Review: The eerie Skagway Gold Rush Cemetery and 'Soapy' Smith’s story Special

Posted Oct 20, 2014 by Igor I. Solar
The Gold Rush Cemetery in Skagway, Alaska, contains the remains of many ill-fated gold-seekers who lost their lives in search of wealth. It also holds the remains of a town’s hero and the tomb of one of the most infamous con men of the American West.
Jefferson R. Smith II  alias  Soapy   infamous con man in the old American West.
Jefferson R. Smith II, alias "Soapy", infamous con man in the old American West.
"I consider bunko steering more honorable than the life led by the average politician." (Jefferson Smith, 1896, to a newspaper reporter.)
Who was “Soapy” Smith?
Jefferson R. “Soapy” Smith was one of the most famous American swindlers of the late 1800s. He preferred to be called Jeff Smith, but occasionally accepted the “Soapy” nickname because he thought it gave him some status as a menacing gangster.
Jefferson Randolph Smith II was born on November 2, 1860, in Newnan, Georgia. During the last two decades of the 1800s, Smith operated several scams in the American West. He started his criminal “career” in 1876 in Fort Worth, Texas, and subsequently expanded or moved operations to Denver and Creede, Colorado, and later on he joined the Klondike Gold Rush stampeders in Skagway, Alaska, not to tackle the rough life of a gold prospector, but to devise ways to cheat miners off their money.
Smith started as a small-time fraudster by selling fake jewelry. Gradually, he established an organization of bunko men that took people’s money through shell games, three-card Monte, and other basic crooked-gambling scams. By the late 1870s, while in Denver, Smith developed his highly successful "Prize Package Soap Sell" swindle, which earned him the nickname of "Soapy.”
A way to riches by selling "lucky" soap bars
The scam consisted in setting up a suitcase on a stand on a busy street corner. The suitcase contained ordinary 5-cent soap bars wrapped in plain paper. Jeff’s smooth-tongued discourse attracted curious passers-by who stopped to look as he wrapped a few soap bars with money ranging from one dollar up to one hundred dollar bills. All soap bars were then re-wrapped with plain paper and sold for $1 each. Of course there would always be among the crowd one or more of Soapy’s accomplices willing to buy a bar of soap for $1, open it to joyfully find a $100 bill. The amazed on-lookers in the crowd expectantly bought their own packages which, of course, contained just the plain, cheap soap bar. Through artful tweaking the money-wrapped soap bars had been removed from the pile. By travelling to many locations with his soap-laden suitcase and his “lucky” assistants, “Soapy” Smith managed to carry out the scheme with great success for almost two decades.
Obviously, with money and prosperity came power and the possibility of taking control of criminal operations and illegal gambling. Maintaining his businesses made it necessary to collude with city politicians and high ranking police officers. “Soapy” established gambling halls and drinking saloons where he would cheat his customers with more elaborated tricks and a range of deceitful practices.
The famous “Petrified Man” hoax
One such sham was the display in his saloon of a “Petrified Man”. The “wonder” was just an old skeleton plastered with concrete. Saloon customers had to pay only 10 cents to be amazed by the spectacle. However, that was just small change compared with what the unsuspecting customers to the saloon would lose later at devious card games.
In 1897, when the Klondike-Yukon gold rush started, visionary Soapy perceived the opportunity to make a lot of money and moved his gang and operations to Skagway, Alaska. There, he established a gambling saloon named “Jeff Smith’s Parlor” and soon he became the “town boss”. At his saloon he continued his shell games and Three-Card Monte scams to cheat gold miners of their cash and gold nuggets. He even set up a Telegraph Office which allowed miners to send messages to their faraway relatives. Of course, the telegraph lines did not go farther than the wall of the office, but the yearning prospectors were happy to pay good money to tell their dear ones about their endeavors, success or misfortune, in the Yukon gold-rich fields.
The beginning of the end for Jeff “Soapy” Smith
Many law-abiding Skagway citizens got tired of Soapy and his gang who were turning the growing town into a lawless inferno dominated by gambling, drinking, firearms, bribery and prostitution, and decided to expel Smith and his gang out of town. They did not get much support from the official authorities who were under Soapy’s control. They decided to organize as a vigilante squad called the "Committee of 101" and started to look for a way to get rid of Soapy and his gang. However, Soapy hit back by forming his own “Law and Order Committee 303” composed of about 300 members. The vigilante force was compelled to retreat.
Matters, however, reached a limit when three members of Soapy's gang stole about $2,600 in gold nuggets from a Klondike miner claiming they had won it in a fair three-card Monte game. The vigilantes re-assembled and demanded the gold be given back to the miner. Soapy refused arguing that his men had won that gold in a square game. Two groups of Skagway residents, the Merchants Committee and the Citizens Committee, organized a meeting at a warehouse in Skagway’s Juneau Wharf, which took place on the night of July 8, 1898.
Soapy got wind of the meeting and decided to attend carrying a rifle, followed by 6 of his cronies. Obviously, the citizens did not allow him and his partners entering the meeting, particularly in an aggressive posture. A heated argument ensued which derived in weapons fired. As a result of the shoot-out Soapy died from a bullet through his heart and another to his left thigh above the knee. A city engineer named Frank Reid, one of the men blocking his way, was seriously injured, hit by a bullet to his leg and another to his lower abdomen and groin.
Front page of the  Skaguay News   July 15  1898  including an extensive report on the death of gambl...
Front page of the "Skaguay News", July 15, 1898, including an extensive report on the death of gambling con man Jefferson R. "Soapy" Smith.
Frank Reid’s and “Soapy” Smith’s legendary graves
Frank Reid died twelve days later. He became an instant hero and practically the whole town attended his funeral. His gravestone, the largest in Skagway’s Gold Rush Cemetery, has the epitaph "He gave his life for the honor of Skagway.”
Frank Reid s tomb at the Gold Rush Cemetery  Skagway  Alaska. Following Reid s death  12 days after ...
Frank Reid's tomb at the Gold Rush Cemetery, Skagway, Alaska. Following Reid's death, 12 days after the Juneau Wharf Shoot-out, he became the town's hero.
Soapy’s tomb is located several meters away, almost at the edge of the graveyard. It’s a much modest, understated affair, indicating just his name, nickname omitted, the date of death, July 8, 1898, and Soapy´s age at the time of his death, 38.
 Soapy  Smith s grave in the Skagway Gold Rush Cemetery. The resting place of the notorious head of ...
"Soapy" Smith's grave in the Skagway Gold Rush Cemetery. The resting place of the notorious head of the Klondike-era band of crooked gamblers and thieves is marked by a simple wooden slab.
Several graves at the Gold Rush Cemetery in Skagway are marked  Unknown . They belong to gold-seeker...
Several graves at the Gold Rush Cemetery in Skagway are marked "Unknown". They belong to gold-seekers who died mostly in tragic circumstances shortly after arriving in town.
The Gold Rush Cemetery in Skagway  Alaska  is a historic site located about 800 meters out of town. ...
The Gold Rush Cemetery in Skagway, Alaska, is a historic site located about 800 meters out of town. The site is on a forested hill with dirt paths marked with rocks. All tombs are older than a century, some remain in good condition, but many show serious decay.