It had everything you could possibly want in a legendary western gun fight—if by western you don’t mind a hard right up the Pacific Coast for gold rush Alaska. It featured a charming, legendary villain and his gang of toadies and plug-uglies, vigilantes, and a flawed but resolute hero. Add in a wide open town and look-the-other-way lawmen and you have all of the ingredients necessary.
On July 8, 1898 Soapy Smith—was there ever a more colorfully named scoundrel?—met his maker on a Skagway, Alaska dock. The affray has gone down in lore as the Shootout on Juneau Wharf.
Jefferson Randolph Smith was born in Georgia in 1860. His family was every bit as patrician as his moniker might indicate. Of course they lost their slaves, plantations, and wealth when Sherman marched through the state.
To recoup their losses the family moved west to Round Rock, Texas, to start anew. Life was hard on a hardscrabble cattle ranch and young Jefferson did not much take to the hard work required. He spent a good deal of his time loafing around the town. It was there on July 19, 1878 where he was present for the famous gun fight in which Texas Rangers cut down the legendary bad man and train robber Sam Bass. Young Jefferson happened to find himself standing practically next to one of the Rangers, Richard Ware. When Bass went down the local papers quoted the Smith boy as exclaiming “I think you got him!”
Smith had no inclination towards hard work and left home soon after when his mother died. The lesson of Sam Bass’s bullet riddled end was not entirely lost on him. Rather than pursue fame and fortune as a gun fighting outlaw, Smith decided to use his Southern charm to launch a career as a con man and bunko artists. And he was good at it. Maybe one of the best at classic short cons like three card monte or the shell game. Drifting from town to town across the west he began to assemble a crew of accomplices. The crew grew into a gang of shills, pickpockets and thieves and other accomplished, notorious con men like Texas Jack Vermillion and Big Ed Burns.
Smith trademark con the prize soap racket, gave him the nickname that he gladly adopted and reveled in. Smith would set up a street corner tripe and keister—display case on a tripod—with piles of unwrapped bars of soap. As a crowd gathered to his patter, Smith would wrap several of the bars with bank notes ranging from $1 to $100 then re-wrap them in paper. He announced that he would sell all of the bars at $1 each with prizes inside for lucky buyers. Sales were usually brisk aided by planted shills who would from time to time buy a luck bar and announce his good fortune. With each such discovery, buyers clamored for more. After the pile shrank Smith would announce that the bar with the $100 prize was still unsold, but that he would sell all of the remaining soap as a lot by auction. Once again shills helped drive up bidding. While the winner was tearing into his soap, Smith would fold up his kit and melt away. If the sore looser complained, Smith usually had enough cash handy to pay the local constabulary to ignore it.
Of course this kind of scam, like the others short cons, required that Soapy Smith and his crew stay on the move. Starting in 1879 he based his roving operations out of Denver. As he But in amassed enough of a fortune he settled in and began to go big time. He opened several business—his flagship Tivoli Club with the Latin inscription over the door caveat emptor, cigar stands, card parlors, phony lottery stands, pool rooms, whore houses, bath houses, and stores—all designed to quickly and efficiently separate rubes and marks. He also operated a “sure thing” stock market specializing in the sale of securities for nonexistent businesses, and a diamond and watch auction. Smith opened an office in the prominent Chever Block, from which he ran his many operations and fronted as a tycoon’s office for high-end swindles.
An operation on that scale required not just a crew, but a gang including muscle with blackjacks and brass knuckles to keep dissatisfied customers quiet. It also required the acquiescence of local authorities so Smith spread his largess around to deserving police, prosecutors, and judges and eventually entered politics has a king maker capable of influencing—or steeling—local and even statewide elections.
And Smith did not hide his light under a bushel. He courted publicity—often by paying off reporters or subsidizing editors who cast him as a colorful but mostly honest businessman who would sometimes “prank” even shadier characters. Smith’s power and exploits did not go without notice even in the national press. They even hung a new title on him—crime boss. And indeed he ran an operation mixing legitimate businesses, crime, graft and corruption, and political influence peddling that would be the model and envy of any 20th Century outfit.
Of course crime on this scale made enemies—both victims and would-be rivals. Several attempts were made on Smith’s life and he shot men in self-defense. Associates disposed of others. Smith became increasingly known for a bad temper when crossed—or in his cups.
Smith must have known that his operation in Denver couldn’t last forever—that eventually outraged citizens would empower local authorities and close down his joints, roust his crews and threaten his personal safety and liberty. He started to rise after a vote buying scandal in the 1889 municipal elections and his cozy relationship with his cronies the Mayor and Chief of Police. Together the three were referred to in the press as “the firm of Londoner, Farley and Smith.” Outraged reformers began to put together a serious political challenge.
