In the 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Senator Ransom Stoddard (played by actor Jimmy Stewart), who became famous for shooting a notorious outlaw, returns home to attend the funeral of an old friend, Tom Doniphon (played by John Wayne).
A reporter interviews the senator, and during the course of the interview, Stoddard reveals for the first time that it was Doniphon, and not he, who killed the infamous Liberty Valance. When the reporter turns in the story, the editor tears up the article and states: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
A number of people became legends during the development of the American Wild West. Kit Carson, Colonel George Custer, and Wild Bill Hickock are but three examples. The Klondike produced its own legendary figures, often because of what they meant to the shared memory of the event. Klondike Kate is a good example of one of these figures. She was a minor figure in the actual gold rush, but an active self-promoter whose fame grew as the years passed.
Such was the case with Soapy Smith, the sure-thing man from Colorado, whose gang of con artists, thieves and pickpockets terrorized the coastal gateway town of Skagway, Alaska, during the height of the gold rush. His notoriety and eventual downfall in a gun battle on a Skagway wharf in early July of 1898 was later elevated to the status of legend. In becoming legend, the facts of his short and tawdry career in the gold rush port have often been distorted or lost in the retelling.
So says Catherine Holder Spude in her new book, That Fiend in Hell: Soapy Smith in Legend, published last year by the University of Oklahoma Press. In its 276 pages, this book explores in detail how the facts surrounding “Soapy” have become obscured through time by layer upon layer of fanciful retelling of the story. By repetition, the legend has become the fact.
Spude argues that Soapy was not the big man around town that he has always been portrayed to be, and that it wasn’t Frank Reid, the much admired surveyor and spirited citizen, who shot Soapy. Spude contends that Skagway wasn’t even the lawless place that has often been suggested in the literature. That was an image promoted by various chroniclers, most of whom, according to the author, had their own reasons to do revise the truth.
The first four chapters (Part 1) unravel the events leading up to and including the shooting of Soapy Smith. The second half (Part 2) traces meticulously the gradual rewriting of the shooting till it is no longer easy to or acceptable to find the truth. The text is accompanied by three maps, 38 illustrations, 22 pages of end notes, an eight-page bibliography and an index.
“Legends,” says Spude, “are the stories we tell ourselves to reinforce our myths, which articulate our value systems.” What is the myth? That Americans civilized the wilderness and brought social order to lawlessness, often violently. This myth is very important, I think, to American identity.
Through her analysis of the treatment of Soapy Smith in the newspapers of the day, she illustrates how Smith’s reputation as the “King of Skagway” is magnified. She suggests that he was a minor player in the early days of Skagway. For that matter he wasn’t even in Skagway for very long – only a few months.
Intrigued, I did a little research of my own. According to Sam Steele, the superintendent of the mounted police in the Yukon, on the Chilkoot Trail, “neither law nor order prevailed … murder, robbery and petty theft were of common occurrence, the ‘shell game’ could be seen at every turn of the trail … so as not to lose the golden opportunity which they would be unable to find or take advantage of on the other side of the line in British Territory.”
Skagway, reported Steele, from February of 1898 and for several months to follow, “was little better than a hell upon earth. The desperado commonly called ‘Soapy Smith’ and a numerous gang of ruffians ran the town. Murder and robbery were daily occurrences, hundreds … having been robbed or cheated out of their money. Men were frequently exchanging shots in the streets.” On one occasion, half a dozen ruffians were engaged in a gunfight and bullets whizzed through the mounted police office where Steele was temporarily stationed.
Of all the characters in Skagway, only one name appeared in Steele’s official 1898 report to Parliament – that of Soapy. There was no effective law and order in Skagway, so the citizens took it upon themselves to form a committee to establish some order in the rapidly growing town. Who eventually became the object of their discontent, and who got shot trying to bust up a meeting of concerned citizens at the end of a wharf in Skagway on the 8th of July? It was Soapy.
Smith may not have been the “king” of Skagway, but he was a bad enough character to consolidate the resolve of ordinary citizens to do something about him. And they did; his shooting seems to mark the turning of the tide in the early days of Skagway.
Spude uses questionable statistics to bolster her contention that the murder rate was no greater in Skagway than in the Yukon, comparing the town of Skagway with the entire Yukon to make her point. She overlooks the fact that in Dawson in 1898, there was not one single murder – in a town whose population equaled or exceeded that of Skagway.
A comparison of murders between the two disproportionate jurisdictions may not be a good indicator of the state of lawlessness in any case. This comparison of murder rates has already sparked much lively debate, but I for one remain unconvinced that the Yukon was just as lawless as the American side of the Klondike trail.
Crime rates aside, this book is a meticulously detailed and fascinating chronicle of the birth and growth of a legend, in the person of Soapy Smith. If you want a detailed narrative of his crime wave and who ultimately shot him, you will have to read her book and judge for yourself. And if the truth does not conform to the legend, will it go out the window?
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in stores. You can contact him at email@example.com