You would think that as the telegraph aged and people were more familiar with it, it would be harder to abuse the technology and use it to take advantage of other people. But that wasn’t the case, especially not in Alaska.
In the late 1890s, a full generation after the telegraph was invented, the infamous con artist Soapy Smith used the machine to swindle tons of victims. Soapy built a telegraph office in Skagway, a town on the prospecting trail up to gold-rich territory farther north. In the office, Soapy and his men would convince unsuspecting miners to pay for expensive telegrams to their families. But the thing was all the messages were fake- the office didn’t have a working telegraph machine.
Any miner who went around behind the office would find that the “telegraph line” was nothing more than a fifty foot wire that wasn’t attached to anything. Soapy never sent any messages anywhere but miners would always receive a “send money” message back. Guess where that money went? This was fake news at its worst!
One Skagway resident later remembered Soapy’s con fondly:
He wasn’t what you would call a real good fella. He was just a crooked gambler that wouldn’t stop at murder to gain his end. Well, he had some kind of unique schemes that’s probably worthy of mention. One particularly that amused me and didn’t really hurt any person but it was a good idea. He had a telegraph office. Well, there wasn’t fifty feet of wire on this telegraph office but there was an instrument with some batteries in there and a man kept clicking away at that you know. And their charge was five dollars as far as Seattle and then they took the Western Union from there on. Well there was thousands going through then and they’d rush up to wire home to their wife and family and they would say “Well now I suppose you would like an answer?”
“Oh yes, yes”
“Well you come back in an hour and I’ll have an answer”
Course that answer always come collect. Well they would average about 10 to 15 dollars per message. It was good business and it meant they’d have a nice answer for the party that their family was all well and everything was just going fine and everybody was happy and Soapy was in about 15 dollars on each message.
Miners fleeced by Soapy’s gang in Skagway didn’t have anything better to look forward to, even if they survived the treacherous journey north and managed to strike it rich. Telegraph dispatches from Nome, Fairbanks, and other northern mining towns regularly reported that hold-ups and robberies were so frequent and bold that miners were afraid to bring their gold into town. “The outlaws are holding up strong pack trains and robberies at camps are so numerous that they have become expected” one newspaper warned in 1905. Soapy’s telegraph con was just the beginning of a series of hardships and loss for any who stepped into his office.
Those who did realize they had been swindled by Soapy’s tricks found it impossible to get their money back. What little law enforcement existed in Alaska at the turn of the century didn’t have the time or men to investigate small crimes like this.
Even worse, half of those lawmen were also on Soapy’s payroll allowing him to operate freely in Skagway.
Sick and tired of Soapy’s schemes, the citizens of Skagway eventually raised a vigilante citizen’s committee to scare his gang off. In 1898 Soapy was killed in a shootout at the town wharf, putting a full stop to the telegraph’s reign of crime in the small Alaska town.
This post of one in my occasional series about the telegraph and how sneaky operators used it to prank, fool, and swindle their neighbors. If you’d like to read more check out these posts on how telegraphs were used to trick Pennsylvania Dutch farmers, members of P.T. Barnum’s circus, and gamblers at New York horse tracks.