July 8th, 1898 – A Bad Day for Soapy Smith

Today-In-History

Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith II was a con artist, saloon and gambling house proprietor, gangster and crime boss of the nineteenth-century Old West. His most famous scam, the prize package soap sell racket, presented him with the sobriquet of “Soapy,” which remained with him to his death.

Soapy_quote_1_crime

Although he traveled and operated his confidence swindles all across the western United States, he is most famous for having a major hand in the organized criminal operations of Denver, Colorado; Creede, Colorado; and Skagway, Alaska, from 1879 to 1898. In Denver he ran several saloons, gambling halls, cigar stores, and auction houses that specialized in cheating their clientele. It was in Denver that Soapy began to make a name for himself across the country as a bad man. Denver is also where he entered into the arena of political fixing, where, for favors, he could sway the outcome of city, county, and state elections.

Soapy_in_parlor_A1He used the same methods of operation when he settled in the towns of Creede and Skagway, opening businesses with the primary goal of gently robbing his customers, while making a name for himself. He died in spectacular fashion in the shootout on Juneau Wharf in Skagway, Alaska on July 8th, 1898.

On July 7th 1898, John Douglas Stewart, a returning Klondike miner, came to Skagway with a sack of gold valued at $2,700 ($78,870 in 2013 dollars.) Three gang members convinced the miner to participate in a game of three-card monte. When Stewart balked at having to pay his losses, the three men grabbed the sack and ran. The “Committee of 101” demanded that Soapy return the gold, but he refused, claiming that Stewart had lost it “fairly”.

On the evening of July 8th, 1898, the vigilance committee organized a meeting on the Juneau wharf. With a Winchester rifle draped over his shoulder, Soapy began an argument with Frank H. Reid, one of four guards blocking his way to the wharf. A gunfight, known as the Shootout on Juneau Wharf began unexpectedly, and both men were fatally wounded.

Soapy_morgue3Soapy’s last words were “My God, don’t shoot!” A letter from Sam Steele, the head of the Canadian Mounties at the time, indicates that another guard, Jesse Murphy, may have fired the fatal shot. Soapy died on the spot with a bullet to the heart. He also received a bullet in his left leg and a severe wound on the left arm by the elbow. Reid died 12 days later with a bullet in his leg and groin area. The three gang members who robbed Stewart received jail sentences.

Soapy Smith was buried several yards outside the city cemetery. Due to the way Smith’s legend has grown, every year on July 8th, wakes are held around the United States in Soapy’s honor. His grave and saloon are on most tour itineraries of Skagway.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to toolbar