February 28, 2009

My Anchorage trip - Friday

Friday: At breakfast I had a nice conversation with a couple from Fort Worth, Texas. They already knew of Soapy and had seen the play here in Anchorage, but did not know Soapy had his start in their hometown. They do now.

I knew that there would be a dog sled race during the Rondy event here in town but I had no idea the dog team hookup would be directly in front of my hotel! The manager is so nice here, that she opened up an unused bedroom so that guests could view the event from the third floor windows. Imagine about 50 dogs all howling and ready to go. I got some great pictures that I will post after I get back home.

In the afternoon I had an appointment with curator Walter Vanhorn and Christine Smith of the Anchorage Museum. The museum is in the process of being enlarged dramatically so many of the artifacts were not on view. Walter took me into the back rooms where priceless artifacts were everywhere, being prepared for the new expansion. He took me to a vault that held many wonderful and very valuable objects, including the largest gold nugget watch chain known. I was honored to be able to hold the chain and be photographed with it. I'm telling you this this must have weighed 5 pounds!

At 6:15 p.m. I walked into the theater in order to perform for the ticket holders waiting for the nights performance. Mind you I came into the theater like I owned the joint, cigar in mouth, and when enough eyes were upon me I muttered, "I smell success!" I then setup my tripe and keister and brought out the shell game and three-card Monte to play gamble with the crowd. They loved it ... and so did I.

I was able to watch the play and let me tell you this small theater lived up to their great reputation. It was a wonderful experience. After the show I went up to the stage and held a Q and A session after talking a little bit about myself and how I became interested in Soapy Smith. The questions from the audience were insightful and fun to answer. I think it was even filmed.

It is Saturday morning as I write this and it is snowing outside! Hey, I was raised in southern California so snow is a big deal to me, lol.

To be continued...

February 27, 2009

My Anchorage trip - Thursday

Thursday: I just could not sleep last night. I am too excited. It was 2 a.m. before I could get to sleep, and then I woke up at 5 a.m.

My daughter, Ashley took me to the Ontario International airport where security was much more pleasant of an experience than the last time. I don't blame security, as my bag contains another suitcase (my tripe and keister) that has a metal bar inside and lots of items stored in there. I am sure it looks rather odd to the person running the X-ray monitor. The last time this happened I had to stand inside a small square while they carefully opened my luggage. I guess it is better safe than sorry.

The plane was late, and once we boarded and got all settled in, they de-boarded us due to a fuel spill. I swear it's that damned Smith curse my daughter and I always joke about. Luckily after about an hour we were able to board the same plane but were 3 hours late arriving in Seattle. In Seattle I was prepared for a 3 hour stop-over and had planned a meeting with Darryl Beckmann, author of Alexander Conlin - The Man Who Knows. Conlin was said to be a member of the Soap Gang in Skagway in 1898. I was really looking forward to meeting him as we have formed a nice friendship over the years via long conversations over the phone. Arriving in Seattle Darryl had understandably left. It would not have mattered had he stayed as I exited one plane and jumped on another with less than 10 minutes to spare. I was sure they would not get my bag on the plane but I have to hand it to Alaska Airlines for doing just that. I have no complaints, except perhaps that they no longer serve lunches on the plane and charge $5 for a cheeseburger, of which I did not partake.

In planning my trip I had the help of several Alaskans, including poster "S" and my publisher, Art Petersen. Knowing it was in the 20s in Anchorage and would not be able to change, I was forced to dress for the cold with three layers of clothing in weather that was in the 70s, lol. I was very warm for most of the trip but very grateful as I exited the last plane in Anchorage and captured the first snap of cold air. Hey, I've never been in weather below 32 and even then I stayed indoors, lol.

In making reservations for plane seats I made sure I had window seats as I love to see where I am. There was little doubt when we were over Alaska. What a breathtaking view I had. One has no idea how beautiful it all is until you see it from high up and then slowly descending down to land. As far as the eye can see there were beautiful mountain peaks, rivers, glaciers and snow everywhere. I only wish my two kids could have been with me to see it all.

