They further state:
"Being the primary and foremost source of information we therefore feel we should be recognized in the historical community as the leading voice on the factual events of Soapy Smith's life."
This philosophy, of course, is antithetical to scholarly research, in which there is free intercourse of ideas and viewpoints. However, their opinions are not unusual for descendents' organizations.
Reviews of Jeff Smith's comments indicate that this organization believes that no opinion or so-called "fact" about Soapy Smith is official until it has passed a litmus test conducted by Jeff Smith. Please understand that when perusing his website.
Misunderstanding the Purpose of "That Fiend in Hell."
As Jeff Smith continues to add to his discussion of "That Fiend in Hell", it has become apparent that he misunderstands the purpose of the study. That misunderstanding permeates all of his commentary. Probably, because of the statement issued by the marketing department of the University of Oklahoma Press months before "That Fiend" was published, Jeff believes the purpose is to correct the current understanding of "facts" connected with the history and historic interpretation of the life of Jefferson Randolph Smith. That is not the case. The purpose of the book is to use the story of the last months of Smith's life, as it evolved after his death, to illustrate my understanding of how history, legend and myth intersect in modern American society. It is simply an exercise in the dissection of popular history.
My original draft, when submitted to the University of Oklahoma Press, included an analysis of works between Soapy Smith’s death and the publication of Pierre Berton’s 1975 edition of Klondike Fever. I believed this latter work represented the apex of the Smith legend, where it found its fullest flower and most gifted recitation. After that point, scholars and historians (both professional and those of the grassroots variety) worked to correct the details of “facts” but always worked within the mainframe of the overall legend. Because I was not interested in the details of history but the framework of the legend, I did not believe it was necessary to explicate later works.
My peer reviewers from the press thought otherwise, and asked for discussion of more recent studies, primarily, of Alias Soapy. I agreed, but only within the framework of the legend. And I did not believe it was fair to discuss Smith’s book without mentioning those by Howard Clifford in 1997 and Jane Haigh in 2006, both of whom had made major strides towards trying to set the record straight (see pages 189-196 in “That Fiend”), but only within the overall framework of the legend. Again, I addressed all three books in the context of their contributions to the making of legend, not to their making of history. My book is not about history. It is about myth and legend in modern American society. As such, I could not end the discussion of modern publications without a note about Howard Blum’s book, The Floor of Heaven (That Fiend, p. 195). This book was released as a so-called “true story,” but it is merely a rewrite of Berton’s version. It illustrates how Berton’s classic story will always dominate the literature of the Klondike.
I had briefly noted three professionals in my introduction, historians who had written after Berton, but who had discussed Soapy within very narrow, scholarly frameworks. In that introduction, I dismissed their works from further, detailed discussion because they did not contribute to the legend, despite working within its framework (“That Fiend”, p. 8). Their studies were for very narrow, scholarly or research-directed purposes. Not understanding the nature of goal-oriented or hypothesis-directed professional studies, Jeff Smith took umbrage at my not including Alias Soapy as a “professional” study (you can see his discussion here). When I pointed out to him that my definition of a professional included formal academic training, he attacked my methodology as oriented towards excluding the works of those he terms “grassroots historians” (see the exchange here).
Of course there has always been distrust between those who are academically educated and those who come by their avocation through the school of hard knocks, trial and error, and devotion to their subject. Both tend to believe the other does not possess their own intrinsic good qualities (which inevitably, they both share). Perhaps Mr. Smith and other advocates do indeed know that those of us who have spent decades in institutions of higher learning were taught something other than simply how to look in the same archival records they have learned to look in by asking around and talking to archivists. To read Jeff’s critiques, he believes I learned and absorbed nothing of the ethics of revealing all my sources, impartially weighing the evidence, and publishing my results through peer-reviewed venues (see my lengthy publication list here). These sorts of comments, so common from the so-called “grassroots historians” often highlight their own less worthy habits of parceling out the information they feel possessive towards, their entrepreneurial attitude towards their avocation, and the slant or bias that inevitably creeps into some of their accounts, when they do publish. Having not undergone the rigors of a graduate education in history or a closely related field, they do not know or understand the beating one takes from one’s professors, fellow students, and colleagues in terms of ethics, critiques and basically just “doing what is right.” It’s all part of the training and every-day part of the profession (profession, in that I got paid a working wage for what I did, and it now pays me a very good retirement income, so that means someone was keeping tabs on the quality and type of work I was doing my entire career).
