October 18, 2011

Con Man's Empire: A review

The final showdown
Soapy approaches Reid on Juneau Wharf

July 8, 1898

In December 1990 Wild West magazine published an article about Soapy Smith by John Guttman. It was called Con Man's Empire and marks the first time an old west history magazine used the Smith family as a source for information. Since then I have been involved with several authors aiding their publications. One common error made by most of them is that they just can't seem to accept all my research even though I use fantastic sources and provenance. Inevitably these authors end up using outdated and incorrect information, even when there is no source or provenance. I do not understand this, and am only forced to deal with it after the fact, which usually makes for hurt and angry feelings. I actually had one author ask me not to correct him/her publicly, to remain silent. That's not how it works here on this blog. If I make a mistake I'll tell you. I've already done it numerous times. If someone else makes a mistake I'll do the same. By the way, none of this has to do with Jon Guttman's article below. I was just making a point about what I have to deal with. Enjoy the article!

Con Man's Empire

My review centers only on the mistakes for future historical reference. The goal is an attempt to put an end to repeat mistakes. Jon Guttman's mistakes are honest ones. The mistake he made was reading old biographies written about Soapy and trusting them to be accurate. I did help him with this article but that was some 12-years ago. I don't recall if I saw a rough draft or not. Had I seen the mistakes I know I would have brought them to his attention. I have to give Jon the benefit of the doubt. I also have to commend him for contacting me. I'm impressed with his efforts. In the end, anyone who writes about Soapy can't be all bad.  

Page 43
  • Jon writes, "Three of Jeff Junior's other brothers were doctors, one a minister, and one a farmer." Jon should have wrote, "Three of Jeff Senior's other brothers were...." Simple honest mistake.
Page 44
  • Jon listed Soapy's legal talent as "Judge" Norman Van Horn and Syd Dixon. These name were first published in The Reign of Soapy Smith (1935) and are believed to be fictitious. I have spent 25-years researching and that includes reading the Denver and Alaska newspapers, page-by-page. The family has in possession, thousands of Soapy's personal and business letters and documents and I found no "Syd Dixon" listed anywhere. The only "Van Horn" found was the mayor of Denver. By no means is Jon the first to make this mistake and it has continued many times since his article came out in 1990. 
  • A sentence or two later he writes of "Charles Bowers." Again, another old biography mistake. Bowers name was John L. Bowers.
  • Further down the paragraph Jon writes of "Ice Box" Murphy. A great character but believed to be fictitious. There is not a single mention of this name. The only "Murphy" in Denver related to the story of Soapy Smith was the one-time owner of Murphy's Exchange. In Alaska, there was a Jesse Murphy, an Irish railroad worker who became famous for ending Soapy's life.
Page 44-45
  • At the bottom of page 44 Jon writes about Bob Ford and Creede, Colorado. Authors have painted Ford into a big fish in Creede. Descriptions of Ford's Exchange and his control over Creede's underworld of criminals continue to find their way into print. The problem is that there is no provenance. The Creede newspapers make no mention of a saloon named Ford's Exchange. The only saloon known to have been owned by Ford was merely an unnamed tent-saloon, raised after Creede's business district burnt to the ground. As far as Ford being a crime boss of Creede, again, there is nothing in the way of contemporary print or provenance. He had no "gang" in Creede so it seems very unlikely his control of the camp is plausible.
Page 45
  • A common and debated mistake was the spelling of Bob Ford's killer. Jon wrote the article in 1990 spelling the killer's name as "Ed O. Kelly" a common made mistake. The correct whole name is "Edward Capehart O'Kelley" but this was not known until 1994 when the O'Kelley family published a book putting to rest all the mistakes. This reminds me of a funny story that has nothing to do with Jon Guttman's article but it does show the audacity of some historians. Soon after the O'Kelley family published their book I had the opportunity to correct the author of another article on Bob Ford which incorrectly spelled O'Kelley's name. This correction was published in the "letters to the editor" section of the magazine, with a rebuttal from the author. He actually implied that the O'Kelley family is misspelling their own name! Again, I wish to make it very clear that the latter little story has nothing to do with Jon Guttman or his article here.
  • Jon writes that after the City Hall War elected officials "who owed nothing to Soapy served him notice that it was time to go." The City Hall War took place in 1894. Soapy left Denver in 1895, not because he was told to, but because he had assaulted John Hughes of the Arcade saloon and was looking at prison time.
  • Somewhere Jon found mention that Soapy had shot and killed Jack Jolly in Butte Montana. I know there is a book or article out there that started this false story. Jon made the honest mistake of trusting it. In reality, Jack Jolly partnered up with Soapy in 1897 during Soapy's very first visit to Skagway, Alaska. I have been researching this story and will be publishing an article about my findings here on this blog in the near future.
  • Jon writes that Soapy arrived in Skagway in October 1897 but ship records and passenger lists peg his arrival as August 22, 1897.
  • Jon reports that Soapy collected $1,500 for the widow of  Deputy US Marshal James Rowan. The truth is that the fund drive collected $424. You have to remember that the year was 1898. That $424 is equivalent to $13,405.30 in today's market.
 Page 46
  • The photograph at the top of the page mistakenly reads that the nine gang members were headed to prison. These men were being deported back to the states (Seattle) as there was not enough evidence to convict them of a crime. Seattle newspapers thanked Skagway not to use Seattle as their dumping ground.
  • Jon writes that Soapy started out in Skagway at John and Frank Clancy's saloon but soon opened two places of his own. Actually, Soapy opened three saloons of his own, plus had a continued partnership with the Clancy brothers in their saloon. In Jon's defense I don't recall if I knew all of Soapy's saloons in 1990. It really doesn't matter who made the mistake. What matters is what's correct.
  • Jon uses the fictitious gang member, Yeah Mow Hopkins, getting it from old biographies. No such name can be found listed anywhere.
  • Jon mentions the murder of a Skagway prostitute (Ella Wilson) that occurred on May 28, 1898. He mistakenly mentions Mattie Silks as a colleague but does say that Mattie accused Soapy and his men of orchestrating the murder. This is a great story and there is much more here than meets the eye. It is covered in detail in my book. Jon mixes up the Wilson murder with the creation of the vigilante handbills of the 101. The murder took place on May 28 but the handbills were made on March 4, over two months previous. The handbills came out due to other murders that took place outside of Skagway but placed at Soapy's door-step. 
  • Jon writes Soapy's private army as the "Skagway Guard" when it should read as the "Skaguay Military Company."
    Jon wrote that the Secretary of War (by letter) authorized Soapy to drill his army at Fort St. Michael. This is a mistake and it is 100% my fault. I know it is because I'm the only person who could have told him this. There is a letter from Secretary of War Alger giving Soapy permission to use the grounds at Fort St. Michael but it turns out the use was for building a hotel not drilling his army. It's another story that's covered in my book.
  • Jon writes that Soapy was 38-years-old at the time of death. Actually, he was only 37. At the time no one in Skagway knew what month Soapy was born in. He was born on November 2, 1860, therefore in July 1898 he was 37. This is an honest and common mistake.
  • Regarding John D. Stewart, the man robbed of his gold, Jon gives one of several mistaken stories. Jon writes that John was attempting to convert his gold into cash and that "Old Man" Triplett led him to Jeff Smith's Parlor. Actually, it was John Bowers and "Slim Jim" Foster who lured John Stewart into the alley beside Jeff Smith's Parlor to meet up with "Old Man" Triplett who was playing three-card monte. They had him win a round but would not pay him unless he could prove he could have paid them had he lost. He went to his hotel and got his gold out of the safe and brought it back. When he showed them Bowers grabbed Stewart's poke and tossed it to Triplett who ran while Bower's held Stewart in place. At one point Stewart actually said he went inside the Parlor but that story was never repeated after several witnesses came forward who witnessed the robbery in the alley. It is my belief that the vigilante's had Stewart say he was robbed on the inside of the Parlor so that they could directly go after Soapy, however, the witnesses recognized Triplett and Bowers so that was enough to show Soapy's involvement.
Page 48
  • Jon did well with the final gunfight confrontation. In 1990 I was still unclear about who shot and killed Soapy. There were only hints here and there about another shooter and Jon mentions that. It would be years of research before I found the evidence I needed to clearly show that Jesse Murphy was the man who killed Soapy.
  • Jon states that Jeff Smith's Parlor still stands on Sixth Street. It originally stood on Sixth Street. In 1964 it was moved to Second Street where it now resides.

