The most visited grave in Skagway, Alaska is not that of a well-loved philanthropist or entertainer, but that of Alaska’s most infamous criminal -- “Soapy” Smith. Born Jefferson Randolph Smith, Soapy was to Alaska what Al Capone was to Chicago, ruling with a violent temper and a talent for getting authorities on his side.
Before coming to Alaska, he earned a name in the old west as a racketeer and general bad man, with a troop of shills and thieves that were loyal to him. These gangs dubbed him "king of the frontier con men” early on, but the nickname that would really stick he earned with the prize package soap racket.
This con started with Soapy displaying his soap on a corner, loudly preaching about its miraculous qualities. Once a crowd had been gathered, he’d begin to wrap soap bars in paper money, then cover them with plain paper, so they looked the same as the rest of the soap bars. He’d seem to mix the moneyed bars in with the rest using sleight of hand. Then a shill, a gang member planted in the crowd, would grab a moneyed bar and loudly announce that he had won -- encouraging the rest to get in on the nearly-free money. Most would buy several bars before finally giving up.
He became a Colorado celebrity with this and other scams, even being named deputy sheriff at one point. His power grew to the point that in 1896 he outright told a newspaper that he was a conman, quoted as saying, “I consider bunco steering more honorable than the life led by the average politician." Not long after, his celebrity had become so large that even the most corrupt of city officials could no longer protect him. His empire began to crumble, with many of his men being arrested and Soapy narrowly escaping.
After a brief attempt at starting a con in Mexico, he headed up north to Alaska, where the gold rush was in full swing. Most of his Alaskan action was in Skagway. He separated miners from their money with a variety of scams, with his shills first befriending unwitting miners to decide how best to do so.
Soapy had several fake businesses, including a telegraph company whose wires went no further than the wall. His shills would take the victim to these businesses, then get them to play some rigged poker, and other means to get him wiped out completely. If the man was likely to create trouble or couldn’t be recruited to the gang, Soapy himself would offer to send him back to civilization.
Again Soapy’s fame and power grew quickly, and in 1898 he rode on his grey horse as Marshal of the Skagway 4th of July parade, sitting next to real local leaders. This day of revelry was one of his last, as he would meet his death that very week.
After robbing a man of nearly 30 thousand dollars in today’s money a couple of days later, Soapy and his men had pushed it too far. A group of citizens and leaders started a vigilance committee and planned to have a meeting about the event on the Juneau Wharf, in Skagway, on July 8th. Soapy crashed the meeting with a rifle draped over his shoulder.
He started an argument with a man named Frank H. Reid and a gunfight broke out very suddenly and unexpectedly, the men fatally shooting one another. Soapy’s last words are said to be “My God, don’t shoot!” He was buried just outside the city graveyard, a plot that is now on most tour itineraries. Soapy’s fame continued to grow after his death, and on every July 8th wakes are held in his honor throughout the United States.
Planning a trip? Find our top things to do in Skagway, Alaska.