July 31, 2011

National Park Service tour includes Jeff Smith's theory about Soapy Smith's death.

(Click image to enlarge)

This year marks a turning point with the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park's views regarding who shot and killed Soapy Smith. Arlen McClusky, a Skagway interpreter for the park service began giving public tours that included conspiracy theories about Soapy's death. This is a huge step towards the truth. Naturally, no matter how convincing my research may be, the National Park Service can't officially come out in favor of my work when there is so many decades of opposing stories that were reported in newspapers and books.

Arlen contacted me when he was given the go ahead  for the tour. He had a few questions and wanted permission to print out a copy of the portrait on the cover of my book. I understand he carries both the picture and my book on the tour.

Following is the preliminary outline I received of his walk.

1. Breezeway
  • Welcome.
  • Theme: Crime, Power, Murder, Conspiracy Theories.
2. Map/Building Rear
  • Gold Rush.
  • Skagway.
  • Lawless frontier town.
  • Con men, Soapy Smith.
  • NEXT STOP: Story opens on a Vigilante meeting.
3. Shootout Spot
  • July 8th, 9:15pm ...Meeting on wharf.
  • Several men gather... argument, gunfire, pause, then last two shots.
  • Jeff Smith dead.
  • Reid mortally wounded, dies later.
  • Card found in pocket... “Clancy and Company.”
  • Autopsy, Dr. Whiting (works for White Pass).
  • NEXT STOP: What happened just before? lets go back further in time.
4. Jeff Smith Parlor
  • 6pm...Jeff Smith arguing with others.
  • Some claim Soapy left drunk, angry.
  • Some claim Soapy left sober, and calm.
  • Meanwhile, Vigilantes gathering.
  • Much of business community was seen joining vigilantes.
  • NEXT STOP: What provoked vigilantes? July 4th 1898.
5. Across from AB
  • Laundress Ella Wilson Murdered.
  • Supposedly $3800 lost.
  • How can be? $40/day.
  • Something fishy.
  • Mattie Silks strange testimony.
  • Was somebody trying to frame Soapy?
  • June 15th, RR construction begins in secret at night, without permission of Skagway’s power elite...a sudden and aggressive move from a previously quiet player.
  • NEXT STOP: Mysterious fires in town...
6. Pack Train Saloon
  • Mysterious incendiaries.
  • Explosions on White Pass kill two workers.
  • Townsfolk distracted by everything, especially parade.
  • Soapy feels confident.
  • Soapy con men shaking down local businesses.
  • Is possible arrogant shake down White Pass?
  • Resentment against Soapy from different factions of Skagway for different reasons.
  • John Clancy, Soapy’s partner, seen talking to vigilante leaders. Betrayal?
  • NEXT STOP: Memory of unpunished double murder.
7. Boss Bakery Area
  • Andy McGrath...Peoples Bar.
  • Marshall Rowan...shooting.
  • Next day noon, angry mob forms.
  • Soapy disperses them.
  • Soapy blamed for miscarriage of justice.
  • LAST STOP: Is this the reason? Real reason? Why is everyone here in the first place?
8. Moore House
  • Homestead of Captain Moore, Father Skagway.
  • Arrived, settled, lost land, stayed, went quiet.
  • Harmless yet shadowy and influential figure in Skagway.
  • Capt. Moore and others had a financial interest in seeing return of law to Skagway... could they have plotted against him behind the scenes from the beginning?
  • Soapy arrived in August 1897, left, returned with money, and men.
  • Took over quickly.
  • But then, the arrival of the railroad happened, led by tough, ruthless man named Mike Heney, backed by British financiers with millions of dollars.
  • Soapy may have called himself uncrowned king of Skagway, but the real power in Skagway was behind the scenes, with businessmen, rail men, and in the boardrooms of faraway banks.
  • I’ll let you decide, was Soapy shot because he was a hothead fool, or was he lured to his death by emerging powerful interests, who needed him out of the way?
  • The truth may never be know...

Arlen had some ideas of his own which included Skagway's founder, Captain William Moore that had us corresponding back and forth with some interesting emails. Following are some I thought might be of interest.


Thanks so much for the photo you let me print out for my walking tour! I do have a question I was wondering if you could help me answer... Is there any connection between Captain Moore and the vigilante mob, or Capn Moore and Soapy Smith? And are you aware of any additional things which suggest that the WP & YR may have been behind Soapy's death?


Hi, Arlen.

I'm glad to hear from you. The most interesting research for my book regarding the vigilante's comes from the words of the old-timers in Skagway. The general consensus I found, was that there were basically two gangs in the town. Of course there was Soapy and the bunco men and the others were the vigilante's. Rather than calling them vigilante's, the old-timers called them, the real estate grifter's and lot jumpers. Frank Reid apparently worked with both. Newspapers show he took lot fees and sold lots too. To answer your question, Moore could not have been too supportive of the real estate grifters. They were the ones who had stolen his land, ignored and changed his street layout and then forcefully moved his home. I don't think Soapy had any issues with Moore, besides being an early resident of the town. The only time, that I know of, in which they met, was when Moore rode in a carriage at the front of the May 1, 1898 parade that paraded Soapy's new Skaguay Military Company around town. Soapy's men were not to swindle or bother residents so Moore would not have have any trouble that way. There is so much that we do not know about those early days.

