The short violent reign of SOAPY SMITH
A Maclean’s BOOK-LENGTH flashback
At the height of the Klondike stampede Skagway, Alaska, was “little better than a hell on earth." Its uncrowned king was Jefferson Randolph Smith: con man, gunman, genius in the methods of dictatorship
THIRD OE FOUR PARTS
A few days after the news of the great gold strike on the Klondike reached the outside world, a tall and pale-faced rogue with the eyes of a poet and the beard of a Mephisto arrived in Seattle to study the possibilities afforded by the stampede which, by August of 1897, had reached lunatic proportions.
He had a simple ambition and he mentioned it casually to an ex-policeman of his acquaintance named Willis Loomis, whom he met in the crowd of gold-hungry men preparing to head north.
“I'm going to be the boss of Skagway,” he announced. "1 know exactly how to do it and if you come along Ell make you chief of police.” Loomis recognized the willowy figure in the sober black suit as a confidence man named Smith who had once worked the great silver camp of Leadville, Colo., selling cakes of shaving soap for five dollars apiece to suckers who believed there was a twenty-dollar bill hidden under the wrapper. Since then Jefferson Randolph Smith had risen in life: he was known throughout the west as "Soapy” Smith, the
acknowledged master of the surc-thing game, the king of the confidence men, the emperor ol the Denver underworld, and the ex-ruler of Creede, Colo.—a man with the reputation ot buying and selling police chiefs as if they were so many cattle. Loomis retorted that a team of mules could not drag him to Alaska and Smith went on alone, to an odd kind ot fame.
Before settling definitely on Skagway as a seat of operations he moved up and down the Alaska Panhandle, examining both Wrangell and Juneau, each of them swollen by the llot-
sam and jetsam of the stampede. But he quickly saw that Skagway would retain its position as the main floodgate through which the human torrent would surge in and out of the Yukon valley. It commanded all American territory from the source streams of the Yukon to the salt water of the Lynn Canal and the only law in all this region was a single U. S. marshal and his deputy. It was on Skagway that he pounced, with his walnut shells and his marked decks and his sure-thing games and his bogus establishments. Success was instantaneous: by October, he was so well established that he was able to inveigle a missionary from a leading U. S. church into a shell-game on the White Pass trail and separate him from all his money.
He wisely confined his activities to the American side of the border. On rare occasions, one or another of his gang tried to operate in Canadian territory — always without success. A member of the gang walked into the police post on the White Pass summit in the early spring and asked what was needed to enter the Canadian Yukon. The Mountic on duty replied that a year's outfit was required.
“Well, supposing I don’t want to comply with your regulations,” the con man said. "Suppose I decide to shoot my way into the country—what then?”
The constable opened a drawer in his desk, pulled out a pistol and laid it down.
“There’s a gun.” he said. “Go ahead and start shooting. That's the easiest way to find out what will happen.”
The visitor returned to Skagway.
The means Soapy Smith employed in his subjugation of a town of ten thousand were tried and tested in the school of experience. He knew exactly what he was doing because he had done it all before; Skagway was the crowning point in a long and rich career of knavery.
He had been born in Georgia and liked to give the impression that he was the son of a prominent Southern family, although this fact has ever been in dispute. But his Dixie background had contributed a soft accent and a courtly manner that remained with him and were of immeasurable value in convincing the unwary that he was a man of honor and upbringing. He had, indeed, studied for the Baptist ministry as a youth and often boasted that he could "straighten out Greek hexameters with the best of them.” He had a wife and six children in St. Louis and a brother on the editorial staff of the Washington Star, and he maintained a vast and often rewarding correspondence with congressmen, senators, civic officials and prominent citizens throughout the western hemisphere.
It was in Leadvilje, the stamping ground of men of Wild Bill Hickok's stamp, that his career had its checkered start. He had arrived from 'Textis driving long-horned steers up the old C hisholm Trail; it was the hist time he soiled his hands in common toil. He learned the soap game from its inventor, a man named Taylor, and prospered so mightily that he earned the nickname which clung to him long after his death. He became ti master of the shell game, the stand-by of all bunko men. And he could make a pack of cards do anything he wanted.
In the con man’s pantheon. Smith occupies an honored place, for his contributions to the craft were considerable. The phrase "sure-thing game” with its companion phrase “sure-thing men,” came into the language as the result of a retort made by Smith to the Clerical Association of Denver, which fought him vainly.
"I’m no ordinary gambler,” Smith declared. “The ordinary gambler
continued on page 46
By fleecing the suckers, said Smith, he saved them from facing the Arctic
Continued from page 29
“Bob Ford, the man who shot Jesse James, was his only rivalSmith brought him into line”
hazards his own money in an attempt to win another's. When I stake money, it’s a sure thing that I win.”
One of Smith’s cohorts, Doe Baggs, was the inventor of the famous goldbrick game. In Denver, one of the most corrupt towns on the continent, Smith, as king of the underworld, operated almost every known bunko game. He even had the barbers working for him; they would nick the necks of wealthy customers as a signal that they were ripe for fleecing.
Smith had come to Denver from Lcadville. In 1X92 he moved on to the mushrooming silver camp of Creede. This roaring community, entirely unorganized, without government or police, served as a sort of training ground for Smith’s later conquest of Skagway. His gang simply moved in like an invading army and took over the town, their only serious rival being Bob Ford who, ten years before, had “laid Jesse James in his grave.” Smith easily brought Ford into line and went on to rig the election, name the police chief, select the executive council and appoint every civic official from justice of the peace to coroner. He controlled the town until the silver boom petered out, and then returned to Denver, which remained his operating base until 1897.
