Alaska's Villains, Vamps and Vagabonds
Part I
Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith

Outlaws have a tendency to grow in stature with the passage of time, and the badder they are, the better! Robin Hood, Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy, The Sundance Kid, Bonnie & Clyde and India's Bandit Queen, Phulan Devi have all taken centre stage in film, print and theatre productions.

The billboard at Eagle Hall on Skagway's Broadway is no exception. It features a show about the town's most notorious citizen, Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith, an out and out scoundrel who, in the space of a century, has assumed larger than life proportions.

Soapy earned his nickname in Denver, Colorado, where he sold 5 cent bars of soap for $5 each on the assurance that $10, $20 or even $100 bills had been inserted at random within the packages. An accomplice in the audience would throw down his $5 select a bar, and feverishly tear it open. Hey-presto…out would pop a $100 bill! Needless to say, none of the suckers jostling one another to slap down their $5 ever unwrapped so much as a dime. Before long resentment oozed to the surface and Soapy was "persuaded" by the cops to leave town. The officer handling the case couldn't recall Smith's first name so his log entry read "Soapy" Smith. The moniker stuck.

Soapy surfaced in Skagway in 1897. Typical of the boom towns of its time, it was thronged with prospectors en-route to the fabled Klondike Valley. The town boasted illicit bars, gambling dens and makeshift one-room clapboard cribs (which today have been transformed into trendy little curio shops) where hookers enticed customers in by flaunting their red petticoats. For many gold-struck transients, this was their first trip away from home. They were exhausted, homesick, hungry for diversion and often astonishingly naïve.

Smith lost no time in setting up a saloon called "Jeff's Place". He enlisted a group of "helpers" (whom he called his 'lambs'-presumably because they were professional fleecers) to keep excitable customers in check. Over the next few months, he established a range of nefarious "business" establishments the most notable of which was his Dominion Telegraph Service which purported to relay messages from the stampeders to their families back in Seattle or San Francisco. Responses from home were prompt, and most of them involved requests for money, which Soapy obligingly "remitted" on behalf of his customers. Few realised that the telegraph wires ran only a few hundred yards from his backdoor, before vanishing beneath the waters of the inlet.

Other scams included a non-existent freight line, and an "army enlistment" tent (at the start of the Spanish Civil War) where victims' clothes and possessions were stolen during a physical examination by a "doctor". His gang, in the guise of freight agents, newspaper reporters, knowledgeable old timers, or clergymen, hung around the docks and after taking note of the size of a newcomer's wallet, they would direct him to one of Soapy's fraudulent businesses or stake him out as prospective robbery victim.

Within a year Soapy Smith had the town and its officials in his back pocket. With the support of his mobsters, he assumed the mantle of Grand Marshall, led a Fourth of July parade with a brass band in attendance, and made a show of setting up a benefit fund for Skagway's widows-some of whose husbands had been permanently 'silenced by the lambs'! Four days after the Parade, however, matters came to an abrupt climax.

Triggered by the vociferous indignation of a gold miner whose $2,800 poke had been stolen by Soapy's thugs, a ripple of alarm went through the town. Skagway had already been branded as the most lawless town in Alaska, and residents decided it was time to confront Soapy. A vigilante group - the Committee of 101 - was hastily formed with Frank Reid, a town engineer and surveyor, as its leader.

On July 8, 1898, Soapy after several drinks at Clancy's Bar met Reid at a muzzle to muzzle shoot-out at the dockside. Soapy's last words were a boozy, panic-stricken, "For God's sake man, don't shoot!" Too late. He was killed instantly, while Reid, also mortally wounded died twelve days later in hospital. Reid has an elaborate granite memorial in the Skagway cemetery, where the inscription reads, "He gave his life for the honour of Skagway". Soapy, aged 38, lies buried just beyond the cemetery boundaries in unconsecrated ground.

Today, however, hardly anyone in Skagway remembers much about Frank Reid. Soapy, however, has attained legendary status-to the extent that a ceremonial wake for him is held in Skagway each year on July 8th.

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