Last week our case was in Kent, England, where we profiled Michael Stone and the horrific Russel murders. This week, we’re back in the states, traveling to the Old West. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, a con man made a name for himself in Denver and Alaska. History knows him as Soapy Smith.
Jefferson Randolph Smith was a native of Coweta County, Georgia, born in November 1860 on the eve of the American Civil War. His grandfather owned a plantation, and his father was a lawyer. But the war ruined the family financially, so they moved to Round Rock, Texas to start over. Smith’s mother died when he was 17 and he left home shortly thereafter. But while in Round Rock, he witnessed the death of infamous outlaw Sam Bass.
From Round Rock he traveled to Fort Worth where he soon established a close-knit gang of shills and con men. They specialized in “short cons” that needed little setup and assistance. Their method was to run the con for a brief time, then move on to avoid repercussions.
Soapy Smith Gets His Nickname
Smith is best known for what the Denver papers called the “prize soap racket.” Smith would set up a display case on a busy corner and pile it with bars of soap. While he warmed up the crowd that gathered, he would wrap money around the bar, then wrap the bar in plain paper. The money would range from $1 all the way up to $100.
Next, Smith would feign mixing the bars with money in with the other bars of soap. He then sold the soap for a dollar a bar (some sources say five dollars). At some point, a shill in the crowd would tear open his bar of soap and loudly proclaim he’d won. This, of course, led to the sale of more soap bars.
About halfway through the stack of soap bars, Smith would announce that the $100 bill remained in the stack. He then auctioned off the remaining bars to the highest bidders. But the only money “won” went to his shills.
Smith didn’t always get away with the racket. One time, a policeman named John Holland arrested him on a bunko charge. When he went to write Smith’s name in the police logbook, he forgot his first name and wrote “Soapy” instead. The sobriquet stuck and Jeff Smith became Soapy Smith.
Soapy Smith Hits Colorado
Smith arrived in Denver in 1879. By 1882, he had a grip on vice in that Colorado city. His influence at city hall grew until, by 1887, he was reputed to be involved in most of the city’s criminal activities. Soapy opened the Tivoli Club, a combination saloon and gambling house, in 1888. Smith’s younger brother, Bascomb, joined the gang and operated a cigar store. It was a front for the dishonest poker games that went on in the back room.
Soapy operated in and around the Denver area for several years. In 1892, he moved his operation to the mining boomtown of Creede, Colorado. In Creede, he established the Orleans Club, another saloon and gambling house. At some point, he acquired a mummified body named “McGinty” that he exhibited as a “prehistoric” human. This was untrue. Twenty-first century tests showed the body had been embalmed using arsenic-based embalming fluid. But that didn’t stop Smith from charging people ten cents to look at the “prehistoric” relic. While they waited in line, the ultimate con man fleeced his customers with shell games and crooked card games.
Creede’s boom went bust quickly. Smith left town and returned to Denver, taking McGinty with him. His timing was excellent. A huge fire destroyed most of Creede’s business district, including the Orleans Club, on June 5, 1892.
The Klondike Gold Rush
Gold was discovered in the Klondike region of Yukon, Canada on August 16, 1896. When word reached Seattle and San Francisco the following year, it started the Klondike Gold Rush. This seemed like an excellent opportunity to the seasoned con man, so Soapy Smith went to Alaska.
Much like he had in Denver and Creede, Smith soon established an empire in Skagway, Alaska. His base of operations there was a saloon he called Jeff Smith’s Parlor he opened in March 1898. One of the tactics his gang used was to befriend newcomers and steer them to dishonest businesses or crooked gambling halls.
But Skagway wasn’t as compliant as Denver or Creede had been. A vigilance committee called the “Committee of 101” threatened to expel Smith and his gang. In response, Smith created his own “law and order society” to counteract the vigilantes.
Soapy Smith Meets His End
On July 7, 1898, a miner named John Douglas Stewart returned to Skagway with a sack of gold worth $2,700. Gang members roped Stewart into a game of three-card monte. When Stewart refused to pay his losses, the gang members grabbed his sack of gold and ran.
The Committee of 101 got involved. They insisted Smith return the gold, but he refused, saying Stewart had lost it “fairly.”
On the evening of July 8, the Committee of 101 organized a meeting on the Juneau Wharf. Smith, with a Winchester rifle slung over his shoulder, started arguing with a man named Frank H. Reid. Reid was one of the guards blocking Smith’s way to the wharf. Unexpectedly, a gunfight broke out. Soapy Smith fell dead, shot through the heart. Frank Reid suffered severe wounds as well.
Most of Smith’s gang fled Skagway after his death. Frank Reid died twelve days after the shootout from a bullet in his leg and groin. He was buried in Skagway Cemetery. Jefferson “Soapy” Smith lies nearby in Gold Rush Cemetery.
There are several books about Soapy Smith. These include Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel, Soapy Smith: The Life and Legacy of the Wild West’s Most Infamous Con Artist, and King Con: The Story of Soapy Smith.
Don’t Miss Out! Subscribe to the Newsletter
Subscribe to True Crime in the News, a monthly email newsletter that looks at recent news stories that will interest any true crime fan. There is also a summary of the previous month’s blog posts. You won’t want to miss this, sign up for the newsletter today.