“I consider bunco steering more honorable than the life led by the average politician.” Those were the words of Jefferson “Soapy” Smith and he lived by them for almost his entire life.
His name probably isn’t very familiar to you, but Soapy Smith might have been the most successful con man of the Old West. He united grifters and gunmen into an organization and built a criminal empire for himself no less than three times. Whenever a city got too hot for him or the well of suckers began to dry out, Soapy would pack up and move to another place and start again from the ground up.
Unsurprisingly, a life such as his during those wild frontier days was rife with adventure, mayhem, and violence. He had to contend with numerous attempts on his life. He interacted with other popular figures of western lore such as Bat Masterson and Sam Bass. He once barricaded himself inside city hall armed with dynamite and fought to a stand-off against state militia. And, of course, he died guns blazing. All the ingredients are there for the thrilling tale of Soapy Smith, the man who became known as the “King of the Frontier Con Men.”
He was born Jefferson Randolph Smith II sometime in late 1860 near the town of Newnan in Coweta County, Georgia. He actually came from a wealthy family that had quite a bit of influence in the area. Smith’s grandfather used to be a state legislator and owned a big plantation while his father was an attorney. Most of those riches went away while Jeff was still a toddler, though, when the American Civil War ravaged the area. The family struggled to get things to how they were before so, instead, in the mid-1870s, they packed up and moved to start anew in Round Rock, Texas.
Even before he embarked on his life as a grifter, Smith unwittingly became part of Wild West history when he was witness to a shootout between Texas Rangers and the notorious outlaw Sam Bass. On July 19, 1878, Bass and his gang came into Round Rock and were approached by a deputy who ordered them to disarm. They refused and, instead, shot the deputy dead. This prompted a gunfight with Texas Rangers who were also visiting the city. Smith and his cousin Edwin, better known as Bobo, had a front-row view for the proceedings. Allegedly, after one of the rangers hit Bass as he was trying to flee, Smith even shouted out “I think you got him!” Sam Bass was captured later that day. He died of his injuries two days later and was buried in the local cemetery.
Smith had a lot of brothers. Some of them became attorneys like their father. Others became doctors, one became a farmer and another a minister. Jeff, however, seemed destined to turn into the black sheep of the family. As a teenager, he discovered that people found his demeanor trustworthy and that he could use this to his advantage.
According to one version of the story, Smith did try honest work for a while as a cowboy. He might have even studied to become a minister like his older brother, but this all changed one day when he encountered a con man. The experienced swindler took Smith for half of his month’s salary. Once he discovered he’d been suckered, Smith was not angry, though. He didn’t even try to get his money back. Instead, it was like a whole new world full of possibilities had just opened up for him.
Like most tricksters, he started out small. The same year that Bass got shot, Smith left the family home to make his own way. At first, he moved around between country fairs, mining and cattle towns and peddled cheap trinkets and fake jewelry. He also began picking up on classic scams like three-card monte and thimblerig, better known today as the shell game. It was called thimblerig because, back in those days, it was still common to use three thimbles and a pea for the con. Afterward, using three walnut shells became standard practice, hence the name “shell game”, but nowadays you are more likely to see swindlers employ a ball and three cups.
The materials might have changed, but the con remains the same. The players (or “marks”, to use the correct terminology) have to watch closely as the operator shuffles three containers around and places a wager on the container they think holds the ball. It is made to look like a gambling game, perhaps even a game of skill but, in reality, the operator uses sleight of hand to place the ball wherever they want and avoid paying out. Obviously, this was even easier back in the old days when they used a small pea. If the con man had an accomplice, they might pose as a player and actually win a game to show others that it is possible and entice them to try their luck. This person is known as a “shill.”
Smith Gets Soapy
Soon enough, Smith found his trademark scam known as the “prize soap racket.” It would even garner him the nickname “Soapy” which stuck around for the rest of his life, even though he went on to engage in far more ambitious swindles. Allegedly, the moniker came from a police officer who arrested Smith for his “prize soap racket.” Unable to remember the swindler’s name, he just wrote down “Soapy.” There is no solid evidence to suggest this ever happened, but I suppose it is as good an origin story as any.
