April 12, 2013

That Fiend in Hell: "Jeff Smith fails to mention," except that he did "mention"..., and a lot more about the murderer of Soapy Smith.

The Shootout on Juneau Wharf
Smith and Reid shoot one another as Jesse Murphy (left)
rushes in to aid Reid. Murphy kills Smith with Smith's rifle.
Artist Andy Thomas worked closely with Jeff Smith to get the details precise.
(Courtesy of Andy Thomas)
(Click image to enlarge)

elow is the latest post from my blog, Examining "That Fiend in Hell": Soapy Smith in Legend. Please let me know what you think.

On pages 192-93 of "That Fiend in Hell," author Cathy Spude offers an example of how I make an "effort to convince … readers that Jesse Murphy 'murdered Soapy'…." She points to a news report that I cite in the July 19, 1898, issue of the Portland Morning Oregonian and asserts that I cite only the portion of the sentence that serves my point (that Murphy claimed to have killed Soapy Smith) and that I purposely left out the rest because it disputes my point. To make her case about the omission from the Portland paper, she uses phrases like "Jeff Smith fails to mention" and "he fails to point out."

This is indeed a very strange quibble because I did quote the entire sentence. In fact, I quote not just the entire sentence but the entire paragraph in which the sentence appears. The matter is made even stranger because to document her accusation, she cites the numbers of three surrounding pages on which discussion of the matter appears, but she fails to list the page on which appears the entire sentence and paragraph from the Portland Morning Oregonian. Here for clarity is that paragraph as it appears on page 548 of Alias Soapy Smith.

The shooting, Dr. Cornelius says, is the best thing that ever happened to Skagway next to the new railroad. Dr. Cornelius performed the autopsy on Smith’s body for the coroner’s jury. A man named Murphy claimed after the first autopsy that it was his bullet that killed the gambler, and it was necessary to perform a second [autopsy] to determine that Reed’s [sic] bullet did the work.

I would like to think that the author of "That Fiend in Hell" just made a mistake. Mistakes happen. I even made one once … perhaps two. But Cathy Spude takes such a heavy handed approach that it seems there is much more than a mistake at work in her thinking. In writing that "Jeff Smith fails to mention" and "fails to point out," she does not imply but rather outright accuses me of intentionally leaving out text in order to "justify" a conclusion. I cannot know what was in Cathy Spude's mind, but the stern, accusatory tone of her language does make itself known and felt as she apparently intended. Then in light of how her example is in complete error, revealed is not just a mistake or careless inattention to detail but a deep and determined bias against my biography of Soapy Smith. I am at a loss for any other way to explain such a focused indictment based on an error of her own making.

Cathy Spude in her criticism of my treatment of Soapy's death and the cover up that followed would have a reader believe my conclusion is based on half a sentence rather than the 23 pages of evidence and interpretation that appear in chapters 25 and 26 of Alias Soapy Smith (pages 538-561). I took much time and care in laying out the evidence, evaluating it, and drawing reasoned conclusions about it. To my knowledge, nothing has been omitted or obscured.

The story of the murder of Soapy Smith has just appeared in a feature-length article I was invited to write for Wild West magazine (April 2013, pages 44-51). It's a nice spread, with many illustrations. Though a feature piece, its space requirements called for compression, so only the most pertinent facts and the overall conclusion appear. For the full story, my book is the ultimate source for a survey of all known evidence and an even-handed examination of it.

Cathy Spude on page 193 of her book also claims that Jeff Smith lacks "understanding of [the] historic context" of Skagway in 1898. Probably no one will be surprised to learn that Jeff Smith disagrees. For three decades I have studied the players of this period and the details of their doings. I know this context extremely well; I just don't follow Cathy Spude's interpretations of people or events. Each of these disagreements, as well as correction of errors—one at a time—will make good reading for other days.

"She told lies so well a man would be a foot not to believe them."
— Unknown


1782: The British navy wins its only naval engagement against the colonial navy at the Battle of Saints, off Dominica, during the American Revolution.
1799: Phineas Pratt patents the comb cutting machine.
1811: The first colonists arrived at what would later be named Cape Disappointment, in the future state of Washington.
1833: Charles Gaylor patents the fireproof safe.
1861: Confederate forces fire on the U.S. at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, starting the Civil War.
1864: Confederate General Nathan Forrest captures Fort Pillow, in Tennessee and murders the black Union troops there.
1867: From Fort Larned in Kansas, General Hancock tells Cheyenne Indians to abide by the treaty of 1865 and stay on their lands south of the Arkansas River, or risk starting a war.
1872: The outlaw Jesse James gang robs a bank in Columbia, Kentucky of $1,500 and killing one person.
1877: A catcher's mask is used in a baseball game for the first time.
1883: Charles “Black Bart” Bolton robs the Lakeport-Cloverdale stage a second time, this time about 5 miles from Cloverdale, California.
1888: John Billee and Thomas Willis rob and murder W. P. Williams and bury his body in a ravine in the Kiamichi Mountains, Oklahoma Territory. They would eventually hang for the crime on January 16, 1890.
1889: Buffalo Bill's Wild West leaves New York for a tour of France.
1892: Voters in Lockport, New York became the first in the U.S. to use voting machines.
1898: Soap Gang member Harry Green signs his name as “Jeff Smith” on the register of the Hotel Northern in Seattle, causing newspaper there to falsely report that Soapy Smith was in their city. The real Jeff Smith, aka “Soapy,” was in Skagway, Alaska.
1905: The Hippodrome opens in New York City.

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