By 1892 Williams could see the writing on the wall and sold the Tivoli and most of his other Denver operations. With boatloads of cash he and his gang moved on to the new silver mining boomtown of Creede on the Western Slope of the Rockies in southern Colorado. He used the charms of his large stable of prostitutes to encourage many local businessmen to sign over or sell on the cheap most of the prime lots in the mining camp’s main street. Smith set up his cronies in a variety of businesses, gained control of the primary freight line serving the town, and opened his own palace saloon, the Orleans Club. He soon simply announced that henceforth he was camp boss.
While raking in the dough, Smith chose to cast himself as a benevolent despot. He cracked down on random street crime and strong-arm robbery with the assistance of his brother-in-law, William Sidney “Cap” Light, a deputy sheriff. He also contributed publicly to build churches, help the poor, and to bury unfortunate prostitutes enhancing his reputation as something of a Robin Hood.
However like many boom towns, the flush began to quickly wear off in Creede. When word got to him from Denver that the heat was off there, Smith returned to the Colorado Capital to try and restore his empire there. While he was gone, fire swept the Creede business district destroying almost everything, including the Orleans Club.
|Soapy Smith, Crime Boss|
Although he was able to operate some successful scams in Denver, including a new phony railroad ticket agency, he was not quite able to return to his old power. Still, despite continuing pressure from reform politicians, he felt secure enough to boast in the press that “I consider bunco steering more honorable than the life led by the average politician.”
But his time was running out. Populist Party Governor Davis Hanson Waite had declared war on the gamblers, swindlers, and crooked politicians of Denver. He fired local officials, vessels of Smith’s operation, and when they refused to vacate City Hall had it surrounded by the state Militia armed with Gatling guns and field pieces. Then, Waite ordered gambling dens shut down.
Smith even managed to turn this to his advantage. He got himself made a deputy sheriff and conducted raids on his own operations. He would then shake down his arrested patrons demanding a “contribution” to be cut loose without charge. It was all to brazen and soon even the most corrupt local officials could not protect him. Smith and his brother and oldest associate Bascomb Smith were charged with the attempted murder of a saloon manager who had been slow coming across with protection money. Police nabbed Bascomb but Soapy managed to escape.
Sadly, he had to leave his biggest con to date behind and unfinished. Somehow he had gone to Mexico and managed to convince dictator Porfirio Diaz that he need the services of a foreign legion of experienced American gun thugs. With a commission as colonel in his pocket and an advance payment, Smith had returned to Denver where he set up a recruiting office where men who were mostly employed by the state’s coal, silver, and gold mining bosses in the suppression of unions, were enticed to enlist. They were told that there would be generous land grants from the grateful Diaz and were happy to pay Smith a hefty commission.
With a price on his head in Colorado, Smith looked elsewhere. Remembering the easy pickings early on in Creede, he concluded another boom town was just what he needed. Skagway, then usually spelled Scaguay, the American doorway to the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897 was an attractive target. He arrived with a small crew and set up operations of the reliable three card monte and shell game cons alongside the White Pass Trail where he separated fortune seekers from their grub stakes before they ever reached the Dawson City and the Canadian Yukon. A committee of outraged miners ran Smith and his crew off after just a month—but a highly profitable month.
Smith came in January of 1898 and this time settled in Skagway. He came well bankrolled and with a core group of old gang members. He quickly put the only local law—a Deputy U.S. Marshall—on his payroll and rounded up more bodies from the mass off drifters, grafters, and thieves who had descended on the port city. As usual, he opened up a saloon as his base of operations—Jeff Smith’s Parlor. He established other fronts managed by cronies. In a new wrinkle, he opened up a telegraph office with wires ending in the forests just outside of town. No real telegraph service would arrive until 1901. Not only did Smith collect hefty fees for sending messages, he would also receive messages with instructions to deposit money or make certain investments with his fronts.
To snag the suckers pouring of the boats and bound for the gold fields, Smith assembled an army of experienced con artists who in various guises—as a minister, lawyer, a newspaper reporter—he “owned” reporters at one of Skagway’s two newspapers—or the ever reliable whore-with-the-heart-of-gold to befriend the newcomers and steer them to crooked shipping companies, hotels, and gambling dens.
