By Clark Fair
It was a tantalizing prospect. Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith, the infamous 19th-century scourge of Denver and Skagway, may have visited the streets of tiny Hope, and even attempted his famous soap scam there.
Hope and Sunrise Historical Society members had one solid piece of evidence to support the idea, an 1896 diary entry from a young gold-seeker who professed a firsthand sighting of the famous con artist in action in Hope. They lacked only an equally solid second piece of evidence to support and lend credence to the first.
This fall, they got their wish.
In August, Dr. Jane Haigh, assistant history professor at Kenai Peninsula College and author of “King Con: The Story of Soapy Smith,” came to speak about Smith at a historical society meeting in the Hope Social Hall. Haigh knew before she arrived that the historical society members believed Smith had come to Hope, but she was skeptical of the claim because she hadn’t yet seen the group’s documentation.
A few months earlier, Haigh had met with a few of the historical society members, heard their claim about Smith’s visit to Hope, and agreed to bring her information to them and combine it with their own. After Haigh spoke in general about Smith at the August meeting, those in attendance got down to the real business at hand.
Diane Olthuis, historical society president, produced a copy of the diary entry.
The diary had been written by Joel A. Harrington, who had been born in Montana in 1873 and had, in 1896, traveled onboard the Marion to Hope when the gold rush there was just getting under way. The diary that Harrington kept might never have come to the attention of the Hope and Sunrise Historical Society if it hadn’t come first to the attention of the Anchorage Daily News in the summer of 1953.
Serialized by the newspaper under the title “Saga of Cook Inlet Gold,” excerpts of the diary ran over the course of several weeks. Sometime later, a newspaper friend of historical society member Billy Miller borrowed the paper’s copies of the diary and mimeographed them for Miller.
Miller and his wife, Ann, read over the diary entries and homed in on the mention of Soapy Smith in their town. Ever since, said Ann Miller, “I’ve always been trying to convince everybody of that.”
On May 19, 1896, while in Hope, Harrington wrote, “Later we took a stroll through the town, saw the stump where ‘Soapy Smith’ had his stand, wrapping $5.00 and $10.00 bills in the soap wrapper and selling them, but no one got a bill, except his ‘cappers’ who were working with him. His pickings were poor here, ‘tis said.”
A “capper” is a “shill,” a person who poses as a customer in order to decoy “marks” — victims, in other words — into participating.
These accomplices were helping Smith run the very con that had earned him his famous nickname. It was a scam that Smith, arguably the most renowned confidence man of the Old West, had already run repeatedly and successfully in Texas and in Denver and Creede, Colo., and would continue to run again when he moved his operations to Skagway the following year.
The “prize soap racket,” as it was dubbed by newspapers of the time, involved Smith offering a special monetary enticement as he sold soap on a street corner. As a crowd gathered, he would extract from his wallet several bills, often ranging from a dollar to $100, and wrap them around some of the bars of soap. Then he would wrap plain paper over the bills and appear to mix all the bars together, and then sell the soap for one dollar per bar.
At some point, one of his shills would buy a bar, tear off the wrapping and proclaim loudly that he had won some money — and the rush would be on. Soon, Smith would announce that no one had yet won the bar wrapped in the $100 bill and would auction off the remaining soap. Of course, he had palmed the big-money bar, and his shills got most of the rest.
If selling soap had been Smith’s only claim to infamy, he might have gone down in history as a very minor villain. But Smith was more than that. He bought the influence of politicians, officers of the law and even judges. He organized crime rings, controlled businesses through strong-arm tactics, ran large gambling operations and robbed unsuspecting miners of their hard-earned gold.
At the August historical society meeting, the appearance of the very specific diary excerpt excited Dr. Haigh, who then produced two corroborating pieces of evidence for the Hope faithful.
First came a very short report from a Juneau newspaper: A gambler named John Rudolph (a Smith pseudonym) had been arrested in the spring of 1896 for “flimflaming the guys” with a scheme involving the sale of cakes of soap supposedly wrapped in $10 and $20 bills.
“No one else in the West is known to have practiced this particular con game,” said Haigh.
This information placed Smith in Alaska a year earlier than had been previously reported, but the next piece of evidence, especially in combination with the newspaper story and diary entry, seemed to solidify the Smith-in-Hope claim.
Soapy Smith’s great-grandson, Jeff Smith, the author of a recent history of his famous ancestor, “Alias Soapy Smith,” also runs an extensive website of information, photographs and artifacts related to his namesake. Among the numerous personal letters in the online collection is one (scanned in its original form and also displayed in a typed transcription) from May 10, 1896 — only nine days before Harrington wrote his diary entry in Hope.
The brief letter to Smith’s wife back in St. Louis, according to Jeff Smith, was written aboard the steamer General Canby near Coal Bay, on the northern shore of Kachemak Bay, inside the Homer Spit. It reads (with errors intact): “Dear Mollie. Am well, will be to my destination tomorrow if nothing goes wrong. Have had a hell of a trip. You can write to Resurection Creek, Cooks Inlett, Alaska. Have no time to write now as we hail a steamer bound for San Francisco to mail this. Have heard no word from you since I left Denver. Yours Jeff — Love to all.”
“These three items together,” said Haigh, “add up to the conclusion that Smith was indeed in Hope in the spring of 1896, a period that had been a gap in my own timeline of his travels.”
Hope and Sunrise Historical Society members share Haigh’s satisfaction — and a certain level of vindication — at the findings.
“We were thrilled to find out we were correct,” said Olthuis.
Soapy Smith sojourned in Hope only a few days before realizing that the level of action there didn’t meet his expectations, and so he moved on. By 1897, he began establishing another criminal empire in Skagway, one of the entry points for the crush of gold-seekers funneling into the backcountry to join the Klondike Gold Rush.
In Skagway his criminal exploits caught up with him, and by the summer of 1898 he was dead. After three members of his gang bilked a miner out of his sack of gold during a game of three-card monte, the miner sought help, and in stepped a vigilante group called the “Committee of 101.”
On July 8, during what was later called “The Shootout on Juneau Wharf,” Smith began an argument with armed and angry city engineer Frank Reid; gunfire ensued and both men were mortally wounded.
As with many of the famous and infamous alike, however, Soapy Smith continues to make news long after his passing. As Smith once profited from the denizens of Skagway, they arrange tours around Smith lore and continue to profit from his presence there so long ago.