A WP & YR connection in Soapy's death is only circumstantial at best. Smith family stories always included the railway as a prime instigator. We know that Fenton Whiting was employed by the railroad, as was Jesse Murphy. Before the shootout Graves, president of the railroad, was chairman of the vigilante organization. The railway was losing money and Soapy was a big hurdle for them. Naturally, if there were outright plans to get rid of him nothing was written down. My personal belief and reasoning would say that the railroad started taking Soapy as a serious threat when he created the Skaguay Military Company in May, 1898. I believe it was then that they started thinking that they would have to get him out of the way. Probably at first they thought they could have him imprisoned or deported. Later, there must have been a point when they decided that there was only one way to get rid of him. There was already opposition to the railroad from many of the business men, packers, Brackett's Road, and everyone else who had something to lose. Soapy did have at least one lot along the original planned path of the railroad, as well as an interest in Brackett's Road. It is guessed that he had more but so many of his properties were under other people's names. If you read the section in my book on Creede, Colorado you will see an amazing transformation in land lots in which at one point Soapy bought up a number of leases on one street, only to end up with many of the choice lots for he and his associates on the main street. All these lots were sold at auction and Soapy bought one I know of, yet in time he and his friends ended up with the best lots in town. I doubt Skagway was much different. In fact, it seems he used pretty much the same formula.

I hope this helps some. Please feel free to contact me with any questions, comments, your own theories and research (even if they disagree with mine), etc. Your mom and I have learned from each other by going back and forth with our thoughts and I'd be honored to be able to do so with you as well.


Hi Jeff!

Awesome. Awesome. Awesome. Awesome!

This is exactly what I was hoping to hear... these details plug some of the major holes in the fabric of my walking tour. For instance, they help further cement the connection between Soapy and the WP & YR. So far, people love my walking tour, and they like the idea of Jeff Smith going up against the mighty railroad, backed by the bankers.

Specifically, I like the reference to the Committee of 101 as the real estate grifters and lot jumpers.

Do you happen to know who all went to Jeff's funeral?

Supposedly there were two autopsies not one, right? Why might that have been? Was one of the autopsies kept secret, and if so was it the first or second? and was the photo of the autopsy with Dr. Whiting the first or second? Did Whiting preside over both, or only one?

Sorry for all the questions! I'll try to get you a photo some how.


Hi, Arlen.

I'm very happy to hear that my information was indeed helpful. I believe four "Awesomes" is about as good as anyone can strive for, lol.

Getting a photograph of you and one of your tours is easy. I happen to know someone at the Skagway Historical Society who might volunteer? Lol.

Rev. Sinclair recorded who went to Soapy's funeral. The following comes direct from my book.

Rev. Sinclair received word from other ministers in town that they would not help serve Jeff’s last rites. “But I knew I was right,” Sinclair wrote in his diary, to be “determined to give the remains a decent burial even if I should afterwards be invited to leave town because of my action.” Rev. Sinclair than took precautions against that possibility. He wrote out his sermon in advance so that what he said could not be reinvented later, and he “persuaded” a Mr. Butler, one of the well-known members of the vigilante committee, to attend the service “as a safeguard against misunderstanding and mob violence.” And so on July 11 at approximately 3 p.m., in a brief ceremony, Sinclair wrote how,

in the dreary morgue, in the presence of a few who were not afraid, in the presence of no mourners, with the exception of his late mistress whose presence I felt was no tribute but rather, an insult to his living family in the East; in the presence of an ever-loving God, I closed the chapter of this poor desperado’s career.

Eight people accompanied Jeff’s remains to the cemetery. A driver and the undertaker conveyed the coffin in an express wagon. Before it in “a hack … rode Mr. Butler, three lawyers who had done business with Soapy, a late partner of the deceased and myself.” Rev. Sinclair wrote feelingly about the loneliness of the procession, contrasting it with all those who “rode or walked in” parades with Jeff, “marking the declaration of war with Spain…,” and all those who had been proud to wear his July 4th badges…, but of whom now “not one had the courage to do his remains justice.”

There were two autopsies. The following comes from my book

After the fight Jesse Murphy immediately insisted it was he who had killed Smith. A letter to Dr. H. R Littlefield from Dr. Cornelius, published eleven days after the gunfight, clearly indicates that someone in power, most likely US Commissioner Sehlbrede, took his claim seriously enough to order another autopsy examination.

The shooting, Dr. Cornelius says, is the best thing that ever happened to Skagway next to the new railroad. Dr. Cornelius performed the autopsy on Smith’s body for the coroner’s jury. A man named Murphy claimed after the first autopsy that it was his bullet that killed the gambler, and it was necessary to perform a second [autopsy] to determine that Reed’s [sic] bullet did the work.

The second autopsy was never reported on except for the above. I would imagine that Whiting performed the second as well, in order to keep the record straight. If Murphy did not shoot Soapy then why would he demand a second autopsy? I assume you already know about Si' Tanners not to NWMP Steel stating that it was Murphy and not Reid who killed Soapy. Tanners original note is gone but Steel made the report to his superiors, twice! Soon after that nothing was mentioned again about Murphy having killed Soapy. Even Murphy stopped talking. I always figured they let him know that he would be placed under arrest for murder if he continued. After all, he shot Soapy while he was wounded and on the ground...unarmed! It's only a technicality but it was surely enough to silence Murphy. Nothing more is known of him.

I am certain that more information is out there just waiting for discovery.

Arlen graduated from UH Manoa with a Masters in Communication. He also happens to be the son of Marlene McClusky, the author of one of our neighbor blogs, the Skagway Historical Society.

We hope the tour is popular enough that the park service will wish to continue the idea next year, and many years to come. 

Jeff Smith


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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