February 28, 2011

How the Tivoli Club got its name.

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IAlias Soapy Smith, I discuss different theories as to how Soapy came to name his first saloon, the Tivoli Club. In once again researching Denver's newspapers I found the following

William Deutsch is proprietor of the Tivoli variety theatre in Pueblo. It was reported burglarized on march 6, 1883. $100 in silver and two pistols.  -Rocky Mountain News, March 6, 1883.

Deutsch obtained the property and constructed the building that would house Soapy's saloon and gaming den on August 12, 1886. The Tivoli Club opened its doors in 1888. I think Deutsch may have suggested the name "Tivoli" to Soapy.

Tivoli name: page 124.


February 26, 2011

Soapy Smith robbed by the "Sanctimonious kid."

The train is still in operation for visitors to Skagway!
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Here is another story that did not make the pages of my book. It comes from the 1927 book by Jack Black, YOU CAN’T WIN. Unfortunately, there is no provenance or collaboration that this incidence actually took place. none the less I hope you enjoy it.

“Sanctimonious Kid”: Rogue robber mentioned in the book, You Can’t Win, who supposedly robbed Soapy at gun-point for $1,500. Operated the dice-game concession at the Chicken Coop in Denver. Soapy had won $3,000 from the “Kid” and his partner so the “Kid” wanting his money back, robbed Soapy. After the robbery Soapy said, “I know him and told him so; and I’m going to kill him on sight.”

There are many Soapy stories I did not, could not, include in my book. Besides there being a vast number of them, far too many for a book being touted by some as too big as it is, many of them were obvious concoctions written by ordinary folk who sought a little fame and others were obvious inventions within the minds of writers in order to fill and round out their articles. Some were plausible enough but just simply had no provenance and limited space had me dropping some decent stories for inclusion. One of the latter choices I did not include was the robbery of Soapy by the “Sanctimonious Kid.”

We jumped to Denver, where Sanc got the dice-game concession in the “Chicken Coop,” a small gambling house. We had three thousand dollars between us. Two Thousand went into the bankroll and we opened up bravely. “Soapy Smith,” gambler and bunko man, noted for his high plays and big winnings and losings, won our two thousand in three successive plays. Sanc wanted to continue with the balance of our money, but I refused and stubbornly held on to my last five hundred. We had to quit.

Sanc was a hard loser and followed “Soapy” around town for a week trying to “elevate” [rob] him. He never got away from the bright lights, and Sanc gave up the notion of sticking him up. …

Then came a night when the Sanctimonious Kid failed to show up at the room. I was worried and made the rounds of the gambling houses, joints, and hangouts, but failed to find him or anybody who had seen him. My fears were put to rest later when Soapy Smith, who won our bankroll, appeared in the “Missouri House” and told with the good graces of a man who had lost fortunes how he had been “taken” by a “stick-up” man for fifteen hundred dollars.

“It was the first time in a year I had been off Larimer Street, and it serves me right,” he laughed. “Anyway, I know him and told him so; and I’m going to kill him on sight.” …

After the robbery Sanc disappeared, and it was long till I saw him again. I decided to leave Denver. I owed them fifteen days on the chain gang, and had no wish to pay by shoveling snow in the streets.


February 24, 2011

Soapy Smith and The Floor of Heaven

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There's a new book coming out in April having Soapy as one of the main characters. the book is called The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the American West and the Yukon Gold Rush, by author, Howard Blum.

