About

My name is Jeff Smith. I am a great-grandson of Jefferson Randolph ("Soapy") Smith II, and I love researching and writing about his history. Rather than calling myself "obsessed," I have designated myself to be Soapy's "public relations officer" or publicity agent for short. I am a grass-roots historian, meaning I do not have an academic degree, however, I am the foremost authority on Soapy.

As a child I grew up surrounded by Soapy's history. Raised in an old west gambling atmosphere, I quickly learned to enjoy having him as an ancestor. My parents built a back building and furnished it into an old western saloon and gambling hall museum where many of the larger Soapy artifacts and gambling antiques collected by my father were kept. Since 1974, this is where Soapy's roulette table from Skagway was kept. Among other items was a full-sized vintage crap table, faro table, two black jack tables, and numerous antique slot machines and trade stimulators dating back to 1897. In 1989 this gambling museum made the cover and lead story in Loose Change Magazine in honor of my father, who had passed away the previous year.

As a kid I could sit down at a dollar machine with $100 (supplied) and plug them in until they were gone. It only took the slot machine's key to get more coins to play with. I can remember my brother and I each having $100 in coins and competing to see whose coins would run out first. On many a weekend, my father could be found in that back building with friends and fans of Soapy's. My father was not addicted to gambling, but he loved the play and the history. It was from him that I learned how to gamble, or perhaps I should say, how not to gamble. From him I learned the mathematical odds of many games and also how to cheat at them. My father began learning about gambling and con games from his father ("Soapy's" son/my grandfather), including how some of the old swindles used by Soapy were operated, which included the prize package soap sell racket, the shell and pea game, and three-card monte, which he had learned from his own father (Soapy). My father taught me, and I in turn taught both my children these games. I love the fact that much of my learning about gambling was passed down through the generations. Learning the gambling swindles in that back building no doubt cured me of any gambling addiction that may have been flowing in my blood.

In 1985 and 1998, I was invited to be grand marshal of the July 4th parade in Skagway, Alaska, just as Soapy had in 1898. I dressed the part of my great-grandfather, which led to becoming involved in Old West reenacting. Over the years I perfected my clothing and portrayal of Soapy, complete with a tri-pod and keister (stand and stand), made by my father, on which to perform the bunco games.

At one time Soapy's name appeared in most every newspaper in every city. In fact, by using digital newspaper search engines, I discovered that while the two men were still alive (1860-1898) Soapy was a more well known across the U.S. than Wyatt Earp!

My grandfather began researching and interviewing those who knew his father as early as 1910. He was instrumental in suing publishing and film companies for presenting his father in a bad light. These legal suits may be part of the reason Soapy's fame dimmed to near unknown status. Clark Gable helped keep his story going in the 1941 western Honky Tonk but by the 1970s few Americans had ever heard the name. As a young man it was a rare day when I ran into someone who had heard of Soapy Smith. I recall, a lot more than I'd like to admit, that when I would talk about my great-grandfather, people mistakenly thought I was referring to "Soupy Sales." By the end of the 1980s, Skagway, Alaska, had become part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park as well as a major port of call for cruise ships. Soapy's name began creeping back to the forefront of media interest, including film and books. I'd like to think that my website, blog, and published works had a helping hand in pushing Soapy up the ladder of known 19th century characters of interest. As an aging adult, I now run into more people who know of him than not. Thankfully too, it's been many years since someone thought I was talking about Soupy Sales.

The descendants of Soapy are very fortunate to have many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Soapy's original letters and business documents. Having these originals to research exposed many true-life adventures through the eyes of this amazing old west rascal himself. The letters greatly helped the family research Soapy's life, far beyond what other historians had been able to piece together. I can remember my parents, uncles, and aunts sitting in our little home "barroom" with old timers who had known Soapy. They taped the interviews on my father's reel-to-reel recorder, which I later transferred to cds. I began my own research in 1985. My father, aunts, and uncles passed away one by one, and with their passing the Soapy collections were split into many parts. Originally there was one huge collection. From there it was split into three parts. My father inherited one of those third sections, and I inherited it from him upon his passing. I purchased a portable copier to copy a second part of the collection belonging to my cousin Randy. For several years I traveled throughout Colorado and Alaska on fact-finding trips. I scoured endlessly through microfilmed newspapers of the era, and am still doing so. Oh what I could do with one more life span.

I remember the first time my father showed me some of the original letters that had been handed down to him in the 1940s by his father. He made it clear to me that the documents and artifacts would be passed on to me when the time was right. I wished to carry on our tradition of seeking out the truth, regardless of the outcome, whether it exposed Soapy in a good light or an evil one. Although I had heard of Soapy all my childhood days, my interest was fully initiated during a 1974 trip to Seattle, Washington, for the Harriet Pullen collection auction, and then in 1977 during a trip to Skagway, Alaska. This was the first known time a Smith had returned to Skagway since Soapy's widow came to call in August 1898. While there we were involved in creating the very first annual Soapy Smith wake. Skagway residents have carried on the event every July 8 since. On a return visit to Skagway in 1985, I was in the beginning phase of writing the most complete and honest biography on Soapy's life and death ever written thus far. One of my father's dreams was to make Soapy a more widely known name. I am proud to carry on that tradition.