Summer 2008 Edition Features



Newsmen Agree Soapy Smith Laid Low By Reid

Klondike Miner Stewart ‘Rolled and Robbed’ After Looking at Smith’s Eagle That Days Earlier Was Hailed As ‘Proud Bird Of Freedom’ – Soapy and ‘Skaguay Guards’ Surrender to Bullet and Vigilante Justice.

Photo: Soapy on horseback a few days before his death. Shorthill Collection, Alaska State Library

 The best days work that was ever done for Skaguay, was done yesterday evening by City Engineer F.H. Reid, when he shot and instantly killed Soapy Smith. But Frank Reid made an awful sacrifice, for he lies now at the point of death with a rifle ball through his abdomen that may prove fatal.
It was about nine o’clock in the evening when the shooting took place. Smith, who was well under the influence of liquor and worked up into a frenzy, left his house on 6th Avenue with a forty-five calibre Winchester over his arm. He went almost on a run down State Street, until he came to the wharf, where Reid was on guard. The men had had some words earlier in the day, and as soon as Reid saw Smith coming, he knew somebody would get hurt. Smith ran up to Reid and began swearing at him; he then struck at him with his rifle. Reid grabbed at the barrel of the gun with one hand, and drew his revolver with the other. But Smith jerked the rifle away, struck Reid once with it, cutting his arm, and as he raised the gun again, Reid pulled the trigger of his pistol, but the cap snapped. Before he could pull again, Smith raised the barrel of the rifle and fired. Again Reid grabbed the barrel and at the same time shot twice in quick succession. Either ball would have killed Smith instantly.
There were two shots fired into Smith. One shot hit him in the thigh, and the other went into the right side of the chest, crossing the body to the left, and going through the heart.
Smith fell dead before the smoke had cleared away and Reid at the same time fell. A crowd, which had followed Smith, closed in on the men. As soon as they found that Reid was alive, some ran for a stretcher, and soon a dozen willing men were carrying him toward his house two blocks away. Before they arrived there, Drs. Moore, Cornelius and Bryant were on the scene and it was decided to take him at once to the hospital. the men took him up again, and got as far as Fifth Avenue, when it was decided that the hospital was too far away. Someone ran down the street to make a place ready in a hotel, and Mr. Brogan gladly placed the Occidental at the disposal of the messenger, and told the doctors to take the house.
Mr. Reid was carried upstairs to a room and in a few moments the physician had his clothes off and found that the bullet had entered the lower right abdomen and came out the lower end of the back bone. They immediately began to stimulate the sufferer, who was in very great pain , and to give him morphia.
The trouble that ended in the shooting began yesterday at noon. J.D. Stewart, one of the returned Klondikers, was rolled and robbed of a sack containing about $3,000 in nuggets and dust. Mr. Stewart says that he had gone into Smith’s place looking for a companion. He walked out in the back yard, with the bag swung on his shoulder, and was looking at the eagle. He found out there three men, who, from the description given of them afterwards, are supposed to have been J. Bowers, an old man named Tripp, and another man called Dick. The three men began playing monte, Mr. Stewart says, and finally began to scuffle. He took no part whatever in the game. In a moment or two he found them brushing up against him, and before he knew it, two of the men grabbed him, and the third snatched the bag from him and ran. The two men still hel him until the third had got well away. Then they too ran in a different direction. Tripp is said to have been the one who got the bag. Stewart’s story is corroborated by two reputable witnesses, a man and woman, who asaw the whole proceedings from adjoining buildings.
The alarm was raised at once and the marshal was notified. Marshal Taylor told those who gave the alarm, that if they would keep quiet for a time he would get the men and the money, but in a few minutes the marshal started up Broadway with a carpenter to oversee some work he was doing, and the men felt that he was not very much interested in the case. In an hour the whole town was alarmed and excited. Judge Sehlbrede was telephoned for, and he promised to come over from Dyea as soon as he could get to a boat. He telephoned back asking that every precaution be taken to allay any agitation, so that he could be free to act when he came. Consequently the newspapermen got together and decided that the best interests of the town would be best served by their remaining silent on the matter until Judge Sehlbrede could act. – DAILY ALASKAN, July 9, 1898

Historical Feature

July 8, 1898: Who Shot Soapy? Who Knew What.

