Wild West Wednesday: Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith, Con Artist Extraordinaire

SoapySmith  July 8, 1898 was an eventful day in Skagway, Alaska.  A scoundrel by the name of Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith met his untimely demise.  Soapy had been making a name (and not a good one) for himself for years from Texas to Colorado to Alaska.  Conduct a search at the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America web site or at Newspapers.com and you will find hundreds of references to “Soapy Smith” from the early 1870’s through the early 1920’s.  To say he was notorious might be an understatement.

Jefferson Randolph Smith II was born in Coweta County, Georgia on November 2, 1860 to parents Jefferson Randolph and Emily (Edmundson) Smith, Sr.  His family was prosperous; his great-grandfather had owned one of the largest plantations in the area and his father was a lawyer.  As with so many Southern families their fortunes were depleted by the Civil War, so Jeff (as he liked to be called) and his family moved to Round Rock, Texas in 1876.

Two years later Jeff and his cousin witnessed the murder of outlaw Sam Bass.  That was also the year Jeff struck out on his own, first moving to Fort Worth to take up the unscrupulous occupation of con artist.  One of his first tasks was to gather other con artists and thieves to form a gang which could spread out and cover more territory.  The most enticing of their cons were the “short cons” like shell games and Three-Card Monte.

His most infamous con game which earned him the “Soapy” nickname was called the “Prize Package Soap Sell.”   He would set up a suitcase piled high with ordinary looking soap bars on the corner of a busy street corner.  In full view of the public he was seen wrapping some of the bars in paper bills ranging from one to one hundred dollars.  Those bars would be carefully re-wrapped and mixed with the other bars to be sold from one to five dollars per bar.  As with any good con, one needs a “shill” and Soapy had one who always managed to buy the one containing the one hundred dollar bill.  Of course, most people would find only a five-cent bar of soap when they unwrapped it.  It was a swindle he would successfully operate for nearly two decades.

After Fort Worth banned his type of “business” in 1879, Soapy moved on to Denver, Colorado.  At that time Denver was wide-open in regards to gambling – there were no barriers for con men such as Soapy.  Every day new “suckers” got off the train at Union Station and Soapy and his men were on hand to separate them from their money.  He and his gang garnered influence by offering kickbacks to local officials, even police, and by 1884 he was the self-proclaimed “crime boss” of an underworld empire.  He was known for his charity as well, making contributions to churches and the poor and making his saloons available to ministers to hold services.  One minister, Parson Tom Uzell of the People’s Tabernacle, specifically sought out Soapy when he was in need of a contribution, even though he was well aware of Soapy’s criminal enterprises.

His base of operations in Denver was the Tivoli Saloon and Gambling Hall.  Above the door was a sign that read “Caveat Emptor” or “Let the Buyer Beware.”  There were also fake stock exchanges and lottery shops which, even though regularly criticized for obviously operating illicitly, continued to line the pockets of Soapy and his gang.  In 1885 he and fellow con man Old Man Taylor began operating their con games in Leadville.  Amazingly, in 1891 he convinced his deputy marshal brother-in-law William “Cap” Light to join him in Colorado.

PetrifiedManSoapyAfter years of wide-open policy toward gambling the city of Denver began to enact reforms beginning in 1892, so Soapy and his gang moved on to Creede, Colorado.  There the Orleans Club was his base of operations.  The “draw” to bring customers in was a “petrified man” who was called “McGinty.”  Actually it was just some skeletal remains which had been cemented over and for ten cents a look it added to his profits.  However, the real profits were in the cons and crooked card games.  As he had operated in Denver by ingratiating himself to the locals, he began donating money to churches and the poor again.

After Creede’s boom was over, Soapy returned to Denver after gambling reforms had been relaxed somewhat.  He again made his base of operations at the Tivoli.  A new governor, Davis H. Waite, aka “Bloody Bridles,” took office in January of 1893, and one of his goals was to address rampant corruption throughout the state.  In March of 1894 Governor Waite was ready to take on corruption in the capital city.  His first action was to fire three members of the local government who he thought most responsible for city hall corruption.

The state constitution did grant the governor powers to make appointments but not locally.  The city of Denver took the governor to court and a temporary injunction was issued barring the governor from interfering in Denver civic affairs.  Waite disagreed and threatened to bring in the state militia to enforce his actions.  At that point the Denver mayor formed a special police force to challenge any forces Waite might bring in.  Given city hall’s reputation for corruption, it was not surprising to find that Soapy Smith backed the special force.  In fact, Soapy would lead the new “deputies” and be referred to as “Colonel Smith.”

