Soapy Smith Was the Most Famous Con Man On the Frontier, But Was He Significant?
His legend is secure, though historians debate the slippery facts
Jeff Smith, great-grandson of 19th-century confidence man par excellence Jefferson Randolph (“Soapy”) Smith II, has no intention of conning anyone. “He [Soapy] devoted his God-given talents and abilities to the pursuit of the fast buck by employing every swindling scheme then known to man,” Jeff admits in the introduction to his 2009 biography Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel. The book was a long time coming. Nearly 25 years ago Jeff generously shared some of his research with author Jon Guttman, whose article “Con Man’s Empire” appeared in the December 1990 Wild West. That article recounted the infamous “sure thing” man’s life (1860–98), concluding with the traditional account of Soapy’s violent last stand—shot dead by vigilante Frank Reid (who was himself mortally wounded) on a wharf in Skagway, Alaska Territory. Since then Jeff Smith has uncovered information that challenges the official version of what happened and who actually killed the “uncrowned king of Skagway.” Read all about it in his 628-page book and in “Soapy Smith’s Showdown With the Vigilantes” in the April 2013 issue of Wild West.
Soapy Smith was arguably the most accomplished bunco artist on the frontier, and he remains without a doubt the best known of that naughty breed. The names of many Wild West robbers and gunslingers still roll off the tongue—from Jesse James to John Wesley Hardin to Butch Cassidy. But just try to name a man other than Soapy who made his mark (so to speak) by fleecing gullible miners and cowboys with the shell-and-pea game, three-card monte and the prize package soap sell swindle that earned J.R. Smith his sobriquet. Soapy’s sleight-of-hand dexterity and hair-trigger temper led to several gunfights (and killings) in Denver, says author Smith, but it was Soapy’s swindling and scheming that made him a legend. “He usually preferred to rely on his wits, smooth speech and dexterity rather than on physical force,” the author suggests. Smith contends that slippery Soapy was a leader of rogues and vagabonds and powerful enough to build and rule two criminal empires in Colorado before doing the same in Alaska. In other words, he was a significant figure in his time (“More famous than Wyatt Earp during the 19th century,” the author insists) and rightfully remains recognized as an important Western character. Jeff Smith wryly sums up Soapy’s legacy: “Upon the world he made his mark, and from him we learn not to be one.”
Catherine Holder Spude—whose 2012 book “That Fiend in Hell,” on the Soapy Smith of Skagway and in legend, is reviewed in this issue—has a different take on Soapy and his importance (or lack of it) in that Alaskan community. Spude argues that Soapy “was not historical so much as legendary,” and that this common petty criminal with considerable charm “managed to garner a bit more self-serving press than the usual con man, giving journalists somewhat more material with which to work.” She contends it was to the benefit of respectable Skagwayans to exaggerate the illegal activities and power of Soapy and then claim that by eliminating him and his gang, they had made Skagway as decent and safe as any village tucked away in New England. In her words this enabled them to “perpetuate the legend as a morality play, casting history aside in the interest of propagating values through mythology.” Spude says that while Jeff Smith’s family association gave him a wealth of material about Soapy, his book “emphasized correcting factual details without increasing his understanding or interpretation of them.” In his Soapy Smith’s Soap Box blog and elsewhere online Jeff Smith suggests that Spude ignored solid facts he provided, and that many of her interpretations miss the mark.
But, hey, it’s not like controversy and contrary interpretations haven’t dogged such legendary Western figures as Jesse James, Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp. Welcome to the club, Soapy.