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Soapy Smith: Con Man's Empire

Originally published by Wild West magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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'Smith is killed,' someone cried. The news spread, probably with greater speed than wildfire could have traveled through the neither warm nor dry environs of Skagway, Alaska, on the night of July 8, 1898. About half a dozen of the men who had, in their way, helped make Jeff Smith — better known as Soapy Smith — the most prosperous and influential citizen in Skagway ran to tell their friends the awful news, and then to get out of town — fast.

The man who, by his presence, had brought about a reign of terror in Skagway, began his life in a most unlikely environment for someone whose future claim to fame would rest on his ability to raise the professions of graft and petty theft to legendary heights. Born in 1860 to a prominent and reputable family in Noonan, Ga., Jefferson Randolph Smith Jr. grew to be a tall, handsome, suave, soft-spoken and well-dressed young man. His father, Jefferson R. Smith Sr., was a lawyer, as would be two of his brothers. Three of Jeff Junior's other brothers were doctors, one a minister and one a farmer.

Like many Southerners after the Civil War, Jeff Smith's father sought new opportunities by taking his family west, to Round Rock, Texas, in 1876. There, he established a new law business while Jeff himself took up his first — and last — honest employment, becoming a salesman.

Not long after the Smith family's arrival in Texas, Jeff's mother died. Also, sometime between 1876 and 1879, when he first turned up in Denver, Colo., Jeff began to make the transition from honest to not-so-honest salesman. He was also known to excel in card games and the thimble rig — manipulating a pea within three thimbles and betting on which one it was under. Neither form of gambling was worthy of the title 'game of chance' when Soapy was playing.

By 1883, Smith was making a tidy profit by selling soap to miners all over Colorado — earning the catchy nickname of 'Soapy' Smith. What made personal hygiene so attractive to the miners when Smith was in town was his announcement that one out of 10 of the nickel cubes of soap that he was selling for $5 apiece featured a double wrapping, the inner of which was anything from a $20- to a $50 bill. Soapy made a great show of wrapping the prizes into the packages; what the miners didn't see was that same money disappearing back into his pocket by sleight-of-hand.

In 1885, Smith settled down to practice his favorite bunco game in the growing metropolis of Denver, where his ambitions soon broadened. He invested his profits in a gambling hall — the Tivoli Club — and set his sights on skimming the cream off every illegal undertaking in town. That required an organization, but by then Soapy knew where to find the talent — men of the caliber of 'Judge' Norman Van Horn and Syd Dixon, both disbarred lawyers with a command of quasi-legalese that could baffle a Harvard graduate, and 'the Reverend' Charles Bowers, a pious, benign-looking professional shill whose means of gaining a stranger's trust included a back pocket full of Masonic and other organizational paraphernalia, from which he would draw according to what a quick study of the potential victim would reveal to him. Smith also enlisted a motley assortment of pickpockets, muggers and burglars to serve as lawmen — upholding his brand of self-serving law and order by bribing politicians, stuffing ballot boxes and, as necessity demanded, dealing out bodily injury. The lieutenant that Soapy put in charge of this muscle was a diminutive but hard-boiled egg named 'Ice Box' Murphy, a former road companion of the famous hobo 'A-Number One.' John W. Murphy's nickname sprang from a past attempt to dynamite the safe in a darkened meat market — only to have his safecracking career stopped cold upon discovering that he had blown up the cooler instead.

Soapy continued to get into trouble with the law, but he invariably slithered his way out with some of the most cynical, twisted rhetoric that ever swayed a jury. After he swindled two visitors to the Tivoli Club out of $1,500, Smith was taken to court. Speaking in his own defense, Soapy stated that his gambling hall was, in fact, an institution of public education, designed to cure the compulsive gambler of his urge, just as the Keely Institute treated alcoholics. Smith concluded by pointing out to the court that his two victims had sworn never to gamble again. 'I should be recognized as a public benefactor,' he declared. 'Praise, instead of censure, should be our portion.' Smith was not praised, but he was acquitted.

Smith always preferred using his wits to his weapons, but he was not squeamish about resorting to mayhem if he felt he had to. One of those rare occasions arose when the Rocky Mountain News ran a hostile editorial that made reference to his family. Soon after coming to Denver, Jeff Smith had somehow found time in his busy schedule to court and marry a girl named Mary Noonan, but had scrupulously distanced her from his professional life. Few knew that he had a wife, but after the News' article came out, he learned that she was being shunned by her strait-laced neighbors.