The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the American West and the Yukon Gold Rush
Howard Blum, Crown, $26 (448p) ISBN 978-0-307-46172-8
Blum, author of the bestselling and Edgar-winning American Lightning, displays all his creative gifts here. Using primary source materials from the three individuals around whom the narrative revolves, he tells a fascinating story of the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush. Charlie Siringo was a larger-than-life hero, a cowboy turned successful businessman turned Pinkerton detective renowned for his sense of duty. Jefferson "Soapy" Smith epitomized the frontier "confidence man" who considered dishonesty a way of life. George Carmack, the prospector who precipitated the great Alaska gold rush that drew the men together, deserted from the Marines, married a Native American, and pursued his prospecting dreams to the Klondike. Detailing crimes perpetrated and solved, relationships both happy and tragic, hardships unthinkable in the modern age, and the cold, magical allure of Alaska and the Yukon, Blum captures the spirit and mood of the last of the Old West. The final pages, especially, are filled with drama and a strange yearning. From a purely historical perspective, there should have been more information on Alaska as a Russian colony and American territory, but as an exciting narrative, this is a huge success. 8 pages of b&w photos; 1 map. (Apr.)

Following is a recent interview in Publisher's Weekly.

The Lure of Gold: PW Talks with Howard Blum
By Amy Meng
Feb 21, 2011

Three very different men in the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush anchor Howard Blum's tale of the last frontier, The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the American West and the Yukon Gold Rush .

How did you first discover the story of Charlie, George, and Soapy?

I wish I could say I saw it all whole. I started out by wanting to write a western and to me the most interesting part of the West was its coming to an end—these men who were heroes in many ways had outlived their usefulness. While researching, I discovered Charlie Siringo's books. He had this wonderful voice and talked about his escapades, solving something like 97 cases in four or five books. I saw this Alaska case, and then I came across the guys who were behind the robbery and that led me to Soapy Smith, which led me to George Carmack. All the pieces fell together to weave a tale that was bigger than one man, even bigger than three men.

Is that usually how nonfiction books come together for you?

The key is to know what the people are thinking—what they said and what they felt. If you're writing a novel, you can make that up. [For nonfiction], you have to find primary sources. The way this worked was through Siringo's books and Carmack's letters, which were bought in a bookstore for $55, then donated to the University of Washington. Soapy Smith had a voluminous book written by his great-great-grandson that enabled me to write that with some authority. Once you have these first-person sources, the book comes together. You choose a point of view that will drive you through the story and can lead to a dramatic ending.

What do you find most appealing about the cultural myth of the Wild West?

The iconic values of the cowboys and the pioneers: wanting to live with adventure, wanting to do what's right, the quest for justice, the sacrifices people made. That kind of self-sacrifice and indomitable spirit I hope pervades the book and shows that these men are flawed, but also heroes.

You say that during the gold rush people were "so squeezed by the economic hardships of the times that they were willing to do or try just about anything to fill their lives with the prospect of something better." Do you think this relates to America today?

Very much so. The surprise hit of this season on cable TV is Gold Rush: Alaska. These are a bunch of guys who have no other option, so they're off to Alaska to look for gold. When hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world went to the Yukon to look for gold, the original prospectors had already claimed most of it. These people were going to a country where there was nothing to be found. There are also the scams—the Soapy Smiths, the guys selling the gold to investors today. A whole bunch of Madoff-type schemes come up in tough economic times when people are trying to maximize return on their investments. The parallels are very dramatic. Gold has an almost atavistic lure. People feel it has a panacea effect.

I am looking forward to this one gang! I will keep you posted on all the latest as it comes in.



February 23, 2011

Van B. "Old Man" Triplett's death.

"Old Man" Triplett on his way to Sitka and trial
after his capture in Skagway.
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Van B. Triplett was one of the main members of the Soap Gang in Skagway in 1898. After Soapy was murdered the gang hid in the nearby hills. Triplett being to old for eating roots and sleeping on the cold ground walked back into town and gave himself up. He was the three-card monte operator who took John Douglas Stewart's sack of gold. He is also one of the gang who did time in prison after being deported to Sitka in handcuffs. Three years after Soapy's death and Triplett's death still made the front pages!

The Evening News(Washington D.C.)
May 2, 1901

Originator of the Gold Brick Swindle Expires in Poverty.

