The Life of American Con Man Soapy Smith
The Life of American Con Man Soapy Smith

The Life of American Con Man Soapy Smith

Larry Holzwarth - December 22, 2019

The Life of American Con Man Soapy Smith
Skagway quickly rounded up Soapy Smith’s gang following his death. Digital Journal

23. The meeting on Juneau Wharf, July 8, 1898

Smith arrived at the meeting on Juneau Wharf early on the evening of July 8, carrying a rifle across his shoulder, but not threatening anyone with the weapon. When he announced his intention to attend the meeting to four men guarding the wharf, they refused to let him pass. Earlier in the day Smith had announced to several people around town that he intended to repay a portion of the gold, and that he wanted to discuss the matter at the meeting. The four men were not persuaded by Smith’s usual verbal gymnastics, and refused to allow him to enter the wharf. The impasse seemed to be unsolvable. The four men blocking Smith had orders not to allow any of Smith’s cohorts – they were called Soap Men – to enter and disrupt the meeting.

One of the men guarding the wharf, whose name was Frank Reid, a city engineer, accosted Smith and the two engaged in a verbal altercation for a few moments. An account from an eyewitness, one of the vigilantes, claimed that Smith struck Reid once or twice with his rifle, cutting Reid’s arm. Reid responded by drawing his pistol, at which Smith shouted, “My God, don’t shoot”. Reid shot Soapy Smith at least four times (the gun misfired at the first shot), and Smith fired back almost simultaneously. As Smith lay on his back, disarmed and wounded, another of the vigilantes, Jesse Murphy, shot him in the heart, killing him. Reid died of the wounds inflicted by Smith about 12 days later.

The Life of American Con Man Soapy Smith
The autopsy revealed Smith died from a shot through the heart. Alaska Digital Archive

24. The aftermath of Smith’s killing was a confused affair

Immediately after Smith was killed, all credit, if that is the word, went to Reid, who later died of his wounds. Although Murphy told several of the authorities that he had fired the fatal shot, his report was filed by the police and no further action taken. Reid was given a hero’s funeral. Murphy was forgotten. The vigilantes were kept in check by federal troops and the rest of Smith’s gang was quickly rounded up. Most of them were simply run out of town. All but six hundred dollars of Stewart’s gold was discovered among Soapy Smith’s belongings, and returned to the miner. The rest of the gold likely was used in a payoff.

Smith’s body was finally taken from where it lay near the wharf and was buried outside the city cemetery. His final criminal empire, like its predecessors, was relatively short-lived. How much money he actually made and subsequently squandered in three cities of the American west is anybody’s guess. He died just before the dawn of the 20th century and except for western history buffs his name is generally unknown. That he was a true character of American history is undeniable. He was a liar, thief, confidence man, hustler, pimp, and graft artist. He not only didn’t deny it, he was proud of it, considering himself for all of his faults, as better than a politician.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Soapy Smith: Bunko Man of the West”. Article, Legends of the West. September, 2019. Online

“Soapy Smith: Con Man’s Empire”. Article, Online

“The Legend of Soapy Smith”. Shaylon Cochran, KDLL. Alaska Public Media. Online

“Denver, A Boom Town History”. Gayle Baker. 2004

“Soapy Smith’s Lawman”. Mark Boardman, True West Magazine. December 30, 2018

“Lou ‘The Fixer’ Blonger”. Article, The Daily Grifter. Online

“Alias Soapy Smith”. Jeff Smith. 2009

“The Reign of Soapy Smith”. William Collier. 1935

“Far Western Populist Thought: A Comparative Study of John R. Rogers and Davis H. Waite”. David B. Griffiths, Pacific Northwest Quarterly. October, 1969

“Soapy Smith and Denver’s City Hall War”. Joshua Horn, Discerning History. January 21, 2014. Online

“‘That Fiend in Hell’: Soapy Smith in Legend”. Catherine Holder Spude. 2012

“The History of Skagway, Alaska”. Article, Explore North. Online

“Soapy Smith’s Legacy”. Mark Boardman, True West Magazine. March 18, 2013

“Wired on Crime: Soapy Smith’s Telegraph Con”. Article, Another Century. Online

“Jeff Smiths Parlor Museum”. Article, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. National Park Service. Online

“The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Klondike Gold Rush”. Howard Blum. 2011