Smith put his wife and their children on the next train to St. Louis. Then, armed with a heavy walking stick, he stormed over to the News printing company, intercepted its president, Colonel John Atkins, as he was entering the building and gave him a thorough caning. Atkins eventually recovered from a fractured skull, while Smith was tried for attempted murder. Soapy argued that if murder had been his intention, he would have rebuked Atkins with something more suitable than a walking stick. Smith was acquitted, but it was time to move on.

After some brief sojourns in Cheyenne, Wyo., Salt Lake City and Ogden, Utah, and Pocatello, Idaho, in 1892 Smith settled into the southwestern Colorado boom town of Creede, where he opened a gambling saloon called the Orleans Club (See related article in the April 2006 issue of Wild West Magazine). Soapy's main competition in town was Ford's Exchange, a magnificent combination saloon, gambling casino and house of ill-repute run by Robert Ford and his mistress, Nell Watson.

For a short time, it seemed as if Smith had met his match in Ford, the man who had shot Jesse James in the back. Then, on June 8, Bob Ford was killed by a shotgun-wielding drifter named Ed O'Kelley, for reasons that were never ascertained, but which strongly hint at it having been done at Soapy's behest. Ford's death did leave Smith in control of all but one of the 40 saloons in Creede, the last exception being the Denver Exchange, managed by none other than Bat Masterson.

In 1893, Smith returned to Denver and managed to reinstate himself among its 'respectable' citizenry. The next year, however, a high-handed new populist governor, David H. Waite, tried to clean up Colorado's corrupt elements, starting with a thorough purge of Denver's City Hall. The city officials resisted with the help of an armed militia made up of Denver's lowest elements, allied with most of the police and firemen, under the overall command of Soapy Smith. The enraged governor sent the National Guard, complete with tow cannons and two Gatling guns, to Denver, resulting in a tense standoff in front of City Hall. Bloodshed was averted when the pleas of a delegation of Denver citizens persuaded the governor to relent and call off his troops.

The 'City Hall War' placed Soapy Smith at the peak of his popularity in Denver, but it fell almost as quickly as it rose. Eventually, Denver's voters decided that it was time to reform their city, and a new set of officials who owed nothing to Smith served him notice that it was time to go.

Over the next few years, Smith drifted around. In 1895, he offered to raise a mercenary army of 500 American fighting men for Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz for $80,000, a deal that fell through when the canny presidente did some checking into the American 'colonel's' past. In quick succession, Smith found himself equally known and unwelcome in Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Cripple Creek. He made a brief appearance in Butte, Mont., but things turned ugly when he was caught cheating at cards in the Clipper Shades Saloon, whose proprietor, Jack Jolly, was also the town marshal.

After finding San Francisco's and Portland's resident vice lords too well entrenched to compete with, Smith saw his fortunes at low ebb on July 16, 1897, when the steamship Portland entered Seattle Harbor. Aboard it were wide-eyed men with tales to tell of riches in the Alaskan Klondike.

Smith had, in fact, already been investigating the possibilities in Alaska the previous year — only to be convicted of conning a sourdough out of his money in Juneau and returning to Seattle empty-handed. During a second trip north in October 1897, Smith checked out two towns, Wrangell and Skagway, and opted to stake his claim in the latter.

Until July 1897, Skagway had a resident population of one — a pioneering prospector named Captain Billy Moore. In that month, the first 100 people arrived with settlement on their minds. They ousted Moore from most of his claimed territory, leaving him just enough of a spread to be part of the community, and began laying out a town site. One of the most prominent of that early contingent was an erstwhile surveyor named Frank H. Reid. Born in Illinois, Reid had settled in Oregon's Willamette Valley in the 1870s. Normally a quiet man, Reid had been a schoolteacher, but he was also a veteran of the Bannock-Paiute Indian War of 1878, and had been acquitted of shooting a man in Oregon.