CHICAGO, May 2—Van B. Triplett, the originator of the gold brick swindle, who is said to have swindled people out of a million dollars by different kinds of confidence games, died yesterday at West Belso [look up cities in Chicago] in poverty. Money is now being raised by friends to give him a decent burial. Triplett, who was also known as John V. Tripp and “old Tripp,” was born in Virginia sixty years ago and came of a good family. He began his life of crime when he was young and for more than forty years had been pitted against the police.

Although the origin of the gold brick game is sometimes credited to Bill Train who is said to be responsible for the death of “Red” Leaky [spelling ?] in New York, it was Triplett who first made the game a financial success. The police say he sold he sold hundreds of gold bricks and made a fortune out of them.

He served time for an action of this kind but once, and that was when he and “Big Ed” Miner sold a brick to Chinamen in Dayton, Ohio. Both he and Miner were sent to the penitentiary for the crime and Triplett was released in 1894. After that he went to the Klondike and made a companion of “Soapy” Smith, “Kid” Bowen and “Kid” Eddie Fresh. They were accused of buncoing a miner out of a sack of gold dust. In the events that followed Smith was killed, after he had shot Frank Reid, the district attorney at Skagway. Triplett was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment at Sitka. When he was in jail a mob gathered about the jail to lynch him. Officers dispersed the mob, however, and Triplett served out his term. He was often subjected to arrest in Chicago, and detective Marnane[spelling ?] is said to have taken him to the central station more than 200 times. At last John D. Sheas[spelling ?], then chief of detectives, gave orders that he was not to be molested unless there was proof that he had committed some crime.


Pic of the day.

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February 22, 2011

"Me give up. Don't shoot anymore!"

Soapy Smith had an office upstairs and the
Midway Saloon on the bottom floor far right hand corner
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While going through old files I found one regarding a Denver con man by the name of Walter Baker. I thought it was comical.

Rocky Mountain News
June 11, 1891.

Walter Baker and S. O’Connor, two alleged bunco men, were working their three-shell racket near the south Denver depot yesterday afternoon, when officer G. H. Peterson started after them. They recognized him and began to run. He pulled his revolver and fired at the ground near them. Baker fell and howled for mercy. He said: “Me give up. Don’t shoot any more. My whole hip gone now.” The fellow was wild and had not been touched. He is now in the city jail.

At this time I do not know if he had any connection to the Soap Gang. 


Soapy Smith's horse.

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Did anyone ever wonder what happened to Soapy's horse after he was killed up in Skagway?

In the 1980s I published ads in magazines like Wild West and True West, searching for new information on Soapy. These were the days before many people, including myself, were computer literate. In those days I had to depend on the USPS, more commonly known as “snail mail.” My ads were slow with responses and I often wondered if the money spent was worth the returns. Once in a while I received a gem.

In June 1986 someone responded to one of my ads with a letter stating that he knew a man, Clyde E. Talbot, who had gained possession of Soapy’s horse after he had been killed. Mr. Talbot was still living at the time in Tacoma, Washington and I was fortunate to get his mailing address. Turns out Clyde did not actually own the horse but had used it everyday where he worked as a young boy. Clyde writes,

Tacoma, Wa.
Apr. 2nd 1986

Dear Jeff:

You surprised me with your letter but must say I was glad to hear from you and hope when you go to Skagway you can stop and say “hello”!

I read about your visit to Skagway in ’77. Wondered what your reaction was in digging up all the things that old “Soapy” was accused of.

Yes I knew all the people you mentioned [Martin Itjen, Harriet Pullen, George Rapuzzi]. The last couple of years in grade school I drove laundry wagon for the Royal Steam Laundry. The white horse I drove was supposed to have been “Soapy’s” old horse. Most all I can tell you about old Soapy is hearsay as I landed in Skagway Apr. 5th 1899 – aged 3-1/2 – My dad was there about a year ahead – Can’t remember his even discussing “Soapy.” Dad was one of the original employees in the train service. Retired in 1935 and passed away in Sept. 1939.

