Story Time with Aunt Phil: Soapy Smith
On Oct. 2, 1903, telegraphic communication was established between Sitka and Juneau via submarine cable.
But some people in Skagway thought they had telegraph service back in 1898. That’s when Jefferson Randolph Smith, also known as “Soapy,” sailed into town and began scamming folks out of their hard-earned gold nuggets.
One of Soapy’s more ingenious schemes to lighten prospectors’ pokes revolved around a fake telegraph office. Soapy himself oversaw the building of the office, which opened less than a week after construction began.
Miners came into the office to telegraph news of their strikes to family and friends. A few hours later, a telegraphed reply came back – usually asking the prospectors to send money. The helpful telegraph employees would happily wire the miners’ gold dust in reply. There was only one problem: The telegraph wires extended only a few feet into Skagway’s harbor.
The intelligent and skilled Soapy Smith controlled a well-organized gang of thieves, thugs and con men during the heyday of the gold rush. He gained initial infamy in Denver, where he made a fortune from a soap scam. He’d wrap a $100 bill around a bar of soap and slap his own label around that bar. He then mixed his “special” soap in a box with numerous other bars, all bearing the name of his new product “Sapolion.”
Soapy would walk into a local saloon where a silent partner “bought” a “randomly” selected bar for $5. Soapy’s sales escalated at a phenomenal rate but oddly enough, other $100 bars of soap rarely surfaced.
Soapy sailed north to mine the miners in Alaska after law enforcement suggested it might be better for his health if he left Colorado. Smith’s northern operations extended from the ships plying the Inside Passage to the summits of the White Pass and Chilkoot Pass trails.
Soapy made his way to Skagway in the busy summer of 1897, where he moved from petty swindles to controlling most of Skagway’s darker vices. He built a saloon-casino called Jeff’s Place, and by January 1898, he was the uncrowned king of Skagway’s underworld.
Few men walked out of Soapy’s casino with more money than they brought in – and those who did, often met up with some of Soapy’s “helpers” in Skagway’s back alleys. The helpers helped themselves to the winnings.
But the telegraph scam remains one of his most notorious schemes.
Honest citizens finally banded together and met to discuss a way to stop Smith and his gang. Frank Reid, a lookout standing guard at the gathering of citizens, shot Smith as he attempted to break up the meeting. Smith then shot Reid. Reid shot Smith again as he crumpled to the ground. Smith died shortly after being shot, and Reid died 12 days later. After that, Smith’s gang skedaddled out of town.