Smith was a man of considerable imagination and dry humor. Once, when accused of bilking two visitors out of fifteen hundred dollars, he produced such an ingenious and farfetched defense that it won his acquittal. He argued that his gaming house was really an educational institution, similar to the famous Keeley Institute, affording its patients release from the curse of gambling. Smith went on to nail down his arguments by explaining that in his establishment gamblers had no chance of winning—and were told as much by a sign displayed prominently at the head of the stairs: Let The Buyer Beware. (To give the place a suitably high tone, the words had been rendered in Greek.) Smith ended his harangue by exclaiming that as a result of his ministrations the two victims would never gamble again: "In fact, gentlemen,
I should be recognized as a public benefactor! Praise, instead of censure, should be our portion.”
When the news of the Klondike strike flashed through Denver, Smith sensed that his hour had come, and that he must move swiftly, as he had at Creede, before the new boom towns were properly organized. By August he and his men were running shell games on the Skagway trail.
He took five men with him as a nucleus for a new organization. His closest henchman was "Reverend” Charles Bowers, who had been with him since Leadville days, a notorious bunko man whose saintly appearance, gentle voice and benevolent mien made it possible for him to masquerade as a man of the cloth. Bowers’ whole being exuded sanctimony, but he was as hard as sheet steel beneath the velvet exterior. There is a story that he once shot a peace officer, whom he recognized only when
he had rolled him over. "Looks like 1 shot the sheriff,” Bowers drawled, placing his foot on the corpse. "Ain’t that too bad.” Because of his personality Bowers was a first-class “steerer”: he guided suckers to the various fake business establishments where other members of the gang lay in wait to fleece them.
Two other long-time confreres of Smith went along to the north—-Syd Dixon and George Wilder. Wilder, who acted as advance man for the gang, gave the impression of being a prosperous businessman. Dixon came from a wealthy family and looked the part; a playboy and a globe-trotter, he had been driven to the gutter by opium addiction, and had taken to fraud only to raise money to buy more drugs. These men and two newer members, Slim Jim Foster and Red Gibbs, formed the hard core of the organization that was to dominate Skagway.
One of the keys to Smith's success was that he never appeared to be what he was. His willowy physique, his broadbrimmed hat, his dark conservative clothing embellished by a heavy gold watch chain, his pleasant baritone and soft, grammatical speech, all gave him the appearance of a southern planter. He cultivated journalists, clergymen and small children. It had been his habit in Denver to send new twenty-dollar bills to needy men and widowed women at Christmas, to make donations and raise funds among his followers for churches and even, on one occasion, to address a men’s Bible class—ingeniously using himself as a bad example of what could happen to a man who eschewed a Christian life.
When a slim, sharp-nosed cowpoke named Ed O'Kelly shot down Bob Ford on the main street of Creede, it was Smith, playing the role of a man who respects the law, who saved him from a lynch mob. “Stand back! Let this man alone! Justice is going to be done!” Smith cried piously, and the mob obeyed him, for he was a man who always commanded authority.
In January, 1898, in Skagway, a double shooting occurred that served to demonstrate the unseen power that he wielded. The affair started when Andy McGrath, a worker on the White Pass, put a hill down for a drink in a saloon and was refused change — a standard practice in Skagway that winter. When McGrath protested, the saloonkeeper, John Edward Fay, threw him out.
McGrath, a stubborn man, sought out the deputy marshal, a man named Rowan, who at that moment was seeking a doctor to deliver his wife of child. As the marshal was away and there was no other law officer available, Rowan postponed his quest long enough to accompany McGrath to the saloon. As the two men burst through the doors, Fay shot them both. McGrath fell dead and Rowan was mortally wounded.
The town was in an uproar. Rowan lay dying in the office of Dr. J. J.
Moore, who had just delivered his wife of a child. Fay had escaped during the confusion and was being concealed by his gambler friends, all of them in loose association with Smith. A mob was combing the alleyways for the saloonkeeper and howling for his blood. Smith threatened a general slaughter if Fay were lynched.
“We muster upwards of two hundred men with their guns, and if anyone tries to put a rope over Ed Fay's neck he'll get a bullet in his own head mighty quick,” he announced. Then he laid
plans secretly to control the lynch mob and at the same time curry general favor with the populace.
Fay surrendered the following day and a mass meeting was called that evening in the Union Church to bring him to justice. Smith did not attend but he dominated the affair. A committee was appointed to guard Fay and another to investigate the murder and impanel twelve jurors to try the culprits. The names of these committeemen were suggested to the chairman of the meeting by the editor of the Skagway Alaskan who.
unknown to the townspeople, was in Smith’s pay. As a result Fay escaped the town's vengeance and was spirited off to Sitka where he stood trial and received a light sentence.
While all this was going on. Smith was raising a purse for Rowan’s widow with his own name at the head of the list of subscribers. Thus, in a single stroke, he was able to pose as an enemy of mob rule, a friend of destitute widows, a contributor to charity, and—by virtue of saving Fay’s neck—a refuge for criminals.
In the six weeks that followed, a seesaw battle was waged between the gamblers, saloonkeepers and confidence men of Skagway on the one side and the more law-abiding citizenry on the other. For although the stampede had attracted the grifters and the sharpers, the camp followers and the hoodlums, it had also acted as a, magnet for a quite different type of man. This was the restless wanderer. the frontiersman and Indian fighter, who moved just ahead of the tide of civilization settling for a few months or a few years at one place, accepting a sheriff's badge occasionally, and then pushing on as the frontier advanced. Every mass movement since the California rush had benefited from this breed: they shot straight, feared nobody, were generally incorruptible and had the interests of the community at heart. Such a man was Frank Reid, the city engineer of Skagway, and it was around this granite-faced and cool-eyed wanderer that the opposition to Smith rallied.
