I've spent half a century writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
There were many crooks in the Old West who prospered in territory that law enforcement had yet to reach. Soapy Smith, a man with a violent streak and a short fuse, was one of the most successful chiselers, until he wasn't.
From Cowboy to Con Man
Jefferson Randolph Smith II arrived in an unsuspecting Wild West from Georgia in 1876. He was 16 when his family moved to Texas after being wiped out financially by having the misfortune to be on the Civil War's losing side.
Young Smith toyed with the cowboying trade but found the occupation onerous and poorly paid. He decided cheating other people out of their cash was more to his liking than hot and dusty days in the saddle.
In Fort Worth, he gathered a group of like-minded ne'er-do-wells skilled in the arts of three-card monte, the shell game, and crooked poker games.
Among Smith's accomplices were “Big Ed” Burns, a Chicago-based gangster who headed West to avoid answering for numerous crimes, and Texas Jack Vermillion, whose odd combination of occupations included outlaw and Methodist preacher. Collectively, these scoundrels and others of their ilk were known as bunco men (sometimes bunko).
Smith's gang moved from frontier town to frontier town where, it seems, they were able to find an endless supply of gullible rubes.
The Prize Soap Swindle
Jefferson Randolph Smith II acquired his nickname from one of his scams.
He would ride into town, a suitcase stuffed with bars of soap. “The con began with Smith setting up a Keiser (a suitcase on a tripod stand) on a busy street corner. In the suitcase would be piles of ordinary soap wrapped in plain paper.”
Smooth-talking Smith would gather a crowd to watch him re-wrap the bars of soap inserting money, sometimes a dollar bill, sometimes a one hundred dollar note. He would then make a big show of mixing the bars of soap containing cash with the rest in his suitcase.
“Who wants to take a chance on winning $100 for a one-dollar bar of soap?” One of the early sales would go to an accomplice who would rip the wrapping apart to reveal some money. Sales would be brisk after that and another accomplice would win money.
As the contents of the suitcase grew low Smith would announce the elusive hundred bucks had still not been won and that now he would auction off the remaining bars. The value of the five-cent cakes of soap would rise until one of Smith's helpers would outbid everyone and score the big prize.
Sleight of hand or a hidden compartment in the suitcase ensured the soap with money only went to the right people.
With a “Yippee ki-yay” the team would catch the train for the next town and a whole fresh group of suckers.
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The story goes that in one town the sheriff caught on to Smith's scam and arrested him. As he was filling out the charge sheet, the lawman forgot Smith's given name so wrote in “Soapy” instead. Smith preferred to be called Jeff.
“A gambler is one who teaches and illustrates the folly of avarice; he is a non-ordained preacher on the vagaries of fortune and how to make doubt a certainty. He is one who, in his amusements, eliminates the element of chance; chance is merely the minister in his workshop of luck; money has no value except to back a good hand.”
— Jefferson R. Smith
Soapy Smith Owns Denver
In 1876, Smith moved his gang to Denver to start building a criminal empire. The city had a relaxed attitude towards gambling and that was a golden opportunity for Soapy and his company of grifters.
He opened the Tivoli Saloon and Gambling Hall and had the grace to put a sign above the entrance that read “Caveat Emptor” (Let the buyer beware). For those not schooled in Latin, and that likely included everyone, the warning that they were about to be fleeced went unnoticed. While rigged poker games in the Tivoli caused grown men to cry, Soapy Smith was also running a fake stock exchange and phony diamond sales.
He focused all his rackets on travellers while carefully cultivating the allegiance of Denver residents. There were gifts to the poor and donations to churches. Politicians and police were on his payroll so Smith became the untouchable underworld boss of Denver, and the money rolled in.
Then, in 1889, reformers went on a campaign to clean up the city. Some of those who protected Smith fell out of favour and his supremacy began to weaken. Rival gangs started nibbling away at his endeavours and his drinking and bad temper diminished his popularity. So, Soapy sold the Tivoli and decided to move to some place where the folks weren't so persnickety about morality.
The Petrified Man of Creede, Colorado
In 1889, silver was discovered in the Willow Creek Canyon, right by the town of Creede. In two years, the population went from 600 to more than 10,000; the kind of boomtown made for con men such as Soapy Smith. He opened the Orleans Club and very quickly was the king of crime in Creede
During his brief stay in the community, Soapy acquired a large, primitive-looking figure that he buried out of town. With great fanfare, the “petrified” man (actually a skeleton with a concrete coating) was exhumed and put on display for those wishing to pay for a viewing. Somewhere along the way the statue acquired the name McGinty.
Then, the good burgers of Denver told Smith the reforms were going to be repealed and organized crime was once more welcome in town. He returned to Denver and took McGinty with him. He got out of Creede just in time because on June 5, 1892 most of the town, including Smith's saloon, was destroyed in a fire.
The return of lawlessness was short-lived. In 1894, Davis Hanson Waite was elected Governor of Colorado and he told Denver's leaders to clean up their city or he would do it for them.
The local politicians refused Gov. Waite's demands and the militia was sent in to enforce them. Waite's force was met by a rag-tag bunch under the command of Soapy Smith, now carrying the title of “Colonel.”
Fortunately, everybody calmed down and the governor got his way, which included showing Soapy Smith the road out of town. A murder charge motivated his departure.
North to Alaska
As the rule of law crept westwards it became increasingly difficult for people such as Soapy Smith to practice their crafts. However, the discovery of gold in Alaska was an irresistible magnet for these wandering scofflaws.
Smith turned up in Skagway in 1897 pulling his shell game and three-card monte scams. Just as he had in Denver and Creede, Smith began putting together criminal enterprise.
The centre of operations was Jeff Smith's Parlor, which soon became known as the “real city hall.” Bribes in the right places ensured immunity from prosecution but Skagway was home to some tough men who did not like Smith's nefarious ways.
In July 1898, the so-called Committee of 101 met to discuss how to run Smith and his gang out of town. Soapy showed up brandishing a Winchester rifle and was barred entry by armed guards. There was gunfire and both Soapy and a guard lay dead on the ground.
At his funeral, the officiating clergyman chose a text from Proverbs XIII as the starting point for his sermon: “The way of transgressors is hard.”
- A mummified figure, known as Sylvester, stands as an exhibit in Ye Olde Curiosity Shop in Seattle, Washington. It's believed that Sylvester is actually Soapy Smith's McGinty.
- How are the mighty fallen? Four days before being killed, Soapy Smith was the toast of the town, leading Skagway's Independence Day parade as a grand marshal.
- According to a website dedicated to his memory, Soapy Smith's motto was “Get it while the get'in's good.”
- “Soapy Smith – Bunko Man of the Old West.” Kathy Weiser-Alexander, legendsofamerica.com, November 2021.
- “Soapy Smith Killed in Skagway, Alaska.” history.com, July 28, 2019.
- “The Secret of Soapy Smith.” R. Paul Wilson, casino.org, February 27, 2021.
- “The Legend Of Soapy Smith” Shaylon Cochran, Alaska Public Media, November 19, 2013.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Rupert Taylor