Landing in Anchorage I was met by the very friendly and pretty, Laura. She too had lack of sleep due to a new son, just 5 months old. Laura drove me around on a tour of the city where I am staying and then helped lodge me in The Anchorage, a historic hotel built in 1916. Mind you, Anchorage was founded in 1915 so they are proud of this hotel, and rightfully so.

At about 7 p.m. Sandy, owner of Cyrano's Theater Company called my room and invited me over to meet the cast of The Ballad of Soapy Smith and go over details for the weekend events. The theater is just a block away so getting there was no problem. I was exhausted but too excited to rest so off I went. I had donned my period 1898 Spanish-American War shoes as my "snow-boots" were killing me. Luckily these shoes had rubber in the soles in 1898 or I surely would have landed on my butt several times due to the ice puddles in the street. Sandy was a pleasure to meet but was understandably very busy. I could tell she felt bad in constantly having to interrupt our conversations but I fully understood, having been in business several times before. I am on "vacation" but she is not.

I was not able to watch the show but will catch it Friday and Saturday nights. From the applause I heard after the show ended I know I am in for a real treat. Once the cast came out I had fun kidding around with, including "Frank Reid" and "Soapy," whom I called grandpa. When some young adults heard some of my conversation they were excited to meet me. I actually signed autographs! Nice being a celebrity I must admit. By 11:30 p.m. I was ready for bed. I walked the block to the hotel and got some much needed sleep.

To be continued...

February 26, 2009

I'll be back...

I'll be back March 1 from my Alaskan trip with hopefully some great stories to tell. Until then..

February 25, 2009

Everybody loves a good villain...

I was watching a rather mundane cartoon called, Phineas & Ferb with my thirteen-year-old son, Jefferson. I was bored to tears but it was "quality time." A quote from the character named Ferb caught my attention. I thought some of you might agree?
A hero is a hero but everybody loves a good villain.

News of Soapy's death reached Austrialia.

I knew that news of Soapy's death in 1898 had reached most newspapers across the US but I did not know it reached over seas! The West Australian, November 18, 1898 has a mention of the gunfight.
A good many men were shot and robbed at Skagway by a gang headed by a ruffian rejoicing in the name of Soapy Smith. His career was, however, cut short by a surveyor he had taken down. They met in the street and fired (point blank) at one another. Soapy was shot dead, but his assailant lingered for a week, and died rejoicing that he had ended Soapy’s career.
Source: NDPbeta

February 20, 2009

Jeff Smith radio interview (you can hear it live!)

I never tire of talking about Soapy Smith (what was your first clue?). While I am in Anchorage, Alaska the local radio station there wants to interview me on Soapy and my trip. For those so inclined you can tune in and hear the show live. The program is called The Big Alaska Show and it will air in Alaska on Saturday February 28 from 9 am to 10 am. Now that is Alaska time! In California it will be 10 am to 11 am. You will need to figure out your own time zone.

To hear the interview: Go to KFQD Radio. In the upper left hand corner directly under the KFQD logo you will see "Click me listen live." Click it and listen in. That listening page also shows the time schedule and what shows are currently on and coming up. There is even an 800 phone number to call into the show.

February 19, 2009

Parlor update: Part 2.

I received an update from Karl Gurcke of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, Skagway division, on the progress of restoring Jeff Smith's Parlor (Soapy's saloon).
Things go well - I've just started reviewing the draft historic structure report on the Parlor. It's a real rough draft and needs a lot of work. Not much new historical information on what I had already sent you before but there's a lot of historical pictures, which adds to the discussion. The main new thing is the detailed architectural drawings and photographs of the building itself as it looks today, both exterior and interior. One of the interesting things they found last summer is evidence of a roof fire in the attic - lots of charred lumber. Know anything about a fire at the Parlor - it could have been any time.
We already knew this project would take perhaps a decade to complete.

February 18, 2009

Possible descendant

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Attention family members!

