Soapy Smith: Big Swindle Leads Man to Murder

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 "Soapy" Smith
Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith

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.

Outlaw Sam Bass
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 Smith's Tivoli Club (at left) at 17th and Market in Denver, Colorado ca. 1890
Soapy Smith’s Tivoli Club (at left) at 17th and Market in Denver, Colorado ca. 1890

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.

Main Street, Creede, Colorado ca. 1892
Main Street, Creede, Colorado ca. 1892

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.

Soapy Smith in his bar in Skagway, Alaska Territory
Soapy Smith in his bar in Skagway, Alaska Territory

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.

The Soap Gang hangs out in front of Jeff Smith's Parlor in Skagway on July 4, 1898. Four days later, Soapy Smith was dead (University of Washington Library)
The Soap Gang hangs out in front of Jeff Smith’s Parlor in Skagway on July 4, 1898. Four days later, Soapy Smith was dead (University of Washington Library)

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.”

Frank H. Reid shot Soapy Smith dead, but died himself 12 days after the gunbattle
Frank H. Reid shot Soapy Smith dead, but died himself 12 days after the gun battle

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.

Jefferson "Soapy" Smith's grave in Gold Rush Cemetery, Skagway, Alaska. The age on the marker is incorrect; Smith was 37 when he died (Wikipedia/Notyourbroom)
Jefferson “Soapy” Smith’s grave in Gold Rush Cemetery, Skagway, Alaska. The age on the marker is incorrect; Smith was 37 when he died (Wikipedia/Notyourbroom)

Epilogue

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.

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Tom Horn: Colorful Hired Killer Spreads Terror in Wyoming

Last week we saw serial killer Donald Gaskins have his budding career cut short. This week’s case is that of Tom Horn, one of the authentic “hired guns” of the American west. Horn rose to fame (or infamy) as a hitman during the fading days of the Old West.

Tom Horn—Scout, Rancher, Detective

Thomas Horn, Jr. was born on his family’s farm in Scotland County, Missouri in the northeastern corner of the state. The fifth of eventually 12 children, young Tom was a lonely child who often suffered abuse from his father. At 16, he traveled to the Southwest where the U.S. Army hired him as a scout and packer. His performance as a scout earned him praise and promotion. By 1885, he was chief of scouts at Fort Bowie in Arizona Territory. While with the Army, he witnessed Apache leader Geronimo’s final surrender to Gen. Nelson Miles on September 4, 1886.

Tom Horn braiding rope. The rumor that he braided the rope he was hanged with was false.
Tom Horn braiding rope. The rumor that he braided the rope he was hanged with was false.

Geronimo’s surrender marked the end of the Apache Wars in the Southwest. Horn took the money he had earned as a scout and started a small ranch in Southeastern Arizona Territory. However, one night, thieves attacked the ranch and stole his 100 head of cattle and 26 horses. The theft left Horn bankrupt. It also marked the beginning of his intense hatred for thieves

Following his failed attempt at ranching, Horn wandered about, holding a number of jobs. Most often he worked as a cowboy, where he was expected to use his gun to watch over the stock. In 1889, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency hired him because of his reputation as a tracker and for being cool under pressure.

Tom Horn Becomes a Hired gun

The so-called Johnson County War was essentially a class conflict between the big (and wealthy) cattlemen and small homesteaders. It was fought mostly over land and water rights. Ranchers who raised sheep were especially targeted; sheep supposedly destroyed the common grazing lands. Typically, the cattlemen would accuse a small rancher or farmer of rustling, often falsely. Lynch mobs often dispatched the “rustlers.”

"The Invaders," gunmen hired by the WSGA to elimnate the alleged rustlers in Johnson County (Photo taken at Fort D.A. Russell near Cheyenne, WO in May 1892)
“The Invaders,” gunmen hired by the WSGA to elimnate the alleged rustlers in Johnson County during the Johnson County War (Photo taken at Fort D.A. Russell near Cheyenne, WY in May 1892)

The Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) hired Tom Horn as a “range detective,” a euphemism for hired killer. He also continued to work for Pinkerton’s when the agency was in the service of the WSGA or other cattle interests. Horn earned a reputation as a tough and fearless killer.

Tom Horn Kills Willie Nickell—Or Did He?

The Miller and Nickell families were neighbors near Iron Mountain, Wyoming. Jim Miller raised cattle while Kels Nickell raised sheep. Conflict between the two families was inevitable. On July 18, 1901, Willie Nickell, the 14-year-old son of sheep rancher Kels, was found murdered near the gate of the Nickell homestead. The violence continued. On August 4, someone shot Kels Nickell. The next day, Deputy Sheriff Peter Warlaumont and Deputy U.S. Marshal Joe Lefors arrived in Iron Mountain. They arrested Jim Miller and his sons Victor and Gus for the shooting of Kels Nickell. The trio bonded out the next day.

