Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith II
1860-July 8, 1898
Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith II was an American con artist
and gangster who had a major hand in the organized criminal
operations of Denver, Colorado, Creede, Colorado, and Skagway,
Alaska from 1879 to 1898. He is perhaps the most famous
"sure-thing" bunko man of the old west.
development of a con man
Jefferson Smith was born in Newnan, Georgia, to a family of
education and wealth. His grandfather was a plantation owner and
his father a lawyer. The family met with financial ruin at the
close of the American Civil War. In 1876 they moved to Round
Rock, Texas, to start anew. Smith left his home shortly after
the death of his mother, but not before witnessing the shooting
of the outlaw Sam Bass. It was in Fort Worth, Texas, that
Jefferson Smith began his career as a confidence man. He formed
a small, close-knit gang of scoundrels, rogues, shills, and
thieves to work for him, and soon became a well known crime
boss. The "king of the frontier con men," he spent the next 22
years as a professional bunko man and leader of one of the most
infamous gang of swindlers ever assembled. They became known as
the Soap Gang, and included famous names like Texas Jack
Vermillion and Ed "Big Ed" Burns. The gang moved from town to
town, plying their trade on their unwary victims. Their
principal method of separating victims from their cash was the
use of short cons, swindles that are quick and need little setup
and few helpers. The short cons included the shell game,
three-card monte, and any game in which they could cheat.
The Prize Package Soap Sell Swindle
Some time in the late 1870s or early 1880s, Smith began duping
entire crowds with a ploy the Denver newspapers dubbed The Prize
Package Soap Sell Swindle.
Smith would open his "tripe and keister" (display case on a
tripod) on a busy street corner. Piling ordinary soap cakes onto
the keister top, he began expounding on their wonders. As he
spoke to the growing crowd of curious onlookers, he would pull
out his wallet and begin wrapping paper money ranging from one
dollar up to one hundred dollars, around a select few of the
bars. He then finished each bar by wrapping plain paper around
it to hide the money. He mixed the money-wrapped packages in
with wrapped bars containing no money. He then sold the soap to
the crowd for one dollar a cake. A shill planted in the crowd
would buy a bar, tear it open, and loudly proclaim that he had
won some money, waving it around for all to see. This
performance had the desired effect of enticing the sale of the
packages. More often than not, victims bought several bars
before the sale was completed. Midway through the sale, Smith
would announce that the hundred-dollar bill yet remained in the
pile, unpurchased. He then would auction off the remaining soap
bars to the highest bidders.
Through manipulation and sleight-of-hand, the cakes of soap
wrapped with money were hidden and replaced with packages
holding no cash. It was assured that the only money "won" went
to members of what became known as the "Soap Gang."
Smith quickly became known as "Soapy Smith" all across the
western United States. He used this swindle for twenty years
with great success. The soap sell, along with other scams,
helped finance Soapy's criminal operations by paying graft to
police, judges, and politicians. He was able to build three
major criminal empires: the first in Denver, Colorado
(1886-1895), the second in Creede, Colorado (1892), and the
third in Skagway, Alaska (1897-1898).
Criminal boss of Denver, Colorado
In 1879 Smith moved to Denver and began to build the first of
his empires. Con men normally moved around, to keep out of jail,
but as Smith's power and gang grew, so did his influence at City
Hall, allowing him to remain. By 1887 he reputedly had a hand in
most of the criminal bunko activities in the city. Newspapers in
Denver reported that he was in complete control of the city's
crime and gambling underworld and accused corrupt politicians
and the police chief of being on his payroll.
In the mid 1880s Soapy opened the Tivoli Club, on the southeast
corner of Market and 17th streets, a saloon and gambling hall.
Legend has it that above the entrance was a sign that read
"caveat emptor," Latin for Let the buyer beware. It was said
that every faro table in the club in 1889 was gaffed (made to
cheat). Soapy's younger brother, Bascomb Smith, joined the gang
and operated a cigar store that was a front for crooked poker
games and other swindles, operating in one of the back rooms.
Other "businesses" included fraudulent lottery shops, a
"sure-thing" stock exchange, fake watch and bogus diamond
auctions, and the sale of stocks in nonexistent businesses.