I left the nest in Oct. 1917 and after wandering around Arizona for a couple of years, Uncle Sam put his arm around me and moved me up to Tacoma – where I came from originally upon discharge from air force landed in Tacoma Fire Dept. At present am the oldest retired fire fighter and co-author of History of Tacoma Fire Dept.

Hope to see you when you come north. I have lots of pictures.

Anything I can help with I will be glad. Any one that has first hand information will be gone. Am 91 so you can see what I mean. Best of luck.

The list of Skagway residents sent to me by Marlene over at our neighbors of the Skagway Historical Society blog lists Clyde Talbot as a White Pass and Yukon Railway employee, born in Montana in 1895. He states he was 3-1/2-years-old when he arrived in Skagway in 1899 and that he used Soapy’s horse in the “last couple of years in grade school,” so if grade school in Skagway was anything like it was when I was a boy then the “last couple of years in grade school” might mean that he was between 7-1/2 and 12-years-old, so that the years of his using Soapy’s horse would be in the neighborhood of 1903-1907. In another letter to me Mr. Talbot said he had no pictures of Soapy’s horse, which he referred to as, “Old Nellie.”

I went back to Skagway in July 1986 in which I stopped for a day in Seattle, Washington, but was not able to get to Tacoma to visit Mr. Talbot. I regret not being to do so. He was 91 when I first contacted him. My first visit to Tacoma was in 1997 during the Alaskan Centennial of the gold rush. Mr. Talbot would have been about 102-years-old at the time had he still been living. I would have loved to have seen his “lots of pictures.”


February 19, 2011

The charitable Soapy Smith.

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Friends member, Rich, reminded me that Soapy had a lot of good deeds to his name as well as the bad ones. I have been meaning for some time to create a page on the main website that deals with the two counter sides of Soapy, the good and the bad. Below is a beginning charity table to compete/compliment the violence table I posted a short time ago.

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No amount of good deeds can undo Soapy’s criminal record. Does this unforgiving rule apply to his good deeds as well? Does his monstrous bad side leak dishonor and evil onto his good deeds? Are his good deeds meaningless? The answer might come from those many he helped.

Soapy had motives for making conspicuous charitable contributions, including public relations and the pleasure of receiving plaudits from the public and his peers. Many of these acts, however, also occurred under cover of night and through the rear doors of charities, and were not generally known. So many of them were one-on-one encounters that were never recorded. Decades after Soapy’s death, word of some of these other contributions surfaced.

If a good person with no criminal record gives money to charity, that contribution is considered honorable. If a good person with a criminal record gives money to the same charity, then that contribution is still good, but only depending on how bad the criminal record is. If a bad man with a criminal record gives to the very same charity then suddenly the contribution is no longer as honorable.

Does charity depend on one’s motives? When large corporations give donations they do so to make themselves look good and for tax credits. Does their contribution mean less because of their motives?

The following quotes definitely belong on a complete list of charitable acts performed by Soapy Smith, however, they don’t adhere to the table as they are general statements of overall charitable acts rather than one precisely dated incident.


"With all the hard name that 'Soapy' bore in the west, he was one of the most generous men I ever knew." (Denver businessman) –Alias Soapy Smith, p. 52.

"There isn’t a man in this town, who gives more to the poor than I do." (Soapy) –Alias Soapy Smith, p. 72.

"We saw him on Christmas mornings presenting dressed turkeys to a long line of hundreds of the very poor at Seventeenth and Market, a wholesale commission house keeping open to supply the big birds." (Joseph Emerson Smith, no relation) –Alias Soapy Smith, p. 136.

"Every Christmas morning when happiness seemed only for the rich, he would buy a barrel of dressed turkeys and stand on the street corner. He would give one of the turkeys to every man who came along that had the appearance of being poor. When one barrel was gone he would get another and would put in the day in this occupation. He made many a home happy by doing this. Last year [1897] was the first time he missed giving something to all the poor people he met, and there is little doubt that his absence was noted more than that of any other one man who lived in Denver. Families who had not had a square meal in months got one on Christmas through the kindness of Smith." (Denver Evening Post) –Alias Soapy Smith, p. 136.