Reid was in his mid-fifties but he had been one of the first men on the beach when Skagway was founded. He had gone to the University of Michigan, moved across the plains, fought Indians in Oregon, settled as a schoolteacher among the pioneer families of the Willamette valley, and stampeded north at the first news of the Klondike strike. He was a good surveyor and construction engineer, as well as a fine outdoorsman and a crack shot. He feared nobody and it was said that he was the only man of whom Soapy Smith was ever wary.
Gangster without a gang
Reid and his two close friends, Major J. M. (Si) Tanner and Captain I. I . Sperry, both former police officers and Indian fighters, were at the core of the Vigilantes movement which sprang up in Skagway, as it had in every U. S. mining camp since the days of California. On January 31, one week after the Fay incident, a group of aroused citizens petitioned Washington for federal troops and asked that the town be placed under martial law. The infantrymen were dispatched on February 8 and the newly formed Vigilantes, emboldened by the federal support, decided to drive the underworld element from the town. Suddenly, most of the confidence men and gamblers seemed to melt away and the committee felt that its brief efforts had been more than successful.
Incredibly, Smith himself was not asked to leave. Some of the committeemen thought him harmless. “Jeff's a good fellow, generous and public-spirited,” one of them said. "When his gang is gone he can do no harm.” Others were undoubtedly afraid to pul the finger on him. At one mass meeting he had suddenly appeared with a drawn gun and single-handedly dispersed the cowed as semblage.
The gang had not fled; Smith had merely sent them out onto the trails where they preyed upon the stampeders. On the slopes of the Chilkoot his men mingled with the endless line of plodding figures, tugging sleds behind them or carrying authentic-looking packs that seemed to be bulging with Klondike gear. Actually the packs were stuffed with feathers, hay or shavings, while the sleds were specially built dummies designed for fast traveling and a quick getaway. The canvas lashed down over them concealed a hollow shell from which protruded the occasional ax handle, at the proper angle, to preserve a bona fide effect.
It was difficult for many of the weary climbers to resist the blandishments of
the gang. The con men built fires for them to warm themselves by, and put up tents to keep out the piercing winds, and constructed seats or ledges for the tired packers to rest on, with shelves at the back so that a gold-seeker could ease the weight of his pack from his shoulders. To a physically demoralized man, toiling up the straight and narrow path of the Chilkoot, such temptations could not but appear inviting. On a single mile of the trail, one observer counted four shell games in operation, each surrounded by an eager knot of players.
Van B. Triplett, known as "Old Man Tripp,” was here in his element, working with a younger colleague, Frank Brown, nicknamed Blue Jay. One would carry a cane, which unfolded into a threelegged support, and the other a book, which opened into a counter twelve by eighteen inches across. Thus equipped with the traditional con man's “tripe and heister,” Tripp ran the game while Blue Jay acted as shill. The saintly looking Tripp could slip a rubber pea out from under the shells so deftly that no one could tell it was gone. As it was impossible for anybody but Blue Jay to win at the game, the two men made daily clean-ups equal in size to those of some of the Eldorado kings.
At Wrangell, on the mouth of the Stikine, Soapy’s men pounced on the stampeders with their fake information offices and their phony poker games-. Robberies were frequent and guns popped in the streets at night. Women cavorted nude for high fees in the dance halls, and even the sanctity of the courtroom was not immune from gun play. In February, a whisky dealer on trial for illicit sales took umbrage at the evidence of a prosecution witness, drew his revolver and shot him as he testified.
In Skagway, by late February, “publicspirited” Jeff Smith was back firmly in the saddle. The lawless element in the community, realizing that there was more profit and less risk in being part of a single organization, had accepted him as their leader and protector. He wrote to a friend in Seattle: “We have got them licked and mean to rule absolutely.” At the same time the following news dispatch appeared in the nation's press:
Seattle, Feb. 25—Officers of the steamer Noyo from Skagway today reported conditions of lawlessness at Skagway beyond description. Soapy Smith and his gang are in full control. Law-abiding people do not dare say a word against them. Holdups, robberies and shootings are part of the routine. Eight dead bodies were picked up on the White Pass on February 15.
On March 6 a man was sandbagged outside his home on Broadway, Skagway’s main street, and the following morning there were twelve robberies and a murder on the White Pass trail, the victim shot at such close range that there were powder burns on his lace. Again the Vigilantes called a mass meeting and the militia, which had been reluctant to interfere in Skagway's civic affairs, was called in. On March 15. infantry officers posted notices closing the gaming rooms and at one p.m. two companies of soldiers arrived from Dyea to enforce the order.
Emboldened, the Vigilantes held a second mass meeting and the following day posted this notice:
A Word to the Wise should be sufficient. All con men, bunko and surething men and all other objectionable characters are notified to leave Skag-
way and the White Pass Road immediately and remain away. Failure to comply with this warning will be followed by prompt action.
Signed: The Committee of 101
Smith now moved to confuse the issue so completely that no one would know who represented law and order in Skagway. His strategy was to form his own Vigilantes committee which he titled ‘The Committee of Law and Order.” Although Reid, for one, had been in Skagway from the very first, Smith
shrewdly manoeuvred himself into the position of protecting the “business interests” of the town against “newcomers,” the business interests being the barrooms and gaming houses. There were no fewer than seventy saloons in operation in Skagway. all of them outside the laws of Alaska which forbade the sale of alcohol.
