December 14, 2012

Reversing question about Soapy Smith.

ne of the new bits of information to come from Cathy Spude's book "That Fiend In Hell": Soapy Smith in Legend is the fact that the famed photograph of Soapy on his horse has actually been published in reverse since 1898. The photograph itself has always been somewhat of a mystery to begin with. Reverend John Sinclair is probably the person who snapped the picture on July 7, 1898 however, his son James claims the picture was taken on Broadway. New information shows this photograph to have been taken on State Street. Over the decades various copies of the photograph have been published with the date "July 4th, 1898" etched into the negative as seen in the photographs shown here. other versions show "July 4th 1898" in larger size across the side of the picture by the horses head. Up to now, no one had properly identified exactly where in Skagway the photo had been taken.

Soapy on his mount
as published since 1898
Is it reversed?
note: someone wrote "July 4th 1898"
Alaska State Library, William R. Norton Col. ASL-P266-067

Never having seen a copy in the reversed (correct) fashion I cautiously looked into Mrs. Spude's claim. In her book she published a cropped closeup of a photograph in the Frank Barr collection at the Fairbanks University. In that photograph Mrs. Spude points out the location of a very similar looking building in the background and identifies the street as being Fifth Avenue. Before agreeing with her conclusion I found and examined my copy of the non-cropped Barr photograph to verify that the street is actually Fifth Avenue, and it is. The building she points out sits on the s.e. corner lot of Fifth and Main Street. In the photograph above that same building appears to be on the n.e. corner which is incorrect, therefore Soapy would have to be have been riding north rather than south as always believed.

Skagway, Alaska June 1898
Note the edits in yellow.
The red X indicates where Soapy was when photographed.
Soapy's saloon (Jeff. Smith's Parlor) is also noted
University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Barr Coll.

(Click image to enlarge)

Before seeing the entire Barr photograph of Skagway (see above) I wrote to Karl Gurke of the Skagway unit of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park (NPS) and asked him to look on,

page 65 of Cathy Spude's book in which she describes that the photo of Soapy Smith on his horse is actually reversed. I'm still undecided about this possibility as I have not looked closely enough at other photographs of the street to see if more of the buildings line up correctly. Perhaps the one main issue I have is that there are no other "non-reversed" photos known to exist.

Soapy on his mount
In correct direction
Alaska State Library, William R. Norton Col. ASL-P266-067

I consider myself very fortunate to have such willing member of the Park Service in which to help gather additional information. I learn a lot from Karl and in this instance he was up to par as usual. He replied that,

... regarding reversed photos - yes we have a few - some I was able to catch - pretty obvious - and some not so obvious. For example there's a photo of the Sunset Telephone Office in Dyea. Although you can read the caption, all the signs are reversed. We had to scan it, reverse the image, and now the signs are right but the caption is reversed. I know of at least two Skagway waterfront images that are reversed. Dave Neufeld, the Canadian historian, has pointed out one or two reversed historic images on the Canadian side of the Chilkoot Trail that I had not been aware of. There are others - so while reversed gold rush era images are not common, they are known to exist and perhaps more common than you would suspect. I know of at least 11 reversed images not counting this Soapy one, that we have in our collection and I'm sure if I closely inspected every image we had, I'd find more. 
Karl Gurcke

Close-up details
Fifth Avenue
Skagway, Alaska June 1898
Red "X" and arrow show location and direction of Soapy
University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Barr Coll.
(Click image to enlarge)

In her book Mrs. Spude makes the claim that a building blocking State Avenue just north of Fifth was intentionally blackened out so that it would appear that Soapy was heading south. She states that it is part of the Soapy legend, but I disagree for the following reasons. The Sinclair archives in Victoria, British Columbia noted in a 1979 letter that some photographs from the collection are "latern slides," thus most likely Glass. In searching many photographic collections of Skagway and the Klondike during the gold rush I noted many photographs in glass form, and many had blackened sections just as Soapy's mounted on horseback photograph. Sinclair sold about 20 of his photographs to another photographer and others were stolen so it's reasonable to assume that some of these photographers published the photograph in reverse. What is most strange to me, as I had mentioned to Mr. Gurcke, is the fact that thus far no correct non-reversed examples of photograph have surfaced in any known collection, nor have any been published anywhere.

Close-up details
Holly Avenue (Sixth Avenue)
Red arrow points to Jeff. Smith's Parlor.

University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Barr Coll.
(Click image to enlarge)

It is always exciting to find new information on Soapy. Cathy Spude deserves recognition for figuring out the error. Well done Cathy.

Rev. John A. Sinclair: pages 17, 437, 452-53, 505, 513-14, 522-23, 542-43, 546-47, 557-61, 565-66, 576, 595.

"My name is Smith—Soapy Smith—an' when
you’re in trouble say so an’ I'll help you."
—as said to Cy Warman in 1892
San Francisco Call September 4, 1898.


1798: David Wilkinson of Rhode Island patents the nut and bolt machine.
1799: George Washington, the first president of the United States, dies at the age of 67.
1819: Alabama joins the Union as the 22nd state.
1859: Fort Brown in Brownsville, Texas receives reinforcements and defeats outlaw Juan Cortina at La Ebronal.
1859: Corporal Patrick Collins, from Camp Verde, leads an attack against a camp of Comanche Indians near the north branch of the Guadalupe River in Texas. One Indian is killed and three are wounded. Fifteen horses are captured.
1860: Missoula County in Washington Territory is established, taking in all of present day western Montana.
1867: Two woodcutters are killed by Indians in an attack near Fort Kearny, Wyoming.
1880: Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garret joins forces with the Frank Stewart posse in looking for Billy the Kid. They head towards Fort Sumner, New Mexico, Territory.
1903: Orville and Wilbur Wright make the first attempt at powered flight. The engine stalls during take-off and the plane is damaged. In three days they will try again and succeed. The aviation age is born when their flying-machine stays aloft for 12 seconds traveling a distance of 102 feet.

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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