May 11, 2017

A new Soap Gang photograph?

The auction photograph
courtesy of Raynors' Historical Collectible Auctions
(Click image to enlarge)







ew Soapy Smith related photograph?






     Soapy Smith fan and personal friend, Gary Wiggins, notified me of an auction selling some Soapy related photographs. The auction house Raynors' Historical Collectible Auctions describes lot #544 as follows:
A pair of photographs withdrawn from a scrapbook, still nestled in the scrapbook holder pages, each 6-1/4” x 4-1/2” with ID on scrap book page. To include, “Gang of Soapy Smith: Skagway 1898,” showing 19 men aligned outside in front of a building. ... plus, “Skagway 1898, * Rounding up the Soapy Smith Gang” with a large group of men in front of wood buildings. The foreground is out of focus, dark image These are period copy photos taken by the photographers Webster and Stevens, within minutes of one another, in front of the Skagway city hall where members of the Soap Gang were being held after their capture the day after bad man Soapy Smith met his demise on the Juneau Company Wharf in a shootout with the vigilante Committee of 101. Three armed vigilantes or deputy U.S. Marshals can be seen in the door way blocking the entrance. Some of the more radical vigilantes outside, seek to obtain custody of the prisoners to serve their own brand of justice. Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith II (1860-1898) was a con artist, saloon and gambling house proprietor, gangster, and crime boss of the 19th-century Old West. Although he traveled and operated his confidence swindles all across the western United States, he is most famous for having a major hand in the organized criminal operations of Denver and Creede, Colorado, and Skagway, Alaska, from 1879 to 1898. When he settled in the towns of Creede and Skagway, opening businesses with the primary goal of gently robbing his customers, while making a name for himself. He died in spectacular fashion in the shootout on Juneau Wharf in Skagway.

The same exact photograph
For comparison
note the major differences in clarity and contrastAuthor's collection
(Click image to enlarge)

     I can confirm that the top photo is definitely a scene from the Soapy Smith drama, but I have great reservations about the second photograph, although it is not nearly as clear as any other copy I have seen. Take note of the clarity of the white text below the photograph, which shows that this photo is very blurry. Now examine the exact same photograph I attached "for comparison."
     The lower photo of the two offered for auction is unknown to me. I do not recognize any of the men or the building. It appears to have been taken outside of Skagway as I know of no "L" shaped buildings existing in Skagway in July 1898 (see photograph below). Some of the men appear to be Indian or Mexican, which there were not known to be any in the Soap Gang in Skagway. Then there are the four children; why would they be posed alongside arrested gang members? In fact, it would be a good idea for the auction house to send me better, larger copies of these, along with any additional information and/or provenance.

Skagway, Alaska
June 1898
Note: No "L" shaped buildings
(Click image to enlarge)

