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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Michael Stone: Hammer Killer Gets Lifetime in Prison

It’s been a while since I featured an English crime. So, this week, we leave murderous doctor Dirk Greineder behind in Massachusetts and travel across the pond to Kent, England. It was there in 1996 that a man wielding a hammer attacked Dr. Lin Russell and her two daughters. Michael Stone was the man convicted of killing Dr. Russell and one of the girls.

Michael Stone

Michael Stone, born in Royal Tunbridge Wells, Kent didn’t have the easiest childhood. For one thing, his paternity was uncertain. Stone’s birth certificate lists Ivor Goodban as his father. But later, he considered Peter Stone, another of his mother’s partners, to be his true father and took his name. However, neither man acknowledged Michael as their son.

Michael Stone after the failure of his 2011 appeal (Reuters)
Michael Stone after the failure of his 2011 appeal (Reuters)

From that shaky start, things got worse. Domestic violence was routine in his family home. But things were no better when he was placed in a care home, as he was abused there. At one point, he suffered beatings with a hammer. He also saw his mother’s former partner attack a man with a meat cleaver. By age nine, Michael started using drugs and committing crimes, and by twelve he had a police record.

Once he left the care system, Stone began using heroin and soon had a £1,500 a week addiction. Like many addicts, he financed his addiction by committing crimes. In the 1980s and 1990s, he served prison sentences for robbery, burglary, and assault. He carried weapons and sometimes attacked victims by squirting ammonia in their faces from a plastic lemon juice bottle. Police considered Stone a suspect in the 1976 murder of former special constable Francis Jegou. Stone was 16 at the time but was already an established and prolific offender.

The Russell Murders

On the summer day of July 9, 1996, Dr. Lin Russell, her two daughters, and their dog walked home from a swim party. Their path took them down a country lane in Chillenden, Kent. When they walked past a parked car, a man jumped out brandishing a claw hammer and demanded money. Told they didn’t have any money with them, the man tied them up and started hitting them with the hammer. Lin urged Josie, then nine, to run home and get help. But the attacker caught the girl, blindfolded her with strips from her swimming towel, and tied her to a tree. He then bludgeoned her until she passed out. After the fifteen-minute attack was over, the man drove off in his car.

The Russell family in happier times (Kent News Pictures)
The Russell family in happier times (Kent News Pictures)

Lin Russell, 45, was dead. So were six-year-old Megan and the family dog, Lucy. Miraculously, Josie survived. The damage to her skull required doctors to insert a metal plate, and they had to remove some of her brain tissue. Josie had to learn to speak all over again after the assault.

Josie (L) and Megan (R) Russell shortly before the murders (Tempest)
Josie (L) and Megan (R) Russell shortly before the murders (Tempest)

Michael Stone Arrested and Convicted

In July 1997, police received several tips after the television program Crimewatch aired an episode on the Russell murders. Those tips led to the arrest of Michael Stone, then 37. Stone couldn’t provide an alibi. He said he couldn’t remember where he was because he was taking so many drugs. Besides, he said, it was a long time ago.

Stone went on trial in 1998. Investigators had collected some items of physical evidence from the crime scene. These included bloody towels, a black shoelace, and a hammer. Given the scientific capabilities of the time, police were unable to link any of this evidence to Stone. There were also eyewitnesses who testified to seeing a man in the vicinity of the murders. But it was uncertain that the man the witnesses had seen was the attacker.

The main evidence against Michael Stone came from a man named Damien Daley. Daley was in jail at the same time as Stone. He testified that Stone confessed to the Russell murders during a conversation they had through a heating pipe. Two other prisoners, Mark Jennings and Barry Thompson, testified that Stone suggested his involvement in the murders to them.

The jury deliberated for nearly fifteen hours over two days before returning a guilty verdict. Mr. Justice Poole sentenced Stone to three life sentences with a tariff of 25 years. The tariff meant he would have to spend at least 25 years in prison before he could be considered for release.

