July 8

This Day in History

Old West

Jul 8, 1898:

Soapy Smith killed in Skagway, Alaska

A disgruntled city engineer in Skagway, Alaska, murders "Soapy" Smith, one of the most notorious con men in the history of the West.

Born in Georgia in 1860, Jefferson Randolph Smith went west while still a young man, finding work as a cowboy in Texas. Smith eventually tired of the hard work and low wages offered by the cowboy life, though, and discovered that he could make more money with less effort by convincing gullible westerners to part with their cash in clever confidence games.

One of Smith's earliest swindles was the "prehistoric man" of Creede, Colorado. Smith somehow obtained a 10-foot statue of a primitive looking human that he secretly buried near the town of Creede. A short time later, he uncovered the statue with much fanfare and publicity and began charging exorbitant fees to see it. Wisely, he left town before the curious turned suspicious.

Smith earned his nickname "Soapy" with a more conventional confidence game. Traveling around the Southwest, Smith would briefly set up shop in the street selling bars of soap wrapped in blue tissue paper. He promised the credulous crowds that a few lucky purchasers would find a $100 bill wrapped inside a few of the $5 bars of soap. Inevitably, one of the first to buy a bar would shout with pleasure and happily display a genuine $100 bill. Sales were generally brisk afterwards. The lucky purchaser, of course, was a plant.

In 1897, Smith joined the Alaskan gold rush and eventually landed in the rough frontier town of Skagway. Short on law and long on gold dust, Skagway was the perfect place for Smith to perfect his con games. He soon became the head of an ambitious criminal underworld, and he and his partners fleeced thousands of gullible miners.

Smith's success eventually angered the honest citizens of Skagway, who were trying to build an upstanding community. They formed a vigilante "Committee of 101" in an attempt to bring law and order to the town. Undaunted, Smith formed his own gang into a "Committee of 303" to oppose them.

On this day in 1898, Smith tried to crash a vigilante meeting on the Skagway wharf, apparently hoping to use his con-man skills to persuade them that he posed no threat to the community. Smith, however, had failed to realize just how angry the vigilantes were. When he tried to break through the crowd, a Skagway city engineer named Frank Reid confronted him. The men exchanged harsh words and then bullets. Reid shot Smith dead on the spot, but not before Smith had badly wounded him. The engineer died 12 days later.

The funeral services for Soapy Smith were held in a Skagway church he had donated funds to help build. The minister chose as the text for his sermon a line from Proverbs XIII: "The way of transgressors is hard."

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