Politics and other cons
Soapy's political clout was so powerful that some of the police
officers patrolling the streets would not arrest him or members
of his gang. If they did, a quick release from jail was easily
arranged. A voting fraud trial after the municipal elections of
1889 focused attention on corrupt ties and payoffs between
Soapy, the mayor, and the chief of police - a combination
referred to in local newspapers as "the firm of Londoner, Farley
Smith opened an office in the prominent Chever block, a block
away from his Tivoli Club, from which he ran his many
operations. This also fronted as a business tycoon's office for
Soapy was not without enemies and rivals for his position as the
underworld king. He faced several assassination attempts and
shot several of his assailants. He became increasingly known for
his gambling addiction, his bad temper and heavy drinking.
As dishonest as Smith was, he was also generous to charities,
donating to numerous organizations and non-denominational
churches that helped the poor.
Soapy takes over Creede, Colorado
In 1892, with Denver in the midst of anti-gambling and saloon
reforms, Smith sold the Tivoli and moved to Creede, Colorado, a
mining boomtown that had formed around a major silver strike.
Using Denver based prostitutes to cozy up to property owners and
convince them to sign over leases, he acquired numerous lots
along Creede's main street, renting them at higher rates to his
associates. Once having gained enough allies, he announced that
he was the camp boss.
With brother-in-law and gang member William Sidney "Cap" Light
as deputy sheriff, Soapy began his second empire, opening a
gambling hall and saloon called the Orleans Club. He purchased
and briefly exhibited a petrified man nicknamed "McGinty" for an
admission of 10 cents. While customers were waiting in line to
pay their dime, Soapy's shell and three-card monte games were
winning dollars out of their pockets.
Smith provided an order of sorts, protecting his friends and
associates from the town's council and expelling violent
troublemakers. Many of the influential newcomers were sent to
meet him. Soapy grew rich in the process, but again was known to
give money away freely, using it to build churches, help the
poor, and to bury unfortunate prostitutes.
Creede's boom very quickly waned and the corrupt Denver
officials sent word that the reforms there were coming to an
end. Soapy took McGinty back to Denver. He left at the right
time, as Creede soon lost most of its business district in a
huge fire on 5 June 1892. Amongst the buildings lost was the
Back to Denver
On his return to Denver, Smith opened new businesses that were
nothing more than fronts for his many short cons. One of these
sold discounted railroad tickets to various destinations.
Potential purchasers were told that the ticket agent was out of
the office, but would soon return, and then offered an even
bigger discount by playing any of several rigged games. Soapy's
power grew to the point that he admitted to the press that he
was a con man and saw nothing wrong with it. In 1896 he told a
newspaper reporter, "I consider bunco steering more honourable
than the life led by the average politician."
Colorado's new governor David H. Waite, elected on a Populist
Party reform platform, fired three Denver officials he felt were
the main instigators of corruption in City Hall, calling out the
state militia to assist. The troops brought with them two cannon
and two Gatling guns. Soapy, called to assist the corrupt
officeholders and police, was commissioned as a deputy sheriff
and with some of his men climbed to the top of City Hall's
central tower with rifles and dynamite to fend off any
attackers. Cooler heads prevailed, however, and the battle over
corruption would be fought in the courts, not on the streets.
Soapy Smith would be a key witness on the stand.
Governor Waite agreed to withdraw the militia and allow the
Colorado Supreme Court to decide the case. The court ruled that
the governor had authority to replace the commissioners, but he
was reprimanded for bringing in the militia, in what became
known as the "City Hall War."
Waite began cleaning up Denver and ordered the closure of all
gambling dens, saloons and houses of ill repute. Soapy exploited
the situation, using the recently acquired deputy sheriff's
commissions to stage fake arrests in his own gambling houses,
apprehending patrons who had lost large sums in rigged poker
games. The victims were happy to leave when the "officers"
allowed them to walk away from the crime scene rather than face
arrest, naturally without recouping their losses.
Eventually, Soapy and his brother Bascomb became too well known,
and even the most corrupt city officials could no longer protect
them. Their influence and Denver-based empire began to crumble.
When they were charged with attempted murder in the beating of a
saloon manager, Bascomb was jailed, but Soapy managed to escape,
becoming a wanted man in Colorado. Lou Blonger and his brother
Sam, rivals of the Soap Gang, took over control as kingpins of
the Denver criminal underworld.