SOAPY AND HIS GUN – Jefferson Randolph Smith is laid out for viewing after his autopsy. His hat and gun, a double action Colt revolver, are prominantly displayed, fitting for one of the last great outlaws of the Old West. H.C. Barley photo courtesy of The Brackett Family Collection, c/o Cynthia Brackett Driscoll, 1221 SW 4th St., Grand Rapids, MN 55744


Sinner Soapy Smith Murdered


It seems most every “outlaw” in the old west who died violently has a controversial death attached to their story. Did they really die? Who really killed them? Well, Soapy Smith is no exception.
  Most historians who write about Soapy Smith comment about the “second shooter” and many agree that Frank Reid was not the man who killed Soapy Smith even though the Skagway newspapers state otherwise. So who do I think killed Soapy?
  The man’s name was Jesse Murphy, one of the four guards on the wharf (Reid, Tanner, Murphy, Landers) to block Soapy’s entrance into the vigilante meeting on the night Soapy was killed (July 8, 1898).
  Witnesses, including J. Tanner, one of the guards who became the new U.S. Deputy Marshal. wrote about what they saw and then quickly became silent about it. Fortunately for us, Tanner had already informed the commander of the North West Mounted Police, Sam Steele, in writing just hours after witnessing him do it, that Murphy was the one who had shot Soapy and not Reid.
 From witness accounts, Soapy Smith had a Winchester (model 1892, .44-40) rifle and after briefly exchanging gunfire with Frank Reid (both being wounded), Reid fell to the ground (probably unconscious). Murphy then wrestled the rifle away from Soapy and turned it on him, executing Soapy with his own rifle with a shot to the chest.
  Credit for the death of Soapy was given to Frank Reid for political reasons. In Skagway, Alaska, where this all occurred, federal troops had been threatening martial law. It was decided to publish that Soapy and Reid had killed each other rather than have martial law take control from the victorious vigilantes who now ruled supreme.
  Soapy had a wife, Mary, and three children, Jefferson, Mary and James, all in St. Louis. Over his lifetime, he wrote about 1,000 letters from his many travels, including several mailed from Skagway to his family.
Mary came up to Skagway less than a month after the shootout. Accounts of her husband’s real death were secretly disclosed to her by friends of Soapy’s when she and my grandfather Jefferson came to collect the estate in August 1898. They stayed up there about a month.
Many other details as well as documentation will appear in my biography of Soapy Smith, which is in the final editing process. It is due to be published by Klondike Research of Juneau in 2009.
We were very lucky. Mary saved everything. Some letters were confiscated after Soapy’s death by Tanner, and were lost or stolen before he could publish them.
The collection went to the three children who settled in California and Wisconsin. My father Randy got about a third. The only thing he got rid of was the clothing which was starting to deteriorate.
I first came up to Skagway in 1974 for the first Soapy’s Wake, and I’ve been up there about five times. Every year we have our own wake in California at the Magic Castle in Hollywood. It draws 200 to 500 people a year and fills the place. This year it’s on July 12, the Saturday closest to July 8.
For more information about the wake and Soapy, visit my website. See what’s new at

PHOTO: An early visitor to Soapy Smith’s grave. Bonnell Collection, Univ. of Alaska Fairbanks

Jeff Smith is the great-grandson of Soapy Smith and president of The Soapy Smith Preservation Trust. He lives in Corona, California. His book Alias Soapy Smith will be released in the fall of 2009.

Saint J.D. Stewart Conned & Robbed

PHOTO: Unassuming – some would say foolish and vulnerable – J.D. Stewart holds his gold poke after it was recovered. William Norton Collection, Alaska State Library


On the morning of July 8, 1898, British Columbia resident John D. Stewart went into Jeff Smith’s saloon to have a drink. Twenty-four hours later, the town of Skagway found a dead conman in the morgue, a dying hero in the hospital, a newly appointed special deputy at the head of a posse of forty-some vigilantes, and Mr. Stewart, who started it all, was missing about $2600 in gold dust. Stroller White, The Skaguay News associate editor, claimed the now-dead Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith and his gang had stolen the gold. Smith’s men vowed they’d won it fair and square in a gambling game. The law would not cast judgment for five more months. When it did, it sided with J.D. Stewart: Soapy Smith’s cohorts, Turner Jackson, Van B. Triplett, and John B. Foster had conned the miner out of his hard-earned poke of gold dust.
Until recently, the world hadn’t heard the story from Stewart’s point of view. Over the years, interest in the tale had caused the first-hand evidence to disappear from archives and collections. Copies of trial testimony in the National Archives currently include only summaries, not verbatim transcriptions. Alaskan newspapers during the trial dates have ended up in private collections, being held back, perhaps for the day someone can make a great deal of money selling a rare copy of The Skaguay News, The Daily Alaskan or The Juneau Dispatch with first-hand testimony from the trial of Soapy’s gang.
Today, what most people believe happened is what was told by The Skaguay News in its Special Issue dated July 8, 1898, luckily copied onto easily accessible microfilm. It states:

…Shortly before 10 ‘o’clock…J.D. Stewart, a young man just out from Dawson, was robbed of a sack containing from 12 to 15 pounds of gold. There are conflicting stories as to how the robbery was committed, the accepted version being that Stewart desired to sell his gold, and that one Bowers, a well known member of Smith’s gang, represented to Stewart that he was here for the purpose of buying gold for some big assaying company below. The unsuspecting stranger accompanied Bowers to a point in the rear of Smith’s place on Holly ave., and near the Mondamin hotel, where, it is alleged, two of Bowers’ pals were in waiting, when the three men overpowered Stewart, wrested the sack of gold, containing $2676, from his hand, and disappeared from sight around adjoining buildings, leaving the returned Klondiker as poor as when he started for the land of gold and hardships nearly a year before.