With all the exciting stories you read here on this blog, can you imagine that author Cathy Spude is hard at work writing a book with the intent of proving that Soapy was nothing but a common tin-horn gambler and criminal? There is absolutely nothing common about Soapy Smith! He is the American version of The Man Who Would be King. 

Jeff Smith

Special thanks to Bob "Buckshot" Bradley for putting these magazine articles into pdf format so that they can be shared with all of you!



  1. You are most welcome! Glad you liked it.

  2. This catalog of corrections made enjoyable reading. You spun them out clearly and well, as usual.

  3. Actually, the book's been written, Jeff. I heard from my editor last week that the publication date is September 12, 2012, in time for the Western History Association conference in Denver. The University of Oklahoma Press marketing department decided they wanted to title it SOAPY SMITH: MYTH AND LEGEND. I'm not sure I ever use the the words "common criminal." I do make the point that Smith was never the King of Skagway.


    Cathy Spude

  4. Cathy, as long as I have known you you do have the tendency to write things on forums and your website and seemingly forget what you've written. For instance, you've denied that you wrote that Frank Reid is the man who killed Soapy, yet you still have that on your website. You have indeed wrote that (in your opinion) Soapy was nothing more than a common criminal. There is no way you can "prove" that in your book without disregarding my research. Unfortunately, your book will only cover Skagway and that is not near enough to learn about Soapy's methods and operations.

    Soapy Smith was definitely the king of Skagway's underworld. He built very successful empires in Denver and Creede, Colorado and there was little to stop him in Skagway. They had to murder him to tumble his regime.

    Jeff Smith


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