September 23, 2011

Another eye-witness to Soapy Smith's death?

Frank Reid and Soapy Smith begin the struggle that ends their lives.
(drawing by John Bruce)

My good friend, Leah, over at the Old West Rogues forum posted a newspaper clipping published exactly 113 years ago, to the day, regarding a witness to the Shootout on Juneau Wharf in which Soapy Smith was killed (July 8, 1898).

(Lima News Ohio, September 23, 1898)

Tough Band of Criminals Wiped Out.
Henry Rydstrom Tells of the Killing of “Soapy” Smith -- A Chicago Man Illustrates How Skaguay Was Rid of a Desperado.
Henry Rydstrom, formerly a Chicago man, but now a citizen of Skaguay, Alaska, was an eyewitness of the night in which the notorious “Soapy” Smith was killed in that place by City Surveyor Reed. He stood, in fact, where the desperado almost fell against him when Reed shot him. Mr. Rydstrom has been in Skaguay since last January and has seen the rapid growth of the place from simply a group of tents, constantly being put up and constantly taken away as the migrating herds of humanity came and went. From the start “Soapy” Smith’s reign has been supreme. He had a gang of 29 toughs, all as desperate as himself and all completely under his control. Like the able leader in villainy he was, he had his crew well distributed among the municipal offices and in all places where they could be used to best further his schemes and to afford protection to himself and the gang. “Boss” Tweed never in his palmiest days had such a perfectly and systematically organized band of robbers. There were always three of them in the city council, his first lieutenant was the deputy city marshal and his second officer was the editor of the one daily paper in the town. The others were disposed to the best advantage possible.

Smith was a genius and a general in his line. His place was among the high officials, where he acted as adviser and director in all the affairs of the city. He could easily have been the mayor had he chosen, but that would not suit his purposes half so well as being in the position he occupied. His band was never actually seen in any of the villainies perpetrated, and it was known how useless a task it would have been to try and fasten any of the crimes upon him. But everyone knew he was the leader of the gang just the same. “Soapy,” however, was an admirable strategist and often laid plans for bold robberies that completely deceived the good and honest citizens and invariably proved successful. One of these schemes, which was carried through with masterly generalship, will serve to illustrate the ability of the man as a leader and a campaign planner. There was a Canadian minister in town who was anxious to raise enough money to build a church for his congregation. It was “Soapy” Smith who put him in the right way to accomplish his purpose. He advised the minister to make a personal canvass of the town and solicit subscriptions from the prominent business men. To show his genuine interest in the matter he at once put down his name and really gave up $350 in cash toward the project. This liberal donation had a marked effect upon the “other” good citizens.

They all subscribed liberally, and the minister was gratified that in a very short time he had raised several thousand dollars. But that money was never used to build the church. The minister had no sooner completed his work and had the money in his possession than he was waylaid and robbed of the whole sum. It is a certainty that “Soapy” had his $350 duly returned to him and with a liberal interest added, while the rest of the gang, to the same certainty, profited individually, according to their rank in “Soapy’s” army of robbers.

But such was this man’s power that no one dared openly denounce him. It was bad enough to know that he systematically plundered from the strangers who chanced to land in Skaguay with gold dust, but it was worse when his scheming brain devised plans to rob his fellow citizens and set his band to carry them out. And yet his reign continued, though Skaguay had grown to be a city of 5,000 business men. He was at the height of his power just previous to his being killed. On the Fourth of July Skaguay had resolved to be patriotic and a general celebration was inaugurated. One of the features was a grand parade, and in this “Soapy” Smith was the leader. But even then matters were shaping themselves to bring about his destruction. About the first of July and miner had come into town from the north with some $3,000 in gold. One of the gang succeeded in getting him in town and took him to one of the dens where the robberies were committed. It was Smith’s policy never to use extreme measures when it could be avoided, although a murder or two cut no figure with these villains. The ordinary plan was to get the victim drunk and draw him into a “shell” game and thus relieve him of his money in a “legitimate” manner. In this way, the miner was robbed of his $3,000. He, however, made a vigorous kick and an effort was made to induce “Soapy” to give up the spoils. But this “Soapy” would not do, and the refusal led to his tragic end. For the first time since his reign began he was publicly denounced. There were open and private meetings held and measures were in the way of adoption to depose the “boss.”

On July 8, a large number of the citizens had congregated on the wharf and the city surveyor was just calling upon the people to take some decisive action and drive Smith and his gang out of town, when the desperado himself appeared on the scene, Winchester in hand. He deliberately shot Reed, who fell to the ground, but, wounded and dying as he was, he pulled his pistol and shot Smith in the head, killing him instantly.

Hi, Leah.

Thank you very much for posting this. A wonderful find. I'm not sure I've seen this one before!

