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Jefferson R. Smith

From Captain to Corpse

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U.S. Battleship Maine blows up in Havana harbor 1898

The sinking of the battleship Maine in the harbor of Havana, Cuba in 1898, ignited a patriotic frenzy in the American public. President McKinley asked for volunteers to join in his fight against Spain. Soapy, being a very patriotic member of society, formed all volunteer army, calling it the Skaguay Military Company. At the first meeting he was "elected" captain. A letter, along with the meetings minutes were sent to the governor of Alaska and to the president of the United States offering his armies services. In reply, captain Smith received official military permission from the War Department to march and drill his ever growing army at fort St. Micheal, Alaska. It seemed not to bother Soapy that fort St. Micheal was over 1000 miles away. He proudly hung the document in Jeff Smith's Parlor for all to see.

REMEMBER THE MAINE!
Join the
Skaguay Military Company
TODAY!

Skaguay Military Co. ribbon
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Original signed by Soapy Smith

Soapy had an important agenda for his army. These "soldiers" were there to guarantee his absolute control over Skaguay. With the official permission from the war department Soapy would be able to impose martial law in the event of a disturbance by the 101 vigilante organization, or anyone else who sought to get in his way.

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The man who would be king

Captain Smith's proudest moment in Skagway must have been leading his volunteer military army as grand marshal of the 4th of July parade. He obtained a captured bald eagle which was caged and placed on a red,white, and blue decorated horse wagon which followed behind Soapy in the parade. He was the hero of the day and everyone seemed to appreciate all he had done for the good of the town. However, some citizens did not appreciate the lawlessness and his rivals who sought his power capitalized on that feeling for their own ends. 

Soapy's pet bald eagle
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The white Pass & Yukon Railway Company had arrived at Skagway before there was a town. They were interested in laying track along the trail to make their fortune. By the time they returned to begin building, things had changed in Skagway. Soapy and other business proprietors, realistically feared that a railroad would hurt their businesses. Skagway was a starting point for the stampeders, not the destination. Arriving at Skagway by ship, the miners could literally step off the boat and onto a train, without ever having to visit much of the town.

The railroad had already spent a large sum of money to get to this point, and their investors were not about to except a loss because of some tin-horn bunco man.  The railroad had to remove Soapy Smith out of their way somehow, and they knew he was not about to voluntarily step aside. They did not have to wait long for a legitimate reason to force him from his throne.

The man who would be duped
Dupe n: one that is easily deceived or cheated.

John D. Stewart, who sought adventure but neither fame nor notoriety, found more of all three than he cared for in Skagway. This was his second successful venture in the north, the first having been in the Klondike gold rush fields.
  

It was while in Skagway on July 7, 1898 that Stewart met up with Soap Gang members John Bowers and James "Slim-Jim" Foster. They learned from Stewart that he had stashed his poke of gold worth close to $3,000 at the Mondamin Hotel. Bowers and Foster convinced Stewart that his gold would be safer in one of the local bank safes. They agreed to take him to meet one of the bankers, minus his poke. Along the way they cut through an alley and conveniently ran into "Professor" W. H. Jackson and Van B. "Old Man" Triplett, two more members of the gang. The boys began a Three-card Monte game and let Stewart believe he could win. He was instructed to go fetch his gold, which he did.
 

Stewart began to lose in his wagering and complained that he should not have to pay his loses. Seeing that Stewart was refusing to pay up, he was forcefully grabbed and the entire poke of gold was taken. The poke was tossed to Triplett and he gave the order for the gang to "beat it." In seconds Stewart was alone and broke.

Stewart complained to the U.S. deputy marshal who did little to help Stewart as he was in the pay of the Soap Gang. Stewart began to complain to others and word spread quickly around town of the robbery. The real-estate grifter gang saw an opportunity to rid the city if their competition. Between the real-estate grifters, the vigilantes and the few citizens who actually cared about law and order, a large movement against Soapy and the bunco men snowballed. The U.S. Commissioner made demands to Soapy that the gold be returned. Soapy refused, claiming Stewart had lost his money on the square. Meetings were called on to decide what actions should be taken. Skagway was in a mass state of confusion.

