November 29, 2010

Soapy Smith and Mollie Walsh?

The Juneau Empire published an article that states Soapy personally knew famed Skagway resident, Mollie Walsh. The author (Jack Marshall) of the article listed a source, but clearly added an exaggerated version of the content published within his source, which just so happens to have been co-written by Art. Petersen, my publisher. A good lesson is to be had for historians. Just because a writer lists a source, does not mean the writer followed and quoted the source's information factually. Following is the whole story as it was published online.

Sunday, November 14, 2010
Accumulated Fragments - Bartlett: the stories behind the name
By Jack Marshall | For the Juneau Empire

Bartlett Regional Hospital carries a famous name. It was named after E. L. "Battling Bob" Bartlett, who was Alaska's territorial delegate from 1945-1958, and in 1959 became our first U.S. Senator. He died in office in 1968, but the name Bartlett goes even further back in Alaska history than that.

In Iowa in 1872, an Irish girl named Mollie Walsh was born. In 1881, she moved with her family to St. Paul, Minn. Then on Thanksgiving Day in 1890, the 18-year-old young woman ran away with her girlfriend to see the world. It didn't take long before they were in deep trouble, having most of their luggage and money stolen. But, as luck would have it, the two young ladies met Jefferson Randolph Smith, who took pity on them and became their protector and benefactor. This relationship continued for a lifetime. Smith's nickname was "Soapy," and at the time he was the head of organized crime in Denver, Colo.

From 1892 to 1897, the United States went into a serious recession. Jobs were hard to find and people were having a tough time. However, crime was doing well and Smith and his gang had expanded to the towns of Creed, Colo. and Butte, Mont. In 1897, the sailing ship Portland stopped in San Francisco with two tons of gold from the Yukon. It didn't take long before Soapy, his gang and the two young ladies were off to Skagway.

Crime in Skagway became vicious, with murder a common event. Smith quickly became the "Godfather of Skagway." He set up every dishonest enterprise possible. Mollie had learned how to make pie tins by pounding out cans and tasty pies from a successful entrepreneur named Harriet "Ma" Pullens. Because of the protection afforded her from Soapy, her ability to make friends with community leaders and her beauty, many a young man wanted to court her.

Three of these young men were Mike Bartlett, part owner of the Bartlett Brothers packing Company, Jack Newman, also an independent packer, and a faro dealer. A romantic rivalry began to develop between Jack and Mike. To relieve the tension, Mollie encouraged the attention of the faro dealer. Adding the third suitor only made matters worse, so in the spring of 1898 Mollie left Skagway and opened her grub tent on the trail at Shallow Lake, between White Pass and Lake Bennett. It was a place for weary prospectors to buy a good hot meal and enjoy Mollie's spirited conversation. All three of her suitors stopped by to visit with her at the grub tent as time went on. However, the faro dealer began a rumor that he had done more than just visit with Mollie. Shortly thereafter, a gun battle occurred between the faro dealer and Jack, in which the faro dealer was killed. Mollie was extremely upset with Jack and decided to marry Mike Bartlett.

There were three Bartlett brothers about one year apart in age. The oldest was Al, then Ed, and the youngest was Mike. The Bartlett brothers decided to move their packing operation to Dawson because the White Pass railroad to Lake Bennett was almost finished. Mike and Mollie were married Dec. 11, 1898. Mike decided to build a hotel/saloon in Dawson, but just as he was finishing, gold was discovered in the beach sands of Nome and a mad stampede ensued that drained most of his potential patrons from the Dawson area. Mike was in serious financial trouble and began drinking heavily. He decided to try and make it in Nome, but there was no need for pack horses. Realizing that, he decided to buy gold claims, but his purchases turned out badly. Mike sent for Mollie and when she got there she wasn't apprised of the full financial disaster. By the end of eight months, they were completely broke and Mollie was pregnant. Finally, Mike called his brother Ed and asked him to come and bring their horses back. Mike and Mollie boarded the ship Seattle No. 3 to return to Dawson. Mollie delivered her son 73 miles above Rampart while the boat was taking on wood from a large wood pile on the Yukon River. Mike spent the last of their money on a drunken party soon after the birth. After the party, Mike, in a drunken haze, told Mollie that the people on board had named their son Leon Edward Seattle No. 3 Yukon Woodpile Bartlett. This news ended their marriage.

