The book

The most comprehensive biography of Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith ever written. An extraordinary confidence man, gambler, and all-around bad man is set against the carefully researched historical times of the evolving Old West. Author and great-grandson Jeff Smith spent 25 years researching and writing the life and murderous death of one of the West's most infamous, and some say often unfairly maligned, masters of the criminal arts and natural-born leaders of men. Was Soapy Smith a "good man"? This history points to Sometimes. Was he a "bad man"? Without doubt, Often. In this book, from Georgia to Texas, from Denver and the silver and gold boom towns of Colorado, to Mexico and the Western states to the great Northwest, and to the last frontier, Alaska, you will travel with Soapy Smith to his criminal empires and final bold, deadly showdown with vigilantes.

  • 628 pages (plus photo pages = 660 pages total).
  • 54 photographs (most never before published).
  • Fully indexed.
  • Fully sourced
  • Many never before published personal and business letters and documents.
  • Many new facts and stories never before published.
  • ISBN: 0-9819743-0-9


This new biography of Jefferson Randolph Smith II, Alias Soapy, is written by a great-grandson of the subject, Jeff Smith. After his 25 years of research and writing, it is hard to imagine a more comprehensive biography of Soapy Smith ever being published. The 660 pages, 54 images, and 28-page, double-column index make it a big, accessible book.

The biography begins in pre-revolutionary America, traces the family to Georgia, and follows its subject from birth (November 2, 1860) to death (July 8, 1898). In between is chronicled a remarkable life of opposites—of high ability yet great hardship, of criminality and lawfulness, of sleight of hand and fair dealing, of ruthless human exploitation and uncommon charity, and of good fortune and bad luck, ending in no luck, bold pluck, and violent death.

In his teens and early twenties, Soapy Smith ranged the West, learning to master men and crowds and perfecting illusion in the service of fraud. In about 1888, at age 28, he settled in Denver and became a major figure there until 1895. After “burning all his bridges” one wild night in 1894, he was on the move again, to Mexico, St. Louis, Houston, San Francisco, and Spokane. From the Northwest in 1896, he explored prospects in Alaska, stopping in Juneau long enough to be arrested for auctioning his famous soap. Soapy continued north to Homer, up Cook Inlet to Hope and Sunrise on Turnagain Arm, and then back, not without adventure, to Seattle and Spokane.

Shortly after the steamer Portland docked in Seattle on July 17, 1897, with its fabulously rich miners, Soapy arrived in Skagway on August 22. Less than a year later, he was shot dead on Skagway’s Juneau Wharf. Frank Reid was credited with the deed and hailed as a hero. Reid did shoot it out with Soapy, but biographer Jeff Smith’s research has led to a large block of evidence indicating that another man fired the fatal bullet. This evidence includes two official reports filed by Colonel Sam Steele of the North West Mounted Police, published between book covers for the first time.

The Alaska chapters contain the most sustained period of intense and dramatic activity in Soapy’s thirty-seven and a half years. In Skagway his name was legendary before his death and remains so over 111 years later. Many stories told about Soapy are probably true, but more than a few probably are not. Every story known about Soapy Smith is found in this book and its veracity evaluated. Nothing has been whitewashed or withheld. Bad is bad, and the bad predominates, but there is also a surprising amount of documented good. In his research and development, Jeff thrashed everything, let the wind take the chaff, and heaped all the wheat into his big book.

The focus of this biography is Soapy Smith, a fascinating figure, and his backdrop is U.S. history, particularly as it concerns the evolving Old West (especially Colorado) and the Last Frontier, Alaska. Many of the events, organizations, movements, and people who were part of the historical fabric of Soapy’s time also appear, making for a large and rich tapestry.

—Art Petersen, publisher.

A message from Jeff Smith, the author

It is important to me for the reader to understand that although I am related to the subject of this book, I do not pretend that Soapy was a “good guy” or someone to be admired. The book is in no way a "white-washed" version of Soapy's criminal life. I make no attempts to cover up, mask, or gloss over his crimes and wrongdoings; nor do I attempt to absolve him from blame. As my father used to tell me, “Jeff, he’s more interesting that way,” how he really was—his charities, crimes, all.

My father held truth in a man's word as a sacred ethic. He raised me to believe that once a man's word is compromised, little can be done to correct the damage. My father relished the true history of his grandfather and I follow in his footsteps.