Western history

Soapy Smith Speaks

A colorful historical character, Soapy Smith, provided a great story from the Old West, and considerable food for thought in my previous blog entry. To follow up on this subject, his great-grandson and namesake, Jeff Smith, has graciously agreed to answer some questions here, about his search for truth regarding his famous ancestor.

Jeff Smith
Author Jeff Smith
  • When you were researching your great-grandfather Soapy Smith’s life, what were your favorite discoveries?

I would say my favorite discovery was the existence of two notes written by Canadian Mountie, Sam Steele to his superiors that clearly show J. M. Tanner, one of the vigilante’s on the wharf the night Soapy was shot dead, witnessed and talked about seeing Jesse Murphy kill Soapy and not Frank Reid as history suggests. My family had heard just about all the stories that someone else besides Reid was shooting at Soapy but for decades we had no real tangible evidence. Since the discovery of the Steele notes new information, including statements by Jesse Murphy himself, have surfaced. There is not a doubt in my mind that Murphy is the killer.

A close second in favorites would be the discovery of a photograph of the outside of the Tivoli Club, one of Soapy’s saloons and gaming halls in Denver. It was nicknamed, “the slaughter pen” due to the violence that took place inside. It also added to the knowledge that Soapy was very patriotic. Every photograph of all of his saloons and clubs shows American flags and or bunting draping the buildings. A future discovery I would like to find are photographs of the insides of his saloons. There are 3 of Jeff Smith’s Parlor in Skagway, Alaska so perhaps there are some others.

  • Did your impression of your ancestor change during or as a result of your research?

Yes, I quickly learned that he was a lot more involved and active in events going on around him than I previously thought. Did I change my attitude about his criminal ways? No. There are some members of my family who wish to view Soapy in a better light. Yes, Soapy was very good to his family and was involved in more charity causes than I can find, however, I chose not to whitewash his criminal side. I never viewed Soapy’s life like a teeter-totter, in which the good side eased the severity of the bad side. I’ve never viewed Soapy as “one of the good guys.” Some people have accused me of “honoring” him. I do honor his intellect, and the methods he used to extract money from his victims, rather than using a gun. I thrill to his exciting escapes from trouble and how he met his enemies head on. However I do not honor or find thrill in the crime itself. Stealing the educational excuse from Soapy himself I placed the following quote on my sites. “He left his mark on this world, and from his deeds we learn not to be one.”

  • Has any new information surfaced about him since your book was published?

Oh yes. What truly amazes me is just how busy Soapy actually was. Thousands of documents, letters, and newspaper clippings in my families collections attest to this. The man wrote letters almost daily. I sincerely doubt he was ever bored. Because of this new artifacts and episodes of his life are found by myself, my family, and friends on a weekly basis. Perhaps the most exciting find was Soapy’s possible involvement in the Earp-cowboy frictions of Tombstone, Arizona in the 1880s. After one of the Earp brothers was murdered the family barricaded themselves inside the Cosmopolitan Hotel. That’s when Soapy showed up and resided there for possibly up to a month’s stay. It is already known that members of the Earp gang later joined up with the Soap gang in Denver.

  • Is there anything you want people to know about Soapy Smith that you weren’t able to say previously?

Purely on a historical level, the man’s history is simply amazing. While the two men were alive, Soapy was more well known across the country than Wyatt Earp. Soapy Smith deserves to be placed up there with the likes of Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok, and Wyatt Earp. I believe that all it takes is one good movie and he will become a household name. Back in the 1980s an author told my father that a film about Soapy should be a mix between the movies, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. I patiently await Spielberg’s call…

— Jeff Smith

Thank you, Jeff! I appreciate you taking the time to share your story … and I think it would make a great movie!

For more information about Jeff Smith and Soapy Smith’s story, go to: http://www.soapysmith.net/
Joyce B. Lohse, 4/18/10