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Home  >  Digital Archives  >  People of the North  >  Heroes and Scoundrels
Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith
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b. Newnan (Noonan), Georgia, 1860
d. Skagway, Alaska, 1898

I have stumbled upon a few tough corners of the globe during my wanderings beyond the outposts of civilization, but I think the most outrageously lawless quarter I ever struck was Skagway. . . . It seemed as if the scum of the earth had hastened here to fleece and rob, or . . . to murder. . . . There was no law whatsoever; might was right, the dead shot only was immune to danger.

- English explorer Alexander Macdonald,
reflecting on his 1897 Skagway visit
in Pierre Berton's The Klondike Fever

The Gold Rush town of Skagway celebrated Independence Day of 1898 in grand style with 5,000 people waving flags and cheering along the parade route. Red, white, and blue bunting was draped over storefronts, and community leaders delivered speeches, drawing enthusiastic applause. Among the dignitaries was territorial Gov. John Brady, who described the festivities as "a great display of Americanism in a one-year-old town."

Yet in this baby boomtown, the American freedoms that were celebrated were routinely crushed by the notorious "Soapy" Smith and his outlaw band, who fleeced the innocent and the foolish as they passed through town en route to the Klondike. Murders, robberies and shootouts became commonplace in a town that depended on the deputy marshal to keep the peace -- and he was in Soapy's pocket as well.

The irony is that Soapy served as parade marshal in that Fourth of July celebration, leading the way astride a white horse. He later took the platform as Soapy the upright citizen and delivered a rousing patriotic speech. It's true that he had an altruistic streak, and could rob and kill a man with his left hand, then bring aid to the widow with his right. Some saw him as that community booster, some feared him, and others just stayed out of his way. While the visiting governor was not blind to Soapy's reputation, he failed to act during a time in Skagway's history now remembered as "Soapy's reign of terror."

Jefferson Randolph Smith was a handsome, charismatic con artist who was well into a career of cardsharping and shell games in the West before joining the wave of people headed for the Klondike strike in 1897. He is remembered in Denver, Colorado, as "King of the Western Con Men," graduating from sidewalk sleight-of-hand games to rigging elections. Citizens of Creede and Leadville, Colorado, also felt the sting of Soapy's ventures, such as selling phony mining stock. His strength was not only in duping individuals; he saw the greater gain in organizing other con men like himself. He arrived in Skagway in October of that year, and reportedly had the community in his control through a criminal network by January.

Soapy acquired his unique nickname in Denver through a con game in which he appeared to slide $10, $20 and $100 bills into the wrappers of random bars of soap.  Then he would deliver his "step right up" patter encouraging viewers to take their chances and buy a bar for the ridiculously low price of $5. "You can't lose with soap ... cleanliness is next to godliness ... and the feel of a crisp, new greenback is heaven itself!" he'd declare. By prior arrangement, one or two members of the audience would cry out that they'd won and more marks would rush to buy.

When the Gold Rush heated up in the Klondike, Soapy was an early arrival, assembling a gang of his cronies to work the pockets of stampeders coming and going -- on the Seattle docks as well as in Skagway. Wallets were snatched, gambling games were fixed, smooth lies were told. In Skagway, Soapy's reach extended to various businesses, including his own saloon and gambling parlor, Jeff's Place. Gang members posed as helpful townspeople, directing newcomers to Soapy's establishments, where the people were robbed or gouged. His men set up a bogus telegraph office where miners paid $5 with the belief they were sending news of their safe arrival. They were charged another $5 for a fictitious reply from home. There were no telegraph lines to carry their messages either way.

The outlaws even targeted the dead. On April 3, 1898, following an avalanche that killed about 70 people on the Chilkoot Trail, Soapy had himself appointed coroner, and with his men set up a tent near the site. They dug victims out of the snow and emptied their pockets, then moved the bodies through the rear of the tent and back into the snow. Soapy had struck gold. Every person going into Canada was required to carry $600 and a year's worth of provisions.

"There were some Masons and other Order men among the dead, and it was a hard pill to swallow," wrote an outraged sourdough named Calvin Barkdull, who'd been mining the North since 1894. "We Alaskans did not pay much attention to Soapy's confidence games, but this villainous act hurt deeply."

Where was the law? In other stable mining towns, the miners themselves were judge and jury -- like the miners in 1896 Circle, Alaska. They threatened criminals with signs that read, "At a general meeting of miners held at Circle City, it was the unanimous Verdict that all thieving and stealing shall be punished by WHIPPING AT THE POST AND BANISHMENT FROM THE COUNTRY, the severity of whipping and the guilt of the accused to be determined by the Jury. SO ALL THIEVES BEWARE."

But Skagway was different. The mining population was much more transient, and the law, in the form of Deputy Marshal Sylvester S. Taylor, was for all purposes part of Soapy's gang. While the Mounties kept the order in Dawson, they had no jurisdiction in Skagway. The bad guys were running amok. Once, through a thin hotel wall, a wealthy woman overheard Deputy Taylor with Soapy and two other men as they divided the spoils of their murder victim. Listening in, the woman learned that she was the next hit. She left on the next southbound boat.

Soapy reigned as the "King of Skagway" for nearly a year before he was stopped. A few days after his glorious Fourth of July speech, the situation in Skagway inflamed when the lawful segment of the population finally decided to confront the evildoers. Realizing their pleas to the outside world did no good, various business leaders formed a vigilante group that called itself the "Committee of 101."

