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Soapy Smith in Legend 




As the Klondike gold rush peaked in spring 1898, adventurers and gamblers rubbed shoulders with town-builders and gold-panners in Skagway, Alaska. The flow of riches lured confidence men, too—among them Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith (1860–98), who with an entourage of "bunco-men" conned and robbed the stampeders. Soapy, though, a common enough criminal, would go down in legend as the Robin Hood of Alaska, the "uncrowned king of Skagway," remembered for his charm and generosity, even for calming a lynch mob. When the Fourth of July was celebrated in ’98, he supposedly led the parade. Then, a few days later, he was dead, killed in a shootout over a card game.

With Smith’s death, Skagway rid itself of crime forever. Or at least, so the story goes. Journalists immediately cast him as a martyr whose death redeemed a violent town. In fact, he was just a petty criminal and card shark, as Catherine Holder Spude proves definitively in

"That Fiend in Hell": Soapy Smith in Legend, a tour de force of historical debunking that documents Smith’s elevation to western hero. In sorting out the facts about this man and his death from fiction, Spude concludes that the actual Soapy was not the legendary "boss of Skagway," nor was he killed by Frank Reid, as early historians supposed. She shows that even eyewitnesses who knew the truth later changed their stories to fit the myth.

But why? Tracking down some hundred retellings of the Soapy Smith story, Spude traces the efforts of Skagway’s boosters to reinforce a morality tale at the expense of a complex story of town-building and government formation. The idea that Smith’s death had made a lawless town safe served Skagway’s economic interests. Spude’s engaging deconstruction of Soapy’s story models deep research and skepticism crucial to understanding the history of the American frontier.

University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, 2012.


"You raise some very interesting questions, and present a convincing case. It surely provides an intriguing new perspective. Solidly researched, well argued, it can't be ignored." Gary Roberts, author of Doc Holliday, the Life and Legend.

“Arguably the most comprehensive scholarly assessment yet undertaken,” Charles Rankin, editor, University of Oklahoma Press.

"One would be hard-pressed to find a book on Alaskan outlaw Soapy Smith as well researched as Catherine Holder Spude's "That Fiend in Hell."... Spude reveals Smith was not a lovable rogue, but also not the king of Skagway's underworld as legend defines him." -- True West Magazine.

"Spude has done some pretty significant research into Soapy's Alaskan years, comparing legal documents, newspaper write-ups and first-person accounts with later myths. Hers is not an enviable job. Most of us would rather believe the legend than the truth." -- The Denver Post.

“Catherine Holder Spude’s solidly researched book is original, engaging, and clearly written. She offers an interesting deconstruction not only of the Soapy Smith ‘legend’ but also of frontier community building.”—Paul Andrew Hutton, author of Phil Sheridan and His Army and The Custer Reader

"At least a dozen books scrutinize Soapy Smith, but ‘That Fiend in Hell’ unravels in scholarly fashion the mythical story of Jefferson Randolph Smith, the king of western con men. Tracing the augmentation of the myth from source to source, Spude documents the elevation of a notorious, if charming, criminal into a legendary western hero.”—Thomas J. Noel, coauthor of Historical Atlas of Colorado

“Of all the Klondike/Alaska gold rush characters Soapy Smith leads the colorful field. Journalists and historians have delighted in telling of a cunning, boisterous criminal, "the king of Skagway," who conned and robbed stampeders, while threatening town folks into submission. Clearly his life and death seemed to catch the essence of those turbulent days. While you can't necessarily improve such a familiar tale by retelling it, you can make it better history – and more interesting – by getting it right. After a close investigation of the event's documentation and its use by writers, Catherine Spude has accomplished this feat in great style. She has questioned essential aspects of the legend to expose the deceit and carelessness of Soapy's contemporaries and historians, myself included, who uncritically followed well-worn paths. Knowing the Skagway ground and people so well she is able to offer a fresh interpretation of the episode, utilizing newspapers, court records and photographs effectively. This is an important, fascinating book.” William H. Hunt, author of Distant Justice: Policing the Alaska Frontier.

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"That Fiend in Hell":
Soapy Smith in Legend

 Published by the University of Oklahoma Press, 2012.

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