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Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel

by Jeff Smith, Klondike Research, Juneau, Alaska, 2009, $26.

 Firearms figure only occasionally—albeit significantly when they do—in Jefferson Randolph Smith II’s life of crime. His claim to fame rests primarily on his wit, charm and underhanded deviousness as Soapy Smith, the West’s most renowned bunco artist. Nicknamed for his early flimflam act of selling cakes of soap at the wildly inflated price of 50 cents or three for $1 with the promise that some had $1 or $5 bills under the wrappers—which in practice only appeared when opened by a shill planted in the crowd—Smith rose from traveling con man to the kingpin of a criminal empire in Skaguay, Alaska, before a fatal shootout with local vigilantes on July 8, 1898, ended his reign.

Soapy’s saga appeared in an early issue of Wild West, but since then a wealth of newly uncovered research by his great-grandson, Jeff Smith, makes possible a far more detailed treatment in Alias Soapy Smith. The author corrects misconceptions and debunks myths, leaving plenty of documented acts that stand on their own demerits. Among other things, Jeff Smith finds neither hard nor logical evidence that Soapy Smith put Edward C. O’Kelley up to killing Jesse James assassin Robert Ford in Creede, Colo., on June 8, 1892—for one thing, Smith had no reason to regard Ford as either competition or a threat. As for the hands-on violence that cost Smith his life, the author concludes Soapy’s demise was less the result of a shootout than of plain murder.

Part likeable rogue and part serious gang leader, the charismatic Soapy Smith rightly claims his unique place in Western history. Profusely illustrated, with some previously unpublished photos, Alias Soapy Smith sheds new light on a life that is amply sordid and entertaining—which, in the finest Western tradition, amounts to much the same thing.


Originally published in the October 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.