“That Fiend in Hell”: Soapy Smith in Legend, by Catherine Holder Spude, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2012, $29.95
In his long-researched 628-page 2009 book Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel and his article in the April 2013 issue of Wild West, author Jeff Smith says his great-grandfather Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith was without doubt a badman, but one who was many-sided, interesting and certainly powerful, especially at his last stop in life—Skagway, Alaska. “A colorful and complex character of the Old West, he became a ruler of rogues and vagabonds, a friend of the friendless, a protector of criminals and a contributor to churches,” writes author Smith in his book’s introduction. Author Catherine Spude, who concentrates on that last stop, agrees that Soapy was “bad” all right, but her extensive research reveals he was but a common criminal and certainly not the uncrowned king or boss of Skagway. “Like the outlaws Jesse James and Billy the Kid, he overcame his rascally, thieving reputation to become the tragic hero of his own legend,” Spude writes. She argues that while author Smith had “unprecedented access” to family stories, as well as archival and secondary literature, and provided a trove of Soapy facts, he misinterpreted many of them and didn’t understand the historic concept of his subject. Author Smith, in turn, questions many of Spude’s interpretations. Anyone interested in the well-known 19th-century con man should read both books. Of course, that’s no guarantee that all matters of contention will become clear-cut at this late date.
The Soapy legend had already been embellished long before Jeff Smith’s book, according to Spude. First came the early narratives that made Soapy out to be a worse villain than he was “in order to bring civilization to the wilderness, law and order to the social chaos of Skagway.” Then, she adds, came the biographers who transformed this rogue con man into a charming Robin Hood. Some of Spude’s main points are that Soapy actually had little economic or political impact on Skagway; he was not actually a patriotic citizen who ever stood up for justice and never led Skagway’s July 4, 1898, celebration; and he was not actually killed, as many historians have supposed, by community stalwart Frank Reid. On this last point author Jeff Smith agrees, although they differ on the details and the motivations involved in the July 8, 1898, shootout. “It was clear,” Spude writes, “that more than one man had been involved in bringing Smith to his end, just as many more than one would be involved in creating a legend out of the death of a petty confidence man.” Author Smith would no doubt argue that’s like calling Jesse James a petty train robber.