The Michael Stone Trial Round Two

In February 2001, the Court of Appeals granted Stone a new trial. Within 24 hours of the first trial’s conclusion, Barry Thompson admitted he’d lied about Stone confessing to him. Later, it emerged that The Sun newspaper had paid Mark Jennings £5,000 and promised him a further £10,000. The court therefore deemed his evidence unreliable.

A second trial didn’t bring a different result, however. In less time than it took the first jury, the jury Stone’s second trial returned a guilty verdict. His sentence was the same: three life sentences with a tariff of 25 years. The judge opined that a whole-life order was appropriate, but 25 years was the maximum tariff he could legally impose.

Josie Russell survived Michael Stone's brutal hammer attack and is now a successful textile artist (PA)
Josie Russell survived Michael Stone’s brutal hammer attack and is now a successful textile artist (PA)

Epilogue

In 2013, criminologist David Wilson suggested serial killer Levi Bellfield as the possible perpetrator in the Russell murders. But Bellfield’s girlfriend at the time, Johanna Collings maintained that he was with her all day that July 9. Although he harbors doubts about Stone’s conviction, Wilson eventually concluded that Bellfield probably did not kill Lin and Megan Russell.

Levi Bellfield (PA)
Levi Bellfield (PA)

Michael Stone remains in prison and continues to maintain his innocence. All appeals of his second conviction to date have all failed.

Michael Stone (Stephen Hird/Reuters)
Michael Stone (Stephen Hird/Reuters)

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Dirk Greineder: A Big Scandal for a Killer Doctor

Last week’s blog was about an arson fire that killed 32 people in a New Orleans nightclub. This week, we go to Massachusetts and meet allergist Dr. Dirk Greineder. But in 2001, Dr. Greineder murdered his wife and tried to pass it off as a random attack.

Dirk Greineder

Dr. Dirk Greineder was a distinguished allergist known for his work with children’s asthma. He and his wife, Mabel (friends called her May) had been married for more than 30 years and had three grown children. They lived in Wellesley, an affluent Boston suburb where the crime rate was low murder almost unheard of.

May worked alongside her husband as his office nurse. At the same time, she was working on an advanced degree in health care.

Dirk and Mabel (May) Greineder
Dirk and Mabel (May) Greineder

Neighbors and friends thought of the Greineders as an especially devoted couple. They worked side by side and nearly every day they walked their German shepherds together in a nearby park. If there were signs of trouble, no one close to the Greineders saw them.

Murder in the Park

October 31, 1999. Dirk Greineder called 911 from his cell phone. He said that someone had attacked his wife near a pond while they were out for a walk. Dirk told police he’d left his wife behind when he walked the dogs because she was having back pain. When he returned, he found her lying on the path, beaten, and stabbed. Investigators found gloves, a hammer, and a pocketknife they believe to be the murder weapons hidden in a nearby storm drain.

It didn’t take detectives long to discover that the respected doctor had a secret life. Under the name of “Thomas Young,” he ran up large bills for phone sex and frequently hired prostitutes. This behavior escalated, becoming almost obsessive shortly before May’s murder. It was no surprise that police arrested Greineder in mid-November.

Dirk Greineder on Trial

Dirk Greineder faced an uphill battle at trial. Up front, there was the double life. Witnesses testified that May Greineder had become increasingly insecure about her marriage shorty before she died. She started exercising more and had been updating her wardrobe. There was also testimony that she had considered getting a facelift. The prosecution theorized that she had discovered or was about to discover her husband’s secret life. This, they said, was his motive for murder.

Dirk Greineder in court
Dirk Greineder in court

Another problem for the good doctor was that his DNA was all over the murder weapons. Furthermore, witnesses placed Greineder near the site where the hammer, gloves, and knife were hidden. If he were truly seeking help, he would have logically been near the main road instead. There was also evidence that Greineder had delayed making the 911 call.