I sent the photos to Alaskan historian and the publisher of Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel for his well sought after opinion. He had the following to add.
     The second picture is not taken in Skaguay ... or so I'd be willing to wager. I'll tell you why I think so, but first let's address who the seller says took the photos, Webster and Stevens.
     Here's what Candy Waugaman writes about them in Alaska History, Spring/Fall 2002, p51:
Circa 1898-1906; Dawson, Skagway, Seward Peninsula; Seattle firm begun by Ira Webster and Nelson Stevens in 1903, may not have taken Alaskan photos of their own, acquired photos by Nowell, Hegg, LaRouche, and perhaps others; Seattle Museum of History and Industry; BWP [Biographies of Western Photographers]
So the photos could not have been "taken by" Webster and Stevens as they weren't even around until 1903. Rather, W and S made a copy of the photo, taken by either Hegg or Sinclair or someone else.
     I read the description on HCAauctions.com. Says there that the photos are copies. That they surely are. Muddy and fuzzy as they are, they're poor copies at that. The first photo is one we've both seen many times, in front of City Hall with many excited Skaguay citizens.
     The second photo cannot be as described, taken "within minutes of one another" [that is, the first photo]. No building on 5th street looks like that, nor could the background terrain be from that location on 5th. Next, no building in all of Skaguay in 1898 has a grass/leaf roof with small-diameter poles holding them down. One Skaguay blow [Skagway means home of the north-wind] would remove such a roof with ease. The walls appear to be stucco, not the milled lumber that predominated Skaguay then.
     To the backdrop again; those are spindly trees whereas in Skaguay, the trees are dense on steep, high cliff walls on one side and distant sloping, high hills on the other, across the Skaguay river. To the north is the interior valley with no hills, and to the south is Skaguay Bay. Now the foreground: it looks parched and hard, with dried-out vegetation in front of the line of men and young children. In the summer of 1898, every street in Skaguay had been marched into mud and then was pliant soil when not mud soup. No vegetation appears on any of the streets--except that placed there for celebrations.
     Now the people. I have searched their faces for any sign of a gang member's face, as I expect you have. None is recognizable to me. I agree about the children; none would be lined up with gang members for a photo. Some of the men appear to be Caucasian while others to be Indian and still others to be Mexican. I would guess the locale to be southwest US or perhaps even Mexico, in a high plains, somewhat desert area. The jackets on some suggest it's chilly but getting on into a late morning that's warming up. One man with an X above him is in shirtsleeves while the other with an X above him is also and wearing an apron, suggesting he is a cook.
     To conclude, the 2nd photo, in my opinion, cannot be Skaguay and certainly is not of Soapy Smith gang members. My guess would be that whoever put the album together made an assumption about photos acquired years before and placed the two together and wrote what was written without knowledge or accurate remembrance of Skaguay nor of the merchants, workers, Cheechakos, or Sourdoughs who peopled Skaguay in July 1898. Perhaps the person had never even visited Skaguay.
    A minimum bid of $400 is unreasonably high for these photos. One is a poor copy of a common photograph, and the other is certainly misidentified. However, I don't believe a scam is being perpetrated. Rather, I suspect the seller is just repeating the error of the person who built the album and wrote captions for these photos. Hope these notes help.
In the end all we can really do is repeat the words from the sign that hung at the entrance of Soapy's Tivoli Club in Denver, caveat emptor, which means "let the buyer beware." 

SOURCES:
Raynor's Historical Collectible Auctions.
Art Petersen






"In times of physical danger he could draw a pistol or knife as smoothly as he could deal aces from the bottom of the deck."
Alias Soapy Smith, p. 15



MAY 11


1792: The Columbia River is discovered by Captain Robert Gray.
1858: Minnesota is admitted as the 32nd state.
1872: Passengers on a Kansas Pacific train protest against the senseless killing of buffalo from railroad cars.
1888: The outlaw Jack Taylor gang rob a Sonora Railroad in Agua Zarca, Mexico. Five outlaws, Jack Taylor, Geronimo Miranda, Federico Duran, Nieves Duran and Manuel Orozco Robles open fire on the train killing fireman John Forbes. The engineer jumps off the engine fleeing. The outlaws surround and fire their guns into the express car. The express car agent, Isaac Hay, is wounded with bullets to the head and shoulder. Louis Atkinson steps from the baggage car and his shot and killed. Another passenger is wounded with a bullet to the arm. The outlaws get away with only $140.
1889: Robbers unsuccessfully attempt to rob $28,000 in gold and silver in Arizona Territory. During the botched robbery eight soldiers are wounded and eight of the attackers are captured. Sergeant Benjamin Brown and Corporal Isaiah Mays (both black) of the 24th Infantry receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for their bravery.
1894: Workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company in Illinois go on strike.
1894: Three visitors to Denver, Colorado, L. B. Casebier, Solomon Corell and James Mills complain to the police about being robbed in a gambling house. Casebier was knocked unconscious, and identified bad man “Soapy” Smith as one of the men responsible, and was arrested. Police Chief Armstrong announced “’a general war on suspected poker clubs,’ which was a hollow threat and the gamblers knew it.”
1910: Glacier National Park in Montana is established.




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