Soapy, in his role as a law-abiding citizen, denounced the Committee of 101, formed his own "Committee of 317," and issued handbills that read, "The body of men styling themselves 101 are hereby notified that any overt act committed by them will be promptly met by the Law abiding Citizens of Skaguay and each member and HIS PROPERTY will be held responsible for any unlawful act on their part and the law and order society consisting of 317 citizens will see that Justice is dealt out to its full extent as no Blackmailers or Vigilantes will be tolerated."

When a miner named J. D. Stewart returned from the Klondike with nearly $4,000 in gold and lost it through one of Soapy's con jobs, the Committee of 101 met to consider the next step. They notified Soapy that he had 24 hours to return Stewart's gold.

The site of Soapy's final duel was near First Avenue and State Street. On the evening of July 8, Soapy rallied six of his men with plans to break up another vigilante meeting. Armed with a Model 86 Winchester and a pair of revolvers, Soapy strode forward until he was confronted by city engineer Frank Reid, who challenged him, "Halt, Smith! Where are you going?" According to one eyewitness account, Soapy shouted, "Out of my way, you son of a bitch!" and brought down his rifle butt on Reid's head, just as Reid drew his revolver, which misfired. Soapy cried out, "My God, don't shoot!" A man named Murphy came to Reid's assistance and grabbed Soapy's gun, which fired into Reid's groin. Almost simultaneously, Reid fired a shot into Soapy's heart, followed by another into his stomach. Soapy died on the spot; Reid was hospitalized until his death on July 20.

Leaderless, Soapy's men scattered, but were rounded up by members of the vigilante committee. Some were shipped out of town; others, including Deputy Taylor, were jailed pending trial. Upon arrival of federal Marshal James M. Shoup on July 13, the vigilantes turned their prisoners over to the authorities.

The good people of Skagway must have known that Soapy was a scoundrel of mythic proportions when they posed in small groups around his autopsy table, then dressed and propped up his body for portraits at Ed. R. Peoples Funeral Parlor. At the wharf, members of Soapy's gang were forced to line up for photographs, hats in hand, before they boarded their southbound ships. Frank Reid was photographed as he lingered on his hospital deathbed. The whole town turned out for his funeral.

Indeed, the story of the shootout between two men representing good and evil -- Reid and Smith -- has been retold for more than a century, although Smith's descendants are convinced that more than one shooter was involved. Today the two graves in the Skagway Cemetery are regular stops for Skagway's visitors. Reid's grand tombstone extols, "He Died for the Honor of Skagway." Soapy's more modest grave marker is now in the family collection and has been replaced several times through the years.

As for Soapy's remains, miner Calvin Barkdull, who testified at Soapy's inquest, wrote this in his memoirs in 1952: "Shortly thereafter, a woman from Georgia arrived saying she was Soapy's legal wife and was there to claim his corpse. The grave was opened, and I heard that Soapy's body was not there." No other writings support his claim, however.

The early days of tourism in Alaska, even as early as 1908, brought visitors to Soapy's graveside. And in 1974, Soapy's grandson Randolph J. Smith inaugurated the special observance known as "Soapy's Wake." Joined by the cast of the "Days of '98" show, a Skagway stage show about Soapy, "mourners" brought champagne to the grave, toasting Soapy's ghost at 9:15 p.m., the time they believe he died. For many years, the Smith family bought the champagne, but a parallel tradition emerged that eventually halted the annual Wakes. Champagne-soaked celebrants were relieving themselves on the graves, especially that of Frank Reid, and after about 10 years, the event was banned from the cemetery.

But that hasn't stopped the annual party from happening. More recently, "Soapy Smith's Wake" has been held at The Magic Castle (a club for member magicians and their guests) in Hollywood, California, and hosted by Jefferson Randolph Smith's great-grandson, Jeff Smith. He is the current holder of the Jeff Smith Collection, which includes Soapy's original grave marker, gaming tables, roulette wheel, rare photographs, and other memorabilia. Through the "Friends of Badman Soapy Smith" website, the Smith family invites any and all to join them in remembering Soapy each year on July 8, at 9:15 p.m., by lifting their glasses and toasting, "Here's to Soapy's Ghost!"

In 2005, Soapy's great-grandson was still searching for the truth about the con artist's demise. His research queries, posted on more than one western-lore bulletin board, suggests that Frank Reid may not have been the killer. "Credit is given to Reid for the bullet that entered 'Soapy's' chest," wrote Jeff Smith, "and this is where the ambush theory comes into play. My family has researched that shootout and has documents and witnesses to show that another man killed 'Soapy' Smith, my great-grandfather. I am currently finishing up the biography on 'Soapy's' life that will answer all the questions."

Walking down Broadway Street, with its revived turn-of-the-century storefronts and boardwalks, it's easy to imagine the black-bearded con man on a snow-white horse, smiling and waving to his subjects. The King of Skagway.

Listen to Audio
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Gallery of Images
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Volunteer harbor guards
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The notorious "Soapy" Smith in the morgue, July 8th, 1898, Skagway, Alaska
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Soapy Smith's grave
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"'Soapy' Smith's Saloon. Peiser. Skagway, Alaska. Flashlight. 11 PM. 2/26/1898"
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Soapy Smith Gang
Click here for all 23 photos in this gallery.

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