Jeff Smith & Notorious Great-Grandfather, Outlaw “Soapy” Smith

photo_4Hello, gang!

    My name is Jeff Smith! (This is me, performing the prize package soap racket, 1890s style.)  My researching peers know me as “Soapy” due to my literal obsession with my great-grandfather, “Soapy” Smith’s, history. My reenacting friends also know me as “Soapy” for my first-person performances as Soapy in which I operate short-con swindles like the shell & pea game, three-card Monte and the prize package soap racket, the know-how all passed down from father to son, generation to generation starting with Soapy himself.

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(An 1898 newspaper rendition of the shootout between Soapy Smith and Frank Reid, July 8, 1898)

 

    I grew up in a family dedicated to preserving and increasing the memory of Soapy. My parents had a building in our backyard that contained a saloon and gambling hall, complete with a full size roulette table that belonged to Soapy, a crap table two blackjack tables, a faro table and a dozen or more antiques slot machines. By 5th grade I knew more about gambling and confidence scams that most adults.

    Whereas Soapy’s children and grandchildren did not wish to admit the bad side of Soapy, they chose to recognize his many good deeds and downplay the bad. I am perhaps the first member of the family to see and research both sides of this complex Old West crime boss. This has not made me very popular with some members of my family, but as my father once told me, “Jeff, he’s more interesting this way.”

 

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(Soapy in his saloon (Jeff Smith’s Parlor) in Skagway, Alaska, 1898)

 

One fortunate fact is that Soapy considered himself a business man and thus saved most of his correspondence letters and documents. I personally own about 160 letters, whereas there are perhaps a thousand artifacts within the family circle. My collection, combined with copies of the remainder bundle, has given me something few other relatives of outlaws can brag about; a personal documented look into the world of a renowned criminal. This will all be made public on August 17, 2009, when my manuscript, Alias “Soapy” Smith, The Life and Death of a Scoundrel is released.

 

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 (Seventeenth Street at the intersection of Larimer Street, Denver, Colorado, 1890s.  This was Soapy’s main location of operation.  He had an office on the second floor of the building on the right.)

 

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(Soapy Smith, circa 1890)

 

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(Theater playbill for HONKY TONK (MGM 1941).  Based on book, THE REIGN OF SOAPY SMITH, 1935.  Clark Gable played Candy Johnson)

 

Quick history of “Soapy” Smith

    Born: November 2, 1860, Coweta county, Georgia

    Died: July 8, 1898, Skagway, Alaska. Cause of death, a bullet to the heart.

    Last words: “My God, don’t shoot!”

 

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(Playing card from a souvenir deck.)   

 

 

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(Jeff and daughter, Ashley Smith, in front of Soapy’s saloon (Jeff Smith’s Parlor) on July 8, 1998 (100th Anniversary of Soapy’s death), Skagway, Alaska)

 

Soapy Smith is most known for his prize package soap racket in which he wrapped large denomination currency inside bars of soap and mixed them in with bars that contained no bills and sold them for $1.00 each. As the pile dwindled he would begin auctioning off the remaining cakes of soap for large amounts, the victims believing they had a “sure-thing.” No one but planted shills ever won any money.

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(Drawing of Soapy performing the prize package soap racket.)   

 

He traveled around the states with a network of bunco men before settling down in Denver, Colorado. By 1889 he owned several saloons, a cigar store and gambling halls all paid for with soap. He became the Al Capone of the Old West, fixing elections and criminal operations, all the while during which he gave out large donations to the poor, churches and charitable subscriptions.

    One scandal after another, and several gunfights from 1889 to 1895, finally brought his reign of power in Denver to an end. In 1897 he joined the thousands heading to the Klondike gold fields. He arrived and immediately took over control of Skagway, Alaska, until vigilantes pushed to drive him out. It was on July 8, 1898, during a meeting of the vigilantes that Soapy met his demise in a gunfight with one of four guards at the meeting’s entrance. For a century, the Smith family knew that Soapy had died under mysterious circumstances. Recently that information was released showing that Soapy was not only shot by another man, but that he was unarmed at the time. He had been murdered and it was being suppressed.

