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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

That Fiend in Hell: Soapy Smith thrown out of Skagway?

Broadway and Bond (Fourth)
Skaguay, Alaska
August 11, 1897
The way the camp looked when Soapy Smith arrived.
Courtesy of eBay
(Click image to enlarge)

On page 22 and again on page 30 of That Fiend in Hell, the author Cathy Spude causally mentions that in September 1897 a Denver newspaper states how the people of Skagway, Alaska, ran Soapy Smith out of town. She adds that Soapy traveled to St. Louis, Washington, D.C., and New York City, but skips over his first stop in Seattle, Washington, during which time his great success in Skagway was disclosed.

Soapy Smith was not forced to leave Skagway. Rather, he left for personal reasons all his own. The whole story is interesting, and I’d like to share it with you.

Let's begin by backing up from September 1897 to mid August, when from Seattle, Soapy Smith and two other confidence men, Jack Jolly and Jerry Daily, traveled by steamship to Skagway. They arrived in the 27-day-old camp on Sunday, August 22, 1897. The three men worked their swindles for 19 of 23 days and in that time made $30,000 and divided it before returning to Seattle (–Alias Soapy Smith, p. 435, Denver Evening Post 11/15/1897). 

Jeff hated the Alaska winter and would have preferred to spend it down in the states (–Alias Soapy Smith, p. 442). With business so good, though, he would endure the wind, rain, snow, and cold. Something else, however, made Soapy leave Skagway while his operations were so successful: his wife Mary. Receiving word that she was ill, Soapy boarded the SS Queen for Seattle on September 14, 1897, and docked there eight days later (–Alias Soapy Smith, p. 435). The Seattle Daily Times interviewed passengers returning from Alaska, and Soapy was one of them. In his interview he claimed to have earned $18,000 to $20,000 during his short stay in Skagway, amounts equivalent today to over $600,000 (–Alias Soapy Smith, p.442,  Seattle Daily Times 9/23/1897).

Also aboard the Queen with Soapy (who was accompanied by Daily and Jolly) were US Attorney Bennett and US Marshal James McCain Shoup. They claimed that Skagway residents forced Soapy out of Alaska (–Alias Soapy Smith, p. 442, Denver Evening Post 9/23/1897), but this was not true. In Seattle "Bat" Masterson spoke with Jerry Daily and later reported to the Denver Evening Post what he (Masterson) learned about Soapy’s time in Skagway and departure from there.   

I saw very few people from Denver. I heard of but did not see Soapy Smith. The report that he was driven out of Skaguay was erroneous. I met his partner Jerry Daily, at Spokane. He said they were in Skaguay twenty-three days and ‘worked’ nineteen days while there. During the nineteen days they captured $30,000, which was divided into four parts, over $7,000 each, but Soapy got the most of it ultimately. He received a telegram that his wife was sick in St. Louis and went to that city to be with her. They did not have time to bother with him at Skaguay, for everybody was too busy looking out for themselves. (–Alias Soapy Smith, p. 443, Denver Evening Post 11/15/1897) 

Four months later, on January 21, 1898, the Skaguay News reported Soapy’s return. If Soapy had been run out of town, he would have encountered resistance to his return and settling in to stay. But no such difficulty is in evidence. Seven days later M. H. Craig reported to the Denver Evening Post that Soapy was working the shell game along the trails (–Denver Evening Post 1/28/1898). Soapy’s supposed deportation from Skagway was never reported in Skagway and never brought up again.