years I have proven to him that I did not agree with his made up story of Conlin killing Soapy, in which on the Magic Cafe he finally consented that he was wrong, yet he refused to take out the information in his second edition. This is definitely not the method of a historian. Whether Conlin was actually a member of the Soapy Gang is only "reported" as I state in my book. Darryl contacted me years ago in performing his research whether Conlin knew Soapy, whereas David, although knowing of me, chose not to. Darryl agrees fully that the only evidence of Conlin and Soapy was that Conlin supposedly got taken in a shell game. I chose to use the word "reported" as it was. The jury is still out on that issue as it is with so many other stories about Soapy.

In writing about Soapy many authors used books and sources already in print which is why I did not place the Mike Miller and Stan Sauerwein books in my bibliography. I alluded to the earliest sources. The Miller book is a novel by the way. Many of the books and stories I did not use were due to lack of provenance. Another edition could easily be written just on stories about Soapy with no provenance or sources. I alluded to Howard Clifford in my forward because in the early days of his Soapy fascination (1960s-80s) he was strictly the type of historian I admire, sticking with just factual information. My father and I met him in 1973 in Seattle during the Pullen auction (well known in Alaskan artifact history). Many of the facts he used in publications after 1980 came from my father and myself. However, he changed in the late 80s and catered towards sensationalism and his later works and reasoning suffered in my opinion, coming out with theories that were out in left field.

I am about to move my residence so all my books are in storage, including Sucker's Progress. At this moment I do not recall what he wrote about Soapy but again there was obviously a reason why I did not include his work. I will throw out a guess that his section on Soapy was a repeat of earlier works. This was so common that you will note how little I mention the two main biographies up to the date of my publication, The Reign of Soapy Smith and Soapy Smith: King of the Frontier Con Men. It has nothing to do with whether I thought the books were deserving of attention but more along the lines of preferring to source with the earliest provenance.

I used Irvin's quote from Confessions of a Con man because it beautifully said what I believe to be true. Being a descendant of a famous person has its perks and downsides. One for the latter being that many are willing to "take my word for it." It is far better for me to quote an existing and very early quote rather than use my own words that so many might not accept as valid.
You listed some more books including, Grand Deception (New Yorker magazine), Play the Devil. The only one I do not recognize or own is Gamblers of the Old West. My reasons for not using them is the same as above. At 650 pages I was forced to cut a lot of uncritical information and was not allowed to repeat.

I want to honestly thank you very much for corresponding with me, and I hope that we can continue! I don't pretend to know everything about Soapy. In fact, one of the most amazing points I often make to people is the amount of new information I continue to run into even after 25 years of research. I have a blog and discussion forum (links below) that you are invited and most welcome to post on, whether you agree with a topic or not. I would value your input as I am not just seeking pats on the back, however good they feel. The goal of my sites is for everyone to explore and learn, including myself. There are some discussion boards about Tombstone and Wyatt Earp that are very serious in their debates on history. I have always hoped that some day my Soapy sites would get the responses those Earp sites do. Not sure that you would agree but I feel Soapy Smith is far more interesting a study than Wyatt Earp, but I guess I'm just a little prejudice, lol. Therefore if you feel up to it please feel free to post comments, questions, facts, etc. I will be more than happy to continue our private correspondences as well. May I have permission to post your email, leaving out private contact information of course. Along with it I will post my response that you just read. My goal is to open up interest not make you look bad in any way.

I look forward to hearing from you!

Ron writes back

Dear Jeff,

Thanks so much for your very detailed and kind answer. I agree: Let us keep in touch.

You may use my letter, deleting, as stated, confidential info.

I respect your opinion about Charvet.

This leaves, however, the question: Was Alexander (obviously not under that name) a member of the Soapy gang in Skagway? Is there any evidence other than a (superficial?) resemblance to one person in one photo?

Do you have any information about Soapy's "3 Shell Game" routine?

I agree with your reasons for not using the Soapy biographies by Miller, Sauerwein, etc., who depend only on secondary sources. The question remains whether such biographies should be included in a comprehensive bibliography, perhaps with a (cautious?) restrictive comment.