Before leaving, Soapy tried to pull off a swindle started in
Mexico, where he tried to convince President Porfirio Diaz that
his country needed the services of a foreign legion made up of
American toughs. Soapy became known as Colonel Smith, and
managed to organize a recruiting office before the deal
Skagway, Alaska and the Klondike gold rush
When the Klondike Gold Rush began in 1897, Soapy moved his
operations to Skagway, Alaska. He set up his third empire much
the same way as he had in Denver and Creede. He put the town's
deputy U.S. Marshal on his payroll and began collecting allies
for a takeover. Soapy opened a fake telegraph office in which
the wires went only as far as the wall. Not only did the
telegraph office obtain fees for "sending" messages, but
cash-laden victims soon found themselves losing even more money
in poker games with new found "friends." Telegraph lines did not
reach or leave Skagway until 1901. Soapy opened a saloon named
Jeff Smith's Parlour, as an office from which to run his
operations. Although Skagway already had a municipal building,
Soapy's saloon became known as "the real city hall." Skagway was
gaining a reputation as a "hell on earth," full of perils for
Smith's men played a variety of roles, such as newspaper
reporter or clergyman, with the intention of befriending a new
arrival and determining the best way to rid him of his money.
The new arrival would be steered by his "friends" to crooked
shipping companies, hotels, or gambling dens, until he was wiped
out. If the man was likely to make trouble or could not be
recruited into the gang, Soapy himself would then appear and
offer to pay his way back to civilization.
When a group of vigilantes, the "Committee of 101", threatened
to drive out Soapy and his gang, he formed his own "law and
order society," which claimed 317 members, to force the
vigilantes into submission.
During the Spanish-American War in 1898, Smith formed his own
volunteer army with the approval of the U.S. War Department.
Called the "Skaguay Military Company," it had Soapy as its
captain. Smith wrote to President William McKinley and gained
official recognition for his company, which he used to
strengthen his grip on the town.
On 4 July 1898, Soapy was the hero of the day. As grand marshal
of the city parade, he led his army on a gray horse. On the
grandstand, he sat beside the territorial governor and other
On 7 July 1898, John Douglas Stewart, a returning Klondike
miner, came to Skagway with a sack of gold valued at $2,700.
Three gang members convinced the miner to participate in a game
of three-card monte. When Stewart balked at having to pay his
losses, the three men grabbed the sack and ran. The "Committee
of 101" demanded that Soapy return the gold, but he refused,
claiming that Stewart had lost it "fairly".
On the evening of 8 July 1898, the vigilantes organized a
meeting on the Juneau Company wharf. With a Winchester rifle
draped over his shoulder, Soapy began an argument with Frank
Reid, one of four guards blocking his way to the wharf. A
gunfight unexpectedly began and both men were fatally wounded.
Soapy's last words were "My God, don't shoot!" Letters from J.
M. Tanner, one of the guards with Reid that night, show that
another guard fired the fatal shot. Soapy died on the spot with
a bullet to the heart. He also received a bullet in his left leg
and a severe wound on the left arm by the elbow. Reid died 12
days later with a bullet in his groin and leg. His tombstone
bears the epitaph "He died for the honour of Skagway." The three
gang members who robbed Stewart received jail sentences, and the
rest were dispersed.
Soapy Smith was buried several yards outside the city cemetery.
Every year on 8 July, wakes are held around the United States in
Soapy's honour. His grave and saloon are on most tour
itineraries of Skagway.
JACANA HOME PAGE
CLASSIC VIDEO CLIPS
JACANA ASTRONOMY SITE
JACANA PHOTO LIBRARY |
OLD MAUN PHOTO GALLERY |
MAUN PHONE DIRECTORY
FREE FONTS |
PIC OF THE DAY
GENERAL LIBRARY |
MAP LIBRARY |
HOUSE PLANS LIBRARY
MAUN E-MAIL, WEBSITE & SKYPE LIST
BOTSWANA GPS CO-ORDINATES
MAUN SAFARI WEB LINKS |
FREE SOFTWARE |
JACANA WEATHER PAGE
JACANA CROSSWORD LIBRARY |
JACANA CARTOON PAGE |
This web page was last updated on:
23 December, 2008