Exacerbating the problem of the true version of events, Mr. Stewart made a deal with a San Francisco reporter, signing over exclusive rights to his story. The reporter never wrote the article, so the tale passed into obscurity, and the events became blurred with time. In 1958, sixty years after the shoot-out on the Juneau Wharf in Skagway, Stewart’s niece, Hazel Stewart Clark, wrote an article in The Alaska Sportsman, which purported to set the story straight, but it only further blurred the picture. Clark declared that J.D. Stewart’s gold poke was stolen from a bank vault, and it never did appear in Jeff Smith’s parlor.
So it was with great excitement that I discovered that The Tacoma Times had scanned its historic issues. This newspaper directly quoted testimony at the trial of Charles Bowers, John B. Foster, Van Triplett, three of Jeff Smith’s gang. On December 27, 1898, it reported the exact words of J.D. Stewart:

Stewart on the witness stand related how after coming from the Klondike he met Bowers and Foster, who were very anxious to know about the Klondike regions. They went into a saloon to have a drink, when Bowers asked him to go into a room and see “the bird eat.” The bartender was to feed the bird and it was such an amusing sight Stewart was informed that he should see it.
About this time Van Triplett came along and got into conversation about the Yukon. He said that he had lost some money gambling, but had paid the gambler $5 to show him how the trick was done and he wanted to show it to Stewart, Foster and Bowers. Foster said he knew the trick and wanted $5 to bet against Van Triplett. Stewart demurred, but finally pulled out $87, which he had in his pocket at the time. Foster took the whole amount, placed it in a box and in a moment Van Triplett said he had won it.
Stewart then told how he lost the remainder of his dust, some $2,600, which he had left at Kaufman’s store:
“I told Foster I should hold him for the money, and the old man, Van Triplett, said we acted as we could not trust him, and gave some of the money back, and then said he would give us a chance to win it, so Foster turned the right card and started to give him the money, but said, ‘Supposing you had bet that in earnest, did you have the money to put up?’ Foster said, ‘No,’ and turning to me said, ‘You have the money,’ and I said no, I did not have any money: that he took it all, but he said, ‘You have some dust,’ and wanted me to get it just to show the old man that we had the money in case the bet had been a real one. Bowers and I went to Kaufman’s store to get the money and Van Triplett and Foster remained behind. We came back with the dust and I unrolled it and showed them the sack, and the old man said he did not know if it was gold, and Bowers said, ‘Open it and show it to him, as he don’t know gold dust when he sees it,’ but I did not open it, and just about to roll it up again, when Foster grabbed it and handing it to the old man said, ‘Git!’ and I started to grab the old man when they held me and said if I made any noise it would not be well for me. I pulled away from them and started after the old man, but could not see him and then went across the street and asked a party where there was an officer: that I had been robbed of $3,000 by some men over there.”

This version is different than that told in over 75 other accounts that have been written in the 110 years since the shooting of Soapy Smith, and it makes a great deal more sense. First of all, it emphasizes the type of con-game in which Smith’s colleagues tended to engage. The story takes into account the safety vault mentioned by Stewart’s niece, but indicates that Stewart brought the gold poke into Smith’s saloon. Finally, it allows for the difference between the amount of money Stewart brought out of the Klondike ($2700) and that which he said was stolen from him ($2600), by taking into account the $87 that Stewart had in his pocket when he first went into Jeff’s parlor. What is also important about this account is the detail that Stewart was not attacked while viewing the eagle. He merely mentioned that the caged eagle was a sight to be seen at Jeff’s place, but it was not a factor in his robbery.
Going back to early sources proves that history itself doesn’t change, merely our perception of it.

PHOTO: Citizens assembled by Deputy Marshal Si Tanner and others guard gang members in the old City Hall on 5th a day after the shooting. Peiser Photo, Brady Collection

Hazel Stewart Clark, “A Man of Honor,” The Alaska Sportsman March, 1958, pp. 40-42.
The Daily Alaskan, July 11, 1898.
The Skaguay News, July 8, 15 and December 9, 1898
The Tacoma Times, December 27, 1898.

Catherine Holder Spude is an archaeologist and historian, who retired from the National Park Service and now writes history and historical fiction from her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Read her historical novel, Sin and Grace, Book One of the Si Tanner Chronicles, for sale at Skaguay News Depot & Books and other outlets.