Alaska’s history is peppered with crooks, cons and other characters famous for running afoul of the law. One of them is Soapy Smith, whose travels brought him briefly to the Kenai Peninsula.
Historian Jane Haigh has written about Smith, and on Thursday night, told his story at the Kasilof Regional Historical Association Museum.
There were a lot of dangers faced by the people flooding the American west in the late 19th century. And at least as dangerous as inclimate weather, tuberculosis or a stray bullet was the good, old-fashioned crook. The story of Soapy Smith, is the story of a swindler. A pretty good one, too.
For some two decades, from Denver to the Kenai Peninsula, Smith made a living with little more than a good line, a quick hand, and a code of morality that read like an entry application to the 8th circle of Dante’s Inferno.
“Soapy was a confidence man. Confidence men used elaborate tricks and ruses in order to basically talk their victims out of their money,” said Kenai Peninsula College history professor and author Jane Haigh, speaking at one of the Kasilof Museum’s occasional historical presentations.
Her book ‘King Con’ chronicles one Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith, and his various criminal operations. The journey starts in Denver, in 1879, where Soapy has set up shop on the street, running a shell game out of a suitcase. He filled it with bars of soap, wrapped in paper. The game was you buy a bar of soap for five dollars, with a chance that under the paper, there’s a 10, 20, maybe a 50 dollar bill.
“There actually are first hand accounts of guys who saw him on the street corner, and he would do this for two or three hours at a time and get a big crowd. Not so much because everyone thought they were going to win soap, but because it was a great performance.”
From this operation, Soapy went, naturally, into politics. Helping to rig the voting in local elections and also running protection rackets, though he remained in the class of non-violent, gentleman-criminals. A trial after elections in 1892 drove Soapy out of town, for awhile.
Now, he bounces around a bit, spending some time in Texas, looking for fresh marks and making frequent trips to St. Louis to see his wife and kids. This is when he makes his first, albeit brief, trip to Alaska.
“In April, he shipped out from Seattle, and then he was in Juneau and in May, he was in Coal Bay (Homer). But then he was back in Denver again in June, and he didn’t go to the Klondike again until July of 1897. There’s a year there I can’t account for.”
His first shot at scavenging the riches of the various Alaskan rushes and booms of the time wasn’t successful. He was found out in southeast.
“He tried to practice his soap game in Juneau and was arrested. It was under a fake name, but you could tell it was him,” Haigh said.
A 25 dollar fine and a new relationship with authorities in Juneau send him to the Kenai Peninsula. This is about the time when people are trying to decide if Hope will be the next found deposit of untold riches.
“He knew that there was a gold rush there. We all know there was a small one to Sunrise. I think he’s hoping that it’s big enough he can move his activities there. But we all know how small Hope was at the time. It was never going to amount to much and I think he realized that right away, so he got right back on the boat and went back to Coal Bay.”
This sort of stuff is happening all over. Haigh mentioned another book that examines attempts to drum up a goldrush in Homer, by the town’s namesake, Homer Pennock.
“(The author) maintains that Pennock was a conman, and his whole thing was, and a lot of people did this, I’m going to take a group of people with me because I have these claims. It’s almost like a Ponzi scheme. He’s only collecting money from the good people who are going to join him on this fantastic voyage where they’re all going to make wild amount of money digging in his claims which are secret and only he knows about.”
But back to Soapy. Hope was a bust, so he heads back down south. But being tied into an extensive network of conmen and crooked cops gives him a head’s up on the next big opportunity on the tundra.
“He gets to Skagway in 1898 and builds a saloon. He was there right from the get-go. I don’t think Soapy had any intention of going to the Klondike itself. I don’t know how he figured out Skagway was the place to go, but it was an obvious location because it was a jumping off point.”
Skagway is not only established as a center of gold rush commerce, but it’s also still small enough to lack the sort of legal oversight that kept his stay in Juneau so short. He’s trying to reestablish the racket he ran in Colorado in Skagway. He’s got a full crew, and several schemes set up to fleece the people coming and going. Now, there were a couple of newspapers in town, and people Outside relied on that information to decide if and when to try their luck north. Soapy bought off one of the editors, but stories about the swindling did leak out. One operation involved a phony telegraph line.
“Of course there was no actual telegraph line to Skagway, but maybe you didn’t know that, so you could still pay for the telegraph to you loved ones, and then the reply would come saying ‘please send money’. And Soapy’s response to the criticism was that he was saving people. If you were so stupid as to be caught by these tricks, he was saving you from sure death in the Klondike.”
For the more proper businessmen in town, this was no good. If you’ve just scored big in, say, Dawson City, and you know that Skagway is full of crooks trying to swindle your newly-gotten gold, you’re going to avoid that place at all costs. And so, the good people of Skagway decided enough was enough, and by the summer of 1898…
“People have suggested that he kind of knew the game was up. So he got really drunk, which was a bad idea for him, because he tended to be really lacking in common sense when he got drunk. And he tried to go to a (town meeting), and he brought his shotgun and Frank Reed was one of the guards and they basically shot each other simultaneously. Although, if you go to Skagway, you’ll find other opinions about whether it was just one guy.”
And that was the end. Soapy was 38 when retirement was forced upon him, and his body is laid to rest in Skagway.