Here is how the trick worked. Smith presented himself as a humble soap salesman who, in order to boost his sales, had hidden several bills of various denominations inside the wrappers to some of his products. Anyone who bought a soap from him had a chance to win back their money ten, twenty, even fifty times over if they were lucky enough to win the big prize which was usually a $50 or a $100 bill.
Soapy first started using this scam in Leadville, Colorado. Initially, the bars of soap were cheap – somewhere around $1. However, as the supply dwindled and many bars of soap with prizes inside were yet to be claimed, the price increased. Eventually, if there were only a few bars left and nobody won the big prize yet, those soaps would be auctioned off and go to the highest bidders.
The key to success for his scam was that people had to win the prizes. More importantly, they had to win them in loud, overt ways in front of everyone to show other people that the giveaways were legit and encourage them to try their luck. Of course, the swindle would not be very profitable if Soapy actually awarded hundreds of dollars in prizes every day so, obviously, the big winners were his shills. Smith used sleight of hand and other tricks to ensure that the soap bars with the large bills ended up in the hands of his accomplices.
As far as the wrappers with the smaller denominations were concerned, those probably did end up with lucky buyers. It worked in Soapy’s favor to give those to real customers for two reasons – it helped spread word of his “contest” and it meant that he required fewer shills to keep the scam going.
The “soap racket” helped Smith rake in a tidy profit, but he had his sights set a bit higher and, soon enough, left Leadville for Denver.
King of Denver’s Underworld
In 1879, Soapy headed for the big leagues of Denver, the first of three cities where he would build his thriving criminal enterprise from the ground up. Denver proved to be a haven for people like him. It not only had a relaxed attitude towards gambling, but it was a city in the midst of a population boom, meaning there were always fresh, new targets coming off the train, just waiting to lose all their money.
At first, Smith stuck to the “soap racket” and other small-time cons he was familiar with, but with time, he started branching out into a more executive role. He began uniting all the swindlers, con men, card sharps, and other men of dubious reputation into a more cohesive organization…with him at the top, of course. In just a few years, Soapy Smith had formed a criminal empire and became king of Denver’s underworld.
We should take a minute here to mention that Smith did not really fit the stereotype we have of the typical con man who is smooth, and charming, and non-violent, and prefers flight over fight whenever there is a need for a quick getaway. Soapy was not like that. He was a violent man whose demeanor and behavior were more similar to that of a gangster, especially once he started gaining some real power. He was a mean drunk and he became quite known (and feared) for his bad temper.
He had a lot of other savage men in his employ who weren’t there to run cons on people but to make sure that his gang had the upper hand if things escalated to violence. These situations occurred rather frequently, not only when an angry mark wanted revenge after realizing that they had been swindled, but also when other crooks tried to muscle in on Soapy’s territory.
Outwardly, Smith like to portray himself as a man of the community, similar to mob bosses like Al Capone who would follow in his footsteps. He donated generously to charities and churches, got involved in community projects, closed his saloons on Sundays, and helped people in need.
At the height of his power in Denver, Soapy had around 100 men in his employ. More importantly, he had the police and politicians in his pocket. Most patrolling cops were paid off and left Soapy’s men alone to operate with impunity. The ones who weren’t crooked knew there was nothing they could do. Even if they arrested the con men, they would soon be released thanks to a combination of witnesses, attorneys, and politicians standing ready to assist.
Inevitably, Soapy wanted to expand his criminal empire. Regardless of how many men he had under him, there was a limit to how much money he could make if all they did were small-time cons. Smith opened several saloons and gambling halls, the most famous of which was the Tivoli Club in 1888. According to popular legend, the bar had a sign above the entrance to the gambling parlor which, fittingly, said caveat emptor – “buyer beware.”
Soapy also opened fake lottery offices and stock exchanges. If one of them was exposed as being fraudulent, he would simply close up shop and reopen it in another place. His younger brother, Bascomb Smith, joined his operation and ran a cigar store which was a front for various swindles that took place in the backroom.
It was also at this time that Soapy Smith began rubbing elbows with some of the other famed figures of the Old West. One of them was “Texas Jack” Vermillion, a gunfighter who was best known for participating in the notorious Earp Vendetta Ride where Wyatt Earp and his associates took revenge against the men who attacked his brothers. Incidentally, if you would like to know more about this renowned episode of western lore, you can learn all about it in our episode that we did on Wyatt Earp.
