March 22, 2012

Tombstone Epitaph reviews Alias Soapy Smith.

The October 2011 Tombstone Epitaph had the following review of my book by historian and author, Gary Ledoux. Below is the complete text.

Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel – The Biography of Jefferson Randolph Smith II
by Jeff Smith
Published by Klondike Research, Juneau AK
Copyright 2009 628pp. $26.00 paperback only

Reviewed by Gary Ledoux

I first “met” Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith while doing research about the gold-rush era town of Skagway, Alaska. In the summer of 1898, Soapy Smith held sway in Skagway’s underworld. He was portrayed as a con-man, swindling miners, robbing the unwary, and allegedly going so far as to pick the pockets of the victims of an April avalanche. He was portrayed as one-dimensional – and it was all bad. One of Soapy’s contemporaries, former Tombstone Epitaph editor John Clum, also in Skagway during that period specifically noted in his diary that Soapy was… “a leader in the shell-game racket.”

What I didn’t know, and great-grandson Jeff Smith covers in exquisite detail in his book, Alias Soapy Smith – The Life and death of a Scoundrel, is that Soapy was a most charismatic underworld leader in Denver and Creede Colorado way before Skagway. But most intriguingly, Soapy had a very soft side, helping the poor, the indigent and having an especially soft spot for children. In his twenty or so years as a con man and hustler, Soapy Smith made an outrageous amount of money, even by today’s standards, and either gambled it away or gave it away to those less fortunate. Sometimes, after he had swindled a man out of his last nickel, he would feel sorry for his “victim” and give him enough money to buy a boat or train ticket out of town.

Jeff Smith has done an outstanding job showing the many sides, the many adventures, and ultimately the controversial death of his ancestor with an incredible amount of primary sources including unpublished family records and transcripts from recordings made in the 1970’s of people who saw and knew Soapy in Skagway. Letters, documents and even newspaper clippings kept by Soapy himself bring this fascinating story to life with vivid accounts of the sometimes seamy, and sometime illustrious life he led during some turbulent times.

One thing that I didn’t know until reading this book, and I am sure few people know, is that more than anything, Soapy wanted to be viewed as a legitimate businessman – to be seen as a benefactor to the community. He wanted the legitimacy, but he also wanted to act politically on his own behalf to make sure the laws regarding his real profession remained lax and their enforcement even more so.

Whether he was trying to raise an army of American mercenaries in Denver to fight rebels in Mexico, or trying to raise a company of Alaskan soldiers to fight the Spanish in Cuba, or just running a quick game of three-card monte on a Denver street corner, Soapy Smith was certainly one of the most interesting and captivating personages of the-then disappearing frontier of the 1890’s.

“My God – don’t shoot” were reportedly Soapy Smith’s last words. Alias Soapy Smith is certainly the last word on the life of one of history’s most colorful characters and the times in which he lived. Jeff Smith is now counted among the ranks of those writers and historians who take the time to seek the truth, and then display it in a most compelling fashion.

Alias Soapy Smith belongs on the book-shelf of anyone interested in the old west, the Klondike/Alaskan gold rush, early Alaskan history, Denver political history, or the study of “consmanship” and gambling at the turn of the 20th century.

Mr. Ledoux, thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed my book, and that you shared that enjoyment with the world. If you just read the review and think you might like your own copy of Alias Soapy Smith, or perhaps would like to read what others have said then follow the links.


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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