October 9, 2012

Frederick Stephen Wombwell: Friend of Soapy Smith?

First time I recognize seeing this particular Soapy Smith grave
photograph postcard. Note the complete wood framing around

the marker and the arrangement of the rocks in a circle, rather
than piled in the center as shown in later photos. I believe this is 
one of the earliest photos of the 2nd marker in the ground.
(Click image to enlarge)

  recently came across the text of an extremely rare edition of A Year in the Klondyke: 1898-1899 by Frederick Stephen Wombwell. The 148 page diary-book is incredibly rare because each copy is individually typed and sell for around $4,000. I have never personally seen a copy and it is not shared on-line, however, someone shared a few pages with me. What I have is from the person who owns the book, so I cannot confirm the text. Apparently Frederick Wombwell had a run-in with Soapy and his gang in Skagway so it is certainly worth sharing.

On April 12 Wombwell left Juneau and arrived at a small town about 12 miles below Skagway. The next morning
“I did a bit of exploration around the town. Mud knee-deep in all the streets…I visited around the various gambling places and saloons, and at Soapy Smith’s got into an argument and a fight, out of which I do not think I came out second-best.”

From Skagway they traveled to the summit of White Pass which proved to be quite the ordeal.
“All sorts and conditions of people on the trail, including quite a number of women, and many old men who ought not to be in this country, all looking so tired and grim.”

May 23, 1898.
“…, I met 'Soapy Smith' at his saloon. Soapy acquired his nick-name either from the fact that he is such a 'slippery' individual, or else, as the story goes, because he at one time sold packages of soap supposed to be wrapped in five-dollar bills, which of course, they were not. Certainly he never acquired the name from a prolific use of soap. Anyway, he is reputed to be the most dangerous bad man in Alaska; his looks certainly belie his character, for he really is a small, slim man with soft brown eyes, and a short Vandyke beard. Does not look as though he would harm a fly. I got along very well with him and we had lunch together. Later I wanted to join a poker game in his place, but when he said, 'You are a friend of mine, don’t you play,' I got wise and laid off it.”

I find it rather interesting that nearly every story ever told by a person who survived an encounter with the Soap Gang, never admits to being beaten, financially or physically. This one is even more interesting, considering Wombwell later becomes a friend of Soapy's.

There is one red-flag here, in which it appears that Wombwell states he had a brawl in Soapy's place in Dyea, but there is no record that Soapy opened any business in Dyea. This very well could be a mistake on the part of the person who sent the contents to me, as Wombwell again goes to Soapy's place, but this time it is clearly in Skagway and he gives no indication that there are two such businesses, one in Dyea and one in Skagway.

"Alaska in the Gold Rush days, where life was cheap and thin, Such desperate times were perfect times for brutal, desperate men. In Skagway, Soapy’s grifter mob left many miners broke, And if you weren’t a gambler, they’d just rob you of your poke. "
—Ed Parrish


1635: Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, is banished from Massachusetts for speaking out against punishments for religious offenses and for giving away Indian land. 
1701: The Collegiate School of Connecticut is chartered in New Haven. The name is later changed to Yale. 1776: Spanish missionaries settle in what is now San Francisco, California. 
1781: The last major battle of the American Revolution is fought in Yorktown, Virginia. American forces led by George Washington, defeat British forces, under Lord Cornwallis. 
1812: Americans capture two British brigs, the Detroit and the Caledonia, during the War of 1812. 
1855: Isaac Singer patents the sewing machine motor. 
1855: Joshua C. Stoddard receives a patent for his calliope. 
1858: Mail service between San Francisco, California and St. Louis, Missouri begins. 
1858: The first stagecoach from the Pacific coast (San Francisco, California) reaches St. Louis, Missouri, taking 23 days. 
1868: 13 Indians are reported killed in a battle with U.S. infantry and cavalry at Salt River and Cherry Creek, Arizona Territory. 
1868: Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians capture Clara Blinn and her 2 year old son on the Arkansas River, below Ft. Lyon, Colorado Territory. 
1869: Gold is discovered on Cedar Creek, near Superior, Montana Territory. 
1869: Apache Indians attack a mail train and the army detachment protecting it, killing 6, 25-miles from Apache Pass, Arizona Territory. 
1871: Outlaw “Coal Oil” Jimmy and two accomplices rob the Elizabethtown Mail stage, riding away with $500 in New Mexico Territory. 
1871: Texas Governor Ed Davis imposes martial law on Freestone County in response to reports of coercion and election fraud. 
1872: The first mail order catalog is delivered. The one page catalog comes from Aaron Montgomery, whose firm later becomes Montgomery Wards. 
1876: Alexander G. Bell and Thomas Watson make their longest telephone call to date, a distance of two miles. 
1890: The Ghost Dance is performed in Sitting Bull's camp on the Standing Rock Agency, South Dakota. The whites believe the Indians are preparing for a fight. Specially decorated "ghost shirts" supposedly make the Sioux bullet proof.

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