Soapy's last victim
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John Stewart holds his stolen poke of gold

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July 7, 1898 The last photo of Soapy alive
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Rev. Sinclair photographs Soapy Smith on his horse

The last picture of life

Reverend John Sinclair had a morbid fascination in the badman. At 9:00 am on the morning of July 7, 1898 he set up his camera and tripod in a derelict shed that fronted Broadway and awaited the moment Soapy would be riding by in order to get an action picture of the king of Skagway as he passed by on his way to Jeff Smith's Parlor.

Little did the reverend realize when he clicked the shutter that he again would be photographing the same subject within thirty-six hours, but on that occasion it would be a bullet-ridden body on a slab in the morgue.

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On the evening of July 8, 1898 the vigilantes were holding a meeting in a warehouse on the end of the Juneau Company wharf. Soapy was in Jeff Smith's Parlor drinking, after a full day of arguments and threats to and from the various factions against him.

A little before 9pm a note was given to Soapy from an associate on the newspaper payroll to take immediate action. Soapy agreed and grabbed up his rifle and headed down to the wharf. Once there he faced four vigilante guards. Frank Reid blocked Soapy's attempt to walk down to the warehouse and enter the meeting. An argument was followed by a scuffle and both men were shot.  

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SOAPY'S BEEN SHOT!

THE END OF SOAPY SMITH
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by Andy Thomas

In order to defend himself Soapy felt he, of all citizens, should be allowed in at the vigilante meeting being held down on the Juneau Company wharf. Just four days prior he stood on the podium with the territorial Governor, John Brady at Skagway's first Independence Day celebration. He had been the hero of the hour on that day, but now he was considered a criminal. Naturally he wanted to disrupt the plans to expel him. Soapy had been drinking a good part of the afternoon. At a little after 9:00 pm he was handed a note by one of his men working for the newspaper, that if he was going to do anything he had better do it now. Angry and drunk, he grabbed up his rifle and draping it over his shoulder he walked down State Street to the wharf. Some of the gang trailed a distance behind him just in case of trouble. Arriving at where the guards were stationed, about 60 feet onto the wharf.

Juneau Co. Wharf where Soapy met his demise
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The red "X" marks the location of the gunfight
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"My God, Don’t Shoot!" 

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The Skaguay News, July 15, 1898

Soapy walked past the other three men up to Frank Reid and started arguing with him. Apparently Soapy made an attempt to strike Reid with the barrel of the rifle, but Reid raised his left arm and the rifle barrel cut Reid's arm. Reid was able to grab the barrel with his left hand and forced it away from his body. As the two men fought for control of the rifle, Reid pulled out a pistol and began to fire. At that same instant, Soapy jerked his rifle back towards Reid and returned fire.

When the shooting had ceased, Soapy Smith was dead and Frank Reid lay badly wounded. Twelve days later he too would pass away. There are numerous questions and theories about what took place at the gunfight and how it actually started? Who pulled their weapon first? Who fired first? How many shots were actually fired? What happened to Reid's gun?
Who else shot Soapy?

Soapy Smith autopsy begins
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Dr, Cornelius cuts open chest as Dr. Whiting and Rev. Sinclair observe

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Dr, Whiting probes chest as Dr. Cornelius points to entry wound

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It seems most every "outlaw" in the old west who died violently has a controversial death attached to their story. Did they really die? Who really killed them? Well, Soapy Smith is no exception.

Many historians who have written about Soapy Smith comment about the "second shooter" theories and many agree that Frank Reid was not the man who killed Soapy Smith even though the Skagway newspapers state otherwise. So who do we think killed Soapy?

The man's name was Jesse Murphy, one of the four guards on the wharf (Reid, Tanner, Murphy, Landers) to block Soapy's entrance into the vigilante meeting on the night Soapy was killed (July 8, 1898).