Within a few hours of the posting of the Vigilantes warning. Smith placarded the town with posters of his own:
The business interests of Skagway pro-
pose to put a stop to the lawless acts of many newcomers. We hereby summon all good citizens to a meeting at which these matters will be discussed. Come one. come all! Immediate action will be taken for relief. Let this be a warning to those cheechakos who are disgracing our city. The meeting will be held at Sylvester Hall at 8 p.m. sharp.
Signed: Jefferson R. Smith, Chairman.
Smith addressed the meeting himself, his cool, grey eyes, which seemed to bore
right through a man. rubbering swiftly over each member of the audience.
“Fellow citizens!” he cried, while his cohorts, placed strategically about the hall, stomped and cheered, “We are here to form a real committee, not a halfbaked, irresponsible committee such as we have been hearing about. We have the support of the business element of Skagway. We deplore present conditions, which are caused not by our own people but by riffraff from all parts of the world. We will protect ourselves, even at the cost of our lives.”
Having offered to sacrifice himself, if necessary, for the good of the town, Smith issued the following proclamation:
PUBLIC WARNING The body of men styling themselves the Committee of 101 are hereby notified that any overt act committed by them will promptly be met by the law-abiding citizens of Skagway 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 sec that
justice is dealt out to its fullest extent as no blackmailers or vigilantes will be tolerated.
Signed: The Committee
The situation was now utterly confused. Half the people of Skagway saw Smith as the devil incarnate. Half saw him as a good fellow and public-spirited townsman trying to bring order out of chaos. Smith’s own men. under the guise of ordinary citizens, infiltrated the Vigilantes meetings and produced further confusion and vacillation. The anti-Smith
movement ground to a stop, the soldiers returned to their base at Dyea, and within a month Smith was being referred to as "the Uncrowned King of Skagway.”
By April. Smith's organization numbered somewhere between two and three hundred confidence men, harlots and pimps, thugs, gamblers and card sharps, most of them operating under colorful nicknames such as The Moonfaced Kid, The Lamb. The Doctor, The Queen, The Blackjack, Fatty Green, Yank Fewclothes and Kid Jimmy Fresh.
Any well-heeled stam peder landing in Skagway found it impossible to escape the attentions of Smith's organization. From the moment he stepped aboard ship at Victoria or Seattle, until he finally crossed the international border at the summit of the pass, he was under almost constant surveillance. Smith’s men ranged far and wide, many of them mingling with the crowd on the docks of the Pacific Coast ports, traveling on the steamers plying north, pretending to be bona fide stampeders, and befriending likely-looking prospects. They were at the gangway, in the streets, behind the counters, along the trails and even in the church pews. They were, in fact, everywhere.
They were all consummate actors and each had a role which he played to the hilt. Billy Saportas, a newspaperman in Smith’s pay, interviewed all travelers on their arrival and discovered in this way how much money they had. Slim Jim Foster had a disarming quality that made strangers warm to him. "Why not go over to the Reliable Packers?” Foster would suggest, as he seized a stranger's bags and helped lug them uptown. “They’re an honest outfit who'll get your gear over the pass without overcharging.
I can vouch for them.”
Foster would steer the sucker into the fake packing establishment where another member of the gang posing as proprietor would conduct negotiations in a crisp businesslike fashion. When the matter was finally arranged, the negotiator would ask for a small deposit "just to prove the business won’t be given elsewhere.” This was the key moment in the confidence game, as practiced by Smith’s organization: to make the mark produce his wallet. Once a billfold was brought out into the open in one of Smith's establishments, its owner could kiss it goodby.
The seene that followed was carefully planned: a member of the gang, attired as a ruffian, would leap up and snatch the pocketbook; another would rise at once and cry out in anger that he could not stand idly by and see an honest man robbed in broad daylight. Others would rise, crying out slogans about honesty and deploring crime, jostling and rushing about to create a scene of confusion. In the spurious scuffle the victim himself would often be knocked Hat while the man with the wallet escaped. All involved would pretend to be outraged by the event until the sucker departed dazed, baffled and penniless.
Smith's Telegraph Office was a particularly ingenious establishment and its operation underlined the ignorance and gullibility of many stampeders. There was, of course, no telegraph line to Skagway in 1898, but Smith guaranteed to send a wire anywhere in the world for five dollars. Scores paid their money and sent messages to their families before leaving for the passes and Smith always saw that they got an answer within two or three hours. It invariably came collect.
One of the strong points of Smith’s rule of Skagway was that nobody was quite sure who belonged to his gang, because so many, like Tripp, looked so innocent. In their bowler hats, wing col-
lars, diamond stick pins and polished high button boots, they posed as business leaders, public - spirited citizens and churchmen. When the Right Reverend Peter Trimble Rowe, the pioneer Bishop of Alaska, was robbed by one of the gang, the miscreant, on learning his victim's identity, handed back the pouch of gold.
"Why do you give this back?" Rowe asked in astonishment. “Hell. Bishop." replied the thief, "I’m a member of your congregation."
In the unimpassioned words of Superintendent Samuel B. Steele of the NWMP. Skagway was "little better than a hell on earth.” Steele, who was the last man to give way to overstatement, described in his memoirs the nights he spent in the town, when the crash of bands in the dance halls and "the cracked voices of the singers" were mingled with shouts of murder, cries for help, and the crackle of gunshot.