    Soapy’s escapades through-out his life were published all over the United States. In fact, while the two men were alive, Soapy Smith was more widely known than Wyatt Earp. Although this popularity was reversed, Soapy’s legend is growing. Since 1974 the family holds a public wake. Now there are two. The original is held each July 8 in Skagway, Alaska and the other is held at the famous Magic Castle in Hollywood, California.  

 

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 (Cover of LOOSE CHANGE magazine showing Jeff in the Smith family home with the back building saloon and gambling hall.)

 

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(Jeff performing the shell game for a youngster, Anchorage, Alaska, February 28, 2009.  Note that it’s snowing!)

To learn more about Jeff and his notorious great-grandfather, visit his website:

www.soapysmith.net

Be sure to watch for Jeff’s release, Alias “Soapy” Smith, The Life and Death of a Scoundrel, coming in August, 2009!

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77 thoughts on “Jeff Smith & Notorious Great-Grandfather, Outlaw “Soapy” Smith”

  1. Hello and welcome to P&P!
    I really enjoyed reading about Soapy! I cant imagine having such a rich family history-as I really know nothing about my family back that far!

    I personally think it’s very neat that you grew up with a gambling hall/saloon in your back yard!

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful bit of your family’s history!

  2. Jeff, welcome to Petticoats and Pistols! Your history is fascinating. I think it’s wonderful that you still have Soapy’s letters and correspondence–must be riveting to read. Thanks for blogging with us today. 🙂

  3. Thanks for a fascinating blog, Jeff. I had never heard of Soapy, but thanks to you, I’ll never forget him! Loved the story of the soap scam. The best con games work because people fall victim to their own greed. Bet your book about Soapy will be wonderful.

  4. What an interesting fsmily history. It goes to show that no person is all bad. Even those with questionable morals have their good points and can be contributing members of society. That it seemed “necessary” to eliminate him might indicate he was a force in the community that was more than easily handled. How lucky that you have so much information on him. Look forward to reading your book.

  5. Welcome to Petticoats and Pistols, Jeff. And thanks for such a great blog. I’d not heard of Soapy before, but now you have me intrigued. I can’t wait for your book. An oh, yes, I envy your backyard saloon.

  6. Good morning, Melissa, Kate, Elizabeth and Patricia.

    I just woke up, lol. I was out at two of Wyatt Earp’s mines in Vidal, California, roughing it since Thursday, and my soft comfy bed got the best of me, lol.

    Melissa: That gambling saloon in the back yard helped me learn a valuable lesson in the uselessness of gambling as a habit. At the moment coffee is my habit, lol.

    Kate: Yes, the letters are riveting to read. They give me a very personal look at a boss of the underworld. What is really fun to have is a combination of a letter and old newspapers that correspond to the events taking place in Soapy’s life. By the way, He did not like to be called “Soapy,” but I do call him that as my name is Jeff also and it sometimes gets confusing.

    Elizabeth: There are many people who have not heard of Soapy Smith. I see that slowly changing. I believe a lot of it has to do with my grandfather, Soapy’s son, who in the early 1900s was suing publishers and film companies for using his father’s name, and slander.

    Patricia: Your statement of “elimination” is right on the money.

  7. Thanks for introducing me to this fascinating history which I find intriguing. Wonderful letters which are such an important part of life and this great background. Impressive and amazing.

  8. Hey Jeff,

    I’m currently working on my first historical and the research is daunting.

    Based on your post, it certaintly seems that you’ve done your research.

    Any helpful hints for me? It is sort of taking the fun out of my writing by having to feel that I’m “getting it right”. Oh, the pressure.

    Thanks for sharing with us today.

  9. Hi, Kerri.

    It all depends on how far you want to go in pleasing your audience. There are still many people who remain ignorant about history but the Net is decreasing that number every year. Historical based films, although for pure entertainment, have spent much time and money on making sure the history is as correct as possible, right down to the old slick-fork saddles. Nothing brings a western down faster than seeing a cowboy wearing a modern hat, belt loops or a wrist watch.

    A good research tool are supply catalogs. There are numerous reproduction nineteenth century copies on the market, including Sears for 1897. Perhaps my most time consuming but valuable research tool has been contemporary newspapers on microfilm. They can be had through inter-library loan. I obtain three months of newspaper at one time and read them page by page hoping to come across little nuggets. This is more for a hard-core historian so as a fictional writer I would stick to the Net, although finding what you want can be just as hard sometimes.

