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October 22, 2012

SOAPY SMITH – KING OF THE KLONDIKE CONMEN


David Ellis
     
THE self-styled 'Reverend' Charles Bowers and 'Colonel' Jefferson Smith were thinking neither the word of the Lord nor the Law when they arrived in frontier Skagway, Alaska in 1897 – it was the gleaming metal of the Klondike Gold Rush they were after.

But they had no intention of clambering torturous mountain trails to get to it.

Rather they planned on making their fortunes doing what they did best – conning the gullible with notorious pea and thimble rorts, card tricks and other scams.

Jeff Smith had earlier fled Denver where he'd run a gang of con artists and earned the nickname 'Soapy,' and where he controlled corrupt police, politicians and other officials. He came unstuck when he shot two rival-gang members, his protectors losing patience with his heavy drinking and bad temper, telling him to clear out before he was charged.

Meanwhile Charles Bowers had already arrived in Skagway and sent Smith word of the easy pickings to be made from the gold-drunk Klondike miners; by the time Smith arrived the 'Reverend' Bowers had already assembled a team of reliable conmen.

Smith took little time to stamp his mark on Skagway with the trick that earned him his nickname: during first-day drinks at Clancy's Bar, he produced a small tripod on which he opened an old leather suitcase, whose open lid blocked patrons from seeing its contents.

"Friends," he announced to Clancy's customers. "My name is Colonel Jefferson Randolph Smith, and I have the pleasure of introducing you to my special brand of soap… soap, friends, that I have an offer for you…"

At this stage he unwrapped a bar of soap and slipped a $100 bill under the wrapper which he carefully resealed, then $50 into other bars, and smaller notes into more. He nonchalantly tossed each bar back into the suitcase, then invited the suckers: "Friends, choose a bar of my soap for $5, and you could gain $100!"

Clancy's patrons rushed forward. The first man to select a bar of the soap, unwrapped it and jubilantly thrust aloft a $100 bill; several others unwrapped $50 bills, others found five- and two-dollar notes in their $5 soap bars.

Or nothing at all…. ultimately the only big "winners" had been Bowers and Smith's gang members, who knew exactly the bars with the notes in them.

Within weeks Smith opened his own bar – Jeff Smith's Parlor that's today a forlorn and ghostly Skagway landmark – and with the help of gang members duped hundreds of miners out of their gold earnings with the age-old thimble-and-pea trick.

Like his soap scam, it was always his well-placed gang members who knew where the pea was, and the miners who didn't.

And while the heavy rye-drinking Smith soon had plenty of Skagway law enforcers and civic leaders in his hip-pocket to protect his rackets, he also gave generously to charities, built the town's first church, and started Adopt-a-Dog to save animals dumped on frigid winter streets by departing miners' families.

He even saved a drunken oaf being lynched for shooting a Deputy Sheriff, but when a miner was mugged and robbed of his gold behind Jeff Smith's Parlor, respectable citizens of Skagway declared it was time Soapy Smith, the 'Reverend' Bowers and their bunch were thrown out of town.

On the evening of July 8 1898 a vigilante group led by businessman 'Big Frank' Reid met on the town's wharf to discuss Soapy's fate: lynch him, or put him on a boat south?

The smooth-talking Smith headed to the wharf to bluff it out. As he arrived at 9.15pm, 'Big Frank' separated from the angry crowd and he and Soapy faced each other along the pier.

Reid drew a revolver, and Smith produced his Winchester rifle. Reid's revolver jammed when first he pulled the trigger, Soapy screamed "My God, don't shoot!" Then both men's weapons blazed as one, Soapy Smith dying on the spot with a bullet through the heart, and Frank Reid goingt down with one in the groin.

He died 12-days later, his vigilante committee reaping revenge by driving the remnants of Soapy's gang corrupt officials out of town.

Phone Canada & Alaska Specialist Holidays on 1300 79 49 59 for details of cruise and other holiday packages to Alaska and historic Skagway.

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PHOTO CAPTIONS

[] SKAGWAY during the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush (Skagway Historical Society)

[] A RARE photo of Soapy Smith in his Jeff Smith's Parlor (Library of Alaska)

[] GOLD Rush hopefuls (Old West Frontier Society)

[] SOAPY Smith's simple grave and headstone (Skagway Historical Society)

[] MORE ornate headstone given by the citizens of Skagway after 'Big Frank' Reid's shooting (Skagway Historical Society)

[] JEFF Smith's Parlor still stands forlorn and empty in Skagway today (Bill Price III)

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