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I finally got my copy of Jeff Smith's ALIAS SOAPY SMITH: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF A SCOUNDREL by Soapy Smith's great grandson, Jeff Smith. As expected, the biography is a hagiography. Couldn't be anything but, coming from family. Smith does his best to correct details of the story, and as the benefactor of his family's long history of collecting letters, clippings, and arcania about the Soapster, he certainly has a wealth of material about the man who tried so hard to make himself a legend in his own time. Its wonderful to see so much of the family material put into print, especially the letters and photographs that have been hidden away in a private collection.

I was disappointed -- and I admit not surprised -- to see that Smith missed too major sources of information: The Reverend Sinclair's papers in the British Columbia archives and the Skagway Townsite files in the National Archives. Both of these primary sources would have provided him with a considerable amount of primary information that would have bolstered and clarified his hypotheses regarding the "murder" of his ancestor in Skagway. John A. Sinclair's son, James Sinclair, edited his father's diaries, letters and other papers after doing considerable "research" into later papers. Smith relied on the book written by James Sinclair instead of John Sinclair's original papers, which are very different than what James Sinclair says his father wrote. There is no substitute for examining the original Sinclair papers, as the edited version are simply incorrect.

If Smith had examined the Sinclair papers, he would have found a number of newspaper clippings bearing on "Soapy" -- when he was and was not in town -- that would have clarified Smith's activities during the winter and spring of 1898.

The Skagway Townsite files, also, have a wealth of information about the Committee of 101, the Skagway Safety Committee, and the men who actually "ran" Skagway between September 1897 and July 1898. Understanding the interconnection of the townsite fight and the town politics is crucial to understanding who "ruled" Skagway that winter. As Smith has not ventured into those files, he cannot hope to have a handle on "who was who" in Skagway.

The major criticism I have of ALIAS SOAPY is that Smith, like all of his predecessors, fails to put "Soapy" in the context of his times. Once more, this glowing tribute to a charismatic con man focuses solely on character -- oh, but he's so charming! -- and says nothing about political corruption, influence-buying, or self-promotion at the turn of the century.

Views: 87

Tags: Smith, Soapy, biography, book, hagiography, review

Comment by Wolfgang on November 18, 2009 at 5:49pm
Gayle's comment . . . "Whatever" . . . sums it up pretty good. Thanks for posting.
Comment by Melvin Graf on November 18, 2009 at 7:17pm
Jeff, thanks for providing your insight into the issue.
Comment by Ginny Morgan on November 18, 2009 at 7:24pm
I found the book extremely well researched and well written. I saw no evidence that Mr. Smith tried to make Soapy look "saintly". He was quite forthright about the man's charector, with all his foibles and humanity.
Comment by Mike D. on November 19, 2009 at 8:45am
She needs to go play in another sandbox. Obviously, someone is jealous of someone else who has a better toy. Grow up and, don't go away mad. . . just go away. I don't know Jeff personally, but I know enough from reading his posts that he is a committed historian and would not dishonor Soapy's legacy with a slipshod attempt at a book.
Comment by Cathy Spude on November 19, 2009 at 10:47am
My goodness, Jeff, you certainly do have your friends on this blog, don't you. I had meant this "review" -- mostly just my opinion -- as praise of your book (didn't anyone read the first paragraph?) with some suggestions of other places you could look to find supporting material. The "whatever" comments I took as people not understanding the importance of the additional primary material, which, when you take a look at it, Jeff, I think you will be excited about what all is in it. I really meant this to be a big, helpful boost for you.

Not all critiques have to be positive...I certainly am not expecting all positive and glowing tributes when my own book comes out. I don't know why Jeff would expect that, especially from me.

I also don't know why he would say we've had personal conflicts since 2006 when we've not communicated since 2006 (except for just lately in public forums) when we had a major misunderstanding that we only recently are starting to straighten out. I will go to his blog to continue working that one out, as I am beginning to see where that all fell out. I really would like to exchange information with him, as our research interests do intersect. The difference in our academic approaches apparently makes it very difficult for us to communicate with one another ... and me with those of you on this blog as well. I do apologise.

I do not think those of you on this forum are stupid. That was not a pan of Jeff's book. I still read the book as an apology of Jefferson Randolph Smith and a continuation of the Legend, despite a number of corrections of the details of his life. I was delighted to see all of the personal letters published and so much primary material reproduced in one place. The only point I was trying to make was that if Jeff had included the original (not edited versions) of Rev. Sinclair's diaries, letters and newspaper clippings and had incorporated the wealth of material from the Skagway townsite files, he would have come to some different conclusions, AND would have a better understanding of Smith's place in Skagway society in the spring and summer of 1898.

Jeff has accused me of changing positions on a number of issues on this matter. I did so AFTER I studied those two archives. I think if Jeff had seen that material, and kept an open mind, he might think the same way.

