November 15, 2010

Cathy Spude book review

A discussion between Cathy Spude and I can be 
read on the Soapy Smith Discussion Forum here.

A review of my book, Alias Soapy Smith has appeared in Alaska History, the magazine of the Alaska Historical Society. My publisher submitted a book there a year ago, when the book first came out. What the Society then did is solicit a person who is thought to be an authority in the field, or at least qualified to review the book. If the person agrees, a book is sent with instructions for how the review should be structured.

Karl Gurke would have been an excellent choice, in my opinion, or Candy Waugaman, or just about anyone except Cathy Spude. But that's who they chose.

Cathy Spude, some of you may recall, is the anti-Soapy author who has made it her mission to  downplay Soapy's extraordinary and illustrious life and career to that of a common crook. Cathy and I have gone back and forth debating Soapy's historical significance for several years now. This blog has several examples of our disagreements on the following dated links, Oct. 8, 2009, Dec. 2, 2009. If you wander over to the Soapy Smith Discussion Forum you will find numerous "debates" on the dates of Nov. 19, 2009, and the big ones between Aug. 3 and October 12, 2009. Then there are the "debates" On the Tombstone History Discussion Forum including the ones on, July 31, 2009, Nov. 18, 2009.

On November 18, 2009 Cathy wrote a poor review about my book on the True West forum in which she admits not reading the first 400 pages.    

Here is Cathy's most recent review in full.

Jeff Smith, Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel. The Biography of Jefferson Randolph Smith II. Juneau, Alaska: Klondike Research, 2009. 628 pp. Illustrations, footnotes, references, index. $43.00 (cloth), $26.00 (paper).

The great grandson of the legendary Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith brings to press the fifth full-length biography of the master con man and swindler since 1935, when western novelists William Ross Collier and Edwin Victor Westrate first introduced the "Monarch of Misrule" to the national mythology. In doing so, Smith introduces a wealth of personal letters, photographs, and family details not previously known. Thanks to publisher Art Petersen, the book is well-cited, with numerous footnotes and a detailed index.

Soapy Smith, born to landed Southern gentry in Georgia in 1860, grew up in the Midwest and Texas after the Civil War impoverished his family. Most of his grandson's book details the days he spent learning his craft of bilking gullible people of their dollars in the hotels, saloons, and street comers of Missouri and the Colorado gold camps of the 1870s through 1890s. Like the biographies that precede this one, it is a rollicking romp through the days when "caveat emptor" "let the buyer beware" warned gamblers of the hazards of Smith's gambling halls, to little avail. With no apology, Smith ameliorated his con games with generous donations to churches, widows, and men who were down on their luck, making sure the local newspaper heard of these donations. Like most of the biographers who precede him, Smith's descendent[sic] emphasizes this charitable streak, no doubt because Smith himself used the ploy so often to direct attention away from the source of his income.

For the readers of Alaska History, the last two hundred pages of the book are the most interesting, for they detail the time Smith spent in Alaska. By that time, his reputation as a con man and persona non grata were firmly established throughout the mining West. He had little choice but to try a new boomtown, and like the savvy businessman he fancied himself, he explored several Alaska communities ”Wrangell, Juneau, St. Michael, and others” before settling on Skagway. Using family letters and quoting them effectively, Jeff Smith does an admirable job of demonstrating how Soapy conned the early stampeders going through Skagway between late August and late September 1897, placing him in the boomtown during its earliest days.

It came as no surprise to learn that the Smith family believes that Frank Reid was not entirely responsible for the death of Soapy Smith. I'll not reveal the culprit so as to leave the reader in suspense. I found Jeff Smith's explanation for the resulting cover-up unsatisfactory. Conspiracy theories, when they fail to take all of the local political factors and cultural mores into account, leave much to be desired.

I recommend the soft cover edition for anyone interested in Klondike gold rush history, or the legendary figures of the West. The extended Smith family and collectors will no doubt prize the hard cover edition.

Catherine Holder Spude
Santa Fe
(Alaska History, Vol. 25, No. 2, Fall 2010, pp. 57-58)

In my opinion, it's not a bad review. It is, though, a poor one. The assumptions it makes and the unsupported or even unexplained statements it makes are repugnant to me. For instance, why would she think that the footnote and index are thanks to Art Petersen my publisher? I had planned from the very start, decades before meeting Mr. Petersen, to have very comprehensive footnotes and index. Another for instance: why does she assume the Smith family doesn't believe Frank Reid killed Soapy? I am the author of the biography, not the Smith family. I resent her implication that the theory is some sort of Smith clan affair against the Reids and not for an audience interested in a complex person who figured prominently in the history of the last decades of the Old West. Not explaining why she would think so is just plain sloppy. Spude says she finds the explanation for the resulting cover-up unsatisfactory because it is a conspiracy theory that doesn't take all local political factors and cultural mores into account--but I do take them into account, sharing many testimonials and much thoughtful analysis, including the sterling silver testament of Sam Steele in an official report, not just once but twice. I honestly wonder if she has really even read the book. Of the three Alaska communities that she cites Soapy as having visited with the idea of setting up shop (Wrangell, Juneau, St. Michael), none of them appears in my book as places that Soapy actually went to with the idea of settling in. He was just passing through Juneau. He might have stopped over in Wrangell, and there are stories of Soapy's men "working" Wrangell, but my book doesn't mention Wrangell in this connection as there is no hard evidence. And he never visited St. Michael. And of the most important visits in 1896, which I treat interestingly, up Cook Inlet to Homer Spit, perhaps Seldovia, and Sunrise, not a word does she mention. ... Yes, I suppose it could have been a worse review, but it hardly could have been poorer. The last snide little, unwarranted comment about purchasing the soft bound, not the hard, which would be most prized by the extended Smith family, that's the candle on the badly baked cake: just plain unprofessional. What has that to do with what the book is about?