    If your writings take place in the mid to late nineteenth century I am always willing to aid people. If I don’t have the answer chances are I know someone who will.

  10. Hi Jeff,

    Welcome to P&P. We sure enjoy having you here. I love your colorful past. My maiden name is Smith. I’m wondering if we could be related. LOL Many of my Smith relatives were criminals. They spent more time in San Quinten than they did out. But they their crimes were more of the swindling and fraudulent nature. Some of my most vivid memories of a child was visiting them in prison. Few of my friends could say they’d been inside an actual prison so I was a bit of a celebrity. Ha!

    Thanks for blogging with us. This is a real treat.

  11. Welcome to P&P Jeff, very interesting post. I really enjoyed it because it has a lot of history facts. You must really enjoy your research. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Hi Jeff,
    It’s so nice to have your here on our site! The history of Soapy Smith is fascinating. To think Clark Gable starred in a movie that was taken from Soapy’s story– and though that’s pretty exciting in itself, it’s not as fascinating as the man himself. Your great, grandfather certainly led a colorful life and the facts of his demise make you wonder what really happened that day. He died so young.

  13. Hi, Quilt Lady.

    I’ve always enjoyed researching history. As a youngster my father taught me to always “question authority.” My school history books were a constant education in “the way things really were.” Naturally, with the history of Soapy in books versus what my family said, history became a time consuming affair. In 1985 I decided to try and make a little money at it by writing the manuscript and giving presentations. The money I’ve spent researching will never be recovered by what profit I can obtain from the manuscript, but I can say that my contract is perhaps the best I could ever hope for, minus self-publishing.

  14. I had never heard of Soapy either and I love old west history. What an interesting family history! It’s great that your entire family works to keep the history alive.

  15. Hi, Charlene.

    The film, The assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was originally to have Soapy Smith portrayed in it, as was in Hanson’s book, however the film was just too long and that section was cut from the screenplay. It is suggested in some books that Soapy Smith aided the killing of Bob Ford whom he knew.

    A failed attempt to film a prequel to The Sting (Robert Redford and Pail Newman) had Soapy as Newman’s mentor.

    Soapy’s demise is a great mystery in itself. I cover it briefly on my website but the manuscript shows great circumstantial evidence that Soapy was murdered, with his own rifle. Great stuff. already have my own vision of how the story of a Soapy Smith film would begin.

  16. Hi, Jeff!

    About gambling. Last night we were watching a movie on the Encore Westerns channel–“Heaven’s Gates,” which only a true Western fan can watch from beginning to end–and I was struck by one of the bits of trivia the channel offers during the breaks. They interviewed one of those poker pros, who said he loved the TV “Maverick” because they played it straight when they showed a poker game. No Hollywood poker. Thought that was interesting. I love those trivia bits on that channel. (Yep, I’m a writer.)

  17. Kathleen, yes Heaven’s Gate definitely has its supporters and detractors. It’s one of those films you either love or hate, lol.

    * A little poker trivia for you: The earliest surviving account of a poker game, written in 1829, describes a rigged [cheating] one. -American Heritage.com

  18. Hi and welcome Jeff. What what rich history. I do like that you show both sides of Soapy. There is good and bad in each family history. Thanks for this info.; very interesting.

  19. Hi, Joye.

    I did not expect someone here to have actually been to Skagway. Did you get to see the play, Days of ’98 (The Soapy Smith Show)? The grave? I own the original grave marker. I have it hanging over my bed … ok, not really. It’s in a wooden box with a plexiglass front.

    So much in Skagway is related to Soapy as he is/was their number one interesting resident.

    The saloon you speak of (Jeff Smith’s Parlor) is currently being restored by the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park (National Park Service). It will take in the neighborhood of ten years for complete restoration.

  20. Jeff, fun facts. I have often found research to be my weakness—-my LOVE of research that is. I can get lost in reading about people like Soapy, who inadvertently lead me down many adventurous paths and inevitably into other characters who I must then research as well. 🙂 Cool relative! I’m thrilled that you are preserving and sharing your history.

