January 17, 2012

Did Soapy Smith go to Dawson? (Artifact #44)

The above scan is of artifact #44 from my private collection. A wonderful hand-written letter on lined paper from Soapy Smith (Skagway) to his wife Mary (St. Louis). Someone in the family possibly Soapy or Mary taped a rip. Soapy wrote to Mary telling her of sent money and to share his travel plans. Postmarks show the letter took nearly a month to reach St. Louis. Following is the deciphered contents of the letter.

Skaguay Apr. 4th 1898
Dear Mollie

I send 100 more today by express making $400 all told. Tell Kirk, there is nothing here for him or anyone in Skaguay now. There may be this fall. I am going to Dawson as every tin horn that went there have got rich. I hate the trip, 800 miles in a little canoe and sleep out at night. It is hell but I am going to tackle it. Will write you who goes with me and when I start. About June 1st you better sell in Denver or go at once and fix it up as it is due in May. Love to all Your husband Jeff. Skaguay

The letter appears in my book, Alias Soapy Smith on page 495. I have the understanding from my father that Soapy sometimes called Mary by the name of Mollie, but why, I do not know. The $400 Soapy sent to Mary is the equivalent of $12,798.26 in today's market. Kirk mentioned in the letter is probably a family friend. It is possible that Kirk was not a bunco man and Soapy had no honest work available. There may have been no bunco work available either. Before the Klondike gold rush began the United States had been suffering from a depression known as the Panic of 1893. Once the rush began and Soapy became the camps underworld boss, confidence men from all over the U.S. applied to work with him. There can be only so many bunco steerers in a gang so that the profits are good. They need to be housed and fed and if there is not enough work for all of them then the left over's are just draining the profits unless they can work elsewhere in between swindles.

There is no evidence that Soapy ever went to Dawson. Perhaps after writing the letter he thought better of attempting to cross the border as Mounties supposedly knew who he was and were prepared to turn him back. Surprising, is that Jeff still owned property in Denver at this time in his career. Perhaps he had held on to some in the hope that he might one day return as he had done in 1892 when he left Creede.

The envelope comes from the Kentucky House, a saloon according to Marlene McClusky of the Skagway Historical Society. It is addressed to Mary E. Smith at 917 Locust Street, St. Louis which was the address of Mary's mother's home. 

Interesting to note that the day before Soapy wrote this letter, disaster struck two miles above Sheep Camp at a tent city about eighteen miles from Dyea. It was Palm Sunday, April 3, 1898, at 2 a.m. when from the mountain 2,500 feet above, a heavy snow pack gave way, came roaring down, and buried everything before it to a depth of thirty feet. 70 known lives were lost. Legend has it that Soapy rushed to the slide area and set himself up as "coroner" so that he and his men could rob the corpses.

Dawson: Sept. 25, 2011, Aug. 17, 2011, Aug. 7, 2011

Dawson: 432, 441, 449, 451, 456, 466, 472-73, 479, 483, 493, 495, 498, 508, 512-13, 524, 552, 583-84, 586-87, 590-91.
Sheep Camp: 440, 450, 477, 495-96, 566.
Panic of 1893: 247, 270, 281, 294, 312, 329, 355.

Jeff Smith


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