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Hub-and-Hub Race, 1888

“Soapy” Smith a Bad Man.

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Washington Post / November 3, 1907


[From the New York Evening Post.]

Many versions of the dramatic end of “Soapy” Smith and the subsequent cleanup of his gang in Skagway have been written, but it is probable that the facts have never been brought to light in all their details. Recently, W. H. Welsh, Superintendent of the Canadian Detective Bureau, who was instrumental in cleaning up the gang, told the story this way:

The chief actor in the drama was Jeff Smith, universally known as “Soapy.” His record included almost every known brand of swindle from gold-bricking to passing “phony” paper, although it is not known that he ever served time or was even convicted. His strong game was to stand in with the police in any city in which he operated. When his presence proved unwelcome he would depart for pastures new. He got his nickname as an itinerant soap merchant in Denver. He was the originator of selling soap wrapped in a $5 or $10 bill for $1. When the purchaser received the goods, the wrapper was always missing. He also had a trick of using the soap to make a lather which he rubbed in his eyes to prove some wonderful quality he claimed for it.

“Soapy” made an ineffectual attempt to corral Cripple Creek in its boom days, but failed, and was driven out of that town. From one city to another he was invited to move until he reached Skagway. The reputation of that city, although it numbered some honest men in its population, was not then very savory. The authorities stole the land the town occupies from William Moore, and not to this day has he been paid for the land he pre-empted and occupied years before Skagway was ever thought of. So “Soapy” found the atmosphere congenial and proceeded to set up his kingdom of loot.

From all over America criminals flocked to his standard. They grafted on the civic administration; they mulcted the saloons; they “bunkoed” travelers and miners; they operated “fixed” gambling machines and roulette wheels; they played the three-card game and “thimble-rigged” the innocent; they flim-flammed the miners who brought in dust, and, after every other scheme had been worked, they looted the bank’s vaults and held up men at the point of a gun. Pokes of dust deposited in the bank vaults mysteriously disappeared and the claimants could never get satisfaction. It was the distrust of the local bank, engendered by “Soapy’s” influence with it, that made the opening for the Canadian Bank of Commerce, of which it availed itself. The Town Marshal was a member of the gang and the local newspaper was edited by another member, “Doc” Hornby. They levied toll on every man that came to the town or passed through it. If a man carried his valise across the wharf they controlled, it cost him two bits; if he set it down in cost him four bits for storage. To land a trunk cost $1.

“Soapy’s” saloon was the headquarters of the gang. There the miners and strangers were “rolled.” There, too, the famous tame eagle was kept. The place was arranged with a convenient back door for the escape of the “con” man, when he had secured his plunder. Things had been running with such barefaced boldness, robberies, shootings, and holdups had become so frequent, that the town’s business was being injured. Threats were made by business men that they would go over and resurrect the dying town of Dyea, and thus kill Skagway. The business men, in addition to paying tribute to “Soapy’s” gang, saw that their business was to be ruined by the men to whom they were forced to pay tribute. Public indignation was thoroughly aroused.

Such were the conditions in Skagway when R. Stewart, a miner, arrived with a poke containing $2,800 in dust, which he cached in the safe of Isadore Kauffman, a reputable business man. Stewart then started out into the town, and encountered Slim Jim. Stewart proved easy for Slim, who at once began to talk dust, for everything was dust in Skagway then. Stewart confided to Slim that he had the $2,800 in dust in Kauffman’s safe, and Slim at once said he could sell it for him at $22 per ounce, although dust was only worth $18. Stewart, however, fell into the trap, and agreed to get the dust and meet Slim’s friends. The two went together to Kauffman’s, but the merchant was unable to give the miner a word of warning, well knowing that to cross the plans of the gang was as much as his life was worth. They went to “Soapy’s” saloon, where other members of the gang were in waiting, and in a back room they took turns at appraising it, while the tame eagle blinked upon his perch, watching the proceedings. Called upon to notice some strange antic of the bird, Stewart turned his head, and his poke disappeared. A few minutes after, Tripp, one of the gang, was seen running out the back door with the missing poke partly concealed under his coat.