I have been attempting to help Jett Smith with his family history in which he believes there is a chance he may be related to Soapy Smith. The branch of the Smith family tree pictured above shows George Edward Smith (1782-1844). This was Dr. Ira Ellis Smith's brother and Soapy's granduncle. Below that is a son, George Smith, born in 1851. This may be Jett's great grandfather. I have no information on this George Smith or the names given to me by Jett. I am in the hopes that another family member might have some information that may help Jett out.

Here is Jett's information he has thus far.

The story with my family is that we owned land where Fort Benning GA and when the civil war was over, the carpetbaggers raised taxes so high that the family couldn’t afford it. The Smith’s moved up here from Carroll Co. after that. My dad said that we actually had one part of the family that was trying to sue the Federal Government to get the land back. Not sure what became of that.

My great grandfather was George Smith. He would have been alive about the same time as Soapy I do believe. Not sure the dates he was born and died. My grandfather was Bud Berry Smith. He died in 1962 and was around 80 when he died, so that would have put him being born around 1880 or so. One of the stories with him is that he went to Texas for a while. Don’t know any dates on that. I also had a great uncle Jet. He told my grandmother to name their next boy after him. There came my dad around 1940 and that is how he got the name and I am actually a Jr. George (my great grandfather) also fought for the Confederates, although I am not sure how old he was when he fought. I am also intrigued that Soapy was born in Newnan and we do not have anything on who he was or even that he was born here.

Do you know where he was born in Newnan? I went and looked at the Newnan Historical Society and noticed you had been here a few years ago. Wished I could have seen your presentation. The only reason I knew about Soapy was that I did some kind of search on Wikipedia or Google and he came up as a Smith from Newnan Ga. Even if we aren’t related, I do admire that you have such an extensive history on Soapy Smith and I have enjoyed reading it.

February 17, 2009

Soapy Smith thrashes the Glasson Detective Agency...

In October of 1891 reformers and religious organizations joined together in an attempt to rid Denver saloons and gambling, calling themselves the Law and Order League. They hired ex-city deputy, William Glasson of the Glasson Detective Agency to investigate and find dirt on certain saloon proprietors including Jefferson "Soapy" Smith. Glasson made the mistake of underestimating Soapy Smith and started bragging that he had beat him up in a physical encounter. Soapy grabbed gang members, John "Reverend" Bowers, Felix Friend and "Cap" William Sidney Light and paid a little visit to the Glasson office. The following newspaper article gives a hint as to the outcome. My upcoming book will disclose the details.

The Salt Lake Herald
October 04, 1891.

"Soapy" Smith Licks Three "Glasseye" Detectives.

DENVER, COLO., Oct. 3, —[Special telegram to the Herald.] —Private detective business received a set back in Denver this morning. "Glasseye’s Detective Agency," on their word, is a sight in the King block. To-day word reached the ears of Jeff Smith, better known as "Soapy," that Glasseye, the proprietor of the place, had been advertising that he had given "Soapy" a whipping. Mr. Smith went to Glasseye’s agency, but the proprietor was out. Three of the employees were in, and one of them made an impudent remark to the inquiries "Soapy" make and struck him beside the nose with a heavy revolver. Smith used his fist on his assailant, knocking him senseless. He then whipped the other two detectives and smashed every article of furniture in the room. Expecting further trouble, he has gotten a crowd of toughs about him to-night and is waiting for an attack. The so-called detectives were badly beaten and Mr. Smith wears their badges and carries their guns.

February 15, 2009

Anchorage Daily News review of Ballad of Soapy Smith...

Soapy meets Sophocles

Play reveals the famished soul in Alaska's most notorious con man
By Mike Dunham

Published: February 15th, 2009 12:02 AM
Last Modified: February 15th, 2009 01:25 AM

You think modern Alaska has a bumper crop of corrupt public figures?


None of our living crooks can touch the far-flung fame of Soapy Smith -- hustler, gangster, bamboozler without peer. By the time he got himself shot dead in Skagway, he'd left the Old West strewn with victims, easy marks, willing dupes, furious citizenry and frustrated lawmen. No history of the Gold Rush fails to discuss him at length.

