It was 9 p. m. and the sun was still shining brightly so it had to be Alaska. In fact, it was Skagway, District of Alaska and it was 1898, the year American legend, Soapy Smith, was to meet his maker. It’s believed he was shot on the streets of Skagway by a little Irishman by the name of Jesse Murphy.
Soapy Smith, really? I often wonder where some of these characters acquire their nicknames. I have a nickname that I acquired many years ago while I was attending college. It came about when my nephew was baptized and I had to wear a suit and tie. I don’t recall where I got the suit. I just got out of the army and I do recall owning a set of fatigues and army jacket, that I forgot to turn in to Uncle Sam before I ETS’d out of Fort Lewis, Washington. I also remember owning a pair of blue jeans, bell bottoms, and a red, white and blue sear sucker pair of pants that my wife taunts me about to this day. But I know I did own a suit because ancient pictures confirm it. After my nephew’s baptism, I left to frequent a local watering hole and interact with a thousand of my closest friends. When I walked through the door one of them yelled out, “Look, the Baron!” That sobriquet sticks with me to this day, although, Max Fly, that ubiquitous gadfly is quickly taking its place.
Soapy Smith was one of the most well-known conmen of the 1800’s. He was born Jefferson Randolph Smith, II, in Newnan, Georgia in 1860. He came from a family of college-educated professionals but the Civil War forced him to find a way to support himself and his young brother and sisters by selling cheap watches and jewelry on the street.
While selling these cheap watches he learned to enhance the quality of his junk through his persuasive Southern manner and moved people to make a purchase. Selling exposed him to slight of hand shell games and his superior dexterity took him to state fairs and street corners throughout the West.
He traveled from New York to Chicago to New Orleans as well as Houston and Mexico before he landed in Denver, Colorado where he lived for 17 years. In Denver, he owned gambling clubs, auction halls, and street businesses most of them on the shady side of the law. His most famous being the Tivoli Saloon and Gambling Hall. Above it was a sign that read “Caveat Emptor,” which means “Let the Buyer Beware” in Latin. He left Denver after a newspaper editor listed his wife’s name alongside his in alleged criminal activity. Soapy sent his wife and child away before he beat the offending newspaper editor with a cane. He then traveled to San Francisco and Spokane before heading North to Juneau and finally settling in Skagway in 1897.
So, again, where did he acquire the nickname Soapy? Evidently from the scam he carried out selling miracle soaps containing a prized currency ranging in value from $1.00 to $100.00, concealed beneath its wrapper. Of course, only his co-conspirators got the bars with the bills in the package. This scam not only brought him great wealth but fame as well. So, in 1884 while in Denver, he acquired the moniker Soapy and when he was arrested, the arresting officer couldn’t remember his first name for the arrest ledger, so he wrote “Soapy” instead. This appellation stayed with him to his dying day and beyond.