Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith II (November 2, 1860 – July 8, 1898) 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 was killed in the famed Shootout on Juneau Wharf. He is perhaps the most famous confidence man of the old west.
Jefferson Smith was born in Coweta County, 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 close-knit, disciplined gang of shills and thieves to work for him. Soon he became a well-known crime boss, known as the “king of the frontier con men”.
Smith spent the next 22 years as a professional bunko man and boss of an infamous gang of swindlers. They became known as the Soap Gang, and included famous men such as 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 were quick and needed 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 soap racket
Some time in the late 1870s or early 1880s, Smith began duping entire crowds with a ploy the Denver newspapers dubbed “The prize soap racket”.
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, he hid the cakes of soap wrapped with money and replaced them with packages holding no cash. The only money “won” went to shills, members of the gang planted in the crowd pretending to win in order to increase sales.
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 was reputedly involved with most of the criminal bunko activities in the city. Newspapers in Denver reported that he controlled the city’s criminals, underworld gambling and accused corrupt politicians and the police chief of receiving his graft.
In 1888 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”. Soapy’s younger brother, Bascomb Smith, joined the gang and operated a cigar store that was a “front” for dishonest 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 influence was so great 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 arranged easily. 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 and Smith”.
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 high-end swindles.
Soapy was not without enemies and rivals for his position as the underworld boss. He faced several attempts on his life and shot several of his assailants. He became known increasingly for his gambling and bad temper.
Smith was also generous to charities, donating to numerous organizations and non-denominational churches that helped the poor.
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 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 Orleans Club.
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 honorable than the life led by the average politician.”
Colorado’s new governor Davis Hanson Waite, elected on a Populist Party reform platform, fired three Denver officials whom he felt were not abiding by his new mandates. They refused to leave their positions and were quickly joined by others who felt their jobs were threatened. The governor called out the state militia to assist removing those fortified in city hall. The military brought with them two cannon and two Gatling guns. Soapy joined in with the corrupt officeholders and police at the hall and found himself commissioned as a deputy sheriff. He and several 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 struggle over corruption was fought in the courts, not on the streets. Soapy Smith was an important witness in court.
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 ordered the closure of all Denver’s gambling dens, saloons and bordellos. Soapy exploited the situation, using the recently acquired deputy sheriff’s commissions to perform 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 be arrested, naturally without recouping their losses.
Eventually, Soapy and his brother Bascomb Smith 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 for 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, acquired his former control of Denver’s criminals.
Before leaving, Soapy tried to perform 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 failed.
Skagway, Alaska, and the Klondike gold rush
When the Klondike Gold Rush began in 1897, Soapy moved his operations to Skagway, Alaska (then spelled Skaguay). 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 Parlor (opened in March 1898), 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,” with many perils for the unwary.
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 dishonest 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 expel 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. Known as the “Skaguay Military Company,” with Soapy as its captain. Smith wrote to President William McKinley and gained official recognition for his company, which he used to strengthen his control of the town.
On 4 July 1898, Soapy rode as marshal of the Fourth Division of the parade, not grand marshal (Daily Alaskan, July 2, 1898), leading his army on his gray horse. Not exactly a place of honor, the last division of the parade, after all the horses had deposited their manure. On the grandstand, he sat beside the territorial governor and other officials.
On 7 July 1898, John Douglas Stewart, a returning Klondike miner, came to Skagway with a sack of gold valued at $2,700 ($71,093 in 2009 dollars.) 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, known as the Shootout on Juneau Wharf began unexpectedly, 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, indicate 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 leg and groin area. The three gang members who robbed Stewart received jail sentences.
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 honor. His grave and saloon are on most tour itineraries of Skagway.