Among other things Smith was the proprietor of an oyster parlor which served the best food in town. He had opened it in partnership with two of Skagway’s most prominent saloonkeepers. Frank and John Clancy, and it stood in the geographical centre of the business district, just off Broadway, with the number "317,” emblematic of the Law and Order Committee, emblazoned on its white false front. It looked innocent enough, with its polished mahogany bar, its fretwork screens and its artificial palm trees, but into Jeff Smith’s Parlor the suckers were lured like so many flies by the spider web of his expanding organization. Behind the main restaurant and bar was a “pretty back parlor, as cozy as a lady's boudoir" in the words of the Skagway Alaskan, and it was here that the unwary were cheated or robbed of their money. Behind this was a small yard enclosed by a high board fence especially constructed with a secret exit through which Smith’s men could disappear with their loot. The enraged victim rushing after his vanishing bankroll would burst out the back door only to be baffled by an empty yard and a blank, unbroken wall.
Smith never involved himself with these affairs and at no time became entangled with the law. He sought, instead, to maintain the impression that his only interest in the lawbreakers was to preserve such influence with them as would enable him to get them at times to make restitution in needy cases. But all the plunder snatched from well-heeled suckers was taken straight to his safe, where it lay until the furor was over. Smith took a fifty-percent commission, much of which he used to bribe law officers, conduct legal defenses or make partial restoration to the victims to prevent them from complaining too loudly. The more direct methods of silencing a man were left to his bouncers—to the villainous Yeah Mow Hopkins, whose name meant wildcat in Chinese and who had once been a bodyguard for wealthy Orientals in the San Francisco tong wars, or to Big Ed Burns, who had been with him since Denver days and who made a habit of chewing cigars whole. Smith was philosophical about the beatings that Burns or Hopkins administered to the swindled clerks and bookkeepers who came to his parlor and protested too loudly.
“The greatest kindness one can do such people is to force them to get out of Skagway and to take the first boat home," he once remarked.
This was Smith’s great propaganda argument, on the street corners of Skag-
way and in the various places of business where his smooth tongue was seldom still: the sure-thing men were a public benefit to the town, he argued, for they not only kept business brisk by putting into circulation money that would otherwise leave the city, but also they performed an act of charity in keeping the innocent from going deeper into the Arctic wilderness.
"Infinitely better.” Smith would argue, "that any man who is such an infant as to try to beat a man at his own game should lose money here at the seaport, than he
should get into the inhospitable Arctic where such an idiot would lose it anyway or be a burden on the community.”
And then he would go on to discuss the universal corruptibility of character and to praise the public-spirited attitude of the saloon men and gamblers, while his flunkies applauded and the hangers-on nodded their heads sagely and said, yes, there was something to that all right.
In some ways. Smith was a generation ahead of his time, for although he operated on a small stage, the tactics he used in Skagway were remarkably similar
to those employed by various European dictators in the years that followed. All the basic elements were present: the hard and disciplined core of ruthless men who swiftly went to work undercover; the leader who presented himself as a champion of the people: the spy system and the secret policé; the relentless propaganda machine; and, most important, the careful cultivation of the basic elements in the community: business, labor, church and press.
The business community tolerated him and. in some cases, applauded him be-
cause he seemed to bring order out of chaos, and, as is so often the case, men preferred order to liberty which they confused with anarchy. One of Smith’s first moves, on consolidating his power, was to make it a rule never to fleece or molest a permanent citizen of Skagway, but only transients. When some of his men sheared the youthful chief of the local fire department he was aghast and returned the victim’s money, at the same time giving his followers a tongue-lashing. Moreover he managed to exude an aura of law and order by halting minor misdemeanors and performing such incidental acts of justice as returning runaway daughters to frantic fathers.
He made himself popular with the workingmen by taking the side of the stevedores in a strike that swept the waterfront. He distributed twenty-dollar gold pieces among them “just to see the fun,” as he put it, and the speech he made to the strikers was in the best tradition of labor agitation:
“Your cause is just—make ’em come through! These owners are clearing fortunes by the sweat of your brows. They’re making slaves of you. Stick for better wages and if they won't pay let their ships lie at the wharves . . . They’re raking in barrels of dough.” With that he appointed himself strikers' representative in negotiations with the dock owners and continued to back the stevedores until they won the dispute.
He continued his policy, established in Denver, of outward support of the church and there are two recorded instances of charity drives backed by Smith in the Skagway area although there is some evidence that, at least in one case, all the money was stolen back within twelve hours.
He had very little difficulty in suborning the press. It was generally agreed that the editor of the Alaskan was in his pay. When Edward F. Cahill was sent to Skagway by the San Francisco Examiner to investigate reports of lawlessness, Smith handled him with delicacy and dispatch. He took Cahill under his personal wing and showed him the town. Cahill was charmed by Smith's attention. “Soapy Smith is not a dangerous man,” he told the outside world. “He is not a desperado. He is not a scoundrel. He is not a criminal . . .” Cahill exhausted his stock of superlatives in describing the dictator. He called him cool, fearless, generous and honorable and wrote that "he bitterly resents the imputation that he is a thief and a vagrant.” Before Smith was through with Cahill, the newspaperman had turned to poetry to eulogize him. and had soon produced a flowery ode which extolled Smith’s patriotism and Americanism.
All this time, Smith kept in touch with the world outside, and especially with the underworld, through a remarkable correspondence which ranged far and wide, from the Pacific northwest to Central America. He got letters from politicians, lawyers, professional men, journalists and crooks. He got letters from El Paso, Texas, and from Guatemala, from confederates who had “bought” towns and civic governments. He got a letter from a congressman in St. Louis enclosing two pairs of brass knuckles and another from a political fixer named Mulgrew who wrote: “I can get police indulgence if anybody can.”