ColoStateMilitiaSoapySmithGovernor Waite made good on his threat and brought in the state militia to forcibly remove the corrupt officials.  Martial law was declared in mid-March, followed by the militia and “special police force” facing off at city hall.  In order to prevent escalation of hostilities, the two sides decided to let the State Supreme Court decide the issue.  On April 16, the Supreme Court came down on the side of Governor Waite and the corrupt commissioners were officially removed.  Not long afterwards, gambling was illegal in Denver, along with prostitution, bootlegging and other unsavory and unlawful activities.  Obviously, Soapy Smith was a target but that just forced him to operate “underground.”  After he and his brother Bascomb were charged with attempted murder of a saloon operator, Soapy escaped and made his way to Alaska and the Yukon Gold Rush.

As with all previous operations, he quickly established his base at Jeff Smith’s Parlor in Skagway, Alaska.  Not long afterwards he found a way, as always, to proclaim himself “boss” of the town.  His cons were again in full swing, and the citizens of Skagway soon tired of his heavy-handed dealings.

SoapySkagwayAccording to the Alaska Public Media web site, one of his cons involved a fake telegraph office.  There was actually no telegraph service in Skagway, but most people who came their for the gold rush didn’t know that.  The reply to the fake telegrams was always the same: “please send money.”  His response to criticism of this particular swindle was that he was saving people – people stupid enough to be caught up in his scam were being saved from sure death in the Klondike.

A group of citizens formed a group, calling themselves the “Committee of 101″ and threatened to drive Soapy and his hoodlums out of town.  Soapy responded by forming his own group, claiming to be more than three hundred strong.  Whether his claims were true or not, at least for a time the Committee of 101 backed off.

After the battleship Maine was sunk in the Havana harbor in 1898, Soapy formed a volunteer militia, calling it the Skagway Military Company.  At the first meeting he was “elected” captain.  The minutes of the meeting with an accompanying letter were forwarded to the governor of Alaska Territory and President McKinley, offering the services of the militia to the United States government.  In reply, the War Department granted them permission to proceed with militia operations.  Unbeknownst to the U.S. government they had enabled Soapy Smith to do what he did best – be a thug and take over an entire town.  The edict gave him authority to declare martial law, and of course, keep the Committee of 101 contained.

On July 7, 1898, miner John Stewart encountered members of Soapy’s gang and inexplicably informed them that he had a stash of gold at the Mondimen Hotel.  Seeing an opportunity, Soapy’s gang insisted that Stewart’s gold would be much safer in the local bank.  They were only too happy to escort him to the bank, stopping along the way after meeting up with two other members of the gang to play a “friendly” game of Three-Card Monte.  The con, of course, was to make Stewart think he was winning, but after fetching his gold he began to lose.  Stewart refused to pay up and the gang stole his gold outright.

Complaints directed at the United States Deputy Marshal did no good because — you guessed it — he was on Soapy’s payroll.  The Committee of 101 and other citizens were spurred to action as word spread of the theft.  When Soapy refused to return Stewart’s gold a meeting was called for the following evening.

SoapyDeadOn the evening of July 8, 1898 Soapy was at his parlor drinking and the vigilante group was meeting in a warehouse at the end of the Juneau Company pier.  After being informed of the meeting around 9:00 p.m., Soapy decided to make his way over with a Winchester rifle strapped over his shoulder.  When he arrived, Frank Reid, one of the guards, refused him entry.  Soon a gunfight erupted and when it was over Soapy was dead and Reid badly wounded.  His gang members were rounded up and taken to jail and the rest of the gang dispersed after Soapy’s death.

SoapySmithGraveHis death caused quite a stir in Skagway and made headlines across the country.  Several photographs were taken at the time to document his death.  The following week The Skaguay News proclaimed: “Soapy Smith’s Last Bluff Called By Frank Reid.”  On July 24, The San Francisco Call devoted an entire page of the Sunday edition to Soapy Smith:

SoapyDeathHeadlineAccording to the History Channel web site, his funeral service was held in a Skagway church that had been on the receiving end of Soapy’s charity.  His charity notwithstanding, the minister chose a text from Proverbs 13: “The way of transgressors is hard.”   Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith was buried on the outskirts of the city cemetery.  His grave and saloon (although later moved to another location) are still tourist attractions in Skagway today.

Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!

© Sharon Hall (History Depot), 2014.


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