Stewart’s protests availed him nothing, and he set out to find Town Marshal Taylor, who was erecting a house, doubtless made on the proceeds of similar deals to that just enacted. The Marshal gave him no satisfaction, so he appealed to the business men of the town. This was the last straw which broke the patience of the respectable element of the town. Business men had realized that miners and others had already begun to give the town a wide berth. The owner of the Golden North Hotel called a meeting for that night in Sylvester’s Hall.

When the crowd assembled it found that the hall could not accommodate them, so the meeting adjourned to the wharf owned by the same firm. Although it was 9 o’clock at night when they finally gathered on the wharf, it was broad daylight, the arctic sun lighting up the scene as midday. Guards were put out on the wharf sides, and at the land approach Frank Reid was stationed. The Chairman, the hotel keeper who had called the meeting, then began to address the crowd. Whatever interest his remarks may have aroused was overshadowed by the tragedy which took place a few minutes after he began to speak.

Down the trail, intoxicated and swaggering, with a Winchester rifle in the hollow of his arm, came “Soapy” Smith. Word had been brought to him of the meeting and its purport, and, with the nerve for which he was noted, he had taken his rifle to go forth single handed and cow or kill those who had dared to dispute his domination and despoiling of Skagway. Scores of times in the past, both in Skagway and the Western States, he had faced death from the other man’s gun. Once in Skagway a miner got the drop on him, and, facing the loaded revolver he coolly pulled out his own gun, although he had been told to hold up his hands, and shot the miner dead. No man in Skagway could shoot quicker or straighter than “Soapy.”

But that night he was up against a man whose gunplay was so fast and sure that, given the least bit of luck, it was almost a certainty, if shooting began, that “Soapy’s” fate would be sealed. The man was Frank Reid, surveyor and engineer of Skagway, who had roughed it and toughed it throughout the Western States. But “Soapy” surged on until ordered by Reid to stop. His answer was a point-blank shot fired at Reid at close range. Overconfidence at such range, or the fatal atom of luck which swings the balance one way or the other, may account for “Soapy’s” failure to hit Reid at that first surprise shot. “Soapy” made a frantic effort to pump another cartridge into the chamber of his rifle. In that instant Reid’s revolver swung on his hip, clicked and missed fire. Surely was the Goddess of Luck equally favoring both antagonists. Reid’s luck had been handed to him when “Soapy’s” first shot missed him. “Soapy’s” came when Reid’s revolver missed fire.

Two shots, one from Smith’s rifle, the other from Reid’s revolver, rang out, and horrified men on the dock saw Smith spin round and pitch forward, then roll over on his back and lie still, while Reid sank slowly to the ground. “Soapy’s” career of crime was ended. Reid was hard hit in the head, and was carried his office, where he lingered for a couple of days and then died.

Word quickly reached the gang that “Soapy” was dead and that the citizens had formed a Vigilance Committee to clean out the rest. That was the signal for a stampede, and the rest took to the woods.

Meanwhile the citizens lost no time. Captain Sperry, formerly Police Captain at Portland, Ore., took the leadership and called for volunteers to hunt down the fugitives. Two men were detailed in each of the wharves to see that none escaped by the sea route, while the trails were guarded and searched for escaping members of the gang. The Royal Northwest Mounted Police at White Horse were telephoned to, and in two days 37 members of the gang were captured. Three were missing for some days, but starvation brought them from their hiding places. Of the 40 lined up before Judge Shellberg nearly all were allowed to leave the country, which they did in bunches of six and seven. Three, including the Town Marshal, were convicted and imprisoned.

But the troubles of the gang were not then at an end. Their records had preceded them, and the police at Seattle, Tacoma, Portland and San Francisco refused to allow them to land. Juneau and Dawson City would not have them, and at that time there was no Nome.

Stewart recovered all his dust, with the exception of $600, which was never accounted for.

Both “Soapy” Smith and Frank Reid are buried in the little cemetery near the town, and after the tragedy Skagway became a safe and normal place.



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