February 10, 2010

Soapy Smith question...

(Click image to enlarge)
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.


1 comment:

  1. There are so many fantastic web designers out there that share their work with the rest of us...
    The article of this blog very informative and useful also.It resolves many problems of mine.
    I loved it.thanks for this marvelous article...................

    online literacy


Thank you for leaving your comment and/or question on my blog. I always read, and will answer all questions left here. Please know that they are greatly appreciated. -Jeff Smith