Once again Smith gained support of many of the city’s “legitimate” business because his boys ran jack-roll artists and stick-up men out of town, reducing significantly both street crime and local body count. The toughs mostly just took their work to ambushes along the trail and claim jumping. Smith and his gang also spread money around with big spending and the customary charitable largess.
Of course not everyone was thrilled. That included “business rivals” no more honest than Smith himself and some honest merchants who for one reason or another were frozen out of the gravy train. By late spring they quietly began organizing themselves into a vigilance committee with the aim of driving Smith out of town. The vigilante group called themselves the Committee of 101 and began to harass lower level con men, pick pockets, and thugs in Smith operation. He responded by creating his own “law and order” committee which he claimed to have over 300 members to intimidate his enemy.
Smith turned increasingly to methods to shore up his reputations as a businessman and community asset. With the support of local Federal authorities Smith received permission from the War Department to form a militia unit during the Spanish American War, supposedly to protect the town from theoretically possible raids by the Spanish Navy from their bases in the Philippines and Guam. Smith was surely the only person to consider this a possibility, but seeing no harm, he was made captain of the Skaguay Military Company. He now had his own little army. And he was proud to lead the Fourth of July Parade in uniform and on horseback at the head of his troops.
That summer a new source of revenue appeared for the gang, this time as prospectors returned from the Yukon with poke bulging with gold dust and nuggets and plans to either spend it in Skagway or take it back to the States by steamship. Smith’s crews simply adopted new ploys to welcome the gold-laden miners.
And that is how all of the trouble began. Just three days after the Independence Day Parade miner John Douglas Stewart arrived in town from the fields on his way back to the States. He had with him $85 in cash and currency and a poke containing $2,700 worth of gold—about $79,000 in modern dollars. Later reports would inflate the value of the gold to $6,000. Steward booked a hotel room to await passage and secured his gold in a local store safe. It did not take Smith’s minions to sniff him out.
In the morning of July 5 Steward was befriended by John L. “Reverend” Bowers and W. E. “Slim-Jim” Foster who steered him to an ally next to Jeff Smith’s Parlor. There they just happened to encounter Van B. “Old Man” Triplett where the engaged in a game of three card monte. Surprise, surprise, Steward quickly lost all of his $85 in cash. Triplett then graciously offered to return some of the money to continue the “friendly” game if Stewart could show he was good for more if he lost. They convinced him to retrieve his poke just to show them that he had the dust to back his bets. Bowers accompanied Stewart to retrieve the gold and the two men returned to the ally where he unrolled the poke and showed the glitter.
Evidently the crew was impatient that day. Rather than wait to take the gold in dribs and drabs at the turn of a dishonest card, Foster just grabbed the poke and strode away. The other warned Stewart that if he made any noise about it they would get him. Stewart broke loose and ran to a store across the street where he asked for help in apprehending the three men who had just robbed him.
Stewart did indeed make a commotion and attracted a lot of attention. He was escorted to the office of Deputy U.S. Marshal Sylvester S. Taylor, a Smith employee. Taylor said he could do nothing, but added that if Stewart would keep his trap shut, he would “see what he could do” to retrieve the gold.
Stewart took to the streets complaining loudly, rousing indignation. Smith and his men began circulating through town claiming that no robbery had taken place and that Stewart was just a sore head who had lost at a legitimate game of chance. By late afternoon a committee of citizens called on Smith asking for the return of the gold. Smith reportedly told them that, if Stewart had not hollered, he would “feel like going out and getting him a piece of the money” back. But the Daily Alaskan, the newspaper under Smith’s direct control claimed that he told the committee that he would make amends.
Early in the evening U.S. Commissioner Sehlbrede arrived on the scene to investigate. He summoned Smith to a meeting with several members of the citizen’s committee at which Smith was defiant then stormed out. Sehlbrede reportedly asked the assembled men if they would execute warrants for Smith and his men if he swore them out. All enthusiastically agreed that they would.
Two separate vigilante committees held meetings that night. The largest held by the Citizen’s Committee was held in an overflowing room at Sylvester Hall—yes operated by the in-the-bag Deputy Marshall. Smith men infiltrated the meeting and tried to disrupt it. As a result the meeting was adjourned to the large warehouse building at the end of the Juneau Wharf, one of four piers on the city’s waterfront.
To protect the gathering and prevent more infiltration 58 year old Frank H. Reid was selected to lead four guards to prevent Smith and his men from entering the wharf. Reid was a man with a past. He was an Illinois born man who made his career in the Northwest as a soldier—an officer of the Oregon Volunteers—school teacher, engineer and sometime sporting man. He found himself in Skagway where he first went to work as a bartender in one of Smith’s dives. But he soon allied himself with the businessmen of the Committee of 101 and with his background was rewarded with an appointment as City Engineer in August of ’97. In that office he oversaw the platting of the city. He also ran a business selling real estate and mining claims. Reid was considered by his new associates a solid and reliable man.
