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Who Killed Soapy Smith?


Dr. Fenton B. Whiting extracts a bullet from the dead Soapy Smith, July 8, 1898 (Courtesy J. Bernard Moore Family papers, Rasmussen Library, University of Alaska - Fairbank).


Published versions of the killing began appearing in national venues within weeks. While some authors placed themselves as eyewitnesses to the shooting and others claimed they knew someone who had seen it happen, all used almost the identical words found in The Skaguay News' July 8 report (but published on July 9). The very fact that no one would publically dispute findings of the coronor's inquest indicates that an entire community accepted only one version and only one hero.



Matthew Sundeen's account in the June 23, 1941 issue of the Fairbanks Daily News Miner, p. 5.

Well, enough people had remembered seeing Reid kill Soapy through the years to put into question one old miner's 43-year-old memory.

Except Sundeen claims no one else but him, Smith, Reid, Tanner, Murphy and Landers were on the wharf approach when the killing occurred, Soapy's gang having skedattled when the first shots rang out.

And Tanner, Murphy and Landers all agreed to lie to the officials to let Reid think he'd died a hero.

Well, that makes a certain amount of sense, but there was just Matt Sundeen's word for it.

Or was there?



Postscript in the letter written from Major Samuel Steele to his superior in Ottawa on July 11, 1898, naming Jesse Murphy as Smith's killer on Tanner's authority.

I have since found  a letter writted by the Reverend John A. Sinclair, written on July 11, 1898 which attributes Smith's death to Jesse Murphy; a diary entry by Sinclair dated July 8, 1898; and the draft of a newspaper article penned by this impeccable source naming Murphy as Smith's killer. I will discuss Sinclair's writing's and why his opinions about Murphy's involvement changed in my upcoming book: Soapy Smith: Myth and Legend.

Looking back from today, it seems obvious that Murphy killed Smith. So, 
why would a whole community conspire to conceal the true identity of Smith's killer? I have several hypotheses, all of which I explore in Soapy's Legend. You can get a taste of one of them in what I intend to be an intertaining version in my upcoming novel The Unterrified, the story of one of Smith's biographers, Chris Shea. Read "Aces and Eights" and see if it doesn't sound at the very least plausible.

In his recently published book, Alias Soapy: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel, The Biography of Jefferson Randolph Smith II,  Soapy's great-grandson Jeff Smith tries to make a case that Soapy was "murdered" by Jesse Murphy. Unless he can have the case reopened by the federal courts in Alaska, he will not be able to prove his case. It has already been adjudicated at a legal hearing. The courts of the time found that REID killed Soapy, and it was a case of self-defense. 

According to a news report by The Skagway News of July 24, 1998, Jeff Smith debated this issue with author Howard Clifford in Skagway, Alaska on July 8, 1998 with inconclusive results.



If you have any information about who killed Soapy Smith, please contact Cathy at

montdawn@msn.com

According to The Skaguay News, dated July 8, 1898, city surveyor Frank Reid did. The newspaper repeated that story, word for word in their next issue on July 15, 1898, adding only updates on what had occurred in the days since, including the results of the coroner's inquest. The court-appointed, nine-man jury of leading citizens found that Smith died of a bullet wound to the heart, "the result of a pistol shot by one Frank H. Reid." These jurists interviewed eye-witnesses and made their decisions under an oath of law.

Note: This makes it legally official. Reid killed Smith, according to a legal finding by a duly established court of law. Second-guessing by anyone outside a court of law over a hundred years later is an interesting academic exercise, one I am willing to engage in ... and do in my up-coming book on Soapy Smith: Myth and Legend.  The controversy would not end, even today.

Caught a day late by a newspaper man who failed to foresee the importance of a developing story, the News' rival, The Daily Alaskan, never did catch up. By July 11, it printed essentially the same story found in the News: Hero Frank Reid had rid Skagway of it nemisis.



A lithograph plate from Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly of January 1901, depicting Frank Reid killing Smith (p. 219).

But I suppose there must always have been some rumors flying about. The story finally cracked its veneer in 1941 when The Fairbanks Daily News Miner published Matthew Sundeen's eyewitness account. Back in 1898, Sundeen said he was in the hardware store opposite the Juneau Wharf and had been first on the scene when he looked out to see Smith and his gang confront Tanner and the boys. He remembers Reid's revolver failing to fire three times, as Smith fired four shots into the surveyor. Then he watched Jesse Murphy struggle with Smith, trying to wrestle the Winchester away from him before he killed anyone else. In the process, Smith was shot.



Headlines from The Skaquay News, July 15, 1898.

Major Samuel B. Steele commanded the Northwest Mounted Police at Lake Bennett in British Columbia and at the summit of the White Pass in the early summer of 1898. U.S. Commissioner Charles Sehlbrede sent word to Steele upon the killing of Smith and asked him to watch for certain members of the conman's gang and take them into custody. Steele immediately began to write to his superior in Ottawa with daily reports. On July 11, 1898, he enclosed a copy of The Skaguay News, dated July 8, indicating it provided most of the details of the killing.

He added a postscript. "According to the information I received from the Deputy Marshal, a man named Murphy is credited with the killing of Smith & not Frank Reid as reported in the newspaper. SBS"

By this time, J. M. Tanner was universally accepted as the Deputy Marshal of Skagway.



J. M. Tanner in 1899, a few months after the Soapy Smith killing (Courtesy Skagway City Museum).



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