  21. Hi, RobynL.

    Yes, there is indeed some good in the worst of us. The best part about Soapy’s good deeds is that many of them are recorded and not just family lore.

    In writing the manuscript I knew at the very start that being a descendant would brand me as bias, so I had to support every sentence I wrote. One false statement, whether accidental or not, would send all my years of research crumbling downward.

    The manuscript does not attempt to hide any of the bad side of Soapy. The hardest section I had to write and redo several times, was the accusation of infidelity after his death in Skagway. There was a woman that the newspapers claimed he lived with, yet no name or any other report of her existence is known of. My first inner reaction is to deny Soapy would do such a thing. Common reasoning tells me that it was very possible considering he was thousands of miles from his wife and family. I was forced to be honest with history and include the accusations even though no name or details of the woman are given, except the fact that this woman attended his funeral with two or three other men.

  22. Hi, Judy Pennell.

    I too easily branch off on other members of the Soap Gang, who had their own interesting stories, such as “Reverend” John Bowers, who often portrayed a man of cloth in order to win their trust so that he could lead them to one of Soapy’s swindling games. My manuscript has a “Rogues Gallery” with some very interesting characters that one would easily think were fictionalized inventions except that they actually existed. Fun stuff!

  23. Welcome to P&P, Jeff! Fascinating post!! Thanks so much for sharing with us today.

    What a wonderful family treasure to have those letters. And what a gift you’re giving to the rest of us by taking the time to write and share Soapy’s story–I’m looking forward to the release of Alias “Soapy” Smith, The Life and Death of a Scoundrel! Great title too, btw 😉

    Congratulations on the upcoming release!

  24. Enjoyed reading all about “Soapy”. Family history is always interesting and full of surprises. My Aunt spent all of her time keeping the dust under the rug while her daughter kept trying to sweep it out and study it. 🙂

  25. Hi Jeff, What a thrill to have Soapy’s history at your fingertips! Can you imagine what it would be like to walk down the street with him in Denver or Alaska? I’m with you all the way on telling the full story, both the good and the not-so-good. Maybe Hollywood will pick up on the story and do another movie. I’ve seen “Honky Tonk” a few times. It’s good, but it’s time for a remake!

  26. I had never heard of Soapy before but it was very interesting to learn of him. What a character he must have been.

  27. Hi, Tana Lewis.

    There are members of my family who are thrilled that I am finally publishing (after 24 years)my manuscript, but because I am including all of his bad deeds there are other members of my family who would rather I keep it well hidden under that rug, lol.

    There is the opposite issue with the main website for the Jesse James family. You will find very little on Jesse and Frank’s criminal side. I personally don’t see any fun in that myself, lol.

  28. I don’t know where I’ve been but I’m afraid I’ve never heard of Soapy but I enjoyed hearing about his history!

  29. Hi, Victoria Bylin.

    There are several screenplays floating around and I have been contacted by very small production companies but nothing has panned out … yet. I’m still waiting for a phone call from Speilberg, lol.

    An author once told my father that a film about Soapy Smith would be a mix between Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. I think I would have to agree with that thinking.

    Honky Tonk was a great film, however a remake should have a different title,… say, Alias Soapy Smith, lol.

  30. Hi, Maureen and Jeanne.

    It is true many have not heard of Soapy Smith. His life and criminal adventures would make a very exciting film in my honest opinion. Once that happens his place in well known characters of the west will be set.

  31. Enjoyed your post alot of interesting history facts I had heard of Soapy before but now i feel i know something about him.

  32. Question for you all:

    How many of you have been to the Ye Olde Curiosity Shop in Seattle, Washington?

    If so, did you get to see Sylvester, the petrified man in that store?

    That once belonged to Soapy!

  33. Wow! This is great stuff. I can see nothing is ever boring in your life, Jeff. So glad to be introduced to Soapy and I’ll be looking for the book so I can read all the details.
    Aloha,
    Jill

  34. Boy, what a history lesson. You have truly done your research and it must have been a fascinating experience.

  35. Hi, GladysMP and Estella.

    You are welcome! It is truly an ongoing experience for me. I doubt I will ever be able to tell myself, “well, there is no more to research.”