In February 1898, not long after Soapy and six of his cronies took up residence in Skagway, Smith learned that a bartender named John Fay was being held by a town committee on a charge of double murder. While Fay was being considered for a lynching, Smith and his men intervened, grabbed the suspect and hid him until legal help arrived (turned over to the U.S. marshal at Sitka, then Alaska's capital, Fay served only a short sentence). Smith grandly proclaimed his belief in law and order, and also got a collection underway to raise $1,500 for the widows of the two murder victims.

The people of Skagway were thus given a strong, if superficial, first impression of their new resident as a man dedicated to civilizing their primitive community. In actuality, however, Smith was counting on their rough-hewn metropolis to stay the way it was for as long as possible. Outside of Skagway's local marshal — who could be bought — there was a total of two lawmen patrolling the entire Alaskan Yukon River district. For Soapy Smith, Skagway was a badman's paradise.

To the resident citizens of Skagway, smith maintained a popular image with a respectable variation on the personal charm that had gained him such a wide following of criminal henchmen. The Skagway correspondent of the New York World called him 'the most gracious, kind-hearted man I've ever met. To know him is to like him.' Those journalists who Smith could not charm, he bribed.

Establishing temporary headquarters in Clancy's Saloon, Smith soon had two joints of his own — The Mining Exchange and Jeff Smith's Parlor. The Exchange specialized in overpriced whiskey and crooked gambling, while the latter establishment was little more than an oyster parlor that also served as Smith's office and headquarters — Skagway's unofficial city hall.

Among the local lowlifes who enlisted in Smith's gang were Yeah Mow Hopkins, a violence-prone veteran of San Francisco's Chinatown tong wars, and Van B. Triplett, better known as 'Old Man Tripp,' a lovable-looking patriarch with a white beard and a black heart. Generally, Soapy encouraged his minions to limit their crimes to transient prospectors, laying off Skagway's more permanent residents. Drawing on his proven powers of warped logic, Soapy excused their depredations on the greenhorns as a charitable act, discouraging them from pursuing their misguided quest for gold: 'Infinitely better that any man who is such an infant as to try to beat a man at his own game should lose his money here in the seaport, than he should bet into the inhospitable Arctic, where such an idiot would lose it anyway or be a burden on the community.'

Smith also urged his men to go easy on the violence and avoid any killing, lest it stir up public resentment. While his henchmen were not inherently well-disposed toward restraint, they did emulate their leader's underhanded ways for awhile. One resourceful villain opened his own travel bureau and sold maps to newcomers for a dollar — just to get a look at the size and contents of their wallets. Others roamed the trail with feather-stuffed packs on their backs, waiting to link up with real prospectors and gain the occasion to fleece them in a 'friendly little game' along the way.

One of Soapy's own inspired innovations was to open Skagway's first telegraph office, charging new arrivals five dollars to send messages home. Skagway had no telegraph line at the time, but Soapy diligently dispatched their messages, and even provided phony replies — collect, of course.

The first real trouble to be encountered by Smith occurred in March when an anonymous felon had the indelicacy to 'accidentally' kill a prostitute while in the process of robbing her in her own room. A colleague of hers named Mattie Silks panicked and fled, declaring that her friend had been murdered by one of Soapy's goons. The news stirred a group of concerned citizens into action. After a meeting to discuss what should be done, they posted a notice:

WARNING

A warning to the wise should be sufficient. All confidence sharks, bunco men, and sure thing men, and all other objectionable characters are notified to leave Skagway and the White Pass Road immediately and to remain away. Failure to comply with this warning will be followed by prompt action.

(Signed) Committee of One Hundred and One.

In contemptuous response to the challenge, Smith called a meeting with his gang, and then drafted a poster of his own:

PUBLIC WARNING

The body of men styling themselves the Committee of One Hundred and One are hereby notified that any overt act committed by them will be promptly met by the law-abiding citizens of Skagway, and each member and their property will be held responsible for any unlawful act on their part. The Law and Order Committee of Three Hundred and Seventeen will see that justice is dealt out to the fullest extent and no blackmailers or vigilantes will be tolerated.

(Signed) Law and Order Committee of three Hundred and Seventeen.

The daunting number of 317 referred to nothing more than the address of Jeff Smith's Parlor — 317 Holly Street — but the 'Committee of 101' took no further action, and Smith confidently remarked in a letter to a friend in Seattle, 'We have got them licked, and we mean to rule absolutely.'