The evidence seemed damning and was often sordid, but Greineder still had strong support from friends and family. This included his three children. He testified that he loved his wife and had no reason to kill her.

After a six-week trial, the jury found him guilty of first-degree murder on June 29, 2001. The conviction carried a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Epilogue

Despite the evidence and his conviction, Dirk Greineder continues to maintain his innocence. So far, his appeals have failed, and he remains incarcerated. As of 2022, his residence is the Massachusetts Correctional Institution – Norfolk.

MCI-Norfolk
MCI-Norfolk

You can read more about the Greineder murder case in Tom Farmer’s book, A Murder in Wellesley.

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UpStairs Lounge: Big Arson Fire Kills 32 People

My last blog dealt with the case of Timothy McVeigh, the infamous Oklahoma City Bomber. This week’s case is also horrifying but has had much less publicity. It’s the case of the arson fire at the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans.

UpStairs Lounge

It was 1974. Only four years earlier, in June 1969, the so-called “Stonewall Riots” first brought public attention to the issue of gay rights. Not a great deal of progress had been made in those four years. Yet many in the LGBTQIA+ community no longer hid their sexual orientation.

It was this community that the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) served. Founded in 1968 in Los Angeles, MCC was a pro-LGBTQIA+ protestant denomination. For a while in New Orleans, the MCC met in the theater of the UpStairs Lounge. The UpStairs Lounge itself was a gay bar. It occupied the second floor of an historic three-story building at the corner of Chartres and Iverville Streets.

Customers enjoying a good time at the UpStairs Lounge before the fire
Customers enjoying a good time at the UpStairs Lounge before the fire

UpStairs Lounge in Flames

Sunday, June 24, 1973, marked the end of nationwide Pride celebrations that were glaringly lacking in the Big Easy. That evening, the UpStairs Lounge held its usual “beer bust” between 5:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Many MCC members were in attendance. After 7:00, the crowed thinned a bit but there were still between sixty and ninety customers in the lounge. They talked and listened to pianist George Steven “Bud” Matyi perform.

At 7:56, the downstairs door buzzer sounded. Bartender Buddy Rasmussen asked Luther Boggs to answer the door. When Boggs opened the door, he found the front staircase in flames. He also noticed the strong smell of lighter fluid.

The UpStairs Lounge burns
The UpStairs Lounge burns

A backdraft caused the fire to spread quickly. Bartender Rasmussen immediately led about twenty people to the roof, where they could access an adjacent building and climb down. Boggs tried to escape thorough one of the floor-to-ceiling windows but was severely burned in the process. He died on July 10, sixteen days later.

Aftermath of the fire
Aftermath of the fire

Firefighters from a nearby fire station found it difficult to reach the club as cars and pedestrians blocked their way. One engine tried to use the sidewalk but ended up colliding with a taxicab. When the fire department did manage to arrive on the scene, they quickly brought the blaze under control. It had been only sixteen minutes since Boggs first spotted the flames.

Epilogue

Thirty-two people died the UpStairs Lounge fire and eighteen suffered injuries. Police questioned a suspect, Roger Dale Nunez, but never developed enough evidence to charge him. Nunez, a gay man with a history of mental health issues, had been ejected from the club for fighting earlier in the evening. Nunez committed suicide in November 1974.

Firefighters attend to the injured
Firefighters attend to the injured

Local news outlets gave the fire prominent coverage but soft-pedaled the fact that LGBTQIA+ patrons comprised most of the victims. Editorials and right-wing talk show hosts made light of the tragedy.

The building at 604 Iberville Street in 2019 (Wikipedia/Deisenbe)
The building at 604 Iberville Street in 2019 (Wikipedia/Deisenbe)

You can read more about the UpStairs Lounge tragedy in Tinderbox by Robert W. Fieseler or The Up Stairs Lounge Arson by Clayton Delery-Edwards.

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