It Happened Here: Skagway, Alaska

One of the last wild frontiers, Alaska has plenty of outlaw and shootout stories. Here's the story of the bandit Jefferson "Soapy" Smith.

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As the port of entry to the fabulously rich gold diggings of the Klondike, Skagway basically sprang up overnight. Travelers would purchase provisions there before heading to the White Pass in the Alaska Coast Mountains, 17 miles north of town. One of only two passable routes into the Yukon, the White Pass trail was littered with dying and injured horses left by tenderfoots in a hurry to become rich. A young Jack London on his way north dubbed it “Dead Horse Trail.”

Jefferson “Soapy” Smith had run criminal gangs in Creede and Denver, Colo., before moving to Alaska to exploit the Klondike Gold Rush. He set up false businesses such as ticket offices, outfitting firms, and supply depots that relieved newcomers of their money. He even set up an Information Bureau by the docks that handed out maps telling newcomers where to camp along Dead Horse Trail so his gang could rob them. One lawman recounted 10 robberies and one murder in a single day along the trail. But Smith also nursed a reputation for being a latter-day Robin Hood, paying for funerals of those found dead along the Dead Horse Trail. He’d sometimes pay passage home for the destitute and even stopped a lynching at the point of his gun.

His best con, though, was the Dominion Telegraph Service. Smith’s men ran a wire from an old building to a tree one mile out of town and told newcomers they could wire home news of their safe arrival—a $5 fee for 10 words. A little while later, a “messenger” would find the newcomer and give them the family’s usual reply, “please send home money.” This ruse caused many newcomers to pay for funds to be “wired” home from the fake telegraph. According to legend, Smith’s greed even caused him to murder his mistress, Ella Wilson, for the money she had rat-holed. She was found tied up, with her throat cut and her money gone. He also interfered with the construction of a railroad to the Klondike in order to extort his cut.

Soapy Smith’s antics cost Skagway business when leery prospectors returned home via different routes. And when his men blatantly robbed traveler John Stewart, a vigilante committee formed at the docks. Smith went to scatter the vigilantes, but town surveyor Frank Reid barred his way. Smith slammed his rifle barrel into Reid and shot him in the groin. Reid got off two shots, one striking Smith in the heart and the other just above the knee. Curiously, an autopsy found three bullets in Soapy. Years later, it came out that a railroad worker in hiding had also shot Smith. A hero, Reid died 10 days after the attack.

Comments

The real Soapy Smith

after reading the article I can say that Mr. Coppock is a novelist, pretending to be a historian. I have never seen the accounts he gives, anywhere.

In the short article he writes that author, Jack London dubbed the White Pass, the “Dead Horse Trail.” Not true, Jack London had nothing to do with it. This was just made up by the author.

He writes that "'Soapy' set up an Information Bureau by the docks that handed out maps telling newcomers where to camp along Dead Horse Trail so his gang could rob them. One lawman recounted 10 robberies and one murder in a single day along the trail." Not true, no lawman's accounting is recorded as such.

He writes, "According to legend, Smith’s greed even caused him to murder his mistress, Ella Wilson, for the money she had rat-holed. She was found tied up, with her throat cut and her money gone. He also interfered with the construction of a railroad to the Klondike in order to extort his cut." Not true. Ella Wilson was not Soapy's mistress. This author is the first, that I know of, to make such a claim. Wilson was a black prostitute found dead with a pillow sack over her head, in which she suffocated, but her throat was not cut. Again, this is the author's invention.

In the bit about Soapy's death, the author used a very old rumor that someone in hiding had shot Soapy dead. The author adds an extra mystery bullet in Soapy's body to make his story flow better.

It is often said that truth is stranger than fiction, and in the case of Soapy Smith, no saying could be more truthful! Soapy's amazing criminal life spans across the United States, starting in the late 1870s and ends with his murder on July 8, 1898. If one can accept the number of newspaper articles written about the two men while they were alive (between the years 1870-1898), it would be determined that Soapy Smith was more well known than Wyatt Earp! If you are interested in the true story of Soapy Smith, I suggest, ALIAS SOAPY SMITH: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF A SCOUNDREL.

Jeff Smith
Please feel free to visit my Soapy Smith sites.
www.soapysmith.net
www.soapysmiths.blogspot.com

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