Accompanying Reid as guards were Josias Martin Tanner, a captain on one of the steamers that serviced Skagway; Jesse Murphy, and Irish immigrant employed by the very short and incomplete White Pass & Yukon Railway; and a John Landis about whom very little was known. Reid was the only one armed, carrying a .38 revolver tucked in his belt under his coat. The fact that only Reid was armed indicates that the vigilantes did not believe the men would encounter resistance more serious than could be enforced with fists.
Meanwhile Smith and his cronies were held up in his saloon. He was drinking—and getting angrier. The hour passed when some claim that he had promised to return the gold. About 9 p.m. Daily Alaskan reporter William Saportas arrived from the wharf and passed Smith a note reading, “the crowd is angry, if you want to do anything do it quick.” Smith grabbed a Winchester Model 1892 40-40 lever action rifle. He also carried his .41 New Army Colt double action revolver in his coat pocket. He declared his intention to address the meeting at the wharf and set out on foot, trailing a gaggle of gang members behind.
Smith carried the rifle casually, with the barrel resting on his shoulder, pointing to the rear. He arrived at the wharf about 9:15. Despite the hour at this northerly latitude the sun was still high in the sky. He told his cronies to stay back as he strode the entrance of the pier alone. Landers was posted near the entrance as a scout. Smith summarily ordered him off the wharf and Landers obliged by jumping over a railing and landing on the sand of the beach below. 60 feet further on he passed Tanner and Murphy without acknowledging them. They let him pass unmolested.
Ride stood in the center of the walkway a few feet further on. He was not going to avoid a confrontation. “Halt, you can’t go down there,” Reid ordered. Smith kept coming until the two men were nearly nose to nose, yelling and swearing at each other. Smith brought his rifle down off his shoulder, apparently to try to club Reid with it. Reid grabbed the rifle barrel with his left hand and pressed it down, with his right he drew his revolver (if not already drawn) and pointed it at Smith. At that moment Smith is said to have shouted, “My God, don’t shoot!” Reid pulled the trigger, but the pistol misfired.
As Reid tried to fire again Smith jerked his rifle from grasp and leveled the rifle at Reid, who had suffered a minor cut on one arm in the tussle. The two men fired almost simultaneously. Witnesses reported that it sounded like one shot, that the muzzle flashes intermingled. Each man, though wounded, continued to fire, exchanging between six and nine shots in a violent minute. Reid was wounded in the leg, Smith in the arm and the thigh. Then Smith hit Reid squarely in the abdomen and groin, sending him sprawling face down.
Smith may have yet been standing or have sunk to a kneeling position as if stunned. As Smith’s men started charging up the pier to rescue their boss and committee members spilled out of the warehouse, Murphy rushed up to Smith and wrested his rifle away and turned it on the wounded man. Smith begged “Don’t shoot!” for a second time, but Murphy put a round right through the old scoundrel’s heart.
Seeing their leader killed and a mob boiling down the wharf, Smith’s men quickly scattered.
The most complete account was published the a few days later in the Skaguay News, the anti-Smith paper. Reid was lauded as a hero who had saved the city by killing Smith in a daring gunfight. No mention was made of Murphy’s fatal shot, and in fact it took decades for research of original documents and testimony to reveal the truth. This was likely done to protect Murphy who could have been charged with murder for executing a defenseless man.
On July 15 Steward poke, minus about $800 worth of dust, was found in Soapy’s trunk hidden in a shed. The squawking miner got most of his fortune back after all.
Reid was carried to a hospital where his severe wounds were tended as best as possible. On July 20, twelve agonizing days later, he died of his wounds.
Reid was given the biggest and fanciest funeral the young city had ever seen and citizens subscribed to erect a handsome monument on his grave inscribed “He gave his life for the honor of Skagway.” Soapy Smith was laid to rest under a wooden headboard, few mourners present as most of his cronies were on the run, in hiding, or had been arrested by the Army which had taken over the city under martial law.
Ried may have been a hero then. But it is Soapy Smith everyone remembers. Since 1978 the city has held an annual Soapy Smith Wake, which has become a popular festival and major tourist attraction. Jeff Smith’s Parlor has been preserved and restored and is now a museum. Visitors to Ried’s handsome monument are few.