Henry Rydstrom, the Chicago man who claimed to see Soapy Smith shot and killed, is just another of the many who made such a claim. He states that Soapy "almost fell against him when Reed [sic] shot him." Odd that his name is not mentioned in the Skagway newspapers, or by the other surviving witnesses on the wharf the night Soapy was killed. It was author Clarence Andrews who stated that, "If all the men who claimed to have witnessed the gunfight were laid out end-to-end, the line would reach around the equator."

The Church donation scam is plausible but there is no provenance. This gentleman has already ruined his credibility so why stop telling stories there. According to Rydstrom, Soapy and Reid fired twice, Reid hitting Soapy in the head. The two men actually fired a minimum of five rounds at one another. We know this from wounds to each. It is very possible more were fired but did not strike flesh. Soapy didn't wasn't wounded in the head, but rather the chest. Head or chest, what's the difference right? Rydstrom was supposedly close enough to have Soapy nearly fall against him, yet failed to see vigilante guard, Jesse Murphy, struggle with Soapy for possession of his rifle, obtain it, and then turn it on Soapy shooting the unarmed and wounded crime boss dead with his own rifle seconds after Soapy cried out, "My God, don't shoot!" Something obviously must have distracted Rydstrom from witnessing that part of the shootout...

Jeff Smith



  1. Jeff:

    Just to prove I keep an eye on your postings, I want to thank you and Leah for this one. I followed up, and found the same article in three other papers scanned by Afro-American Sentinal (Omaha, Nebraska), September 3, 1898 Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana), September 7, 1898; Lima News (Lima, Ohio), September 23, 1898; Broad Ax (Salt Lake, Utah), October 29, 1898. The Anaconda paper indicates it got the story from the Chicago Chronicle, which hasn't been scanned. I did some research on Henry Rydstrom. He opened a laundry in Skagway sometime between January 1898 and November 1898. According to the Anaconda paper, he was in Chicago in August buying machinery for the laundry. I agree with you that he probably did not actually see the shooting, but he heard all about it. What is REALLY interesting, if you look at some of the other versions of the story, is that they are accompanied by the photograph of the Fourth of July parade that shows Soapy riding next to John Brooks the Packer, at the end of the Fourth Division. Of course, no one points this out, as the article states that Soapy LED the parade!!!! To my knowledge, this was the only time the photograph was published, and no one pointed out that Soapy was in it ... because it didn't support the legend that Soapy led the parade.

  2. Henry Rydstrom did not warrant additional investigation by me. Like so many other of the so-called "witnesses" to the shootout on Juneau Wharf he was jumping on the bandwagon hoping to see his name in print and put a little excitement into an otherwise boring life.

    You mention the recent posted photograph of Soapy in the July 4 parade. I'm pretty sure Leah would have posted it had the photo been a part of the article. There is no conspiracy to hide the photo. In fact I posted it back on August 11, 2011. The photograph does appear to be the rear of the parade, however, something is missing. I'll let you think about it.

    Jeff Smith

  3. I sent you the LIMA NEWS article from Maybe Leah didn't have the ability to duplicate the lithograph for you. I found the other articles on and have forwarded them to you via email with PDF attachments of the articles. You'll see that the BROAD AX of Salt Lake City also printed a lithographic copy of the photograph.

    I'm not saying that you or anyone recent took part in any conspiracy to hide photographs that showed Soapy at the rear of the parade. I have already made a statement in my book (as all will see in a few months) that it quickly became popular belief that Soapy led the parade. Evidence to the contrary was hard to explain, and therefore ignored or simply not addressed until very recently. Both Howard Clifford and you DID choose to address the issue.

    Give us a clue. What is missing?

  4. Cathy, I received the Lima News article, thank you. However, I have not received the email with PDF attachments with the other articles. Thank you for your efforts.

    I am certain Leah did not see the drawing of the photograph in the post she published. She would have certainly mentioned it. I doubt she knows anything about the minor controversy over whether Soapy led the parade or not.

    It is indeed a popular belief that Soapy led the parade on July 4. There are many people who said they saw him there at the head of the festivities and certainly some were not actually there, but here is something to think about. Except for the newspaper information on the parade that was published BEFORE the parade, there are no contemporary accounts, that I know of, stating he was at the end of the parade.

    I have heard and read all my life how Soapy was at the head of the July 4 parade. Once I get reliable information that states otherwise then I will be more than happy to accept that he was not at the head. Do know, that I never said he was the "grand marshal" of the parade. I believe those who witnessed him in the parade may have assumed the title. Until I can get some good information to the opposite, I will keep my beliefs open to the possibility that he was indeed at the head. I do have some thoughts and theories on the photograph and the parade but I will wait until your book comes out before I go into details. You have to understand that I'm planning on a second edition of my book and am not in any hurry to disclose too much, just as you are not.

    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