March 4, 2012

Soapy Smith and the Web of Arachne

The Web of Arachne
by P. Le Quesne
Click image to enlarge

Back on February 1, 2012 I posted the story of discovering and defining one of the the framed print in Jeff Smith's Parlor, Soapy's saloon in Skagway, Alaska. With the aid of Steve Stapp, a fellow historian, I was not only able to gather more information about the mysterious painting, but perhaps found where Soapy came upon and purchased the print.

Why did Soapy name his saloon Jeff Smith's Parlor? To date I have yet to run into another saloon that included the term Parlor in its name. What was his influence for the name? Knowing that Soapy had a good sense of humor and consistently utilized hidden, or some might even say, subliminal, messages in his writings, such as using the address of his saloon (317 Holly) as the membership count of his law and order society when countering the vigilante committee of 101. The there was the Seal named Jeff story published in a Spokane, Washington newspaper about a seal who found it's way back "home," a brilliant ruse published by Soapy to secretly let his friends in Spokane know that he was in town. It is my belief that Soapy and his Soap Gang referred to catching victims much as a spider catches bugs in a web. Jeff Smith's Parlor was one of Soapy's "webs." I believe that his influence to use the term Parlor might have come from the poem, The Spider and the Fly published in 1829 by Mary Howitt.   

The Web of Arachne
hangs on the wall behind Soapy

The Spider and the Fly is a cautionary tale of a cunning Spider who ensnares a naive Fly through the use of seduction and flattery, much like the Soap Gang ensnares their prey. The tale is a warning against those who use flattery and charm as a front for potential evil. The opening line "Will you walk into my parlour?", often quoted as "Step into my parlour" or "Come into my parlour", has become an aphorism, often used to indicate a false offer of help or friendship that is in fact a trap. The line has been used and parodied numerous times in various works of fiction. Following is the 1829 version of the poem in its entirety.

The Spider and the Fly
by Mary Howitt

"Will you walk into my parlor?" said the Spider to the Fly,
"'Tis the prettiest little parlor that ever you did spy;
The way into my parlor is up a winding stair,
And I have many curious things to show you when you are there."
"Oh no, no," said the Fly, "to ask me is in vain;
For who goes up your winding stair can ne'er come down again."

"I'm sure you must be weary, dear, with soaring up so high;
Will you rest upon my little bed?" said the Spider to the Fly.
"There are pretty curtains drawn around, the sheets are fine and thin;
And if you like to rest awhile, I'll snugly tuck you in!"
"Oh no, no," said the little Fly, "for I've often heard it said
They never, never wake again, who sleep upon your bed!"

Said the cunning Spider to the Fly, "Dear friend, what can I do
To prove that warm affection I've always felt for you?
I have within my pantry, good store of all that's nice;
I'm sure you're very welcome - will you please take a slice?"
"Oh no, no," said the little Fly, "kind sir, that cannot be,
I've heard what's in your pantry, and I do not wish to see!"

"Sweet creature," said the Spider, "you're witty and you're wise;
How handsome are your gauzy wings, how brilliant are your eyes!
I have a little looking-glass upon my parlor shelf;
If you step in one moment, dear, you shall behold yourself."
"I thank you, gentle sir," she said, "for what you're pleased to say;
And bidding good morning now, I'll call another day."

The Spider turned him round about, and went into his den,
For well he knew the silly Fly would soon come back again;
So he wove a subtle web in a little corner sly,
And set his table ready to dine upon the Fly.
then he came out to his door again, and merrily did sing,
"Come hither, hither, pretty Fly, with the pearl and silver wing;
Your robes are green and purple, there's a crest upon your head;
Your eyes are like the diamond bright, but mine are as dull as lead."

Alas, alas! how very soon this silly little Fly,
Hearing his wily, flattering words, came slowly flitting by;
With buzzing wings she hung aloft, then near and nearer drew, -
Thinking only of her brilliant eyes, and green and purple hue;
Thinking only of her crested head - poor foolish thing! At last,
Up jumped the cunning Spider, and fiercely held her fast.
He dragged her up his winding stair, into his dismal den
Within his little parlor - but she ne'er came out again!

And now, dear little children, who may this story read,
To idle, silly, flattering words, I pray you ne'er heed;
Unto an evil counselor close heart, and ear, and eye,
And take a lesson from this tale of the Spider and the Fly.

With the poem in mind I believe Soapy came across a print of the painting The Web of Arachne and decided that it belonged on the wall of his saloon.

In Greco-Roman mythology, Arachne was a great mortal weaver who boasted that her skill was greater than that of Minerva, the Latin parallel of Pallas Athena, goddess of wisdom and crafts. Arachne refused to acknowledge that her knowledge came, in part at least, from the goddess. The offended goddess set a contest between the two weavers. According to Ovid, the goddess was so envious of the magnificent tapestry and the mortal weaver's success, and perhaps offended by the girl's choice of subjects (the loves and transgressions of the gods), that she destroyed the tapestry and loom and slashed the girl's face. “Not even Pallas nor blue-fevered Envy \ Could damn Arachne's work. \ The brown haired goddess Raged at the girl's success, struck through her loom, Tore down the scenes of wayward joys in heaven.″ Ultimately, the goddess turned Arachne into a spider. Arachne simply means "spider" in Greek (source: Wikipedia).

Where did Soapy possibly see and purchase a print of The Web of Arachne? There is a good possibility he either found a copy at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition or in Denver.

The White City Art Company, 611 Manhattan Building, Chicago, Illinois was founded in 1893 to supply souvenirs to the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition, they continued to publish prints, illustrated souvenir books, and postcards in the years that followed, until they closed their doors in 1909 (source: Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City).

According to the William J. Jenack Auction house The White City Art Company also had a location in Denver but at this time the years of operation are not known (source: William J. Jenack)

Collection of prints sold in Denver by
The White City Art Company
(circa 1893)

In 1897 The White City Art Company published Out West, the photographic story of four women who traveled across the country. On the very last page of the book is an art ad by the art company (see below). The book can be viewed and read for those who wish to (source: Google).

White City Art Company
ad for The Spider's Web
(Click image to enlarge)

 The above ad offers an 11" by 14" print of The Spider's Web, which is without a doubt, The Web of Arachne, for $1.00 from the Chicago store. The Denver location is not mentioned. The framed print shown hanging on the wall of Jeff Smith's Parlor appears to be 11" by 14."

In 1902 The White City Art Company published the book, Master Paintings of the World, Edited by Dupont Vicars. On page 184 is a print of The Web of Arachne. The photograph at the top of the page was taken from this book.

It should be noted that if Soapy purchased this print previous to 1895 then it likely hung on the walls of the Tivoli Club as well as others he operated before the opening of Jeff Smith's Parlor. 

~My sincere thanks to Steve Stapp for his help~

February 1, 2011,

Jeff Smith



  1. Christina MarshallMarch 5, 2012 at 10:39 AM

    Very cool, Jeff. Interesting look into how Soapy came across that picture and the meaning behind it.

  2. Great sleuthing Jeff! Glad to know where that came from, the Park Service should acquire a print for the renovation of the Soapy Parlor, don't you think?

    1. Hi, Christina and Marlene.

      Thank you for the kind words. Marlene, I'm not so sure the Park Service would be interested in acquiring a print. their goal is not to restore Jeff Smith's Parlor to it's 1898 glory, but rather to the 1930-1950 time period when Martin Itjen and George Rapuzzi operated the museum. I don't believe there was anything from the original Parlor in the museum, including The Web of Arachne.

      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