It would seem that around 1888, Vermillion made his way to Denver and joined up with Soapy’s gang. The following year, they were involved in a shootout in Pocatello, Idaho, against a rival bunco gang that tried to kill Smith. Vermillion drifted away to other parts soon after.
Another Wild West icon who made Smith’s acquaintance was Bat Masterson. He was a card dealer in Denver for a while and worked in Soapy’s saloons. The two of them established a relationship that continued even after Smith decided it was time to leave Denver.
That moment didn’t happen for quite a while, though. By nature, a con man lives the life of a drifter and does not spend a lot of time in the same city. Thanks to his powerful criminal empire and his connections, however, Smith spent over a decade in Denver. He even got married at one point, to a woman named Mary Noonan, and had kids. He was pretty successful in keeping his two worlds apart as he told his wife never to ask him about his business while most of his associates had no idea he was even married.
Smith didn’t manage it completely, though. At one point, the Rocky Mountain News published an article talking about his family which finally made his worlds collide. He was so angered by this that he attacked the newspaper editor with his cane so hard that he fractured the man’s skull. Soapy was arrested and charged with attempted murder and, even though he got off, the media started focusing more on his criminal empire. He “lurked in shadows as black as his soul”, was a memorable line used to describe Smith. Newspapers often made mention of his close ties to Denver’s Mayor Londoner and Police Chief Farley by derisively naming the trio “the firm of Londoner, Farley, and Smith.”
Eventually, the mayor and police chief lost their jobs and new city officials began enacting anti-gambling reforms. A good con man knows when to cut bait and run and Smith did just that, relocating to the mining boomtown of Creede, Colorado.
From Denver to Creede
As soon as Soapy arrived in Creede in 1892, he enacted his plan to take over. The town was small, but growing by the minute. Therefore, Soapy’s main concern was to obtain as many properties as possible on Creede’s main street. Allegedly, he did this by bringing in Denver prostitutes who used their charms to “persuade” other men to sign over their leases.
An interesting episode was the addition of William Sidney Light, better known as “Cap”, to Soapy’s gang. Cap was a lawman who, seemingly, had an exemplary record in law enforcement. He was also Smith’s brother-in-law and, after Soapy became the new boss in town, he convinced Cap to take over as the deputy marshal. We’re not sure exactly what the arrangement was. Did Cap actually think he was going to clean up Creede? Did he realize he was only there to serve as muscle for his brother-in-law?
Either way, the gig didn’t last long. Just a few months after taking the position of marshal, Cap confronted a drunk card dealer named William McCann who was shooting his gun in the street. Predictably, a gunfight ensued and Cap killed McCann. Even though the coroner’s jury concluded that he was justified, Cap quit soon after.
Cap’s demise came a year later in a very bizarre way. During a court hearing, a man named Coggins pulled out a revolver and shot him in the head twice. His injuries were very bad, but Cap survived. Yes, that’s right. He survived being shot in the head twice. Later that year, Cap was riding a train alone and he accidentally discharged his gun in his pocket. The bullet hit him in the leg, severed his femoral artery and Cap bled to death in minutes.
Back to Smith, he wasted no time in gaining control of Creede. His main competition was a saloon called Ford’s Exchange, operated by Robert Ford, the notorious outlaw who killed Jesse James. The timing worked out great for Soapy, though, as Ford was himself assassinated on June 8, 1892, by Edward Capehart O’Kelley, thus making it a lot easier for Smith to establish his presence in town. Many have alleged that Soapy was ultimately behind Ford’s death as he convinced O’Kelley to do the deed, but there’s no evidence to attest to that idea.
Not before long, all saloons in town paid tribute to Smith, all except one – the Denver Exchange. The reason this establishment escaped Soapy’s grasp was because it was managed by Bat Masterson. We don’t know if it was because of friendship, respect, or fear, but Smith never tried to mess with Masterson’s saloon and even gambled there on occasion.
During his time in Creede, Smith enacted all of his usual scams and frauds, but there was also a new one which was strange enough that it merits mention. Soapy got his hands on a petrified man. He named it McGinty and put it on display in an exhibition. It only cost people ten cents to see the oddity, but while they were waiting in line, there were shell and card games available to help them pass the time (and spend more money).