While the Soap Gang conducted its criminal activities with greater discretion thereafter, Smith himself publicly flaunted his power and influence. He helped finance the building of Skagway's first church. When the Spanish-American War broke out, he organized the 'Skagway Guard,' and wrote President William McKinley offering its services overseas. The president sent a letter praising 'Captain' Smith's patriotism, and the secretary of war authorized Smith to drill his men at Fort St. Michael. Soapy had the latter framed and prominently displayed in his bar. On June 1, the Sitka Alaskan reported that 'Company A, National Guard, Alaska, drills every night,' a minor news item that hinted darkly at what purpose Smith may really have raised his militia for.

July 4, 1898, saw the 38-year-old Jefferson R., Smith at the height of his power, financing and leading the Fourth of July parade as grand marshal. By then, he was being referred to as the 'Uncrowned King of Skagway,' but his fiefdom was already changing. Its population had risen to 15,000, including merchants, craftsmen and restaurateurs. They were concerned about the way Skagway's evil reputation, spread by the press, was costing it the business of passing immigrants, who were showing a preference for the rival port of Dyea, six miles up the coast. There were more wives in town, urging their men to crate a decent environment for their children.

On July 7, the catalyst that would ignite those forces came to town in the person of a sourdough named John D. Stewart. He had come from Dawson with 2,700 worth of gold dust. The next morning, he was looking for a place to change it into legal tender when he was met by the genial Old man Tripp, who warned him that Skagway was full of unscrupulous moneychangers and that only one man could be trusted to change his diggings to dollars without raking off an exorbitant commission. Tripp then took Stewart to Jeff Smith's Parlor.

While he waited for the proprietor, Stewart was given a couple of drinks on the house and then invited to come out back and have a look at Soapy's captive eagle. Stewart found an eagle there all right — Soapy had bought it from some boys who had caught it, and it had participated in the Fourth of July parade — but he also found a nest of three-shell gamesman who suddenly got into a violent quarrel over one another's honesty. One of them stumbled into Stewart and, the nest thing he knew, he was picking himself up off the floor. He was alone with the bird, and his bonanza had flown.

Rushing out front and confronting the bartender, Stewart was told that the whole thing was just a harmless little joke, and that his gold would be returned to him shortly. Stewart was not amused, and went to the local lawman, one Deputy Marshal Taylor, appealing for help. Taylor asked Stewart who had stolen his gold and, when the prospector could not provide a positive answer, the lawman said with visible disinterest that he would investigate the matter.

Recognizing a song and dance when he heard it, Stewart stamped angrily about the streets of Skagway, calling the attention of anyone who would listen to how he had been wronged, and then went to Dyea and stated his case to the U.S. commissioner there, C.A. Sehlbrede. Sehlbrede made some inquiries in Skagway, then summoned Smith before him and advised him that if any of his men had Stewart's gold, it would save everybody a lot of trouble if they returned it. Smith replied that if any of his men had the gold and gave it up, he could 'cut their damned ears off,' stating that Stewart had gambled it away fair and square in a shell game.

At that point, Stewart's grievance had become a local cause célèbre. A revived Committee of 101 called a meeting at Sperry's Warehouse, but so many members of Smith's gang sneaked in that it had to be adjourned. Another meeting was scheduled to take place in Sylvester Hall at 9 that night, but was moved to Juneau Wharf at the foot of State Street to lessen the chances of being infiltrated again. Four guards were posted to further ensure their privacy.

Back at Jeff Smith's Parlor, its namesake heard of the new meeting and, after downing a glass of whiskey, he stormed toward the dock. Some of his men apprehensively followed him, but he impatiently waved them back, determined to settle the matter alone, wither with personal charisma or the .44/40-caliber Model 1892 Winchester rifle he carried with him.

As Soapy stormed up the boardwalk, two of the guards jumped over the railing an took cover under the wharf. Another, J.M. Tanner, seemed to be unarmed, and Soapy strode past him. As Frank Reid stood in his path, Smith came to an abrupt halt and swung his rifle at him.

Reid caught the rifle barrel with his left hand, pushed it aside and, with his right hand, drew a revolver and squeezed the trigger. Its first cartridge misfired. Grasping his rifle in both hands, Smith jabbed it into Reid's groin and fired. Almost simultaneously, Reid snapped off a shot, fell, raised his gun and fired again.