A few days later of the reviews publication Cathy posted the following on the Tombstone History Discussion Forum.

Cathy Spude
Myth, Legend, Slotkin and Soapy
Fri Nov 12, 2010 15:14

Thanks to comments from Gary Roberts and historians in Alaska, I have much revised and retitled my work on the last days of Soapy Smith as MYTH, LEGEND AND SOAPY SMITH. Today I put a proposal in the mail to the editor of a renown academic press and we'll see what happens. The reason I mention all this to this forum is because much of the new material discusses the Smith Legend in the context of Slotkin's American Frontier Myth and his theme of "regeneration through violence." I intend to end my discussion with a comparison with the Earp Brothers, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickok and George Armstrong Custer legends.

(Big Breath, here). This chapter has only been drafted out, and I'd be interested in what you all have to say. What does this forum think of Slotkin? Is he passe? Do you think Smith has the hero/anti-hero status of these latter characters and deserves the Big League discussion?

By the way, ALASKA HISTORY just published my review of Jeff Smith's biography of Soapy. I hope I did it justice.

The academic press she has submitted her manuscript to is apparently of such secret renown that its name cannot even be revealed. Same for the historians in Alaska. Further, all this myth and legend stuff she's peddling is, in my opinion, without merit. ... I don't know the work of Richard Slotkin (retired from Wesleyan University in 2008). He apparently was a respected and well-like professor of film and American literature who wrote penetratingly about the American West and its violence, legends, and regeneration in myth. For Cathy Spude to wonder if his work has become "passe" strongly suggests that she sees historical scholarship as some sort of fashion activity in which the latest thing to wear or not to wear in terms of theory and thought needs careful scrutiny before embracing it. Well, how about choosing the TRUTH? Wearing that the best that one can is never passe. Something tells me Slotkin probably did a good job of it.

In my opinion Cathy's last question (Do you think Smith has the hero/anti-hero status of these latter characters and deserves the Big League discussion?) only proves her agenda of attempting to minimize Soapy's roll in history.  

I received a forwarded email regarding the post on the Tombstone History Discussion Forum a day later. Apparently someone wishing to remain anonymous, but seeking 'justice' sent the editor of the Alaska History magazine an email (see below). They then sent at least one email to someone on the forum. I can only assume that they wanted me and others to know the contents.


This letter to the Alaska History editor was forwarded to me by e-mail third hand or more.  I don't know who wrote it as the name was left out.  Cathy Spude has apparently created a bit of a stir though no one is posting about it.


Dear Editor:

I noticed that Cathy Spude made a November 12, 2010 post on BJ’s Tombstone History Discussion Forum indicating that she wrote a review in “Alaska History” of Jeff Smith’s book, “Alias Soapy Smith – The Life and Death of a Scoundrel.”;article=150096;title=B.J.%27s%20%20Tombstone%20History%20Discussion%20Form

I don’t know Spude or Smith and have no real interest in the life of Soapy Smith.  However, Spude and Smith engaged in a very public feud on Tombstone during July-Aug 2009 and I was quite surprised that Spude considered it appropriate or professional to write a book review by an author she obviously personally dislikes.;article=141386

I have no idea what Spude’s review of the book says as I don’t see it online but she remarked in her post of November 12, 2010 that:  “I hope I did it justice.”
It is difficult for me to believe that Spude could possibly do your readers or the book justice based on her very publicly displayed dislike of Smith.  I was quite incredulous that Spude would even make such a post on Tombstone since her tit for tat posts with Smith were well known to anyone who kept up with the forum.  Now it appears Spude is proudly announcing that she has been able to use your publication essentially as a venue to get even with Smith.  Spude’s actions are quite unfortunate and certainly do not reflect well on her or your publication.

Yours truly,



  1. Jeff, I think you're right this review is unprofessional and smacks of someone who has been challenged by someone who clearly knows more than she does. Real historians do not have to stoop to the petty insults seen in this "review".
    Your book is so full of your extensive research and footnotes that I am truly surprised at this silly slam. Your website also is a quantum leap over "Montana Dawn". From Spude's many literary attempts there it is quite difficult to tell her truth from fiction.

  2. Dear, Skagway Sleuth.

    You have no idea how good it feels to have your response. I don't feel so alone in my feelings and beliefs. Thank you.

    Jeff Smith


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