I have googled "Money Soap", which I would never have found without your hint. Hilarious!!!!!

Your comments about Clifford were very interesting to me. I once talked to him over the phone. We night remember that he was of an advanced age. Is he still alive?

If I remember, Mason sent up a roulette wheel to the Northwest. The table was made locally. Is this the outfit that Ricky Jay bought?

By the way, and this has nothing to do with Soapy, I own a gaffed Roulette wheel, made (or at least sold) by Mason in Denver.

Do you know when Mason opened its branch in Denver?

In one of the books I remember having seen a big white marble bust of Soapy, made in Denver. I do not remember reading about it in your book. What is the current knowledge about this sculpture?

Most people, and I am sure you will agree, do not know much about the Shell Game or 3 Card Monte. I would be very interested in any information that I might not have.

I am aware of your blog and web sites about Soapy.

Some years ago, I was in Leadville doing some gambling research. Still an interesting city. One of these days, I want to go to Creede, for the same reasons.

I hope I have addressed all points.


I respond,

Hi, Ron.

Thank you for letting me use your comments on my blog.

Regarding Conlin, the first photo comparisons in which one person in Soapy's saloon appears to look like Conlin occurred in the 1980s. I had never heard of Conlin until John Pomory contacted me and said he performed expensive computer testing that "proved" the man in the photo was Conlin. I wrote back (snail mail back then) and congratulated him on his find (This is the letter Charvet used to show I agreed with his "Conlin killed Soapy" farce). Years went by and I found out more about Conlin, like that he was over six foot tall, which the man in the photo is obviously not. Other than what Conlin wrote, there is no provenance that he was ever a member of Soapy's gang, which again is why I published "reported member of the gang."

The only known information about Soapy's experience with the three shell and pea game is published in my book. I am hopeful there is more about this (and so much more) in family collections, which when revealed will be posted on my blog.

I did not include Soapy biographies by Miller, Sauerwein, etc., in my comprehensive bibliography in the book because as you know, I did not use them. A published book bibliography is not supposed to mention every book ever written about a subject, but rather only the ones actually utilized by the author. With that said, these books are valued editions in my book collection.
Unfortunately, Howard Clifford seemed to pass away unnoticed by the press. I tried contacting family with no luck. I never even found out when he died.

The roulette table Ricky Jay purchased was Soapy's. He ceased communications with me and I sure would love to know how that table is doing if you have contact with him.

I do not know when Mason opened their doors in Denver. I know they were not far from Soapy's Tivoli Club.

That large bust of Soapy is a mystery. It has to exist somewhere but as of yet I do not know where. Someday it will pop up somewhere.

I perform the shell game and three-card monte but have no inside information for you other than what is already in print, sorry.

I've been throughout Colorado on research. Creede is fun to visit but there is little there. After the June 5, 1892 fire the business district and the gamblers (in general) did not rebuild. It is quite a trek getting to Creede as well. If I had the chance I'd probably go again.
I hope I answered all your questions even though information may be lacking. I look forward to hearing from you.

Ron and I continue our interesting correspondence.


February 9, 2010

Soapy Smith: Story of a curse and another of luck.

(Click image to enlarge)
Wagon Wheel Gap
(near Creede, Colorado)

Ingrained in the history of Soapy Smith are stories of folklore handed down from generation to generation. One of those I cover in my book is The curse of Wagon Wheel Gap.

... An interesting part of the letter involves a father telling his son to “look out for your hand.” A family story called “The Curse of Wagon Wheel Gap” tells how a victim of Jeff’s games near Creede put a hex on the Smith family. Forever, the hand of all first-born males would be impaired. Fear of this curse was renewed in the Smith family when the first grandson was born with a deformed left hand. Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel, pp. 447-448.

I was reminded of the "curse" when I received an email from good friend, Whit Haydn quoting a story of good luck related to Soapy.