The fact that Smith interprets “That Fiend” as a personal affront to his ancestor and to himself is proof enough that he has not undergone that sort of training and professional experience, and does not understand it. Such is merely the nature of scholarship.
In the discussions below, I began to address Jeff Smith’s specific comments as he made them. As he made his posts, however, it became obvious that he was rewriting his book of “facts” and history in response to my discussion of legend and myth. He takes affront at the fact that I don’t refer to his book frequently. But why should I? A good historian always cites primary sources, not secondary ones. I cite Alias Soapy for the primary material in it (such as the transcribed letters in his family's collections), or if I believe one of Jeff’s opinions deserves comment in the context of my discussion. Otherwise, I refer to the primary sources, many of which I had found long before Jeff had published his book, and many of which Jeff either ignored or was unaware of.
I have decided to leave my two original posts in order to give an example of the sorts of misunderstandings Smith is having in his commentary on “That Fiend in Hell.” However, were I to spend time engaging in this sort of useless debate, I would not finish the next book I am working on. I will leave this at that and let the reader make their own mind up.
If you want to learn a large number of “facts” that every were printed about Soapy Smith, by all means, read Alias Soapy Smith by Jeff Smith.
If you want to know why the story was told the way it was between July 8, 1898 and the mid 1970’s, indeed, probably as recently as Howard Blum’s The Floor of Heaven, then I invite you to read “That Fiend in Hell.” It might just help you understand why Wyatt Earp’s, Billy the Kid’s and Jesse James’s stories are told the way they are.
Was Soapy Smith "Murdered?"
I have a friend who, before he retired, was highly placed in a New Mexico state office of the FBI. He had worked up through the ranks of agent to one of those mid-level positions that takes more heat than is worth it before retiring with many honors and kudos to his name. He knows the law well, and knows what can be prosecuted and what will stick.
I laid before him the following scenario. Suppose a known criminal armed with two firearms (a rifle and a revolver) and supported by as many as a dozen armed assistants following a few paces behind, approaches four civilians standing at the approach to a wharf. One of the civilians at the approach to the wharf has just been appointed a special officer of the federal court. He is not a deputy marshal, but is acting in that stead. He is unarmed. One of the civilians, not so appointed, is armed with a revolver. The two remaining civilians are likewise unarmed.
The known criminal and the armed civilian simultaneously raise their weapons in a challenge to one another: the criminal, his rifle; the guard, his revolver. Shots are exchanged with such rapidity that later witnesses are not sure who fired first. Both of the men who fired their weapons fall to the ground, badly wounded.
One of the unarmed civilians steps forward, wrenches the rifle from the known criminal’s hands and fires yet another slug into his body.
My question to this retired federal officer of the law was the following: would the civilian be subject to a charge of murder, if it were found that the rifle’s bullet was the one that killed the criminal?
His reply was: absolutely not. Both today, and in the twentieth century, and in the nineteenth century, the answer is the same. The criminal, by confronting the civilians with a drawn weapon, initiated the hostilities. The civilian guards at the foot of the wharf were entitled to use deadly force until the criminal was stopped, as a means of self-defense. It does not matter whether he actually held a weapon in his hands at the moment that he died. This matter probably would not even go to a grand jury; a coroner or a coroner’s jury could determine that the death was a case of self-defense -- as happened in Skagway on July 11, 1898.
Jeff Smith’s contention that Jesse Murphy “murdered” Soapy Smith is without merit. See his highly imaginative discussions in Alias Soapy Smith, pp. 542, 546-548, and http://www.historynet.com/soapy-smiths-showdown-with-the-vigilantes.htm .
Vigilantes and Con Men (Including Soapy) in September 1897
Jeff Smith has taken issue with my statements in That Fiend in Hell that Soapy was run out of Skagway in September 1897 (see his blog, http://thatfiendinhell.blogspot.com/ .) Since I did my original research for That Fiend, I have continued research into the so-called “vigilantes” of Skagway, for an upcoming study I am doing of vigilantism in the West and its overall intersection with the American Frontier Myth. While I am not limiting this study to the Skagway example – indeed, I mean to trace the roots of vigilantism from the Revolution to the present day – I admit my interest in vigilance committee began with the Committee of 101.
