Monday, July 9

A Skagway Soap Opera

Drawing by John Bruce
Image = Soapy Smith's Soap Box
By Grant Davies

On this day, minus one, (that's yesterday for those of you who copied off of my math test in fourth grade) in 1898, a gunfight broke out in the gold rush town of Skagway, Alaska.

There were two participants and both ended up dead. It took one of them twelve days to get that way, but the other one made an immediate exit, so I guess the one who suffers longest, wins.

Anyway, the first to die - aka the loser - was a guy named Jefferson R. Smith, known to his friends as "Soapy."  The winner was Frank Reid, a concerned citizen of Skagway who was organizing a vigilante group known as the "Committee of 101" to rid the town of Soapy and his thuggish minions, aka "The Committee of 303." Smith seems to have picked the name of his group using a little "message math."

It seems the Soapy group was fond of making a living by duping the local gullibles (known in modern day America as "voters") out of their gold dust. After a while, and more than a pinch of gold dust, it became tiresome for the gullible but civic minded citizenry, who decided enough was enough, and got together for a meeting to decide how to start the rinse cycle on the soapy problem.

As an aside, Jefferson got his nickname from one of his first schemes. It was a rather unsophisticated con game where he sold bars of soap wrapped in blue tissue paper to the rubes in various towns in the southwest  for $5 each with the promise that some of them had a $100 bill inside them. Of course, one of the first in the crowd would inevitably find the C-note and shriek with joy while the line to buy the rest formed up apace. It's not known how much Soapy's employees earned for the Oscar worthy performances that followed their good fortune, but it's safe to assume it was more than they were making before. Today, such schemes are strictly forbidden by law. Except for the one run by the government, called "Mega Millions."

But back to the deadly affair in Skagway. (I love that name. It sounds like the name of a street where sailors  might look for a whorehouse.)

Soapy decided to confront the gathering head first so he could control his own fate. He was used to controlling things. Some say other con men like "Boss" Tweed or Richard J. Daley had nothing on him.  So he showed up uninvited at the meeting, rifle in tow, and confronted Reid and the boys. 

The rest is history, and so was Soapy Smith. It just goes to show that even dim-wits get tired of being duped sooner or later.


  1. Grant, Your Cheeky History was right on for us as we
    visited Skagway last year when we were in Alaska.
    We saw Soapys grave and heard about his cons.
    Bro Bill

  2. Thank you Grant for including Soapy Smith on your blog and for giving me and my blog credit for the photograph of the drawing.

    I am a great-grandson of Soapy, and author of the book, Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel. Considering that I spent 25-years researching his life and death I can honestly say that my book is without a doubt the most accurate history of Soapy thus written. That brings me to a correction I would like to bring to the attention of you and your readers. Soapy Smith was shot by Frank Reid but not killed by him. After Reid shot Soapy in the arm and the left leg and Soapy shot Reid in the groin and the leg, both men fell to the ground. Reid was out cold and paralyzed from the waist down but Soapy was still conscience. One of the other vigilante guards, Jesse Murphy, ran up and wrestled Soapy's rifle from him and turned it on Soapy and fired into his chest killing him instantly. All this is of course in my book, backed up with eye-witness accounts and writings from the men who were on the wharf where the fight took place.

    Soapy's story is a fascinating one. In fact, while the two men were alive, Soapy was more well-known than Wyatt Earp! Currently a major-motion picture is being written based on the book, The Floor of Heaven which has Soapy as a main character.

    Jeff Smith

  3. Hi Jeff,
    Thanks for reading the story. By necessity my story telling has to be abbreviated due to the medium, so some parts of them aren't given adequate coverage, but your new facts deserve to be told as part of the tale. I'm glad you were able to enlighten us about the ones that weren't included. I think I'll do a re-write on the piece with the correct info.

    It's great to have people with original research keeping us on our toes!

    Thanks again for reading. I hope you enjoy some of our other offerings.
    Grant Davies


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