“As long as you only had enough money to buy a drink or two you weren’t welcome, but you were safe.”
-- An old-timer on the risk of patronizing Soapy Smith’s drinking hall
Just as Deadwood, South Dakota attracted racketeers who sucked gold from miners’ pockets, so too did the Klondike gold strike draw parasites by the score. As strange colored lights danced in the sky, deep snow might’ve muffled the sounds of sin in a mining camp called Skagway. Back when the mountains had no names, the impromptu town played host to the wildest establishment in all of gold rush Alaska: Jeff’s Place, a gambling hall owned by Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith II, but managed by the Devil himself.
Soapy was a graduate of the criminal underworld in Colorado, but it was Alaska that saw the worst and last of him. He got the nickname by selling soap and claiming that one bar in each batch had a bit of money in it, though nobody ever found any, which said enough about his moral code.
He was clever, the way he created a gang of thugs and card cheats. When someone shot the marshal – the only law and order young Skagway knew – Soapy took up a collection for the widow. A few such carefully thunk charitable gestures gave him the breathing room he needed to make Jeff’s Place a lure for the unwary, and murderers and murderees met there in regular congress; an untold number of men walked in with Arctic pannings in their wallets only to disappear forever.
But Soapy’s day of reckoning did come. The short version of the story: When the betters of the citizenry tired of murder, they organized for law and order. Soapy demanded entrance to the meeting. Frank Reid, a town noteworthy, refused to let him pass. Soapy drew a gun. Frank drew a gun. Some other men drew guns. The bullets flew. Soapy and Frank were buried near one another in the Skagway cemetery.
Art from the Winnipeg (Manitoba) Free Press, May 9, 1964.
The great-grandson of the legendary Soapy Smith has created an impressive website that pays tribute to his reign of crime; it's www.soapysmith.net. Which begs an issue, for me – if Soapy Smith is your great-grandfather, lordy, I'll bet a bar of soap that your great-grandma might be worth a website, too.
Sources: Soapy Smith website; “Skull is Bad Man’s Memorial; Erected in Memory of ‘Soapy Smith,’ Once Terror of Alaska,” Dunkirk (New York) Evening Observer, Dec. 20, 1928; “Life and Death of Skagway’s Soapy Smith,” Winnipeg (Manitoba) Free Press, May 9, 1964.
Postscript: I have it on good authority that Soapy was made a character on the Deadwood show during the first two seasons, referred to as The Huckster, said to sell soap with a prize inside. Alright, so the fictional frontier is a tad bit smaller world than the real thing, but what fun.