The following quotations are from a series of newspaper articles written between mid-August and mid-September 1897, when Soapy Smith was in Skagway, Alaska. They are pertinent to the Denver Post reports that Soapy was forced to leave Skagway in September. Recall that Soapy Smith wrote his wife from Skagway on August 28, 1897: Jeff Smith estimates that Soapy arrived in Skagway on August 22, 1897 (Alias Soapy, p. 435).
Tacoma Daily News, August 18, 1897:1: Dateline Victoria, B. C., Aug. 18. “A committee of 25 has been appointed to keep order at Skaguay, J. McKinney, of Seattle, being elected chairman and W. J. Sapparatas [probably William “Billy” Saportas] of New York, secretary. Everything is orderly and the men are in good health.”
Idaho Statesman, August 26, 1897: 1: Dateline Seattle, Wash., Aug. 25. The headline reads: “Vigilance Committee Rules in Skaguay; Noose Dangling from a Limb More Effective Than Stacks of Law.” “The men have a salutary respect for the vigilance committee but they refuse to obey any authority when it comes to working on the trail…. On the outside of the dance house is a tree upon which several significant notices are posted and from a limb dangles a new one-inch rope with a noose. This was put there by the vigilance committee and it is more effective than a hundred volumes of statures against crime.
Oregonian, September 5, 1897:7 (This article is repeated in the following papers: Omaha World Herald, September 6, 1897:5 Idaho Statesman, September 6, 1897:1; Dallas Morning News, September 6, 1897:7): Dateline Skaguay, Alaska, Aug. 28. 600 miners organized an executive committee to oversee the work ahead of them in improving the trail. James Christie, Portland, President; Phil Abraham, Secretary; C. A. Cram, Seattle, Mr. Heacock and Mr. Day, Superintendents. There are 30 Canadian mounted police on the trail. Some of the versions of the article refer to the executive committee as a “vigilance committee” and note that they issue certificates to those who work on the trail, hoping to ensure those men profit more by their work that way.
New Haven Register, September 6, 1897:8 This article is largely the same as the four above, but has some additional material. Additional material addresses a charge that “the gambling element is endeavoring to keep ‘tenderfeet’ at Skaguay this winter … and the Vigilance Committee has been cooperating with them. Gambling is flourishing, and every known kind of ‘skin game’ is running full blast. ‘Tenderfeet’ from small towns of the East and from the coast are easy victims. The trail is in horrible shape, but some are getting over it.” Col. Chadbourne makes this charge in the context of the “vigilantes” working with the saloon owners to shut down the trail and keep the people from going over the trail. Therefore, they have to spend time in town. The paper goes on to relate an incident where an armed party of 13 by-passed the roadblock and the vigilantes were afraid to fire on them. This paper also mentions a “Sopie Jim Smith” of St. Louis, “one of the most famous confidence operators in the country, who operates three shell games on the Skaguay Trail.” In another incident, a hundred dollars was stolen from an Easterner in a Skaguay saloon and the Vigilance committee warned the perpetrator that he would be hung without formality if he repeated the deed.
San Diego Union, September 6, 1897:1 (This article is largely the same as the five above, but has some different and additional material). Datelined Seattle, Sept. 5. The additional material is mostly about crime in Skagway and how the United States marshals are bent on cleaning it out of the town. “Col. Chadbourne says that Collector Ives and a force of deputy United States marshals had determined to raid the town of Skaguay and clean out the whisky smugglers and saloon men and rid the camp of the disorderly element. Heretofore the authorities have [been] utterly unable to cope with the disorderly people, and the camp became one of the “hottest” on record. It was the refuge of the worst class of criminals, confidence men and thugs on the coast … The lawless characters are much in evidence, and dissensions and discords have broken out among the miners, and such a thing as co-operation is impossible. Gov. Brady is quoted as saying that the situation is laden with trouble … In spite of the attempts of the miners’ committee to close the trail so that it can be repaired one party of twelve with drawn revolvers and loaded rifles announced their intention of going through to the summit. They passed the guards and set out for the summit. The committee was called together, and a number of armed men sent after them to head them off. If trouble is averted it will be by the greatest good luck.”