Kels P. Nickell and Mary Mahoney Nickell, Willie’s parents (WY State Archives)

Months passed. In January 1902, Deputy Marshall Joe Lefors questioned Horn about the Willie Nickell murder while discussing potential employment. Horn, still drunk from a bender the night before, allegedly confessed to killing Willie with his rifle from 300 yards away. The county sheriff arrested him the next day.

Willie Nickell
Willie Nickell

Horn On Trial

Horn’s trial began in Cheyenne on October 10, 1902. Because of Horn’s notoriety, the trial attracted large crowds and a carnival atmosphere prevailed. Cattle rancher John C. Coble, a long-time friend and employer, funded the defense. However, ninety years later, writer Johan P. Bakker proposed that Horn had become expendable to the WSGA’s members. The trial became a way of silencing him before he could talk too much about their shady activities. Bakker theorizes that although WSGA members forked over $1,000 each for the defense, they made it clear they wanted a minimal effort.

The prosecution case against Horn leaned heavily on his supposed “confession” to Deputy Marshall Lefors. Circumstantial evidence placing him in the general vicinity at the time tended to support the “confession.” The defense called one Otto Plaga, who testified that Horn was 20 miles away at the time of the murder.

Tom Horn in Jail in Wyoming awaiting execution in 1903
Tom Horn in Jail in Wyoming awaiting execution in 1903

The jury got the case on October 23 and returned a guilty verdict the next day. Several days later, Judge Richard H. Scott sentenced Horn to death by hanging. A petition to the Wyoming Supreme Court for a new trial failed.

Epilogue

Tom Horn was hanged on November 20, 1903. People still argue his guilt today. Author Chip Carlson researched the case and wrote Tom Horn: Blood on the Moon. He concluded that while Horn could have killed Willie Nickell, he probably didn’t. Another writer, Dean Fenton Krakel, believes Horn did commit the murder but did not realize he was killing a boy. His book, The Saga of Tom Horn: The Story of a Cattlemen’s War, contends the real target was Kels Nickell, Willie’s father.

Rancher Jim Coble paid for Horn’s coffin and a stone to mark his grave. He was buried in Columbia Cemetery in Boulder, Colorado on December 3, 1903.

Tom Horn's tombstone in Columbia Cemetery, Bolder, CO
Tom Horn’s tombstone in Columbia Cemetery, Bolder, CO

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Frank Leslie: Lust, Love, and Murder

Last week’s blog dealt with the infamous saloon murder of lawman, gambler, and gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok. I thought we’d keep with the Old West motif this week and take up the case of Frank Leslie.

“Buckskin” Frank Leslie

Nashville Franklyn Leslie was born in in Texas in 1842. Sources vary as to exactly where in Texas. While most accept San Antonio as Leslie’s birthplace, others identify Galveston. Like many Old West figures, the details of his origins and early life are sketchy at best. Leslie himself told colorful, often conflicting—and improbable—stories of his life. Some of his tales included medical studies at Heidelberg and a stint as an officer in the Confederate Army. He also claimed to have served as “Deputy Sheriff of Abalene [sic] under J.B. Hickock [sic].”

William Franklyn "Buckskin Frank" Leslie photographed at the Yuma Territorial Prison
William Franklyn “Buckskin Frank” Leslie photographed at the Yuma Territorial Prison

Another story had Leslie scouting for the U.S. Army during the Indian wars, where he supposedly acquired the nickname of “Buckskin.” No hard evidence exists to support any of these stories.

What the record does show is that in 1878, Frank Leslie was living in San Francisco working as a barkeeper. He worked at that capacity in at least two establishments between 1878 and 1880.

Frank Leslie Comes to Tombstone

About a year before the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Frank Leslie showed up in Tombstone, Arizona Territory. He wore the buckskins of a scout but quickly traded the frontier look for gentleman’s togs like those he’d worn in San Francisco. To accent the new look, he donned a fringed buckskin vest, enhancing his image as “Buckskin Frank” Leslie. He proceeded to open the Cosmopolitan Hotel at 409 Allen Street with partner William H. Knapp.

An unusual photograph of the Cosmopolitan Hotel taken by Carleton E. Watkins in 1880
An unusual photograph of the Cosmopolitan Hotel taken by Carleton E. Watkins in 1880

One of the hotel’s employees was a chambermaid named Mary Jane Killeen. Frank Leslie had attended Mary’s wedding to Mike Killeen in April 1880 and was even one of the official witnesses. Nevertheless, Killeen was extremely jealous of the relationship—whatever it was—between Leslie and Mary.