"Jeff was one of the most kind-hearted men that ever lived. I will venture that there is scarcely a big city in the country where you couldn’t find some man that could tell you of a good act that Jeff Smith had done him. In his palmy days in Denver and Creede, he gave away money recklessly to almost any applicant. When hard times came to Denver, … with a well-known priest, he organized a score of free-lunch stands, and every sport in town was assessed at what Smith thought a reasonable figure. None of them demurred to giving up [a contribution], and nobody went hungry during that adverse period." (R. M. Eddy) –Alias Soapy Smith, p. 137.

"According to Parson Uzzell, over eleven years, Jeff gave him $1,500 to $2,000, the equivalent of $44,355 to $59,140 today." (Parson Thomas Uzzell-Rocky Mountain News, 1896) –Alias Soapy Smith, p. 137.

"Soapy was a good fellow, not half bad, not more than half bad anyhow. He would cheat you out of your shirt while you watched him, but he was the most liberal fellow I ever knew, and many a down-and-outer thanked the man for the cheerful giver he was." (R. M. Eddy) –Alias Soapy Smith, p. 137.

"The answer she received was so immediate and hearty as to almost bewilder her. First he gave her a sum of money which would keep her from want for some time to come." (Rocky Mountain News, 11/11/1893) –Alias Soapy Smith, p. 291.

"Jeff was mindful of how aiding the poor, needy, and desperate of Denver helped his reputation. These acts, though, usually showed little, if any, calculation. They were too often spontaneous, anonymous, or mixed in with the sponsorship of others to be clearly open to the charge of being self-serving. Those who really knew Jeff and how ingrained in him was the belief that he had the right to take suckers for all they had, looked at his charitable acts with suspicion or wonder, if not disbelief. How could a consummate, life-long confidence man with a determined and sometimes ruthless gang also be a generous benefactor?

While some did not believe Jeff’s acts of generosity, Jeff apparently did. He performed them regularly and with conviction as part of his business persona, one he regarded as having such public standing and character that he thought it appropriate to seek elected office." –Alias Soapy Smith, p. 291.

"I do not know that I will ever see you again on this earth, but I do know that one who has to my own knowledge so generously and so munificently helped the poor, relieved the distressed and encouraged the weak, will not be among the damned, whatever his short comings may be." (Judge James B. Belford) –Alias Soapy Smith, p. 292.

"… during the days that followed when hungry men were roaming the streets and wealthy property holders were nervous and unable to decide upon a course to pursue, he not only took large sums of money from his pocket to assist Rev. Thomas Uzzell in feeding them, but in many ways quieted those who were talking of pillaging the town." (Denver Mercury, March 1894) –Alias Soapy Smith, p. 294.

"I never knew anything about Jeff Smith only what my husband had said [about] his being the king of the gamblers, and that naturally made me afraid of him. Well, you remember that night when Parson Uzzell was giving out loaves of bread to all the hungry people? I went to the [People’s] Tabernacle one night, but I got there too late. Every loaf of bread was gone, and not a penny in the house. I don’t know what I was doing only standing alone when a gentleman came close up to me and … pushed a piece of paper in my hand, and before I could even talk, he said: Take that, lady, it will get you all the bread you want.

I turned to say thank you, sir, but he was gone…. I am only a woman, but I have got a vote and so has my husband, and anybody who does an act like that for us shows that they have hearts that are in the right place, and I think that they are better than the people who abuse them." (Denver Mercury, April 1894) –Alias Soapy Smith, p. 329.

"He is generous—far more so than many bankers we can mention." (The Road, April 1895) –Alias Soapy Smith, p. 376.