Denver Post, September 23, 1897:1: Dateline Seattle, Washington, September 23. “United States Attorney Bennet and United States Marshal Shoup for the district of Alaska were passengers on the steamer Queen. They announced that a number of prosecutions of gamblers have been commenced at Dyea and Skaguay. [new paragraph] “Soapy” Smith, well known along the Pacific coast, was driven out of Skaguay and came back on the Queen.”
Denver Post, September 23, 1897: 4: “Truly the Alaskans are advancing in civilization. It is announced in today’s dispatches that “Soapy” Smith, he of unctuous Denver memory, has been figuratively fired out of the Klondike and returns to the Pacific coast with a bag of coin. It was not earned by the sweat of his brow in the placer diggings, but in teaching the mysteries of three cards and the deft manipulation of the thimble and the little joker. “Soapy” must have been too picturesque and confidential for the unsophisticated Alaskans.”
Victoria Daily Colonist, September 23, 1897:8: The Queen arrived in Victorian yesterday, and the VDC interviewed a number of the passengers. “ ‘Soapy’ Smith and Jack Jolly are two fellow-passengers with Hon. Mr. Taylor, but less representative citizens. [Followed by a typical description of Soapy’s feats.] Hearing while in Juneau ten days ago that Prosecuting Attorney Bennett had declared all the games at Skagway under the ban Smith promptly closed out his business interests and came south for the winter.”
Tacoma Daily News, September 24, 1897:3: A report from those who just came down on the Queen. “Jeff, or ‘Soapy’ Smith, as he is more often called, and Jerry Daley are on their way to New York. They are two of the gambling element and believing they have worked Skaguay they are off to fresh fields. They have been working the shell game for some time past and as in other town of the same kind, they found many victims. Some of the passengers say that they would not have left Skaguay had not the vigilance committee advised them that it was to their interest to do so. Passengers on the vessel say the pair averaged $200 a day for 60 days. During the trip down the two were completely ostracized. They cared little, for $12,000 of easy money was theirs.”
Telluride Daily Journal, October 7, 1897:2: Dateline Seattle, Wash., Sept. 26. Letter from John L. Meyers to John Fitzgibbons. It is a letter describing a party’s journey to the Klondike. He states his party arrived “here” from Juneau on Saturday night. After saying some of his party is going to build a tram on the Chilkoot Trail, he writes, “Soapy Smith is spieling the shells on the Skaguay trail. He could not stay long in Skaguay, so went on up the trail.” He goes on to describe Soapy’s operation from a tent. Note that the letter itself is undated, and was probably written before mid-September.
This series of newspaper articles indicates that what had traditionally been called a “miners’ committee” in most of the mining towns of the late nineteenth century was called together for the purpose of improving Moore’s trail (the White Pass Trail, the Skagway Trail, or what would eventually become the Brackett Wagon Road: they were all one and the same thing at this point). Because of the sudden onslaught in travelers, the trail did not hold up and needed much work. An executive committee was formed to formalize and enforce the rules voted on by the miners’ committee to see that everyone who used the trail did their part in working on it as well. This executive committee issued certificates to the people who worked on the trail. These certificates were to be recognized in some unknown way in the goldfields (?) or on the border (?) so that these men could profit by their enforced, but voluntary work.
It is my thought (belief?) that this miners’ committee probably evolved out of the group of citizens that gathered to plat the Skaguay townsite. The inclusion of McKinney as president of this group is a clue, as McKinney was a leader of the group that platted the townsite.
I speculate that the smaller, executive committee, chaired by Christie, was probably solely focused on administering any paperwork associated with repairing the trail. The inclusion of Abrahams as secretary is significant because he had some legal experience and later became a real estate attorney for Skagway. He certainly had clerical and document-filing skills that suited him for the task of drawing up legal documents.