Al Bartlett sold his shares of the business to his brothers and left. In 1901, Ed left for Seattle and decided not to return, sending Mike his power of attorney. In 1902, Mollie left for the west coast with a man called John Lynch. Mike, in a rage, followed them until finally catching up with them in Seattle. Mike shot Mollie to death and then tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide.

The newspapers billed it as the trial of the century. The trial began in November of 1903 and concluded Dec. 2 of the same year. Mike was acquitted based on insanity. He spent two years in a mental facility and was released. Six months later, he killed himself. Al Bartlett left for the gold fields of Tibet and was never heard from again. Ed Bartlett married Ida, who in 1904 gave birth to E.L. "Battling Bob" Bartlett. Ed and Ida moved to Fairbanks and remained there until Ed died in August of 1935. Mike and Mollie's son was a veteran of World War I and died in the Old Soldier's home in Washington D.C. in the 1950s. Finally, on July 21, 1930, Jack Newman dedicated a monument to Mollie Walsh Bartlett in Skagway. It stands there to this day.

Jack Marshall is a 32-year Alaska resident who has been in Juneau for 26 years. His parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were pioneers of Oregon and Washington, leaving Alaska for him to discover. Much of the historical information in this column came from "Murder, Madness, and Mystery," a historical narrative of Mollie Walsh Bartlett by Art Peterson and D. Scott Williams.

I posted the following response on that site link for the story.

Hello, Jack.

I am a great-grandson of Jefferson Randolph Smith II, alias "Soapy" Smith. I am author of the book, ALIAS SOAPY SMITH: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF A SCOUNDREL (2009).

I am most interested in your sources as there is no documentation at all that I know of to show that Soapy ever even knew Mollie Walsh or the other way around. My publisher, Art Petersen, and his co-writer, the authors of your source for your story, in 1991 did suggest a connection because they both lived in Skagway, but nothing of the sort that you suggest. In taking literary license your exaggerated story telling clouds the waters of time, making it harder to see clearly into times past. Of course, you are not alone in this kind of fanciful story telling, which can hardly be considered history. I invite you to cruise my website and blog (links below), and perhaps even purchase my book if you are so inclined.

And how would Soapy respond to a story of this kind? My guess is that he'd smile, shrug, and turn to his affairs. ... Come to think of it, that's what I'm now doing.

Jeff Smith


  1. In doing some research of my own I found this:

    "Born Mary Welsh, Mollie was a resourceful and independent young woman with a wanderlust and a love of frontiers. In 1890, at the age of 18, she left home for Butte, Montana, where she spent seven years. As soon as she heard about the discovery of gold in the Klondike, though, she packed her bags and headed north. She arrived in Skagway in 1897, and quickly became popular both as a waitress and for her participation in the humanitarian activities of the Union church. When her work with the church brought her into disfavour with Skagway gangster Jefferson "Soapy" Smith, she feared retaliation and moved up the White Pass Trail to a point near the North West Mounted Police post at Log Cabin, where she erected a grub tent."

    It is listed on

    I'm sorry if you are aware of this already!

    1. Hello, Anonymous.

      Thank you for commenting. I look forward to more of the same!

      As a serious historian I never take what I read for granted. Even when a story includes sources it does not mean the author followed the source, or that the source is reliable. The original story I posted above is a perfect example. I went to the link you listed and found no sources for their facts. They did list an online magazine but going there showed no sources either.

      My point is this. How do these writers know Mollie Walsh "feared retaliation" from Soapy? Where did they get that information?

      Please understand that I am not trying to say you are wrong, or that your contribution is unworthy. I love history, and by your "doing research" I assume you love history as well. In my opinion a researching historian should always "question authority."

  2. Which is worse right? Someone who posts no references or misrepresents their sources? No offense taken, I totally think this is completely fabricated. I was wondering if you knew how far this "relationship myth" went. It's just another story wrapped and fed to tourists...

    I have read Murder, Madness and Mystery and there are references to Soapy but no links like the author makes. As a current project I am looking into the references of a book about the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush era and am finding the "truth" has been stretched to say the least. Thanks for your response!

    1. Anonymous, if you research anything on Soapy Smith you need to read my book. Twenty-five years of research and packed full of new, never before published information, all backed by reliable sources. Here's the link


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