Given the wide swath he cut in real life, it's surprising that he has such a slim profile in fiction. When he does appear, it's usually in a secondary role, part of the background. Or a caricature in a melodrama spoof one step removed from vaudeville. Or worse, a cookie-cutter Soapy-type role that doesn't even use his real name.

Col. Jefferson Randolph Smith would have hated it.

But he'd surely like "The Ballad of Soapy Smith," in which he is the central character, the star and bona-fide protagonist.

The play, which opened at Cyrano's on Friday, is a big cast, full-length drama with just a dash of the surreal mixed into a mostly valid account of the "simple facts of the case." It raises the credible possibility that somewhere deep in Soapy's rotten soul was a potentially decent mortal starving for a little genuine dignity -- just like the rest of us.


"Ballad" is no spoof. Author Michael Weller ranks among the most accomplished theatrical writers around. His output includes the widely esteemed "Moonchildren" and "Spoils of War." Last fall he had two plays running simultaneously in New York. He's now involved in writing two musicals, one of which, "Dr. Zhivago," is directed by Des McAnuff and set to open in London next Christmas.

Weller's film work, which includes "Hair" and "Ragtime," has been nominated for Academy Awards. He's a genuine player in a rarefied profession, about which he maintains clear-eyed perspective. "Most of the things I chose to work on are very marginal," he said. "Unless you have a powerful director who's very sexy at the moment, the odds are they won't come to pass."

Happily, "Ballad" did. In 1983, Weller was working with the Seattle Repertory Theatre when the company asked him for a new work to open its new playhouse.

"I'd spotted Soapy Smith's picture in a history of the Old West," Weller recalled. "It sounded like a really interesting story. Especially since Seattle was like the port of origin for people heading to Alaska and the Klondike."

The play opened in Seattle, featuring Kate Mulgrew (later to play Capt. Janeway in the "Star Trek: Voyager" television series) as the main female character in a man-heavy cast. It went on to the New York Shakespeare Festival. A Web site run by Smith's great-grandson, "Friends of Soapy Smith," is stingy in its praise for most theatrical depictions of Soapy but says this about "Ballad:" A wonderful play ... a rip-roaring play about megalomania and power, a Wild West show with something more on its mind than six-shooters and revenge."


The simple facts of the case are well known. Jeff Smith got his nickname by selling bars of soap to crowds in Denver. Some bars included money. Those always wound up in the hands of his henchmen, who put on such a display at their supposed random good luck that the rest of the soap -- none containing any cash -- quickly sold out at exorbitant prices.

Just as quickly, the crowd figured out the ruse. Soapy sprinted off to Colorado's wild mining camps, bringing his associates -- assorted card sharps, smooth talkers and knee-breaking goons. He alternated among scams, market-cornering, ruthless elimination of competition and outright hoodlumy, always managing to beat what passed for law enforcement to the next orchard of suckers ripe for plucking.

When the Klondike Gold Rush broke out, he established himself in Skagway. Using the veneer of a legitimate restaurateur, he slipped his minions into every racket available -- booze, gambling, girls -- while ingratiating himself into the boomtown's upper crust.

He roused up patriotic fervor at the start of the Spanish-American War and formed his own "militia," heavily staffed by his cronies, and added the spurious "Colonel" to his name. His civic standing rose so high that on the Fourth of July, 1898, he was elected grand marshal of the Independence Day Parade.

Four days later, he was shot to death in a gun battle.

He was just 37 years old. But his reputation had become immortal.


Weller takes the myth and tries to figure out what made Soapy tick. His Soapy is more than a flimflammer with mob muscle. He's educated, ambitious, talented, energetic -- and devoid of any sense of right and wrong, except insofar as a pretense of morality may advance his agenda.

The Soapy in this play is beginning to realize that he's not entirely comfortable with that ethical void. Sure, he's got where he is by foul means. But he's starting to imagine -- like many an Alaska newcomer then and now -- that maybe this is a place where he can remake his life.