"He made fortune after fortune and spent it all in riotous living and in good deeds, for it must be said of 'Soapy' that no hungry man ever asked aid of him and was refused." (San Francisco Examiner, Feb. 25, 1898) –Alias Soapy Smith, p. 464.

"It was the same way with down-and-outers who came back over the trail. He would bawl them out for being hungry and for not coming to him sooner. He would then see the stranger out of trouble. He would do all these things, and yet he would not scruple an instant to rob a prospector of his gold and send him away a pauper. It all depended on how the stranger came to him." (Stephan Stephans) –Alias Soapy Smith, p. 481.

"Soapy kept many a poor man from starving to death." (Dr. J. S. McCue) –Alias Soapy Smith, p. 589.

Jeff had “accounts at the merchants’ stores for provisions and fuel for the needy people here” and that they “amount to several hundreds dollars a week.” Additionally, the visitor learned that Jeff paid “for the funerals of friendless persons, and I can assure you that that is no small item. What are you going to make out of a character like that?” (Joseph T. Cornforth) –Alias Soapy Smith, p. 591.

"Soapy Smith had his faults but there are many men in Denver who were at one time hungry and looking for a dime, who will remember that his heart and purse were always open to the poor. Perhaps the good lord will remember all those little kindnesses as well as will the beneficiaries." (Denver Times, 07/21/1898) –Alias Soapy Smith, p. 591.

"When the recording angel makes up his ledger with Jefferson (Soapy) Smith, there will be innumerable works of charity to be recorded in his favor." (Leadville Herald Democrat, 07/17/1898) –Alias Soapy Smith, p. 591.

"I never talk much about Jeff Smith. He was the warmest hearted man I ever knew and writers … always get things mixed and paint up the bad side of his career.

… He died with many good deeds to his credit, as well as the other kind, but it is always the bad things he did which people remember." (Henry “Yank Fewclothes” Edwards) –Alias Soapy Smith, p. 592.

"Although a desperado, his deeds of kindness would have done credit to any man. A man in want was never turned down by Jeff." (Henry “Yank Fewclothes” Edwards) –Alias Soapy Smith, p. 592.


February 17, 2011

Soapy Smith's first visit to Skagway: San Francisco Call, 09/23/1897.

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San Francisco Call, September 23, 1897

Fleeced Skaguay Crowds


“Soapy” Smith, Who Operated a Shell Game, Returns With $10,000.

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SEATTLE, Wash., Sept. 22—“Soapy” Smith, the St. Louis gambler who is a professional in working the shell game, came down on the steamer Queen to-day, but to-night local detectives who desire to get a look at him were unable to locate him. Passengers on the Queen who know him say that he had about $10,000 every cent of which he made by playing the shell game.

Smith went to Skaguay about two months ago and a day did not go by after that without his making money. People who have been at Skaguay tell many stories about the successful way he operated. For a time the town of Skaguay was his headquarters. He stayed there night and day, and whenever he could get a crowd around him he started to play the game upon a little table that he allowed to rest on one arm. A Swede was among his early victims. In fact he seemed to cater more of that nationality than of any other. He took in the neighborhood of $300 from his first victim, who felt sure each time that he could locate the little black ball. Each time he failed and Smith put the money in his pocket.

Things became too hot for Smith at Skaguay after a time. Every time he tried to work his game men who had already bet and lost called the new victim away. At last Smith, with “Jack” Jolly, the notorious Montana ex-convict, went out in the direction of the pass. As miners came along en route for the summit they were invited to bet. Smith had man or two among them who always bet and won. That inspired the others and they bet and lost until they were compelled, because of no money, to return to Skaguay.

The men who made $10 a day each packing met Smith on the pass. They were returning from a trip over the summit. Smith got them interested in his game and in twenty minutes he had about $200 of their money. They demanded that he return it. Smith refused and the men made an attack on him. He drew his revolver and with the aid of that and ex-convict Jolly made his escape. He disappeared after that for several days, but at the end of that time was back on the pass. Local detectives say that Smith’s reputation for working the shell game is the “best” in the United States.