Smith's staff of correspondents formed an endless chain, a sort of continental spy network, and he carefully pasted every letter into a huge scrapbook which he kept up to date and concealed in a drawer of his old-fashioned roll-top desk along with the badges and emblems of the Masons, Odd Fellows and other fra-
ternal organizations which, from time to time, were of value to him.
Stray dogs and helpless widows have long been recognized as proper subjects for front-page stories and Smith fully understood the necessity of cultivating human-interest items about himself. By the spring of '98, Skagway was ridden with abandoned dogs of every size, shape, and pedigree. They had all been purchased at astronomical prices in Seattle by greenhorns who brought them north under the mistaken impression that they could be trained to pull a sled. When the stark truth was discovered and the cheechakos realized that the dogs were eating them into early bankruptcy, the canines were abandoned to roam the streets in packs. Smith launched an “Adopt-ADog” campaign and set a good example by taking on six strays himself.
At the same time he publicly began to provide for women whose husbands had met death on the trail and for luckless stampeders who had lost their money before reaching the gold fields. As many of the unfortunate ladies had been brought to widowhood by Smith's own men, and most of the penniless Klondikers had been deprived of their funds in Smith's own establishments, they were thus being supported with their own coin.
Now an odd thing happened: Soapy Smith’s character began to undergo a subtle change. He had been playing Santa Claus in Skagway for coldly practical reasons but as time went on he began to relish the applause that his small philanthropies brought him. There had always been a streak of vanity and of prodigality in his nature; years before when William De Vcre, the "tramp poet’’ wrote a ballad in his honor, Smith was so pleased he gave him a thousand dollars. Now. wealth and power were no longer enough for him: he wanted homage.
He liked to see his name in the papers; he liked to be known as a good fellow; he liked to be seen patting children on the head and tipping lavishly. For him, fealty of his followers had become insufficient; he craved the devotion of the entire community. And when, at the end, the community turned against him he acted quite humanly, with pain, astonishment, hurt, resentment and finally, in
his bloody last act, unreasoning rage.
I he outbreak of the Spanish-American War on April 24 gave Smith a further opportunity to entrench himself in Skagway. Within three days of war's declaration he had appointed himself captain of Company A. First Regiment, National Guard of Alaska and, in a burst of oldfashioned patriotism, had opened a military office in a tent and begun recruiting soldiers for service in the Philippines. This move gave him an excuse to arm and drill his followers so that he had a disciplined force under his command. It also provided his cronies with a perfect base of operations for an ingenious confidejice game.
The wave of patriotism that followed the sinking of the Maine rapidly made it self felt on the trails to the Klondike and many American stampeders decided to forsake the gold fields for (he service of their country. Pouring back through Skagway, these would-be soldiers were attracted to a sign on a tent reading "United States Army Recruiting Station." Inside, a brisk military looking man. Hanked by armed guards, swiftly signed each man up for service, congratulated him on his patriotism, and waved him into the rear for the necessary medical examination. While a fake doctor examined the recruits, others swiftly went through the pockets of their discarded clothing for valuables, anil, if they protested, threw them out into the street in their underwear.
On Sunday, May I. Smith arranged the greatest demonstration that Skagway had yet seen, in honor of his newly formed military unit. He marched at the head of a procession that stretched for two blocks, while two thousand people cheered on the sidelines, hundreds of them wearing badges of gold, white and blue which read: “Freedom for Cpba! Remember the Maine! Compliments of Skagway Military Company. Jeff R. Smith. Captain."
Few at this moment doubted that Soapy Smith was the benefactor of Skagway, its guiding light, the symbol of its honor and its pride, the emblem of its future prosperity. And when a few days later a personal letter came to Smith from the Secretary of War, thanking him for his patriotism (but politely declining his offer to serve in foreign climes) it seemed to set the seal on the affair. Smith treasured the document. He had it framed and hung in a prominent place on a wall in his oyster parlor.
For Smith wished the world to understand that he was something more than just another tinhorn gambler. The opportunity seemed to come on July 4 when he was appointed marshal of the Independence Day parade, and rode through the streets mounted on a handsome dapple-grey mare with the cheers of the crowd ringing in his ears, and sat crosslegged and respectable on the Hag-draped rostrum while the Governor of Alaska himself delivered the usual oration. Smith had reached the peak of his career: the world was his oyster; and yet, almost at that moment, his Nemesis, in the person of a square-faced and sombre-eyed Canadian prospector, was trudging down the White Pass trail toward the town.
To be sure J. D. Stewart of Nanaimo, B.C., and Daw'son City, Yukon, did not look at all like an instrument of fate. There is a picture of him extant, and if ever a man looks like a sucker, it is he. There he stands, in front of a Skagway shack, clutching his poke of gold fiercely in his right hand, his cloth cap, a little too small for him, perched squarely across his bullet head. Stewart was in the advance guard of a human exodus from Dawson, and Skagway stood to be enriched by it. With the river open again
after the long winter, the successful miners were clamoring to reach civilization and spend their gold. They could go downriver via St. Michael, or upriver and across the pass via Skagway. The former route was the easier, but the upriver route was the shorter and Skagway was waiting in anticipation for hundreds of wealthy men to descend upon the town.
Stewart had twenty-eight hundred dolíais in gold dust when he arrived in Skagway on July 7. en route to his home at Nanaimo, B.C. Friends in town warned him about Smith’s gang and urged him
to lock his gold in a safe at a hotel and leave it there until he booked passage south. It says something for the gang's powers of persuasion that they were able to talk Stewart out of it. On the morning of July 8, the sanctimonious Tripp and the saintly Bowers, posing as gold buyers lor a lake assaying company, convinced the prospector that he could get a better price for his dust if he brought his poke over to Jeff Smith's Parlor.