  36. Thanks for being our guest, and an entertaining one at that! I’ve heard of Soapy, but didn’t know all the details. What a crack-up that you had a gambling hall in the backyard. I would have fallen for the place and the legend as well. I love going through old buildings and seeing things that people used a hundred years ago.

    I guess that why we’re all here. We’re all lovers of history and the old west. I did my first research of Alaska for my current book, but had quite a time because all the info is during or after the gold rush, and of course I set my story just ahead of that. I was fortunate to find information on post offices and mail carriers, though, and that was what I needed.

    What a rich history we have.

  37. Hey there, Jeff. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Soapy, an unknown name to me until now.

    All I can say is – at least he used a fresh approach. And your other relatives shouldn’t be too discouraged by him – at least he was selling soap at a buck a bar. It was something practical for their hard-earned money. Not like a shell. 🙂

  38. What a wonderful post, Jeff. I enjoyed reading about Soapy and can’t wait for the book to come out to read more. I have been doing some family history on my side of the family, but haven’t found anything real interesting like this.

  39. How great to have such an interesting ancestor!
    Thanks for bringing “Soapy” to visit with us!

    Pat Cochran

  40. Hi, Becky Ward.

    We do work on the rest of the family too, although none are nearly as exciting as Soapy. Good luck and keep searching. Skeletons are usually hidden well into the rear of the closet.

  41. Hi Jeff! What a great post…thanks for sharing Soapy’s story. And good luck with the book. I found a load of old pictures and letters while cleaning out my mom’s old house, but while I desperately wished for a skeleton or something at least remotely interesting, nada. I am descended from the most boring people in history. I guess that’s why I like fiction!

    Best wishes to you, and welcome to Wildflower Junction today.

  42. Hi, Tanya Hanson.

    Thank you for the warm welcome. Consider yourself fortunate in have photographs and letters. Most people working in the genealogy of their family aren’t as lucky.

  43. lOVED IT ,LOVED IT, LOVED IT….
    Makes my family history very boring. Really enjoyed this and makes me even more determined to travel to Alaska.

  44. Hi, Connie Lorenz.

    I guess I must admit that my family history is pretty exciting, however, when researching it does not take a huge find to make me happy. Just finding a family name in an old newspaper usually does the trick.

    Travel to Alaska is a must. I have been there six times now, and plan to return with my kids. I took my daughter in 1998 for the centennial of Soapy’s death (link). I fully recommend the more popular southeast section for a cruise. The longer the better. Before you put money down do your research on where and what you want to see and how long the ships stop. One of the big complaints I always hear is that many ships only spend a few hours in some ports like Skagway, in which one needs several days just to see the best stuff.

  45. Love the old time photos. What an interesting read that was. Soapy… good nickname..LOL

    If all parents could make their family history sound this interesting, the kids and grandkids might be more interested in listening and learning.

  46. Thank you for the information as this is very high on my list of things I want to do. Not sure a cruise is what I want to do. I want to see things not always seen on a cruise and spend my time on my schedule!

  47. Hi, Donna Holmberg.

    I can talk to my kids until I’m blue in the face … it’s the trips that really help get them interested.

    I realized that I did not explain why he was called “Soapy.” There is a nice explanation on my website entitled, “Why they called him Soapy.” (link)

  48. Family is Family… That seems to be a theme of the west from beginning of time, and being from the mid-west myself I can say that it seems to hold true to this day!

  49. Oh, my, Jeff! You’ve had a busy day, haven’t you? Yee-haw!

    Soapy has been a fascinating subject for all of us, and we’re so glad you’re here. When your book comes out, please get in touch with me, and we’ll help you spread the word about it.

    Thank you!!

  50. Hi, Pam.

    It has been my pleasure to be here.

    I’ll be sure to let you know when the book is published. I am working on the photograph pages right now, which most of them have never been published before.

  51. I love that video, Jeff. I was raised on western movies and the one night I got to stay up late was when Gunsmoke was on. I especially enjoy the old black and whites. When I look back at them now, I really see the hidden humor in many of them!

  52. I love family history. What a great story! I love that your trying to find all the good and bad against family wishes.

    I have a great uncle that found info about my great great grandfather. It said my g.g. grandpa was a gypsy.

    We all know not to mention this around my grandma, unles we want to here the whole spill on how untrue of a story that is. lol

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