May 8, 2013

Soapy Smith's Scheme: The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight.

P. Maher and R. Fitzsimmons prize fight 1896
It was Fitzsimmons (right) who was nearly set to fight in Skagway, Alaska
(Click image to enlarge)

lthough some historians figured it must of been some sort of a swindle, there is no evidence that Soapy Smith was planning to rob the town of Skagway out of $50,000.

The plan involved bringing James Corbett and Robert Fitzsimmons to Skagway in the spring or summer of 1898 for a rematch of their controversial fight held on March 17, 1897. That fight was billed as the "Fight of the Century." It was the first boxing match filmed and shown around the world. The showing of the film was so popular that one attempt was made to reenact and film the fight, using actors, but the acting was so terrible that it closed down within days due to lack of paying customers.

According to the Denver Evening Post, quoting from a copy of The Skaguay News, Jeff had asked the citizens and the railroad to put up a purse of $50,000 to entice the fighters to the city. It would be an excellent investment. Smith showed the citizens, on paper, how the town would make a profit of $1,000,000…. He said there would be at least 50,000 strangers in attendance, and each one would be compelled to leave … $20, which would make $1,000,000 left in Skaguay. … [F]rom the tenor of the article it is inferred that the citizens do not take much stock in the scheme. Fitzsimmons and Corbett have not yet been consulted…, but if “Soapy” gets hold of them they will undoubtedly consent to the fight taking place in Skaguay.”
(Alias Soapy Smith, p.516)

Soapy was not able to convince the White Pass and Yukon Railway and most Skaguay merchants to put up a guaranteed purse of $50,000. So the plan was added to the list of Jeff’s promising but missed opportunities. Soapy was never one to give in too quickly, so it is certain he sought other backers, and perhaps he tried to fund the project himself. Could this possibly be the reason the Soap Gang outright robbed John D. Stewart of his gold poke on July 8, 1898, rather than accept the little he had lost playing three-card monte?

A mystery surrounds the fight offer. Back in Denver, Colorado in late 1891 Soapy and a few members of the Soap Gang relieved Fitzsimmons of cash and diamonds in a "friendly" big-mitt poker game (Alias Soapy Smith, pp. 194, 196-97). Soapy was implicated in the Denver newspapers as having been directly involved in the swindle so it is a wonder how Soapy planned to deal with the issue. Would he deny his presence in Denver, or would he own up to the shearing and make good to the famed boxer?

The following is a newspaper clipping I recently dug up.



He Was Trying to Secure the Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight for Skaguay.

At the time of his death "Soapy" Smith, the well-known sporting man and street faker; who amassed considerable of his fortune in St. Louis, was arranging to bring off a fight between Corbett and Fitzsimmons in Skaguay, in the Klondike. It is asserted that Smith and his friends in the enterprise had arranged for a purse of $50,000, and that preliminaries were rapidly taking shape when the former St. Louisan met his death.

A copy of the Skaguay News of June 17 has been received here. From it the following was taken:

"Of course, no one can tell whether the prize fighters will come, or even if the authorities will allow the fight if they agree to take the place and time. But those uncertainties have in no way diminished the enthusiasm or delayed the work of preparation on the part of the committee composed of Captain Jeff Smith, Frank Clancy and Saportas. They have gone into the finances sufficiently to be able to say definitely that the $50,000 can be put up as soon as the principals and their managers signify their willingness to negotiate. It is not necessary, nor would it be policy, to state the sources from which the committee expect, and have assurances of, financial backing. Suffice that the backing is to be had, and that as soon as an invitation be sent here to put up the money."

It is supposed that the fight will not take place now, even had the principals consented to bring it off in the far away Klondike, as the death of "Soapy" Smith will no doubt put an end to the negotiations, he having been the head and shoulders of the undertaking.

St. Louis Republic, August 11, 1898

A rematch of the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight was never to be. Below is film footage of the first fight taken on March 17, 1897 in Carson City, Nevada. 

The following is by Ronald Emmis.

Today the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight of March l7, 1897 at Carson City, Nevada is called a ring classic, but in 1897 it was the "Fight of the Century." Prizefighting was then illegal in California, but a few weeks after the fight, hundreds of local fans saw the action on a 10 by 10-foot screen.
The movie was made by Enoch J. Rector, formerly of Edison Labs, who designed a trio of unique motion cameras and paid $13,000 for film rights to the contest. Rector was more than an inventor, because he was also a sharp businessman. The fight matched "Handsome Jim" Corbett, the San Francisco-born world champion, against an up-and-coming British challenger, Bob Fitzsimmons, but the event was also Nevada's first legally-sanctioned boxing contest, and it fired the public's imagination.

Can you imagine if Soapy Smith had been successful? Soapy already had a background history as a boxing referee in Denver and Creede, so surely he would have demanded a position in, or around, the ring. There is little doubt that this fight would have been filmed, so it is most likely I would be showing you moving film footage of Soapy Smith. Thomas Edison and his film company were very intuitive of their surroundings. Considering this was the moment of the great Klondike gold rush we today would probably have footage of Skagway's many attractions, such as Jeff Smith's Parlor and other assorted Skagway dens and characters. The imagination soars. 


(Click image to enlarge)
Link to purchase

Robert Fitzsimmons: pages 194, 196-97, 516.

"The origin of the term “bunco” (sometimes spelled bunko) comes from an old English game of chance in which a checkered cloth covered with numbers and stars is covered with a hood called a “bunco.” The game was to throw dice, which counted up to a certain concealed number. The man who knew the game was called the “bunco man,” or the banker, and later when this form of swindle became notorious the term was corrupted into “bunco.” To-day the word is used to denote almost any swindle where the victim is made to believe he is to receive a large sum of money or valuables, and then gets nothing at all."
— Harry Houdini, The Right Way to do Wrong, 1906


1541: Hernando de Soto reaches the Mississippi River. He calls it Rio de Espiritu Santo.
1794: The U.S. Postal Service is established.
1827: First known as Cantonment Leavenworth, Fort Leavenworth is established by Col. Henry Leavenworth on the Missouri River as an army post to protect travelers on the Santa Fe Trail.
1829: Sublette's pack-train, en route West by way of Independence, Missouri travels out the Santa Fe Trail some distance before turning northwest toward the Kansas River. This becomes the Oregon-California trail route.
1846: The first major battle of the Mexican War is fought in Palo Alto, Texas resulting in victory for General Zachary Taylor's forces.
1847: The rubber tire is patented by Robert W. Thompson.
1862: James and Granville Stuart erect the first sluice box for catching gold at Gold Creek, Montana Territory.
1879: George Selden applies for the first automobile patent.
1886: Pharmacist Dr. John Styth Pemberton invents what would later be called "Coca-Cola."
1904: U.S. Marines land in Tangier, Morocco to protect the Belgian legation.

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