August 28, 2012

Jerry Turner reviews Alias Soapy Smith

She knows good reading

ecieved a nice book review for Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel in the Mexia News and the Hubbard City News, both in Texas. The reviewer is Jerry Turner who lives near Waco and writes for the Mexia News. The entire review follows.

Soapy Smith - The Life and Death of a Scoundrel
Book review by Jerry Turner.

In June, my wife and I went to Skagway, Alaska. As soon as we got off the ship, we began hearing of “Soapy Smith.” We took the historic tour and the main topic was Soapy Smith. “Soapy lived here, his gambling house was there,” on and on. We even went to his grave. I knew I needed to know more about this fellow. I called Klondike Research in Juneau, and talked to Art Petersen, editor of the organization. He was very friendly and said that he would like to have a Texan to look at Soapy. He sent a copy of Alias Soapy Smith - The Life and Death of a Scoundrel written by Soapy’s great-grandson, Jeff Smith. Soapy, today, would probably be called a “Godfather.”

Jeff faced some real problems as writers do when they decide to write about a relative. Do they make the subject look like a saint or is he made to be the baddest fellow ever? Jeff does a great job in telling an objective story based on actual letters, family records, period newspapers, and memories of those who knew Soapy. Soapy hated to be called Soapy, he preferred and forcefully insisted on being called Jefferson Randolph Smith or Jeff. A policeman gave him, the nickname when booking him into jail. The officer couldn’t remember “Jeff.”

Jeff’s favorite and profitable scam was the selling or “auctioning” small bars of soap. He would wrap the soap bars and pretend to tuck money in the packages. The spectators would see him place bills from one to one-hundred dollars in the wrappers of soap. The smiling and personable crook would dump the soap into a box. His cohorts would buy a bar and would find money, encouraging the audience to try their luck. Of course, no money would be found. Another scam was the famous shell and pea game, where a customer would try to find the pea under the walnut shell. Soapy was a master of this fast, hand moving shuffle of three shells.

Soapy was born in Georgia in 1860, but his family moved to Round Rock, Texas when he was a young child. He claimed to be a witness to the shooting of Sam Bass by the Texas Rangers in 1878. His family moved to Belton and later to Temple, but Soapy having learned much of the con man trade went to Colorado. He stayed there for a number of years, but he moved on by becoming involved in gambling and other underworld activities. He bribed police and politicians, but moved on when he learned about the discovery of gold in Alaska.

In Skagway, Soapy developed an underworld operation in which he was active in politics, charities, and gambling. He used his connections to protect his criminal activities and friends. While Soapy was a criminal, he was friendly and used some of his money to help the less fortunate. But he and his men, known as “bunco-men” would greet the arriving gold hunters to get their money. His organization was growing and becoming rich, more powerful, fulfilling his dream of being a leader in politics, charity, and overall leader in the community. But Skagway had enough and formed a committee to put Soapy and his gang out of business. Old timers claimed that if “Hell froze over, it would be Skagway.”

On a dock called Juneau Wharf, Soapy and a member of the committee got into a fight. The man’s gun did not fire, the first time, but did fire two times hitting Soapy in the leg and arm. Soapy shot the man with his large bore rifle. As Soapy lay on the dock, another man came up, got Soapy’s rifle and shot him in the heart, killing him instantly. The fight was disputed and there are as many stories about Soapy, his activities, and death as there are tellers. He had many good qualities, but he would steal and cheat you whenever and however he could.

If you have an interest in Old West criminals, frontier histories of Texas, Colorado, and Alaska, and swindles practiced, get a copy of Alias Soapy Smith. It is a readable, well researched, objectively written, and just plain reading fun. It has 660 pages, 54 images, 28 pages of a double-column index, price is $26. It can be ordered from Klondike Research at

"Even villains are human. You do a good job bringing Soapy's human qualities to life. We all sin and come short of true goodness."
Carol Buchanan, author


1609: Delaware Bay is discovered by Henry Hudson.
1774: The first American-born saint is born in New York City. Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton was canonized in 1975.
1830: "The Tom Thumb" is demonstrated in Baltimore, MD. It is the first passenger-carrying train of its kind to be built in America.
1865: Fort Reno (also known as Fort Connor) in Wyoming Territory is established.
1868: Three settlers are killed by Indians in Kiowa Station, Kansas.
1872: James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok stars in the Grand Buffalo Hunt at Niagara Falls, Ontario. Native American and Mexican cowboys present a display of roping and riding in Canada's first Wild West show. The show is a financial failure.
1881: Policeman Morgan Earp is accused of being in league with “Big Ed” Burns, a bunco man and future member of the Soap Gang.
1897: Soapy Smith sends $1500 to his wife Mary from Skagway, Alaska.

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