October 22, 2013

That Fiend in Hell: Soapy Smith's Denver reign in the Haigh dissertation.

Goldbug Council of War—A Daily Scene in Boodle Hall.
Soapy Smith at the head table
Rocky Mountain News, October 16, 1892
(Click image to enlarge)

n 2009 Jane G. Haigh completed her dissertation for a PhD in history and American Indian studies at the  University of Arizona. The title of her work is Political Power, Patronage, and Protection Rackets: Con Men and political Corruption in Denver 1889-1894.

On page 8 of That Fiend in Hell, Cathy Spude incorrectly states that Jane Haigh

dispels the notion that Smith was influential in Denver politics, concluding that he was used by the Denver politicians as a tool to buy votes. 

Spude goes on to expand Haigh's supposed "conclusion" by stating that Soapy's "infamy" came from "the pleasure Denver newspapermen took in making fun of him—and by extension the candidates that he supported—than any real influence he had in Denver politics." Spude gives Haigh a general footnote credit, which cites no page(s) and adds how "This conclusion" should be taken into account in evaluating "Smith's overall legend."

I own a copy of Haigh's dissertation, have read it thoroughly and looked back through it numerous times. I found it well written and informative, but I also found that Haigh presents a very different history than the one of which Spude writes. Nowhere in the dissertation does Haigh indicate that Soapy was merely a tool, that Denver newspapermen took Soapy's reign lightly, or that they made fun of him. On the contrary, Haigh does write that "The most well known con man in Denver was Jefferson Randolph 'Soapy' Smith..." (p. 38). To demonstrate Soapy's prominence and degree of influence, Haigh quotes numerous newspaper accounts, such as this one published on July 29, 1889, in Denver's Rocky Mountain News

Soapy, in the language of the fly-by-night fraternity “has” Denver…. He has it to do with what he will in so far as all professional swindling and stealing is concerned…. The city is absolutely under the control of this prince of knaves, and there is not a confidence man, a sneak thief, or any other parasite upon the public who does not pursue his avocation under license from the man who has become great through the power vested in him by those whose sworn duty it is to administer the laws out of fear or favor. (Dissertation, p. 77; also see more of this article in Alias Soapy Smith, pp. 145-46. The article includes this subtitle in capitals: "HE OWNS THE TOWN.")

Haigh adds the following:

Arkins [editor and owner of the Rocky Mountain News] was correct that in addition to his personal soap game and gambling, Soapy Smith had gained control of a downtown protection racket that exercised authority over the operations of thieves and con men, and paid off the police on behalf of all. Soapy developed this practice in Denver, perfected it in Creede, Colorado at the height of the brief silver rush, and later applied it to his advantage at Skagway, Alaska at the beginning of the Klondike Gold Rush.  (Dissertation, p. 77)

An examination of the dissertation shows that the "conclusion" Cathy Spude claims Jane Haigh draws does not belong to Haigh but to Spude and Spude alone.


Click HERE for more discussion of Cathy Spude's book, That Fiend in Hell.

"A morsel of genuine history is a thing so rare as to be always valuable."
—Thomas Jefferson


1746: The College of New Jersey is officially chartered. The name is later changed to Princeton University.

1836: Sam Houston is inaugurated as the first elected president of the Republic of Texas.

1844: The world was expected to come to an end on this day according to the followers of William Miller.

1859: Fort Larned in Kansas, also known as “Camp Alert,” is established to protect travelers, commerce, and mail on the Santa Fe Trail. It also provided a more centralized point for the distribution.

1876: U.S. troops arrive at the Red Cloud Agency in Nebraska to move Sioux Indians to central camps. Near Camp Robinson Red Cloud is forced to surrender all ponies and weapons to the 4th Cavalry. 400 Indians return to the agency.

1879: Thomas Edison conducts his first successful experiment with a high-resistance carbon filament.

1883: The New York Horse show opens. The first national horse show is formed by the newly organized National Horse Show Association of America.

1902: Train robber, Camillo Orlando Hanks, alias ”Deaf Charley,” is killed by lawman Pink Taylor after a saloon brawl in San Antonio, Texas. Hank’s was a notorious train robber during the latter nineteenth century, often aligning himself with Robert Leroy “Butch Cassidy” Parker’s Hole-in-the-Wall Gang.

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