It's a universal plot, Weller said. "A lot of American success stories started out as criminals." In the play, Soapy puts it this way: "Show me a good reputation and I'll show you the grandson of a horse thief."

The dramatic conflict lies within Soapy himself, who the playwright describes as "a con man no longer satisfied to just get what he needs but who wants a justifiable long-term existence."

The attempt to shift from opportunist to a pillar of society doesn't sit well with his associates. They've followed Soapy to Alaska presuming that Skagway is just another "hit-and-run operation ... end of next summer latest, then back to the world."

When the gang realizes that their leader is swallowing his own bunco, they turn against him, launching arsons and robberies unsanctioned by the boss. Soapy helplessly sees his old empire crumbling before he can finish building his new one. He can't control the situation, and he won't run away.


The antagonist in all this is the man who history celebrates as the good guy, Frank Reid, who is said to have gunned down Soapy and was killed himself in the duel.

Reid too is conflicted in Weller's version. He's a straight arrow with a shady past who admires order but chooses to live in a chaotic setting. He's opposed to the more extreme actions of the local vigilante committee but is ready to take the law into his own hands when pushed.

Soapy is fatally attracted to Reid's incorruptibility. He easily cows or seduces the townsfolk, clergy, territorial authorities and the slipperier businessmen. But what he craves is Reid's sincere respect and friendship.

His men are baffled. "Frank Reid will never be in our pocket," says one. "We've seen his kind before."

"No, never his exact kind," Soapy answers. "Can't be bought. Can't be scared. Can't be fooled. The man is goodness itself. I want him. I'll have him."

But that's impossible. "Reid found Smith amusing," Weller said, not threatening or respectable.

The clash of psychologies sets the scene for a tragedy worthy of Sophocles. But it takes place behind the mask of mirth associated with the Gay '90s and Gold Rush frivolity -- sourdoughs and outlaws, dust pokes and hootch, prostitutes and ragtime. (Weller, who studied composition and had his own jazz band for a while, wrote several period-style tunes that lace the script.)

On a more visceral, edge-of-the-seat level, "The Ballad of Soapy Smith" reads like a smooth-scripted action flick. In fact, Weller said, "There was interest in it, very briefly, for a movie. Elton John was involved, and Garth Brooks.

"It all got very interesting and exciting -- before it didn't."

From his rotting coffin under the sod and snow of Skagway, Soapy Smith might well agree.

February 14, 2009

The Shah of Skaguay...

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ur friend, John Richards jr., over at Footnotes sent us a newspaper clipping, The Shah of Skaguay from the San Francisco Chronicle, March 12, 1898, that he "spotlighted." I, myself had never seen this article from the Chronicle before. What a great find! Thank you so much for sharing this with us John.

The Ballad of Soapy Smith...

February 10, 2009

Quick quotes...

"I find people putting their money into savings banks. Now, this is dead wrong. The faro bank is the only safe bank. It is run by honorable, high-minded men, who would scorn to do evil."
~ Jefferson R. “Soapy” Smith,
Rocky Mountain News, September 25, 1894.

February 8, 2009

Goodbye, God I’m going to Anchorage!

Cyrano’s Theatre Company in Anchorage, Alaska is presenting, The Ballad of Soapy Smith by Michael Weller and directed by Dick Reichman, beginning February 13, 2009 through March 1, 2009. Sandy Harper, the Producing Artistic Director has arranged that I can fly up there for the play on February 26 through March 1.

"Originally commissioned in 1983 to open the new Seattle Repertory Theatre and picked up by the New York Public Theatre. Jefferson Randolph ('Soapy') Smith II (1860-July 8, 1898) was an American con artist and gangster who had a major hand in the organized criminal operations of Denver, CO, Creede, CO, and the focus of our play, the gold rush days of Skagway, Alaska. This particular song of a man trapped in his own myth and inevitably paying the price is also about the moral contradictions that are still reflected in today’s politics. This large cast saga will make the gold rush days of Skagway and the notorious Soapy Smith come alive. Soapy Smith ‘bends truth into shapes never before seen on this earth.’… We are also honored that the playwright, Michael Weller, will be our guest for opening night."