Please, Mike D. Did I say that Jeff's book was slipshod? Gayle, where did I say I had an agenda? That is Jeff's accusation, and it really is uncalled for. He has often been jealous of any information others ... me, Jane Haigh, anyone who disagrees with him ... has that he didn't find first ... about his great grandfather. And especially if we differ in interpretation.

Before we go any further, let me state right here that I have only read pages 407 on of ALIAS. I know quite a bit about the Alaska days, and very little about anything before that, so cannot pretend to comment on the earlier material. I do know the primary documents in Alaska very well, and truly was trying to be helpful. If you will notice, it was Jeff that mentioned my book, not me. And it's far from being ready for publication.
Comment by Mike D. on November 19, 2009 at 11:28am
Actually, I was just trying to stir the pot with what I thought was a little humor. The second part of my post was serious, though. But, you could be right, slipshod might have been a little strong. I know Jeff works hard to perpetuate Soapy's legend, and I would probably do the same if I had a somewhat famous relative.
Comment by Jim Holden on November 19, 2009 at 3:02pm
You know, you see that wreck at the side of the road, and you really don't want to slow down and you don't want to see it, but like everyone else, you "click" on the comment, knowing that it's going to be a train wreck. I must be simple minded, not knowing enough just to wave as I drive by this discussion.

You go Jeff! Haven't read your book yet, but this won't stop me from really enjoying it - just as soon as it comes to the top of my reading pile.
Comment by Cathy Spude on November 19, 2009 at 3:54pm
Jeez, Jeff, some of those quotes are about Chris Shea, not Si Tanner. Get your stories straight. And I was not the first to call Si Tanner Skagway's Savior. If you'll read my website, not just glance at it, you will see the phrase first appear in a story by E. J. "Stroller" White in 1916.

And I am not going to publish my 250 page book here on the True West blog. That is where I demonstrate the importance of the townsite FACTS, the Sinclair diary, letters, and clippings, in addition to the bits and pieces you have already mentioned AND put it all in the context of the greater politics of the day instead of focusing on just one person, like you do. Si Tanner is indeed part of the story, but, like Soapy, only PART of the story. Because you -- and until I read the very lengthy townsite files, I -- did not fully understand the complex political milieau, you could not possibly put Soapy in his correct place in Skagway. King of a small portion of the community, perhaps. King of Skagway, it is not possible, and it is amply borne out in those federal records.

Because Sinclair had a good collection of newspaper clippings that are not curated anywhere else, none of which you mention in your book, you missed some critical events.

One is the arrival on January 21, 1898, of Smith "straight from Washington, D.C." Skaguay News, January 21, 1898. I'm sure the significance of this information will occur to you, vis a vis both Smith's alleged and unsubstantiated presence in Skagway in November 1897 and his "power" in Skagway by January 31.

There are a number of other, similar clippings of that same kind.
Comment by Cathy Spude on November 19, 2009 at 7:00pm

The significance of the January 21, 1898 date of the arrival of Jefferson Randolph Smith straight from Washington D.C. will occur to you as you think about it. I am not debating the earlier presence of Smith in Skagway. You demonstrate quite clearly that he was in Skagway in August and September 1897, through your publication of the personal letters, which I have commented you for several times already. This was the sort of evidence I had been looking for all along. What I had also been looking for was some sort of documentation to back up the legend (unathenticated history) that Smith was in Skagway in November 1897. Your book does not add any primary fact to authenticate Smith's presence in fact, you cite some some Denver newspaper articles that say he was in New York at the time. You also contribute to the legend that I already knew about that hinted he was in Skagway in November.

Because we all know that Smith was in Washington D.C. in October and early November, and this clipping from Sinclair's papers that says he came from Washington, D. C. in late January 1898, I would conclude that Smith was not in Skagway between September 1897 and late January 1898.

I am NOT disputing that he was there for the 19 days in August - September 1897. You have done a very good job of demonstrating that. All I am trying to do is show you that Sinclair's papers have a NUMBER of items LIKE this clipping that will help you pin down EXACTLY where Smith was and what he was doing. IN ADDITION to what you already have.

Please act like I am trying to cut you down, when I'm trying to help you. Those files cost me almost $100, and to duplicate them for you would cost me even more. I'm encouraging you to order them yourself, because you REALLY WILL find FACTS that are of a lot more help to you than they are to me.

Jeez, I can't believe I'm begging you to believe me!

(Stuff like the day when Soapy bought the parlor from Frank Clancy, the day he had the opening for Jeff Smith's Parlor's, need I go on?)
Comment by Bungalo Bill on November 21, 2009 at 11:55pm
Quote from Ms. Spude: " oh, but he's so charming! -- and says nothing about political corruption, influence-buying, or self-promotion at the turn of the century."

I am sorry, ma'am, but obviously you haven't read the book. It is filled with Soapy's corrupt activities in Denver and Creede. And I am only up to Chapter 10.


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