When I obtained Klondike Research as my publishing company I was reminded that at some point all historians and biographers have to quit researching and publish. There was no fear of not having enough information. Even cut back my book is over 650 pages long. That's more than most, perhaps, as stated in a few reviews, too much information. Too much for whom? Certainly not historians. As many of you are aware, this blog is mainly for new information that comes my way as I continue the quest to find the truth. The above newspaper clipping is one such piece. Whether some of the information contained in the article is true has to be determined. The two newest stories I am looking forward to investigating are the inclusion of  "Jack" Jolly in Soapy's first visit to Skagway ("Skaguay") and the armed confrontation with packers. It is know in a later interview with Soapy that he and his men on the passes left the packers alone. Could that "rule" have been implemented because of his prior trouble with them? Seems likely doesn't it? Or is the story even true? Did Soapy already know to leave the packers alone as they could spread the word to stay clear of the shell games.

As far as the part about Soapy and his men being forced to leave Skagway, we know this not to be the case and that is well explained in my book. One such example comes from the famous lawman "Bat" Masterson.
In November 1897 “Bat” Masterson returned from Washington state and spoke to the Denver Evening Post about Jeff’s departure from Alaska.

I saw very few people from Denver. I heard of but did not see Soapy Smith. The report that he was driven out of Skaguay was erroneous. I met his partner Jerry Daily, at Spokane. He said they were in Skaguay twenty-three days and ‘worked’ nineteen days while there. During the nineteen days they captured $30,000, which was divided into four parts, over $7,000 each, but Soapy got the most of it ultimately. He received a telegram that his wife was sick in St. Louis and went to that city to be with her. They did not have time to bother with him at Skaguay, for everybody was too busy looking out for themselves. –alias soapy p.443

I am seeking information on "Jack" Jolly.
Do you know who he is?

Soapy first trip to skagway: pages 435-443.


February 16, 2011

Pic of the day: Martin Itjen Wharf ad

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To advertise his Skagway bus tour in the 1940s, Martin Itjen built a wooden sign shaped like his bus and placed it on the end of one of the old unused wharves as shown in the above postcard. The wharf is possibly the Juneau Company Wharf where Soapy met his demise.

In the bus windows are carnitures of the Soap Gang. A large taxidermied bear appears to be waving to incoming ships.

Close up


February 15, 2011

Alias Soapy Smith: Book review by David James.

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Review: Famous Skagway criminal Soapy Smith detailed in new book
by David A. James / For the Fairbanks News-Miner

Feb 13, 2011
FAIRBANKS - Most Alaskans who have heard of Soapy Smith only know that he briefly controlled crime in Skagway and paid for it with his life. Not many people realize that his tenure in the far north was merely the capstone on a long and largely successful career of criminality spanning the waning days of America’s frontier expansion.

If you’re interested in the details of Soapy’s illustrious life — and I do mean details; some 600 pages worth — pick up a copy of “Alias Soapy Smith” by the outlaw’s great-grandson, Jeff Smith.

One gathers from the introduction that the descendants of Skagway’s most famous citizen are fairly obsessed with their forefather. The family holds an extensive collection of materials concerning his life, and Smith mentions research that several of his relatives have done on the man. The author has clearly been working on this book for many years, and the end product will probably stand as the most comprehensive account ever written of Soapy’s life.

Jefferson Randolph Smith II was born into a prominent Georgia family on the eve of the Civil War. Like many wealthy Southerners, his family’s fortunes fell in the aftermath of the conflict.

His mother died and his father took to drink and relocated the clan to Texas.

There the young Smith was largely left to his own devices, and it wasn’t long before the bright youngster discovered that it was easier to separate people from their hard-earned money than to go out and actually work for it.