Witnesses, including J. M. Tanner, one of the guards who became the new U.S. Deputy Marshal. wrote about what they saw and then quickly became silent about it. Fortunately for us, Tanner had already informed the commander of the N.W.M.P., Sam Steele, in writing just hours after witnessing him do it, that Murphy was the one who had shot Soapy and not Reid.

From witness accounts Soapy Smith had a Winchester (model 1892, .44-40) rifle and after briefly exchanging gunfire with Frank Reid (both being wounded) Reid fell to the ground (probably unconscious). Murphy then wrestled the rifle away from Soapy and turned it on him, executing Soapy with his own rifle with a shot to the chest.

Credit for the death of Soapy was given to Frank Reid for political reasons. In Skagway, Alaska, where this all occurred, federal troops had been threatening martial law, it was decided to publish that Soapy and Reid had killed each other rather than have martial law take control from the victorious vigilantes who now ruled supreme.

Accounts of her husband's real death were secretly disclosed to her by friends of Soapy's when she and my grandfather went to Skagway to collect the estate in August 1898 (less than a month after the shoot-out).

Many other details as well as documentation appear in Jeff Smith's biography, Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel.

2nd grave marker (owned by Jeff Smith)
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The tourist chipped grave marker of

Was Soapy shot with his own rifle? Was he armed? Why was John Clancy made executor of Soapy's estate the very next morning. Did one of the bullets taken out of Soapy not match Reid's gun?...Was it murder? Witnesses claimed to have heard upwards of eight shots being fired. Then there is the hard to explain side entry wound in the body of Soapy, and the accusations by his brother in which he was told by some friends of Soapy's that Soapy had been shot in the back. After Soapy had died, The Skaguay News reported that although there were several arguments going on about who actually shot and killed Soapy, Frank Reid was to be given the honor of killing Soapy Smith. Very few historians agree that Frank Reid killed Soapy.

The Bloody Ballad of Notorious Bad Man
Soapy Smith’s Wretched and Violent Demise

by Ed Parrish © 2008



Alaska in the Gold Rush days, where life was cheap and thin,

Such desperate times were perfect times for brutal, desperate men.

In Skagway, Soapy’s grifter mob left many miners broke,

And if you weren’t a gambler, they’d just rob you of your poke.


(Refrain)

With a pistol in his pocket and a rifle in his hands,

Soapy went alone to fight the vigilante band.

To shoot a few and chase the rest into the icy bay,

They’d wish they’d never messed with Soapy Smith of old Skagway.


Where your life ain’t worth a sawbuck, and your end is just ahead,

And the only law comes from your guns in a lightning hail of lead,

Soapy was the boss man.  He ran old Skagway’s crime,

’Til the outlaws got together and said Soapy’s out of time.


With bad men cheating bad men, they’re going to spill bad blood.

They’re outlaws taking trips to hell down through Alaska’s mud.

The Skagway vigilantes couldn’t make him run away,

Soapy came straight at them to chase them into the bay.


(Refrain)

With a pistol in his pocket and a rifle in his hands,

Soapy went alone to fight the vigilante band.

To shoot a few and chase the rest into the icy bay,

They’d wish they’d never messed with Soapy Smith of old Skagway.


The bullets started flying a’twixt Soapy Smith and Reid,

Until they both lay on the wharf, and there they both did bleed.

Then Jesse Murphy turned ol’ Soapy’s lever gun around,

And blew out Soapy’s heart as he lay helpless on the ground.


When the shooting stopped and cordite clouds thinned out enough to see,

Soapy went to boot hill, with the grifters’ guard, Frank Reid.

Nobody mourned old Soapy when they sent him off to hell.

Skagway wouldn’t miss him, not so’s anyone could tell.


(Final Refrain)

Bold as brass and full of fire, there in the midnight sun,

Soapy went straight at the mob, though he was only one.

He’s waiting in the pits of hell now with his guns in hand,

He’ll hunt them through eternity – that vigilante band.



Written in honor of the 110th anniversary of Soapy’s death, July 8, 2008.

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