March 9, 2010

Artifacts: Soapy Smith at the World Columbian Exposition, 1893

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A letter from Soapy Smith to his wife
October 1, 1893

I am going to start presenting my collection, one piece at a time. They are not in any special order except by file number. This first one is, yes, "item #1." Being #1 is only for file space allotment and not meant to be the most important artifact in my collection.

The year is 1893 and Soapy is in Denver while his wife Mary resides in St. Louis with her mother and the children. On October 1, 1893, the day after Jeff's poem, A Twilight Tale, a ditty on the current political and social ills of the nation as it suffered from the Panic of 1893, was published in the Denver Mercury, Soapy wrote Mary, whom he occasionally called "Mollie."

My dear own Mollie

On the 10th of October or a few days before, I want you to be ready to go with me to Chicago. We will stay there 4 or 5 days and have a time of our own. We will leave the babys [sic] with mother and paint the town red. I have been almost crazy since you left. But I am still alive.

Love to all,

The letter is handwritten on stationary from the Iron Mask Hotel in Gilman, Colorado, named after one of the main mines in town. The hotel burnt down in 1899. It is not known if Soapy had actually been there. Collecting any stationary to write letters was common and could have been obtained in Denver somewhere.

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The envelope

Lucky for this artifact the envelope was kept with the letter. From the front of the envelope we learn that Mary lived at 917 Locust in St. Louis. It cost two cents to mail it and it was postmarked in Denver at 7 p.m. October 1, 1893, so he mailed it the same day he wrote it. The postmark on the rear of the envelope is harder to make out. It appears to have arrived in St. Louis on October 3, 8, 13, or 18. I can't make out the printing on the outside of the center circle. Any guesses?

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Poster for the Columbian World Exposition

Jeff and Mary did leave the children with their grandmother in St. Louis and take a train to Chicago. Years later Mary told her grandchildren about that exciting trip to the World Columbian Exposition, commonly called the Chicago World’s Fair. It commemorated the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Western World. The Exposition site on the shores of Lake Michigan devoted 55 acres to exhibit buildings on such topics as transportation, electricity, and the arts. Concessions covered another 50 acres. Total acres amounted to over 600, development of which cost as astounding $22 million (about 700 million today) .

At the time, the Exposition was the most popular destination in the nation. “There is in the life of any great city a moment when it becomes fully conscious of its place in history. For Chicago that moment was 1893.” The psychologist William James wrote, only half humorously, to his novelist brother Henry that “EVERYONE says one ought to sell all one has and mortgage one's soul to go there; it is esteemed such a revelation of beauty.” Thomas Edison declared, “No man who makes his living by his intellect can afford to miss the Fair.”

For possible relocation in Chicago, it can be safely assumed Jeff investigated the criminal underworld power structure. Chicago Mayor Carter Henry Harrison had maintained close ties with longtime Chicago crime boss Michael Cassius McDonald. “King Mike,” as he was known, was the main man Jeff would have had to see if he wanted a place in the mostly Irish underworld gambling domain. Jeff was probably well aware of the mayor’s support of wide-open gambling, prostitution, and liquor, the very things Denver officials often sought to shut down. Naturally, Mayor Harrison was enthusiastically supported by Chicago’s criminal bosses. Allowed to operate were “saloons and gambling houses, protected bunco steerers and confidence men and brace games of all kinds without hindrance.” As the mayor once declared, “You can’t make people moral by ordinances and it is no use trying. This is a free town.”

On October 7, 1893, the Denver Times published Jeff’s travel plans not only to Chicago but also elsewhere. That Jeff’s trip would also be for business is suggested.
Col. Sapolio Smith Leaves for the Windy City.

.....Col. Jefferson (Sapolio) Smith, lord-high ruler of 17th st., leaves for the East .....[Chicago] tonight to be gone several weeks. While absent he will leave his work in .....charge of his able lieutenants. He will visit Midway Plaisance and Carter Harrison, .....and show the Midway inhabitants and the windy city’s mayor how he does in the Queen City of the Plains.

.....After he has done Chicago to a turn Col. Smith will journey to Washington, where .....he will labor with the law-makers for a few days, and from there he will proceed to .....Atlanta, Ga., returning via St. Louis. Col. Smith says he is deeply grieved at being .....left off the Speak-Easy ticket, having been defeated for the office of sheriff by William .....Arnett, and instead of remaining in the city will relieve his troubled mind dining on the Georgia ’possum, pawpaw and persimmon.

.....He says he has been invited to address the Georgia Democrats on the free coinage .....[of silver] issue, and in order to get his subject well in hand has been studying with .....a distinguished editor for the past few weeks.

.....Col. Smith says he is not fully decided what political ticket he will support locally, .....since bolting the Speak-Easy nominees, but will return before election day, so as to .....have his ward ___ [install?] the men of his choice, and it is ___ [surely?] able to .....suppse [sic] that Sapolio will ___ [support?] the winning ticket, for in ad- ___ .....[dition?] to being an artist in his peculiar ___ [sort of ?] business, there are no .....flies .....on him ___ [when ?] he gets down to political work. As Jeff ___ [proposes?] .....goes his ward…. … For four long weeks will the ___ [Colonel be?] missed from .....his .....17th st haunt.

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The Midway
World Columbian Exposition

The Exposition itself deserves it's own article. In fact numerous books have been written on the subject. Gay Mathis sent me the link to a wonderful website in which looking at the interactive map of the Exposition grounds is a must see.

Trivia: In 1892 Soapy had a plan to place McGinty in the World Columbian Exposition but nothing more of the plan has been dug up.

pp. 238, 281-83.


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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