Mary Jane "May" Killeen. This 1880s cabinet photograph is part of a collection of Tombstone prostitutes, making it likely she wasn't just a hotel chambermaid.
Mary Jane “May” Killeen. This 1880s cabinet photograph is part of a collection of Tombstone prostitutes, making it likely she wasn’t just a hotel chambermaid.

On June 22, 1880, Leslie and a friend, George Perine, were sitting with Mary on the porch of the Cosmopolitan. An angry Killeen attacked Leslie, first shooting at him, and then clubbing him with his pistol. In the brawl, Killeen received a fatal gunshot wound. Before dying five days later, Killeen accused Perine of firing the fatal shot.

Authorities charged both Perine and Leslie with murder. Leslie claimed self-defense and testified that Perine had not fired his gun. The court accepted this explanation and dismissed charges against both men. Eyebrows in Tombstone raised, however, when Frank Leslie married Mary Jane Killeen only eight days after her husband’s death.

Frank Leslie Kills Billy Claiborne

A major fire destroyed much of Tombstone on May 26, 1882, including the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Frank Leslie and his partner, William Knapp decided not to rebuild. Instead, Leslie took a job as a bartender at the Oriental Saloon, one of the few buildings left undamaged by the fire.

Gambling at the Oriental Saloon about the time Frank Leslie would have been a bartender
Gambling at the Oriental Saloon about the time Frank Leslie would have been a bartender (Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum)

Leslie was tending bar at the Oriental on November 14, 1882, when a very drunk Billy Claiborne came in and began verbally abusing him. Claiborne, who had survived the infamous OK Corral shootout just over a year before, believed Leslie had killed his friend, Johnny Ringo. Leslie ejected Claiborne from the saloon, but Billy waited outside.

William Floyd "Billy" Claiborne was part of Ike Clanton's "cowboy" faction . He ran away from the infamous O,K. Corral gunfight because he was unarmed. His luck ran out a year later when he picked a fight with Frank Leslie.. He was only 22
William Floyd “Billy” Claiborne was part of Ike Clanton’s “cowboy” faction . He ran away from the infamous O,K. Corral gunfight because he was unarmed. His luck ran out a year later when he picked a fight with Frank Leslie.. He was only 22

Leslie stepped out onto the street and saw a rifle protruding from behind a fruit stand. He tried to convince Claiborne not to shoot, but Billy fired anyway, missing. Frank then fired a single shot into Billy’s chest. When Leslie approached him, Claiborne reportedly said, “Don’t shoot again, I am killed.” The coroner’s inquest ruled the killing justifiable in self-defense.

Murder and Prison

Frank Leslie’s wife Mary Killeen filed for divorce. Her complaint alleged that Frank had had sex with one Birdie Woods in July 1886. She further charged that he had choked and beaten her (Mary) on March 9, 1887. Judge William H. Barnes granted the divorce on June 3, 1887, ordering Frank to pay $650 in cash and Mary’s court costs.

Sometime after his divorce, a prostitute, “Blonde Mollie” Williams joined him at his ranch, presenting herself as his wife. Like many sex workers of the time, Mollie’s surname sometimes varied. She was Mollie Bradshaw when she arrived in Tombstone from Nevada with E.L. Bradshaw. She was Mollie Williams when she took up with Frank Leslie. Her real name was possibly Mollie Edwards.

"Blonde Mollie" Williams lived with Frank Leslie after Mary Killeen divorced him
“Blonde Mollie” Williams lived with Frank Leslie after Mary Killeen divorced him

On July 10, 1889, a drunken Frank Leslie returned to his ranch and saw Mollie sitting and talking with ranch hand James Neil. In a rage, he shot Millie in the head, killing her. He then shot Neil to eliminate him as a witness, but Neil survived. Leslie was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The Mohave Miner reported his arrival at the Yuma Territorial Prison on January 9, 1890. “The eleven convicts who were brought here from Tombstone yesterday, arrived in an intoxicated condition. One of the number, a life prisoner, Frank Leslie, was so drunk that he could scarcely walk.”

Epilogue

Territorial governor Benjamin J. Franklin granted Leslie a full and unconditional pardon on November 17, 1896. Shortly his release, he married a San Francisco divorcee named Belle Stowell on December 1, 1896. Apparently the two did not live together for long. The marriage officially ended on March 19, 1903, when Belle received a divorce on the grounds of “failure to provide.”

“Buckskin” Frank Leslie married at least once more, this time to Elnora “Nora” Cast on November 6, 1913. The last public record of his remarkable life found him living on Water Street in Sausalito, California on January 27, 1920. He was 77 years old at the time. When Nora died in 1932, Frank Leslie was not listed as a survivor.

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Wild Bill Hickok: Fortune Leaves Him in the Lurch

For Independence Day, we leave Appalachia far behind behind and reach back into America’s Western past. This week’s case is the murder of a true Old West icon, Wild Bill Hickok.