At the conclusion of each nights performance I will be giving a small talk on the historical aspects of the play with a question and answer period. The play is a part of the events scheduled for the annual Fur Rondy event called Gold Rush Day on Saturday Feb 28 which occurs in front of Cyrano's. This event will feature period music and entertainment including a reenactment of the shoot out on Juneau Wharf between Soapy and Frank Reid. Frank Delaney has been kind enough to restage the fight especially for this purpose. I will be there dressed in my period 1898 Soapy outfit (if I can withstand the cold) performing various short cons.

(click to enlarge)
Looking down on Resurrection Creek and Cook Inlet.

It is my hope that I will be able to visit a very important location for Soapites. This is Hope, Alaska at the mouth of Resurrection Creek where in 1896 Soapy landed on the steamer General Canby in hopes of finding a gold rush town from which to build a new empire. He did not find what he was looking for but while there he wrote to his wife.

May 10, 1896
Cooks Inlett [sic] near Coal Bay, 600 miles from Juneau on board the Gen. Canby 2500 miles north of San Francisco.

Dear Mollie,
Am well, will be to my destination tomorrow if nothing goes wrong. Have had a hell of a trip. You can write to Resurection [sic] Creek, Cooks Inlett [sic], Alaska. Have no time to write now as we hail a steamer bound for San Francisco to mail this. Have heard no word from you since I left Denver.

Yours Jeff
Love to all
Turning the letter sideways he wrote, "Gold here in big quantities all country talking up here-"

It is currently about 15 degrees in Anchorage so I had probably better bring an extra sweater. Lol.

February 7, 2009

Soapy Smith Night Faro Seminar...

In the February 2009 newsletter of the Academy of Magical Arts. Inc., the first sign of the upcoming Soapy Smith wake (July 8, 2009) is seen in the following ad.


Got a gambling spirit? Follow in the boot steps of such famous gamblers as Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, an learn to play the favorite game of the Old West - Faro.

At this seminar Pop Haydn and Brian Tolman will teach you to play the game of Faro, how to set up your own table and be a dealer.

Learn to master the game that famed grifter Canada Bill Jones referred to as "the only game in town!"


February 5, 2009

The "Soap Sell" in New York, 1889...

It is known that Soapy Smith was not the only con man performing the prize package soap sell racket. Circumstantial evidence shows that he may not have been the first either. Below is an 1889 newspaper clipping describing the "soap sell" and other fascinating swindles in operation on the streets of New York City.

The New York Sun
April 29, 1889,

Some of the Clever Gentlemen who are
Waiting for the Visitors From the Country.
The big scoop net that the police are throwing out to gather in the thieves and disreputable characters who are ready to make prey of our country cousins when they come to town to see the centennial show has not yet been drawn tight upon the bunko sharpers and the petty fakirs.

The bunko workers, jovial chaps who meet you in the street, shake you by the hand, call you by a wrong name, apologize, and when you have told your right name hurry away with it to a confederate who will rob you gracefully, are first to be avoided.

Another fakir is the worker of the soap game, who lets you, as if by accident, see him tuck a $2 bill into a tiny box and drop it into a bag, but who, when you pick the box out of the bag show you that the $2 bill was in the one just alongside it. Still another swindler that the police are after is the man "in hard luck," who will offer to sell a genuine $4 meerschaum pipe to take home to the farm for 50 cents, although you could get it in a store for 5 cents if you only knew it was composition.

The man who has the celebrated Mexican lily seed is expected here with a choice assortment of “only a few more” samples of the packet that you put in water, and which in less than three days will begin to sprout into superb lilies. The seeds will be offered at the great sacrifice of a dollar a packet. But any policeman will know that the dollar packet contains some oats of no appreciable value.