Stewart was taken into the notorious back room and here, while the supposed price was being negotiated, a member of the gang, dressed like a fellow Klondike!-,
and laughing to give the appearance of a joke, seized the bag and made for the door. The thief was almost out of sight before Stewart, in.a daze, took after him. At this the others in the gang, pretending to misunderstand the situation, seized him and treated him as if he were drunk. Before Stewart knew it, he had been eased out into the street, the crowd had melted away, and all his gold was gone.
This was too much. He went straight to the U. S. deputy marshal, a man named Taylor, but the officer, who was in Smith's pay, retorted that he could do nothing as Stewart was unable to identify the man who had stolen the gold. He had only one suggestion: why didn't Stewart head back for the Klondike and dig out another twenty-eight hundred dollars? Having said this he returned to the task at hand —supervising the carpentry work on a handsome new home for himself.
This got Stewart’s dander up. and he began to spread the story of his loss about the town. He told Calvin Barkdull, a horse packer who had brought his duffel bag over the pass the previous day, and Barkdull told his boss Charles deWitt, who owned one of the large packing outfits. DeWitt was shocked, not so much apparently by the moral aspect of the robbery, but by its economic significance.
"My God,” he exclaimed, "this won't do! If word gets down the river that the first man coming out by way of Skagway was robbed, no one else will come this way."
The three men walked a block to Sperry's sheet - iron warehouse, where Frank Reid’s friend Capt. Sperry operated a storage place for miners who wanted to leave their valuables behind before risking the pass. By noon of Friday, July 8. Reid and Sperry together with Major Tanner had reorganized the Vigilantes, and the story of Stewart’s loss was being discussed all over town.
Tension began to rise as knots of people gathered in the street. The news went round that the U. S. Commissioner at Dyea, C. A. Schlbrcde, had been sent for. Men began to mutter that all of Dawson’s wealthiest prospectors were leaving the country by way of St. Michael because they were afraid to use the Skagway trail.
As suddenly as the wind shifts in the mountains, the whole town began to turn against Soapy Smith.
Smith himself did not remain oblivious to this change of temperament. He had runners all over town bringing him news of the excitement. One arrived with the intelligence that M. K. Kalcm, a Yukon outfitter, was haranguing a throng in front of his store a block or two up Broadway. As the crowd discussed ways and means of getting Stewart’s poke back. Smith suddenly arrived in their midst, the square lines of a revolver showing in each pocket. He shouldered his way through the throng and faced it. as he had faced so many others in his lifetime.
"You're a lot of cowardly rope-pulling —!” he cried. "Now come on! I can lick the whole crowd of you.”
Silently, the crowd melted away, as it had melted away so often before in the face of Smith’s guns.
Meanwhile, Judge Sehlbrede, a distinguished figure with his aquiline features and white mutton-chop whiskers, had arrived from Dyea and, together with some of the re-formed Vigilantes, called upon Smith and asked him to order his men to return the missing poke. Smith retorted that Stewart had lost his money in a fair game of chance but in-
Continued on page 58
cheated that the gold might be returned. Sehlbrede gave him until 4 p.m. to make good his pledge.
Some of Smith's own gang now started to lose their nerve. Even Old Man Tripp sounded a note of caution: “People arc making such a stink about the job it would be wise to give the stuff up," he told Smith.
This advice had a strange effect on the con man. With the entire town op posing him, with his own men wavering and calling for surrender. Soapy Smith turned stubborn. If he backed down now
he would lose his dignity and this he could not countenance.
“I'll cut the cars off the first man who makes a move to give it back," he said.
The same morning he had a streetcorner encounter with Reid and tried to provoke him to combat. Reid, who was unarmed, went directly to his cabin, got his gun, then strode into Smith’s oyster parlor and asked John Clancy to produce the dictator. But Smith did not appear.
By four o’clock—the deadline for the return of Stewart’s gold—an air of foreboding hung heavy over Skagway and a
sullen crowd filled the street outside the parlor.
"There’ll be trouble unless the gold is returned,” a reporter from the Skagway News told Smith.
"By God, trouble is what I’m looking for!” Smith retorted.
As the bedlam increased, he strode to the door, rifle in hand, and announced in surly tones that he had five hundred men behind him, ready to do his bidding. The crowd fell silent at this warning, but for the first time in Smith’s experience, it did not disperse. And so
they faced each other for a few moments, the sallow-faced con man, burning with an inner fury, and his fellow townsmen who, just four days before, had cheered him to the skies. Then Smith turned on his heel, went back into his parlor and swallowed some whisky. It was the first sign of tension on his part for he was a man who rarely drank.
By now the town was preparing for trouble and a sinister hush fell over much of the business section as offices, shops and saloons closed their doors. Some of the fainter-hearted members of Smith's gang slipped quietly out of town, seeking refuge on the mountain trails and forests. From the dock area came an angry buzzing as from a nest of wasps. Citizens who had never uttered a peep against Smith since his arrival suddenly became brave and flocked to Sperry's warehouse where they made spirited speeches about (a) the evils of crime and (b) the money they were going to lose if travelers avoided their town.
Smith himself still insisted that he could bluff out the gathering storm. Between drinks he was stalking up and down Broadway, rifle in hand, hurling challenges at the occasional passer-by. It was an ominous spectacle — the dictator of Skagway, defiant and alone, prowling the silent street like a caged and thwarted beast.
