Friday, May 23, 2014

The Death and Life of Soapy Smith

By Alison Bruce

"I beg to state that I am no gambler. A gambler takes chances with his money, I don't"

Jeff R. Smith, 1894

1896, George Carmack, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie discovered gold near Dawson Creek, Yukon. It took a year for the news (and gold) to reach San Francisco and Seattle. When it did, the last great gold rush was kicked off and Jefferson "Soapy" Smith headed north to take advantage of it.

Skagway was chief gateway to the Klondike.The port, formerly called Mooresville, became a tent city, unable to keep up with its sudden growth. Soapy Smith and his gang set up shop, going into business with a local saloon keeper. Soon he was taking over the town's underworld, just as he had in Denver and Creed. (See The Good, the Bad and the Soapy) With a corrupt Deputy Marshal in his pocket and miners blinded by gold fever, Soapy never had it so good.

In order to prevent starvation, the Canadian Government required prospectors to bring a year's worth of provisions with them. All those provisions, plus the horses or mules used to cart them, had to move through Skagway. While the Klondikers prepared to hit the arduous trail through the mountains, Soapy separated the fools from their money. Most of his victims were too intent on getting to the Klondike to stick around and press charges. The few that did, had to travel to neighboring Dyea to find an honest cop.

Soapy also contributed to the community. He gave generously to charity. When the town council was raising money to hire a night watchman, he gave enough to hire two. On the flip side of this, he ran a telegraph office so men could contact their families one last time before risking their lives of getting over the Chilkoot or White Pass. Miners could send a message anywhere in the world for $5. One problem. Skagway didn't have telegraph service at the time. The lines in the office went nowhere.

Perhaps his most ambitious project was raising a militia company after the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor. Soapy offered his military services to President McKinley. The true purpose of his army, however, was to maintain absolute control over Skagway. With his Department of Defense sanctioned authority, he could declare martial law if he so chose.
Captain Smith's proudest moment in Skagway must have been leading his volunteer military army as grand marshal of the 4th of July parade. He obtained a captured bald eagle which was caged and placed on a red,white, and blue decorated horse wagon which followed behind Soapy in the parade. He was the hero of the day and everyone seemed to appreciate all he had done for the good of the town. However, some citizens did not appreciate the lawlessness and his rivals who sought his power capitalized on that feeling for their own ends. (
In the absence of real law enforcement, vigilante groups sprouted up in Skagway. At first they didn't have much support. Most of the legitimate merchants liked Soapy and benefited from his business. When word of Skagway's lawlessness began to spread, the public's attitude started to change. Miners might stay away from their city and go through Dyea instead. A vigilance committee calling themselves The 101 petitioned the federal government to intervene. Smith retaliated by forming his own law and order committee.He printed handbills warning the vigilantes to cease taking the law into their own hands.

Soapy was in his establishment, Jeff Smith's Parlour, when he was told that The 101 were meeting. Rounding up his men, he went to put a stop to it. 
At the first meeting of the Citizens Committee, Thomas Whitten of the Golden North hotel had been elected chairman. He appointed four men “to guard the approach to the dock in order that no objectionable characters might be admitted to disturb the deliberations of the meeting.” (Wikipedia)
Soapy's Saloon: The Jeff Smith Parlour, Skagway
I think it can be said that Soapy Smith, so far as The 101 were concerned, was an objectionable character. Yet, none of the four guards tried to stop him. Soapy ordered the first two off the wharf and they jumped off, onto the beach below. The second two turned a blind eye to Soapy. Further on, standing alone, Frank Reid stood his ground.

As he walked, Soapy's rifle was shouldered. When he closed in on Reid, he brought his rifle down, either to club or threaten Reid. Reid parried with his arm, grabbed the rifle and drew his revolver. Soapy yanked back as Reid shot him in the leg and shoulder. Finally getting control of his weapon, Soapy pressed the rifle barrel into Reid's belly and shot.

Seconds later, the Soap Gang rushed in. Murphy, one of the guards that had ignored Soapy, got to him first and wrested the rifle out of his hands.

Witnesses report that Soapy cried out: "Oh my God, don't shoot!" But Murphy did shoot and then he aimed Soapy's rifle at the Soap Gang.

It might have ended badly for Murphy but he got lucky twice. First, the members of The 101 came out at the sound of gunfire. They out numbered the Soap Gang, who backed off. Second, the community decided to credit Reid with killing Soapy. Self defense. Heat of battle. And Reid was dead. It was only recently that Soapy's descendant and biography, Jeff Smith, brought to light the documents that state that Murphy killed the wounded and unarmed Soapy.
The funeral services for Soapy Smith were held in a Skagway church he had donated funds to help build. The minister chose as the text for his sermon a line from Proverbs XIII: "The way of transgressors is hard." (
Soapy's criminal empire died with him. The vigilantes took over Skagway and rounded up the Soap Gang. Their reign was short, broken up when the US Army stationed in Dyea threatened martial law if authority wasn't returned to the town council.

Soapy, on the other hand, was never forgotten. Loyal friends toasted Soapy's Ghost then, and his descendants continue to make that toast now. Since the 1974, Soapy's Wake has been held annually at Eagles Hall, Skagway; Alaska, Magic Castle, Hollywood, California; and The Tivoli Club (a reproduction of Soapy's saloon in Denver, Colorado), Whitehorse Ranch movie lot, Yucca Valley, California.

Jefferson "Soapy" Smith, born November 2, 1860. Died July 8, 1898. Lived on in legend ever since.

For a more extensive biography of Soapy Smith, check out You can also find Jefferson Randolph Smith II on Facebook care of his descendent Jeff Smith.


Jeff Smith said...

Well written! Normally, when I read stories on Soapy written by other, I tend to find a mistake here or there. I can't see any.

Thank you for this story. Soapy was an amazing character, and you touched on just one year of his life. It is a wonder that he isn't more well known, so I appreciate your helping to spread his history.

Jeff Smith

P.S. Did you do the artwork at the top?

Alison E. Bruce said...

Thanks Jeff! Yes I did do the art at the top. Your website was a great resource when I was reading up on Soapy. I also found it quoted in other sources I used.

I must admit, I'm very happy you didn't find fault. Makes my day to hear that.

Cheers - Alison

Jeff Smith said...

By any chance, have you read my book, Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel? There is a ton more to his story than what you can find anywhere else. Check it out!

- Jeff Smith

Alison E. Bruce said...

Not yet, Jeff. It's on my wish list for my birthday (which is coming up). If need be it will be a present from myself. :)

Paty Jager said...

He was a slippery character and I enjoyed his cameo appearance in my book Laying Claim. Great info on the man, Alison!

Alison E. Bruce said...

Thanks Paty!