Reviews

  • Alias Soapy Smith

    Review from THE TOMBSTONE EPITAPH, by Gary Ledoux, October 2011.

    I first “met” Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith while doing research about the gold-rush era town of Skagway, Alaska. In the summer of 1898, Soapy Smith held sway in Skagway’s underworld. He was portrayed as a con-man, swindling miners, robbing the unwary, and allegedly going so far as to pick the pockets of the victims of an April avalanche. He was portrayed as one-dimensional – and it was all bad. One of Soapy’s contemporaries, former Tombstone Epitaph editor John Clum, also in Skagway during that period specifically noted in his diary that Soapy was… “a leader in the shell-game racket.”

    What I didn’t know, and great-grandson Jeff Smith covers in exquisite detail in his book, Alias Soapy Smith – The Life and death of a Scoundrel, is that Soapy was a most charismatic underworld leader in Denver and Creede Colorado way before Skagway. But most intriguingly, Soapy had a very soft side, helping the poor, the indigent and having an especially soft spot for children. In his twenty or so years as a con man and hustler, Soapy Smith made an outrageous amount of money, even by today’s standards, and either gambled it away or gave it away to those less fortunate. Sometimes, after he had swindled a man out of his last nickel, he would feel sorry for his “victim” and give him enough money to buy a boat or train ticket out of town.

    Jeff Smith has done an outstanding job showing the many sides, the many adventures, and ultimately the controversial death of his ancestor with an incredible amount of primary sources including unpublished family records and transcripts from recordings made in the 1970’s of people who saw and knew Soapy in Skagway. Letters, documents and even newspaper clippings kept by Soapy himself bring this fascinating story to life with vivid accounts of the sometimes seamy, and sometime illustrious life he led during some turbulent times.

    One thing that I didn’t know until reading this book, and I am sure few people know, is that more than anything, Soapy wanted to be viewed as a legitimate businessman – to be seen as a benefactor to the community. He wanted the legitimacy, but he also wanted to act politically on his own behalf to make sure the laws regarding his real profession remained lax and their enforcement even more so.

    Whether he was trying to raise an army of American mercenaries in Denver to fight rebels in Mexico, or trying to raise a company of Alaskan soldiers to fight the Spanish in Cuba, or just running a quick game of three-card monte on a Denver street corner, Soapy Smith was certainly one of the most interesting and captivating personages of the-then disappearing frontier of the 1890’s.

    “My God – don’t shoot” were reportedly Soapy Smith’s last words. Alias Soapy Smith is certainly the last word on the life of one of history’s most colorful characters and the times in which he lived. Jeff Smith is now counted among the ranks of those writers and historians who take the time to seek the truth, and then display it in a most compelling fashion.

    Alias Soapy Smith belongs on the book-shelf of anyone interested in the old west, the Klondike/Alaskan gold rush, early Alaskan history, Denver political history, or the study of “consmanship” and gambling at the turn of the 20th century.

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  • Gold Fever

    Review from ALASKA HISTORY Magazine, by Michael Gates, Parks Alaska, Dawson, Yukon Territory, Canada, for Alaska History, Vol. 13, Nos. 1 & 2 (Spring/Fall 1998): 73-74.

    Reverend R. M. Dickey made the first entry in his gold rush diary on August 31, 1897, and kept an account of his adventures as a gold rush missionary until his departure from the Yukon in August 1899. For years after, accompanied by lantern slides, he delivered lectures on gold rush exploits; he struggled also to bring his recollections to press. Upon the advice of his prospective publisher, he conveyed his story in the form of a fictionalized account rather than a documentary narrative. The work did not reach the publication stage during Dickey's life but sat neglected until recently when Art Petersen, a teacher of composition and literature at the University of Alaska Southeast, edited the manuscript for publication. The story begins in Seattle, from where protagonist Timothy Shane, nicknamed Quebec, departs on an adventure to Skagway, Dyea, Dawson City, and the Klondike gold fields. Skeptical of missionaries and doctors, he finds himself befriended by and immersed in the missionary and medical crusade of those very people during the epic stampede. The story progresses, describing the various efforts of Quebec and his colleagues to build churches and hospitals and serve the spiritual needs of the Klondike gold seekers. Quebec weaves a narrative of events and people, based upon real events and personal experiences, of life and death, love and adventure, and heroic actions along the gold rush trail. I would have preferred a more historical treatment of Dickey's personal experiences. The story has considerable strength, however, since it derived from first-hand experience of the gold rush and thus gives the story a sense of veracity that it would not have if written by someone with only a second-hand knowledge of the places and events. The perspective, too, is that not of a gold seeker but a seeker of souls and thus dwells upon aspects of the gold rush not necessarily covered in other accounts. The story is footnoted by the editor to indicate parallels between Dickey's diary and the places and events depicted in the story. The story is also strengthened by the abundant photographs, many of them from Dickey's collection of lantern slides, which bring to life the places and events of the story. Though not as sharp and clear as one would wish, they nevertheless give visual strength to the story. Readers will have to jog themselves back to the realization that the story is not a historical narrative but a novel. Despite the editor's plea that the plot is clumsy and the characters are thinly developed, this still proves to be an interesting read.

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  • The Alaska Gold Rush Letters and Photographs of Leroy S. Townsend

    Review from ALASKA HISTORY Magazine, by Geoffrey Bleakley, Copper Center, Alaska, for Alaska History, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Spring 2000): 60-61.

    While thousands of prospectors scoured the Copper Basin in 1898 and 1899, relatively few recorded their experiences and even fewer ever published them. Only one first-hand account, Charles A. Margeson's Experiences of Gold Hunters in Alaska, was actually completed at the time. Three others were printed later: Addison Powell's in 1910, Luther W. Guiteau's in 1923, and Charles H. Remington's in 1939. Since then, the descendants of three additional stampeders, Basil Austin, Horace S. Conger, and Leroy S. Townsend, have added their accounts. Like the others, Pennsylvania physician Leroy Townsend was lured north by reports of the Klondike gold discovery. Leaving the head of the Valdez Arm in late March 1898, he crossed the Valdez Glacier and descended the Klutina River, reaching the newly established community of Copper Center in July. Although Townsend stayed in the region for nearly a year, he never roamed very far, spending much of his time around Amy's Landing, a temporary camp situated just below the outlet of Klutina Lake. A fairly typical stampeder, Townsend prospected but never actually did any mining and, needless to say, never struck it rich. His account, however, remains useful for several reasons. Composed of thirty letters and illustrated with dozens of his own photos, it provides intriguing new details about the function and operation of a typical miner's company, the founding of Valdez, the organization of the region's mail service, the availability and price of various commodities, contemporary hunting methods, and the nearly forgotten Quartz Creek gold rush. Townsend, unfortunately, ignores his own key role in combating the scurvy epidemic which swept the Copper Basin in early 1899. While other sources credit him with saving the lives of numerous stampeders, he himself is largely silent on the subject. Whether he was too busy to write or the letters were simply lost in transit remains a mystery. The editors do an excellent job of introducing the material and placing it within its historical context. Their footnotes are also very helpful, clarifying and supplementing the author's words. In all, they have produced an interesting and attractive book that makes a substantial contribution to the literature of the region.

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