For five years, just before the annual Soapy Smith Wake at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, California I open up the case holding Soapy's original wooden grave marker. The bottom of the marker is shredded, occurring during the flood of 1919. Over time very small pieces of wood fall from the marker and I carefully pick these up and place them in a container. I then send Whit two pieces and he has them expertly displayed in two shadow boxes for the events auction.

At the top of the grave marker tourists and fans of Soapy splintered the marker and took slivers of the marker as souvenirs and good luck pieces. Historically Soapy is known for his charities and loyalty to friends and associates. His personal letters described in my book bear this out many times over. Thus stories of old friends visiting his grave to pay their respects and taking a piece of the marker as a token of good luck.

Whit's email to me contained what a previous successful bidder of the shadow boxed grave marker wood chip wrote.

November 02, 2009 2:39 PM
Marshall & Sharlene Behrman

Dear POP
we saw your show last Friday night and loved it! We spoke with you after and told you how our luck has changed since buying the Soapy Smith tombstone chip! You were the auctioneer that night! We keep it displayed and truly believe it has brought us good luck. Great things have happened and horrible things we feared have vanished from our lives!

Attention family members: If you have additional information on the curse of Wagon Wheel Gap or other family folklore, true or not, please let us know.


February 8, 2010

The Battle of Brown's Mill, 1864.

(Click image to enlarge)
The beginning of the Battle of Brown's Mill
Newnan Broad Street Depot.

Jefferson Smith’s youth was overshadowed by the Civil War. It began on the early morning of April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces opened fire on the Federal garrison at Fort Sumter in the Charleston, South Carolina, harbor. Georgia was the fifth state to secede from the Union and join the Confederate States of America. Two of Ira’s sons, Ira Ellis Caspar Wistar and Columbus Darwin, joined the Confederate cavalry to fight for the Southern cause. Both men survived the war. Young Jeff was able to continue his education at a Sabbath school throughout the war.

The War Between the States is a significant part of the history of Newnan and Coweta County. Newnan was known as the "hospital city of the Confederacy," having six field hospitals located city-wide in churches, homes, and other buildings and serving as many as 10,000 wounded soldiers of both the North and South.

On July 30, 1864, the carnage and violence of the war approached Newnan. During the siege of Atlanta, Union Brigadier General McCook with 3,600 Federal cavalry began a campaign of raids against Southern railroads, the final objective of which would be the attempt to rescue 32,000 Union prisoners at Andersonville. In the path of the army advancing on Andersonville was Newnan. Believed at the time was that General McCook intended to capture wounded Confederates at Newnan. The Union troops were only three miles from the town when Major General Joseph Wheeler with 1,400 Confederate cavalry caught up with the Federals, engaged them in battle, and won a victory. Captured were approximately 2,000 prisoners, several ambulances, and a full battery. Also won was the release of about 500 Confederate prisoners that McCook had in his possession.

The Confederate triumph, known as the “Battle of Brown’s Mill,” probably saved Newnan from the destruction that many Southern cities suffered. —Alias Soapy Smith:The Life and Death of a Scoundrel, pp. 22-23.

Edition of each Giclee print on canvas limited to an edition of 125 signed and numbered. Contact the Newnan Coweta Historical Society for cost and details.


February 7, 2010

More on Robert Ford's bloodied collar tab, part II.

(Click books to enlarge)

want to thank Paul Saeli from the True West forum for scanning the pages from Hands up!: Stories of the six-gun fighters of the old wild West, Bobbs-Merrill Publishing Co., 1927. The pages depict the story of how Soapy obtained Robert Ford's bloody collar button. It's a gory but fun (in my opinion) story.

Always someone ready to make a buck!
(sorry the ad is just a joke)


More on Robert Ford's bloodied collar tab...

Gay Mathis has done it again. She has been very helpful in the genealogical search on my early family. She seems to have a "green thumb" when it comes to finding articles I have never seen before. I hope she knows how much I appreciate her contributions.

She sent a small write-up and cartoon from the Dallas Morning News (September 21, 1930) depicting the moments after Robert Ford's murder in which the article states Soapy picked up Ford's diamond collar button. This is the first time I've heard that it was a diamond collar button/tab.


Bob Ford's bloody collar tab story.