What I find interesting and confusing at the same time is the intermixing of the term “vigilance committee” and “miners’ committee” in these articles. Are they talking about the same thing or two different entities? My understanding of a miners’ committee is a group of people who get together to establish rough rules of social order to be followed on a daily basis in the absence of a formal community government. Vigilance committees were more often more formal organizations requiring a membership list, written rules, and certain vows. However, the media, or common language of the day may have intermixed the terms freely, so that we, today, don’t know if they really meant a formal vigilance committee or something more like what the miners’ committees were.
Once they had a formal name, like the Committee of 101, they may very well have become a formal vigilance committee.
Note also that there is a difference between a vigilance committee and a vigilante, and that these articles are using the term vigilance committee. Those who use the word “vigilantes” today generally intend some negative connotation, whereas “vigilance committees” were viewed as acceptable ways of achieving law and order in mining communities in the nineteenth century. It was not until well into the twentieth century that vigilantism began to have a negative reputation, especially because of events in the South. Western vigilantism was almost always viewed positively and as the only necessary way of maintaining law and order. Soapy and his colleagues, of course, living in the ranks of the criminal world, may have had a poor opinion of vigilance committees and vigilantes.
To return to the above articles, it is very possible that reporters in Seattle and Victoria, where these articles were filtering through, did not understand the difference between an emerging true vigilance committee and the original miners’ committee that platted the townsite and set the stampeders to repairing the trail, because they were not getting all of the story. Also, my understanding of vigilance committees is that they tried to keep their identities low-key and secret to the greater world. Rumors worked better than widespread advertising. So, the Committee of 101 may well have been formed in August or so, as a vigilance committee.
What is obvious from these articles, though, is that some effort at controlling law and order was going on at the same time that the miners’ committee was trying to repair the trail. There was some concern about con men on the trail and gambling and whiskey sales in town. The newspapers in the south were not clear on exactly who was calling for delays in Skagway, but they believed that the committee that forced the repair work was in collusion with saloon keepers and gamblers to keep the stampeders in town and on the trails longer.
Now, when I see Billy Saportas’ name as an officer of one of the committees, and recall how often his name was associated with Soapy Smith’s, I can see where maybe the assumption would be made that the saloonmen, gamblers and the miners’ committee were working together to delay stampeders in Skagway. I will note also that Frank Clancy was in Skagway at this time. His combination saloon and gambling place was prominently placed on Trail Street, and may very well be the dance house mentioned in the August 26 article. Note that I maintain that Clancy had a relationship with Smith, but not, like Jeff maintains, did not report to Smith. Rather Clancy and Smith cooperated with one another. I also maintain that Saportas, for obvious reasons, was charmed by Smith, but not one of his devout followers, or in Smith’s pay.
All of the above articles indicate that townspeople and authorities are very concerned about the con men and gamblers in general, and Soapy in particular when he is mentioned. And, when he is mentioned, it is noted that he is not welcomed in either Skagway or on the trail.
Jeff Smith indicates that Soapy left Skagway on his own initiative. He had made a great deal of money, his wife was ill, and he did not like the cold climate. Jeff cites collaborating evidence from a friendly witness in Denver, Bat Masterson, who belied all of these reports (Denver Post, November 17, 1897:7; Alias Soapy, p. 443). While that testimony is certainly Soapy’s side of the story, I cannot imagine Smith admitting he was told to leave the north. To save his pride and dignity, he would, of course, put a positive spin on his trip south. But as I note in That Fiend in Hell, Smith did not go straight to St. Louis to visit his ailing wife: he made stops in Seattle and Denver to visit friends. He stayed in St. Louis for a very short time before going on to Washington, D.C., where he stayed with his cousin E. B. Smith for several months, including side trips to Philadelphia and New York. While in Washington, D. C., he lobbied for a license to sell goods on the military reservation near the mouth of the Yukon River, suggesting that he considered abandoning his Skagway endeavors. When he did return to Skagway, it was in mid-January, the coldest time of year. So much for Soapy’s dislike of the cold.
On May 4, 2011, Jeff Smith posted a detailed description of “Soapy Smith’s private army,” the Skaguay Military Guard. I like that description of it. In that posting, he transcribed the names of the men who signed up as volunteers. As my computer does not allow sufficient resolution to let me read the images he has posted, I am perfectly willing to use his transcriptions of the names of the volunteers, and see if I can find out anything more about them.