Reid's last shot hit Smith eight inches above the knee, but that wound was superfluous, for a previous bullet had gone through Soapy's heart. Popular lore credits Reid with putting it here, but it could have come from any of the other guards, or even from an adjacent building overlooking the wharf, owned and occupied by employees of the White Pass & Yukon Railroad, who regarded Smith as an obstacle to their own interests in the area. In any case, the crime lord of Skagway was dead before he hit the deck. For all intents and purposes, so was his empire.

'Smith is killed,' someone shouted. About half a dozen of his gang watched, aghast, from the edge of the wharf as Tanner told them, 'They've got Soapy and they'll get you next.'

An instant of gunplay nudged the citizens' attitude over the line from restraint to relief and then revenge. J.M. Tanner led the crowd into town, calling for a rendezvous in front of Fran k Reid's house on State Street. Some of the men carried Reid home but, finding him to be m ore seriously wounded than they thought, they rushed him to the hospital. Soapy Smith's body was turned over to Ed R. Peoples, the town undertaker. After being sworn in as'special marshal' by Judge Sehlbrede — superseding Taylor's authority — Tanner borrowed a Winchester rifle from Captain Billy Moore and gathered 60 men to comb the town for Soapy' disciples. Men were posted at every wharf and every trail, while the White Pass Railway Company was notified to place men at the pass. A dragnet had effectively descended around Skagway.

A total of 26 of Soapy's gang were rounded up over the next few days. Some were thrown into the town jail until accommodations proved inadequate. The rest were placed under guard in a hall over Burkhard's store while, outside, nooses were being adjusted by some of the more zealous sentinels of public virtue. In spite of the guards holding the mob at bay, one of Smith's men, Slim Jim Foster, got nervous and, jumping out the back end of the building, made a break down French Alley. He was caught by a group keen to hang somebody, and thus found himself the unwitting first volunteer as they dragged him out front and threw a rope around his neck.

At that moment, a detachment of U.S. Army infantry, summoned from Dyea by Judge Sehlbrede, arrived just in time to save Slim Jim from a premature suspended sentence and establish a state of martial law. The troops paraded up Fifth Street, but that proved to be the only show of strength necessary. They left the next morning when Sehlbrede declared the situation under control.

Once things calmed down, the townsfolk had the satisfaction of seeing Soapy's leading lights — including Reverend Bowers, Slim Jim Foster and Old Man Tripp — shipped out to Juneau top serve prison sentences that ranged from one to 10 years. The rest were put aboard the steamship Tartar, bound for Seattle and points south, and advised under pain of death never to show their faces in Skagway again.

Mortally wounded, Frank Reid cling painfully to life for 12 days, just long enough to see that his death had not been in vain — and also, perhaps, to overhear the first embellishments in the retelling that would emblazon his showdown with Soapy Smith in the annals of Alaskan legend. The two antagonists were buried not far from one another. A large monument was erected over Reid's gravesite, inscribed with the legend: 'He gave his life for the honor of Skagway.' The grave of the 'Uncrowned King of Skagway' was marked by a rough board with the stark inscription: 'Jefferson R. Smith, Age 38, Died July 8, 1898.'

How the mighty had fallen! Fallen, but not forgotten. Jeff Smith's Parlor still stands on what is now Sixth Avenue, and on every July 8 since 1977, citizens of Skagway have gathered at the grave to drink champagne, provided by the present-day Smith clan, to the ghost of their most notorious celebrity.



This article was written by Jon Guttman and originally appeared in Wild West magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Wild West magazine today!


4 Responses to “Soapy Smith: Con Man's Empire”


  1. 1
    Elizabeth W Smith says:

    Soapy Smith is very amazing and I loved all of the details in this story! So far it is the best one i have read!

    • 1.1
      Jackie-mon-mean-son says:

      WWAAYY to long!!!!!!!!!!!!!! This F'n Sucks. 2 many wrong dates

  2. 2

    [...] • HistoryNet.com: Soapy Smith, Con Man’s Empire [...]

  3. 3

    [...]  Soapy Smith: Con Man's Empire – historynet.com [...]



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