I received an interesting message on True West forum about Bob Ford and Soapy Smith. Member Paul had heard about the Ford collar button story of which I did not cover in the book.

Paul writes.

Hi Jeff,

I'd like to ask you a question about Soapy. There is a chapter in Fred Sutton's memoirs "Hands Up" (as told to A.B. MacDonald) that is about the death of Jesse James. The story line follows Jesse's murderer Bob Ford to Creede, Co and briefly but graphically describes Ford's death. According to Sutton the shotgun blast that killed Ford blew his collar button through his neck. That button was said to have been picked up by soapy who carried it with him until his death and was buried with it.

Do you know anything about that?


Paul (LoneJack)

Jeff Smith writes.

Hi, Paul.

I have heard the story, except in the one I heard the collar button was embedded into a tent pole and that someone else found it and gave it to Soapy. I never heard the part about him being buried with it. It is not mentioned in any of the newspapers or estate records in Skagway, Alaska where he is buried. To my knowledge it has not surfaced within the family, then again, would anyone know it was Ford's? What an incredible find if it did exist!

Bob Ford's Creede adventures are covered well in my book, Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel but due to the massive size of the book my publisher edited the collar button story out along with many other stories that had no provenance.


Do you have any more information on this story, or perhaps have a collar button in your collections of Soapy Smith artifacts? Let us know!


February 6, 2010

Soapy Smith political cartoon

All a part of a days work in Denver at election time, 1889

In the spring of 1889, Jeff, Ed Chase, "Bat" Masterson, John Morris, Ned Parker, John Kinneavy, John (Texas Jack) Vermillion, city detective Sam "Sheeny Sam" Emrich and a host of others were involved in the criminal act of fraudulently registering hundreds of names to vote so the ballot boxes could be stuffed with hundreds of false and fictitious votes.

"Election day, April 2, 1889, turned into a carnival of abuses. Reportedly, because of their twenty-thousand-dollar slush fund, saloonkeepers were able to pat two dollars per vote. Bonuses for repeaters were generously awarded in the form of lottery tickets and free beer. Tramps and hoodlums from nearby towns were brought to Denver and marched to the polls by election-day special deputies." —Tom Noel, The City and the Saloon.

From: Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel, p173.


Bill Burrud Treasure - The Saga of Soapy Smith

(Click image to enlarge)
Treasure with Bill Burrud
50th Anniversary Special Vol 3 (1958)

I vaguely remember the hoopla in our household in 1964 when the TV Guide showed that Bill Burrud's Treasure was showing the Saga of Soapy Smith. In '64 I was only six-years-old and I don't remember actually watching the show but I do remember knowing that my father was very excited about it. He saved the TV Guide which I preserved as a part of the Soapy Smith collection.

In the early 1990s I found Burrud Productions on-line and they were kind enough to send me a VHS copy of the Saga of Soapy Smith. They admitted it was not a professional copy, and it wasn't, but to me it was gold on a silver platter! Over the years I must have watched it hundreds of times.

Minus the common historical mistakes the episode is a well-done and very fun portrayal of Soapy's rise to power in Skagway, Alaska that leads through his death. The question arises as to where Soapy's wealth went after his death. It is hard to fathom that Soapy died broke at the height of power as reported in history. His widow claimed he was worth millions.

A couple of years ago the DVD collection for the 50th Anniversary Special of Treasure was released and Volume 3 contains the Saga of Soapy Smith. I purchased the DVD and was finally able to see a great copy of the Soapy Smith episode. This DVD is most worthy of any Soapy Smith collection!

Volume 3 also contains five other classic reality treasure tales from the popular 1958 TV Series. Episodes include "Saga of Soapy Smith", "Shipwreck of the Dry Tortugas", "Treasure of Ulloa", "Aztec Gold" "Death on the Wilderness Trail" and "The Legend of Luis Candelas." All six of these half-hour shows were photographed in full color and are part of the original 30 episodes produced for television (150 minutes total).

I purchased my copy from Amazon.com for $14.95. If Amazon happens to be out I noticed other places had it when I Googled the name.