Beware, too, of the sad-eyed and forlorn man who will hang around ferries and elevated railroad stations, and will offer you an eighteen karat gold ring for the ridiculous small sum of a quarter because he is one the verge of starvation. The law doesn’t take kindly to this method of disposing of brass rings worth five cents a dozen.

The man who has the celebrated Mexican lily seed is expected here with a choice assortment of “only a few more” samples of the packet that you put in water, and which in less than three days will begin to sprout into superb lilies. The seeds will be offered at the great sacrifice of a dollar a packet. But any policeman will know that the dollar packet contains some oats of no appreciable value.

Beware, too, of the sad-eyed and forlorn man who will hang around ferries and elevated railroad stations, and will offer you an eighteen karat gold ring for the ridiculous small sum of a quarter because he is one the verge of starvation. The law doesn’t take kindly to this method of disposing of brass rings worth five cents a dozen.

February 4, 2009

Jeff Smith's Parlor. Museum on Martin Itjen: Part 1

In April 2007 the National Park Service, the Rasmuson Foundation and the city of Skagway combined their resources and purchased the George Rapuzzi collection. Then in 2008 I reported the real possibility that Soapy's saloon, Jeff Smith's Parlor, was being considered as a museum to early tourist guide, Martin Itjen rather than restore the building to that of the saloon. I was made to understand that it all hinged on how much of the building was left from the saloon. There has to be a certain percentage of the saloon building left before the National Park Service can restore it to that era (1898). Apparently there was not enough as the building had been moved twice and altered both by Itjen and Rapuzzi.

The focus of the restoration will be to restore the building to the way Martin Itjen had it in the 1930s-1940s, which was a museum on Soapy Smith. The building has been sitting vacant since the 1960s and was starting to lean badly. When the display is reopened people will still see "Soapy Smith's saloon" in their minds and discussions. I imagine tourists and old west aficionados will be saying to one another, "hey, did you go see Soapy's saloon?" rather than, "hey, did you go see the display of Itjen's museum on Soapy's saloon?"

Below is the official post (February 2, 2009) at Rasmuson blog, RFblog: Reflect. Share.

City of Skagway and National Park Service receive Rapuzzi Collection

In December 2008, Rasmuson Foundation donated the George and Edna Rapuzzi Collection, an extraordinary, one of a kind collection of artifacts encompassing the Klondike gold rush and early 20th Century life in historic Skagway in portions to both the city of Skagway and the National Park Service. Working with these two partners, the Foundation sought not only to protect the 450,000 items and five historic buildings, but more importantly to make them available for public viewing and research. The transfer concluded a six-year process.

The foundation purchased the collection in April 2007. The unique collection was started by Martin Itjen, a stampeder who later led Skagway’s developing tourist trade. His longtime friend, George Rapuzzi, was a tourism promoter and tour guide, as well as a consummate collector in his own right.

Theresa Thibault, chief of resources at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, said, “We are absolutely delighted at the outcome. I think there were some who thought it would never happen, but I had faith all along that we’d see this day.”

Among the items in the collection are (thanks to the National Park Service for these descriptions):

  • The 1897 parlor that belonged to the famed Jefferson “Soapy” Smith. After the gunfight which caused his death in 1898, the saloon became a restaurant and then the home of the Skagway Hook and Ladder Company. Martin Itjen acquired the building around 1935, remodeled it, and re-opened it as Jeff Smith’s Parlor Museum. This landmark structure retains much of its 1898 appearance as Soapy Smith’s headquarters.
  • The 1900 YMCA Gymnasium and Reading Room and Meyers Meat Market complex, later used as an automotive garage and still holding many automotive artifacts from the 1930s.
  • Martin Itjen’s famous “Skagway Streetcar,” a home-converted 1906 Packard, used in early Skagway tours and still emblazoned with his marketing slogan “Nothing Like It In the World;”
  • The original silk banner of the Arctic Brotherhood, formed in 1899 by stampeders to provide mutual assistance, friendship, and social interaction in the northern communities. The Arctic Brotherhood Hall is owned by the City of Skagway, now operating as visitor center for Skagway’s 900,000 visitors each year.
  • Numerous objects representing Native Alaskan stories including Tlingit carvings and baskets and a unique “Native Packers for Hire” sign from the gold rush. The collection also holds scores of photographs, hotel registers and ship manifests that add depth, texture, and personality to the story already told by Skagway’s historic architecture.
Thibault continued, “Our intent is to make the collection publicly accessible as soon as possible. Our first step is to update the website, but we have already started two display cases in our museum which we’re putting temporary displays in. Objects can be seen in the museum and visitors center at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.