Soapy learned card tricks and shell games as means of cheating people, and he gained his famous moniker by a con he developed while selling soap on street corners. Soapy would take one unit out of a bucket of soap bars, slide a large denomination bill under its wrapper, then toss it back in the bin, stir the soap, and auction off opportunities for bystanders to reach into the bucket and attempt to grab the monetarily enhanced bar.

Soapy never wanted for people willing to pay $5 or even $10 for the chance — no small amount in the 1880s — but he never had to pay up because, through sleight-of-hand, he’d remove the bill before gamblers started taking their pick.

It was a good act, and Soapy traveled the West with it, skipping out of each new town before he was caught. But he was far too driven to limit himself to small time games like this.

For much of the 1880s he had drifted in and out of the newly established city of Denver, and by the turn of the decade he’d settled there permanently.

Much of the book takes place in that growing Colorado metropolis where Soapy, through guile and careful manipulations, managed to corner the criminal underground.

For several years he ran numerous gambling establishments and saloons, and built up a gang that preyed on newcomers and travelers, bilking them out of countless thousands of dollars.

Soapy got away with his rackets because he knew how to work the system to his advantage. He wrangled himself into a position of influence within the state’s Republican Party. He also exercised virtual control over the city’s government and police force. He had an agreement with the city fathers to target visitors rather than residents, keeping locals off his back.

And he gained favor by generously donating to churches, the poor, and other worthy causes.

Soapy’s years in Denver were lucrative, but he was not without enemies. One of the local newspapers, the Rocky Mountain News, was forever attacking him and his gang. But the real trouble came when the state elected a Populist governor who made it his goal to clean up Denver and rid it of what had come to be called the Soap Gang.

Even without this opposition, Soapy was digging himself a deep hole.

While he wasn’t a violent man by nature, the life of crime that he had pursued drove him in that direction, and it was only a matter of time until he was involved in a couple of shootings.

These along with all his other problems sent him on the lam.

After a couple of years drifting as far as New Orleans, Mexico and Seattle, Soapy set his eyes on Alaska. The circumstances were perfect: The gold rush was bringing thousands of potential victims into the remote locality, and the territory was far enough from the West — where he was now a household name — that he could potentially escape his reputation.

In fact, his name followed him north, but this didn’t stop him from setting up shop in Skagway. In no time he was operating a saloon and keeping his gang busy conning the steady stream of prospectors funneling though town on their way to the Klondike. He was also running the town, and this was his downfall; there was another faction in Skagway that wanted him gone, and they ultimately got their way when one misstep on Soapy’s part resulted in bullet through his heart.

Smith has labored to tell as much of Soapy’s story he can in clear and highly readable prose. He also quotes at length from an abundance of primary sources, offering readers extensive insight into life in frontier America. This is great for those with a deep fascination with the history of the West, but casual readers will probably — for the same reasons — find the book far too long.

If you’re interested in the full Soapy, however, this is the place to look. He was a complex man, and this lengthy and exhaustively researched book brings him and his times very much back to life.

Freelance writer David A. James lives in Fairbanks.
Alias Soapy Smith by Jeff Smith, Klondike Research, 2009, 664 pages including pictures.



February 14, 2011


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Soapy Smith life insurance: Artifact #30

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Artifact #30 in my personal collection is paperwork pertaining to a life and accident insurance policy Soapy received with his subscription to the Denver Times, he bought it in 1892. The policy came from the Travelers Insurance Company of Hartford, Connecticut and both pieces are dated August 19, 1892.

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Here are links to other posts on this blog pertaining to this topic:
Artifact #17

Soapy's life Insurance policy: page 250.


Replica of Jeff Smith's Parlor?

Close Replica of Jeff Smith's Parlor
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Here are some photographs of the replica Jeff Smith's Parlor that I posted about for the last few weeks. Although the builder, "Wolfgang," changed his mind in building a replica of Soapy's Skagway, Alaska saloon it sure looks pretty darn close to me. Good work "Wolfgang."

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