Wild Bill Hickok

James Butler Hickok lived as full a live as a man possibly could. Born in northern Illinois in 1837, he left home at 18 after he mistakenly thought he killed a man. He may have taken his father’s name, William, partly as a means of lying low. Finding his way to “Bleeding Kansas,” the man who now called himself “Wild Bill” joined the Jayhawkers, a violent anti-slavery group. As a Jayhawker, he met a 12-year-old William Cody who would later attain fame as “Buffalo Bill.”

James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok
James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok

When the Civil War formally began, Hickok joined the Union Army as a teamster and then a wagon master. Later he worked for the provost marshal in southwestern Missouri and as a scout. After the war, he gained fame as a lawman in Hays and Abilene, Kansas, and also as a gunfighter and gambler.

In the early 1870s, Abilene, Kansas was a wild town at the end of the cattle trails. In 1871, Hickok was town marshal and had a dispute with saloon owner Phil Coe. The dispute escalated, as disputes often will and on October 5, the two had a confrontation on a city street. Coe aimed his pistol at Wild Bill, but Hickok shot first, killing Coe.

After shooting Coe, Hickok got a quick glimpse of someone running toward him. He turned and fired, killing Abilene Special Deputy Mike Williams, who was rushing to help Hickok. The killing of Williams, which haunted Hickok for the rest of his life, was only one of several questionable shooting. That, coupled with claims of misconduct led the City of Abilene to relieve the marshal of his duties. Wild Bill never fought another gunfight after that.

Wild Bill Hickok in Later Life

In 1873, Buffalo Bill Cody and Texas Jack Omohundro invited Wild Bill to join their acting troupe. The company performed a wild west show called “Scouts of the Plains.” Hickok agreed, but he didn’t like acting and often hid himself behind the scenery. And at one performance, he shot out the spotlight when it focused on him!

A more civilized version of Wild Bill Hickok
A more civilized version of Wild Bill Hickok

By 1876, Wild Bill was making his living by gambling—playing cards. Sometime that year, he visited a Kansas City doctor, who diagnosed him with glaucoma and ophthalmia. Hickok was only 39, but his health and his eyesight—and, consequently, his marksmanship—were failing him.

Eighteen-seventy-six also found Wild Bill in the mining town of Deadwood, Dakota Territory, He played cards regularly at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon No. 10.

A recent photo of the site of Nuttal & Mann's Saloon No. 10. The original building burned down in 1879. (Photo by CyArk)
A recent photo of the site of Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon No. 10. The original building burned down in 1879. (Photo by CyArk)

Jack McCall Murders Wild Bill Hickok

On August 1, 1876, Hickok was playing cards at Nuttal & Mann’s. A chair opened up at the table and a drunken man named “Broken Nose” Jack McCall flopped down. The newcomer was a heavy loser. Wild Bill encouraged him to quit the game until he could cover his losses and offered him money to buy breakfast. McCall took the money, but he felt Hickok had insulted him.

This picture purports to be "Crooked Nose" Jack McCall, although it has never been substantiated.
This picture purports to be “Crooked Nose” Jack McCall, although ithas never been substantiated.

The next day, August 2, Hickok was again playing poker but this time there was a crucial difference. Normally, Bill sat with his back to a wall so he could see the entrance. This time, the only chair open faced away from the door. Twice he asked another player, Charles Rich, to exchange seats but Rich refused.

At some point during the game, McCall came in and walked up behind Hickok. He drew his .45 caliber single-action Colt Army Revolver and shot Hickok in the back of the head at point blank range. Wild Bill Hickok immediately fell to the floor, dead.

Epilogue

Jack McCall was tried twice. A miner’s court convened soon after the shooting. McCall claimed he was avenging the shooting death of his brother by Hickock and was acquitted. That trial was declared invalid, though, since Deadwood was in Indian Territory and had no jurisdiction.

A second trial convened on December 4, 1876, in Yankton, the capital of Dakota Territory. A guilty verdict followed two days later, and Judge Granville Bennett sentenced McCall to hang. He was hanged in a public execution on March 1, 1877 and buried with the noose still around his neck. It later emerged that McCall never had a brother.

Hickok was playing five-card stud (or draw) when McCall shot him. He was holding two pair, aces over eights, all black, when he died. His hole card was a diamond, either a jack or a queen. The hand subsequently became known as the “dead man’s hand.” It’s an intriguing story, but it didn’t emerge until the 1920s, so there is some doubt as to its accuracy.

The infamous "Dead Man's Hand" that Wild Bill Hickok supposedly held when McCall shot him (By Tage Olsin)
The infamous “Dead Man’s Hand” that Wild Bill Hickok supposedly held when McCall shot him (By Tage Olsin)

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