Eventually the Meyer Meat Market will be rehabilitated as a Klondike Gold Rush Historic Research Center. That building will contain exhibit space where I’m sure a number of the Rapuzzi objects will be placed on permanent display.

Soapy’s Parlor will be rehabilitated as it was during Martin Itjen’s time. Martin was the first tourism promoter for Skagway and turned Soapy’s gambling parlor into a museum. We have really good photographs of it during that period of time, and by bringing it back to that time period we will be able to tell the story of both Soapy and Martin. We will recreate the interior as it was at that time. This building will be open to the public and interpreters will be there to enlighten the visitors on Skagway and it’s early days.”

The City of Skagway will add to its City of Skagway Museum collection those items that tell other city stories, including those of Native Alaskans, tourism, and its port. In addition, it received the Rapuzzi House and the World War II Commissary.

Have you visited Skagway, the City of Skagway Museum or the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park? Share your stories with us here.

February 2, 2009

Soapy Smith's "big mitt" (crooked poker game) nets $7,280.00

Here is a great article about Soapy Smith's “big mitt” (crooked poker game) swindle, which is what he called a crooked poker game in one of his notebooks he kept financial records in. This particular game netted $240 which is the equivalent of $7,280.40 in today's market. The bunco men are “Joe” Bowers, who in reality is “Rev.” John. L. Bowers and “Professor” W. K. Jackson of the Soapy Smith gang, called the Soap Gang.

What is very interesting about this version of the “friendly poker game swindle” is that it involves a victim who declined to sit in on the game, yet still lost the $240! How it was done just goes to show that Soapy and his gang were truly masters of human nature.

Rocky Mountain News
October 5, 1894

The Oily Gentleman of Clerical Appearance Finds a Fat Fish.
Alluring Prospects of a Door-Plate Invention Draws a Small Sum
from a Young Speculator, While the Great Chief of Detectives
Behymer Confesses That He Was Deceived by a Smooth Young
Pedagogue from Colorado Springs.


Freeman Libby of Lyons, Colo., called at the station yesterday and complained that a brace of bunco men had induced him to give up $240. Libby has the general appearance of a stranger. He was attired in a cheap suit of cloths and wore a heavy coat over his blue jumper. His story was that he met Joe Bowers on Seventeenth and Larimer streets. Bowers represented himself to be a mining man from Cripple Creek who had an engagement with a Mr. Jackson to inspect some specimens. While the pair were discussing the questions of the day W. K. Jackson hove in sight. Bowers introduced him to Libby and the latter was invited to come with them and see the specimens.

In an easy and graceful manner the countryman was steered into the old St. Charles hotel, near Nineteenth and Market streets. There they found three men playing poker. They invited Libby and his friend to join in the game, but Libby declined. The countryman did not wish to prevent his friends from sharing in the game and told them so, thus aiding and abetting in his own downfall. Bowers and Jackson sat down at the table and played well. Jackson at first won everything in sight. His pile of chips soon began to disappear and he borrowed $100 from Libby who was eagerly watching the game, promising to give him a check. The $100 was soon gone and the smooth Jackson borrowed another $100 and then $40. Libby was then broke and he demanded his money back with the usual result. He complained at headquarters and warrants were sworn out before Justice Woodson for the arrest of Bowers and Jackson. They were arrested and released on bonds.

Big Mitt: pages 87, 153, 197