The gathering at Sperry’s warehouse, meanwhile, had lapsed into confusion, for it had been infiltrated by Smith’s own men who had succeeded in bringing all business to a standstill. The meeting was adjourned, and set for early evening in the Sylvester Hall.
Smith’s last stand
By 9 p.m. the hall was so crowded that the Vigilantes were again forced to adjourn the meeting, this time to the end of the Juneau dock, where eavesdroppers could not overhear the proceedings. Four men, including Frank Reid, stood guard at the end of the ramp leading to the dock, while a chain across the entranceway effectively stopped each newcomer until he could be challenged and identified.
As the crowd gathered on the dock. Smith in his parlor, edgy, irritable and half drunk, decided at last to act. A note had just reached him from Billy Saportas, the newspaperman who had been “covering” the meeting: "The crowd is angry. If you want to do anything do it quick.”
"I'll drive the bastards into the bay,” said Smith.
He slipped a derringer into his sleeve, thrust a .45 Colt revolver into his pocket, and slung a Winchester 30-30 onto his shoulder. He moved west along Holly Street to State, which runs parallel to Broadway, and then turned south toward the waterfront, muttering that he would “teach these damned -a lesson.”
Behind him, at a respectful distance, a knot of curious people followed. Smith swung his rifle off his shoulder and brandished it like a fly swatter.
"Chase yourselves home to bed!" he shouted. The crowd hung back but did not disperse. About a dozen of Smith's men swung in behind him, at a distance of twenty-five feet. The others had already fled to the hills.
John Clancy, Smith’s erstwhile partner, his wife and his six-year-old son were out for a walk when Smith passed them by. Clancy tried to dissuade him from going to the wharf but Smith was in no mood for chatter. He pulled the revolver from his pocket and pressed it against Clancy’s side.
"Johnny,”'he said, "you'd better leave me alone.”
"Alright,” said Clancy in disgust. ”11' you want to get killed go ahead." As the trio stepped aside to let Smith by, Mrs. Clancy began to cry.
Ihe dock lay dead ahead. It was built like a causeway, set up on pilings over Skagway’s tidal Mats and stretching like a long finger into the mountain-ringed bay. At the far end, in the bright evening sunlight. Smith could see the gesticulating throng of Vigilantes. In the foreground, the four guards barred the way to the ramp.
Smith ignored them till but Reid, who was standing about one hundred feet from the dock.
"You can't go down there. Smith." Reid said.
Smith unslung the Winchester from his shoulder.
"Damn you. Reid," he said, "you're at the bottom of all my troubles. I should have got rid of you three months ago."
The two men were now almost nose to nose, and as Smith leveled the Winchester at Reid's head. Reid seized the muzzle with his left hand, pulling it downward, while he reached for his six gun with his right.
"Don't shoot!" Smith cried, in sudden panic. "For God's sake, don't shoot!"
It was over in an instant.
Reid squeezed the trigger of his six gun but the hammer fell on a faulty cartridge, and an instant later a bullet from Smith's Winchester struck him in she groin, shattering his pelvic bone. Both guns blasted again. Smith dropped to the dock, a bullet in his heart. Reid crumpled with him. but fired again, striking the dying dictator above the left knee.
The two men lay on the ramp in a widening pool of blood, the one gasping out the last seconds of his life, the other in mortal agony. A scream cut the still air. from the lips of Mrs. Harriet Pullen, a hard-working widow who was out looking for one of her small sons and had passed the dock at the moment of the tragedy.
One of the guards, a tough little Irish blacksmith named Jesse Murphy, ran up. seized Smith's Winchester and warded off his bodyguard of men who had drawn their guns. They stood for a moment at bay. and then, seeing the onrushing mob on the dock, fired a few aimless shots into the air and took to the hills.
Rev. .1. A. Sinclair, the Union Church pastor, who had been up the street when the shooting occurred, was one of the first to reach the fallen men. He looked at the corpse of the outlaw and muttered a simple "Thank God."
Meanwhile the Vigilantes were running up the wharf at a full gallop, falling automatically in step as they did so. causing the entire structure to sway crazily. Reid saw them and raised himself on one arm.
"I'm badly hurt, boys,” he muttered, "but I got him first.”
The crowd threw their hats in the air and gave three cheers while four or five men raced off to a nearby cabin and commandeered a cot to act as stretcher.
I hey placed Reid on it anti headed up the street for the Bishop Rowe Hospital.
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Down tit the wharf side the body of the fallen dictator lay where it had crumpled. It lay there far into the night, unguarded and unclaimed, as the midsummer sun dipped briefly behind the mountains and the long shadows of the peaks crept across the tidal fiats of Skagwav Bay.
Reid’s wound was mortal. He lingered on for a few days and then died, and his funeral was the largest in Skagway's history. A handsome monument was erected over his grave a few feet from Smith's final resting place.
In the years that followed thousands of tourists beat a path to the little graveyard under the hill to view these twin symbols of Skagway's shame and Skagway's honor. But it was to Soapy Smith's tomb that the curious turned. In death he continued to exert a strange fascination. An unknown admirer sent fifty dollars annually to Mrs. Harriet Pullen for the upkeep of his grave. Some of the money had to be spent for wire-mesh to protect the gravestone from souvenir hunters who chipped away at it.
No such precautions were needed foi-
l-rank Reid's marble slab. It is almost sixty years since it was erected but it stands today, like his memory, half forgotten but unblemished. On its face is a simple inscription: "He gave his life for the honor of Skagwav." +
In a final installment in the next issue, Piene Perlon describes Dawson City's brief boisterous reign as the "San Francisco of the North." His book, from wliah these articles were drawn, will be published soon by McClelland and Stewart.