To test Jeff’s hypothesis that these volunteers were “ordinary citizens and stampeders”, as stated on his Nov. 1, 2012 blog, I referred to several databases I have developed during the almost thirty years I have spent studying Skagway’s history. These include the 1898 “directory” that the various historians at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park have put together based on the advertisements in the 1898 newspapers; an index I have prepared of the 1899 directory; the 1900 census of Skagway that I transcribed before it was available on Ancestry.com; and a compilation of people who were arrested for selling liquor without a license in December 1897, February 1898, and November 1898 from the National Archives, Record Group 21, Sitka Division, boxes 11-17, which has been summarized in a table in my book on the archaeology of the Mascot Saloon, pp. 70-74. This table also includes that names of saloon owners and proprietors of people who sold liquor in the summer of 1898, as culled from E. J. White’s reminiscences put together by R. N. DeArmond, entitled simply Stroller White: Klondike Newsman (Lynn Canal Publications, Skagway: 1989).
Jeff scrutinized Marlene McCluskey name file and could find only three names as friends of Soapy’s; I did find other possible matches. They include the following:
Dave Blake was the proprietor of the Picture Saloon in the summer 1898. He was arrested for selling liquor without a license in Feb. 1898 and Nov. 1898.
Stroller White mentions an H.D. Harrigan as the proprietor of an unnamed saloon in one of his tall tales of the summer of 1898. Could it be that he misremembered the first initial of J. D. Harrigan?
B. Smith could perhaps be Robert C. Smith, who sometimes called himself Bob Smith. R. C. Smith came to Skagway in August 1897 from Portland, at the age of 38, and there he founded the Skagway Brewery. His wife went north with him in 1897. His daughters, aged 10 and 13 did not come north until August 1898. Smith formed a partnership with W. F. Matlock to buy the Pack Train Saloon in 1902, and then sold his share to Chris Shea in 1904.
William McGuiness could perhaps be the laborer who resided in Household #416 on the Waterfront on March 19, 1900, with five other laborers. He came to Skagway June 1897, before the gold rush. He was an English laborer, single, 40 years old. As I note in the next book that the University of Oklahoma Press will be publishing for me, Red Curtains, Blue Collars and White Shirtwaists, these working class bachelors were typical of the customers of the saloons in Skagway. I consider the customers as much a part of the “sporting element” as the men who ran the saloons, the gambling dens, and the brothels.
The only name I recognized as a respectable, leading citizen of Skagway who appeared in a number of newspaper articles is that of Dick Flemming. Flemming took over as the chief of the volunteer fire department in February 1899 when J. M. Tanner resigned that position because his duties as the U.S. Deputy Marshal took too much of his time.“Richard Fleming, formerly Captain of Hose Company No. 1, has been elected to the position of chief of the entire fire department to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of J. M. Tanner.” (The Skaguay News, February 3, 1899, p. 5). It can be presumed that Flemming (or Fleming) volunteered for Soapy’s Militia because he thought it was a worthy cause.
To expand the database of names of people who travelled through Skagway in 1898, I queried Mrs. Ferguson’s 1899 Directory of Alaska-Yukon residents as listed at http://www.familychronicle.com/klondike.htm. This is a listing of 24,200 names of people known to be in Alaska and Yukon Territory during the gold rush years. This list yielded 16 more of Soapy’s Volunteers, most of whom continued north to Dawson or other mining districts in Alaska. They obviously had no intention of staying in Skagway when they volunteered for the Skaguay Guard.George Arnold [Dawson City, miner]
This research suggests that Soapy’s volunteers consisted, for the most part, of men who frequented Skagway’s saloons. While Jeff is correct in saying that they were stampeders, he cannot claim that they represented a broad cross section of the community: i.e., ordinary citizens.
I conclude that most of the volunteers in Soapy's militia were transients, not people who would become the mainstay population of Skagway. While, as Jeff points out, they were not members of the "sporting element" in the narrow sense of the word, they were men who patronized the saloons, gambling halls, opera houses, and houses of ill repute on Sixth and Seventh Avenues and the adjacent alleys.
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