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Monday, July 6, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jean Godden

Is Mummy A Fake? Say It's Not So

Times Staff Columnist

Soapy Smith's great-grandson came to town last week and created a flap over one of this town's most popular residents, Sylvester, the mummy displayed along with tourist trinkets, scrimshaw and shrunken heads at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop on the waterfront.

The great-grandson, Jeff Smith of San Dimas, Calif., was traveling to Skagway, Alaska, where he and his 8-year-old daughter, Ashley Smith, will appear at a centennial celebration Wednesday. That's the 100th anniversary of the gun fight that killed "Soapy" (a k a Jefferson Randolph Smith), a legendary Skagway bunco artist.

The contemporary Jeff Smith, who is working on a book about his ancestor, claims Sylvester was "manufactured" by 19th-century fabricators. Smith says his great-grandfather, an accomplished scam artist, displayed such a mummy in Creede, Colo. En route to the Gold Rush, Soapy supposedly sold the mummy in Seattle.

Smith's proof is a picture of his great-granddad's mummy in a pose similar to Sylvester's (arms across the chest). But the picture is so blurred it could be anybody's mummy. Or daddy.

Smith points out that Sylvester's heel is cracked, revealing a milky interior.

"If he were real, his insides would be black," contends Smith, who works as a vacuum technician in California.

Smith also singles out Sylvester's opaque eyes, which he thinks should appear hollow like those of Sylvester's "bride," a female mummy with gaping eye sockets displayed nearby.

Is there anything to Smith's contention? Joe James, semiretired owner of Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, just laughed when asked.

"We get all kinds of crazy stories," responds James. "One guy said he was certain Sylvester was embalmed by his grandfather, a mortician."

James is convinced that Sylvester, apparently a murder victim, name unknown, was shot, buried beneath hot desert sands in Gila Bend, Ariz., and preserved naturally. Two cowboys discovered him.

"Sylvester was once on display at the Smithsonian," James said. "They checked him out." Sylvester also was exhibited at the Alaska-Yukon Pacific Exposition in Seattle in 1909 and at a fair in San Francisco in 1915.

James said, "I bought him in 1955 from a Mrs. Childs, a widow who lived in California. Her father-in-law was one of the guys who discovered Sylvester."

James won't reveal what he paid, although he reports, "It wasn't much." He adds that Sylvester, who is displayed in a sealed glass case at the curio shop, is an anatomically correct male under a loincloth that was added for modesty.

James explains the white "interior" on Sylvester's foot is the result of a clumsy attempt to repair a cracked heel.

"It costs $100 to open the glass case," James said. "We have a standing offer. If anyone wants to pay the hundred, we'll take bets on the mummy's authenticity."

Jean Godden's column appears Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Her phone message number is 206-464-8300. Her e-mail address is: jgod-new@seatimes.com

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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