1897 Yukon Nuggets
Soapy Smith - Gangster
He never saw the Klondike. He didn't live long enough and probably didn't want to join the gold rush anyway. But in his few short years in the northwest, he left his mark on many of the miners of his day.
He was the most famous of the gangsters who took up residence in Skagway. He was known as Soapy Smith. His real name was Jefferson Randolf Smith. The nickname came from his days in Chicago when he sold bars of soap on the street corners. He'd tell his gullible customers that some bars were wrapped in a fifty dollar bill. Of course, they weren't. Smith was in Denver, Colorado when he heard of the gold rush. At the time Skagway was virtually lawless. Then, in the fall of 1897 Soapy Smith and his band of thugs arrived.
It wasn't long before Smith owned the town. His men would disguise themselves as town officials, in an effort to rob unsuspecting prospectors. One of Soapy's more prosperous endeavors was the fake telegraph office. For a fee, he would allow citizens to send a message to loved ones in the US and other parts of Canada. Of course at that time Skagway didn't have a working telegraph line. But it was so realistic that Smith even received replies, collect no doubt. Everyday Soapy recruited more men. Yet all the while Smith was distancing himself from the crimes. He even called for stronger laws. He would put on parades, took in stray dogs, and started up collections for widowed families.
As the months passed, Smith's actions became more callous. Perhaps the darkest day in Skagway history occurred in March, 1898. Constable Rowan and Andy McGrath were slain in cold blood. Rowan was hurrying to get a doctor for his pregnant wife, when he and Andy were called into Rice's variety theatre, a saloon, to settle a dispute. Unknown to the two men, Fay, the bartender, was waiting behind the door with a gun. Without warning Fay shot both men as they entered. They died instantly. Smith claimed he had nothing to do with the killings, but it was his men that saved Fay from the hangman's noose, and smuggled him back to the southern United States.
Soapy's last evil deed was perpetrated on J.D. Stewart, a miner from Dawson who had come into town with 2,800 dollars worth of hard-earned gold dust. Stewart disregarded the warnings that the gold should be locked in the hotel safe. He was convinced, by one of Soapy's men, that the best place in town to sell the gold was at Jeff Smith's place. All too soon, a confused Stewart was on the street minus his gold and unable to say who stole it from him.
Some people took pity on Stewart and began to assemble. They vowed to put an end to the tyranny. Finally, at one of the docks, the towns-people met. Smith, who had been drinking since late afternoon, decided that it was time to act.
Arming himself with a Derringer, a Colt 45 revolver and a 30/30 Winchester, he stormed towards the docks. Frank Reid was standing guard when Soapy and some of his men arrived. Reid told Soapy that he could not enter the meeting. Soapy started a fight with Reid. Both men fired their weapons simultaneously. Jefferson 'Soapy' Smith died instantly and with his death, peace finally came to Skagway. Frank Reid was shot in the leg and died in hospital twelve days later.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.