And Back Again
Meanwhile, in Denver, city officials realized that cleaning up the town had actually been terrible for business. They wanted Smith and all of his associates back and, fortunately for all involved, the timing worked out great. After a growth spurt, the boomtown of Creede had lost its “boom” and was now just a regular town, not to mention that a great fire destroyed many buildings, including Soapy’s main headquarters, the Orleans Club. Smith was looking to relocate again.
With minimal effort, Soapy was back running scams and rackets in Denver. The good times didn’t last long, though. While city officials were happy that Smith was back to his old ways, the new Colorado Governor David Hanson Waite was not. He was elected on an anti-corruption platform and proceeded to fire the top Denver officials he considered responsible for corruption in the city.
In response, the officials and many of their associates barricaded themselves inside Denver City Hall. They called on Smith for assistance and even made him deputy sheriff. In turn, he joined them inside city hall and brought his men who were armed with rifles and dynamite. Consequently, the governor brought in the state militia in an event commemorated in the media as the “Denver City Hall War.”
It may have been called a war, but if anyone actually opened fire, it would have been a massacre, not a war. The men inside the building might have been armed with rifles, but the militia had cannons and gatling guns. Soapy and his men would have been slaughtered. Fortunately for them, cooler heads prevailed and the governor decided to withdraw the militia. The courts eventually sided with him and the Denver officials stayed fired.
With his political protection gone, Soapy lost a lot of territory to his competition, mainly a gang ran by the Blonger brothers. In 1895, Soapy and Bascomb got in trouble after beating up a saloon owner. His brother was put in jail for attempted murder while Soapy was forced to flee Denver.
Last Stop: Alaska
With no other choice, Smith relocated again. After drifting unsuccessfully from place to place for a few years, he settled on Skagway, Alaska, looking to take advantage of the Klondike Gold Rush.
Smith operated in the same way as before as he used the resources at his disposal to gather allies for his eventual takeover. He put the town marshal on his payroll. He hired henchmen who started running various cons such as fixed card games. He even added a fake telegraph office to his repertoire. Clients would pay the fees, but they never noticed that the wires went inside the wall but didn’t come out on the other side. And, of course, while they were waiting for a reply, there were more than a few “friendly” characters around who enticed them to play a few games to pass the time.
Soapy opened a saloon called simply “Jeff.Smith’s Parlor” which functioned as his base of operations. According to a description, it looked “innocent enough.” It had a main bar and restaurant and, in the back, there was a parlor as pretty and cozy as “a lady’s boudoir” where marks would lose all their money. Outside, there was a small empty yard which had a secret exit so Soapy’s men could make a quick getaway if they got made. The saloon still stands today and operates as a museum.
Not everyone welcomed Smith with open arms, even though he continued his tradition of making generous donations to portray himself as a pillar of the community. A vigilance committee known as the “Committee of 101” wanted to throw him out of town. In reply, Soapy formed his own “Law and Order Committee of 317” to ensure that justice would be “dealt out to its full extent.” It’s unclear if Smith actually had 317 men under his command, but based on later arrests, it’s highly unlikely that his gang numbered more than a few dozen.
Smith lasted less than a year in Skagway before his bad temper finally became the end of him. A miner named John Stewart was causing a ruckus in town about losing his gold in one of Soapy’s scams. Nothing out of the ordinary so far, but Stewart was being far more vocal than your average mark and he had the support of the “Committee of 101.”
On July 8, 1898, the committee held a meeting on Juneau Wharf that Smith decided to crash. He left his men behind, concluding that his Winchester rifle was all the persuasion he needed to get an invite. Turns out, he was wrong. The committee placed four guards at the entry to the wharf. One of them named Frank Reid blocked Soapy’s entrance. Smith tried to hit him with the butt of his rifle, but Reid caught it with one hand and pulled out his revolver with the other. He shot the grifter who had time to shoot him back before collapsing. Some say another guard named Jesse Murphy fired the fatal shot. Either way, Soapy Smith died on the spot while Reid succumbed to his wounds 12 days later.
With Soapy dead, his gang wasn’t so scary anymore. The townsfolk began rounding up all the swindlers and it was only the timely arrival of the U.S. Army infantry that saved some of them from being lynched. The prominent members of the gang were put in prison while the rest were thrown out of town.