Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith II (November 2, 1860 – July 8, 1898) was a con artist, saloon and gambling house proprietor, gangster, and crime boss of the 19th-century Old West. His most famous scam, the prize package soap sell racket, presented him with the sobriquet of "Soapy", which remained with him to his death.
Although he traveled and operated his confidence swindles all across the western United States, he is most famous for having a major hand in the organized criminal operations of Denver and Creede, Colorado, and Skagway, Alaska, from 1879 to 1898. In Denver, he ran several saloons, gambling halls, cigar stores, and auction houses that specialized in cheating their clientele. In Denver, Soapy began to make a name for himself across the country as a bad man. Denver is also where he entered into the arena of political fixing, where, for favors, he could sway the outcome of city, county, and state elections.
He used the same methods of operation when he settled in the towns of Creede and Skagway, opening businesses with the primary goal of gently robbing his customers, while making a name for himself. He died in spectacular fashion in the shootout on Juneau Wharf in Skagway.
Jefferson Smith was born in Coweta County, Georgia, to a family of education and wealth. His grandfather was a plantation owner and a popular Georgia senator and legislator. His father was an attorney. The family met with financial ruin at the close of the American Civil War. In 1876, they moved to Round Rock, Texas, to start anew. In Round Rock, Jefferson began his career as a confidence man.
Smith left his home shortly after the death of his mother in 1877, but not before witnessing the shooting of the outlaw Sam Bass. In Fort Worth, Smith formed a close-knit, disciplined gang of shills and thieves to work for him. Soon, he became a well-known crime boss, the "king of the frontier con men".
Smith spent the next 22 years as a professional bunko man and boss of an infamous gang of loyal swindlers, known as the Soap Gang, which included famous men such as Texas Jack Vermillion and "Big Ed" Burns. The gang moved from town to town, plying their trade on their unwary victims. Their principal method of separating victims from their cash was the use of "short cons", swindles that were quick and needed little setup and few helpers. The short cons included the shell game, three-card monte, and rigged poker games, which they called "big mitt".
The prize package soap racket
Some time in the late 1870s or early 1880s, Smith began cheating crowds with a ploy the Denver newspapers dubbed "The prize soap racket".
Smith would open his "tripe and keister" (display case on a tripod) on a busy street corner. Piling ordinary soap cakes onto the keister top, he began expounding on their wonders. As he spoke to the growing crowd of curious onlookers, he would pull out his wallet and begin wrapping paper money, ranging from one dollar up to one hundred dollars, around a select few of the bars. He then finished each bar by wrapping plain paper around it to hide the money.
He appeared to mix the money-wrapped packages in with wrapped bars containing no money, and then sold the soap to the crowd for one dollar a cake. A shill planted in the crowd would buy a bar, tear it open, and loudly proclaim that he had won some money, waving it around for all to see. This performance had the desired effect of enticing the sale of more packages. More often than not, victims bought several bars before the sale was completed. Midway through the sale, Smith would announce that the hundred-dollar bill yet remained in the pile, unpurchased. He then would auction off the remaining soap bars to the highest bidders.
Through manipulation and sleight-of-hand, he hid the cakes of soap wrapped with money and replaced them with packages holding no cash. The only money "won" went to shills, members of the gang planted in the crowd pretending to win, in order to increase sales.
On one occasion, Smith was arrested by policeman John Holland for running his soap-sell racket. While writing in the police log book, Holland had forgotten Smith's first name and wrote "Soapy". The sobriquet stuck, and he became known as "Soapy Smith" all across the western United States. He used this swindle for 20 years with great success. The soap sell, along with other scams, helped finance Soapy's criminal operations by paying graft to police, judges, and politicians. He was able to build three major criminal empires: the first in Denver (1886–1895); the second in Creede, Colorado (1892); and the third in Skagway, Alaska (1897–1898).
Criminal boss of Denver
In 1879, Smith arrived in Denver for the first time. By 1882, he had successfully built the first of his empires. Con men normally moved around to keep out of jail, but as Smith's power and gang grew, so did his influence at city hall, allowing him to remain in the city, protected from prosecution. By 1887, he was reputedly involved with most of the criminal bunko activities in the city. Newspapers in Denver reported that he controlled the city's criminals and underworld gambling, and accused corrupt politicians and the police chief of receiving graft from him.
In 1888, Soapy opened the Tivoli Club, on the southeast corner of Market and 17th Streets, a combination saloon and gambling house. Legend has it that above the entrance of the stairway leading upstairs to the gambling games was a sign that read caveat emptor, Latin for "let the buyer beware". Soapy's younger brother, Bascomb Smith, joined the gang and operated a cigar store that was a front for dishonest poker games and other swindles, operating in one of the back rooms. Other operations included fraudulent lottery shops, a "sure-thing" stock exchange, fake watch and bogus diamond auctions, and the sale of stocks in nonexistent businesses.
Politics and other cons
Because of bribes, some of the police officers patrolling the streets would not arrest Soapy or members of his gang. Other officers feared Soapy's quick and violent anger. Occasionally, Soapy or one of his men would be arrested. Friends, attorneys, and associates were always ready to obtain their quick release from jail. A voting fraud trial after the municipal elections of 1889 focused attention on corrupt ties and payoffs between Soapy, the mayor, and the chief of police—a combination referred to in local newspapers as "the firm of Londoner, Farley and Smith." The mayor lost his job, but Soapy remained untouched.
Smith opened an office in the prominent Chever block, one block south of his Tivoli Club, from which he ran his many operations. This also fronted as a business tycoon's office for high-end swindles.
Soapy was not without enemies and rivals for his position as the underworld boss. He faced several attempts on his life and shot several of his assailants. He became known increasingly for his gambling and bad temper.
In 1892, with Denver in the midst of antigambling and saloon reforms, Smith sold the Tivoli and moved to Creede, a mining boomtown that had formed around a major silver strike. Using Denver-based prostitutes to cozy up to property owners and convince them to sign over leases, he acquired numerous lots along Creede's main street, renting them to his associates. After gaining enough allies, he announced that he was the camp boss.
With brother-in-law and gang member William Sidney "Cap" Light as deputy sheriff, Soapy began his second empire, opening a gambling hall and saloon called the Orleans Club. He purchased and briefly exhibited a petrified man nicknamed "McGinty" for an admission of 10 cents. While customers were waiting in line to pay their dime, Soapy's shell and three-card monte games were winning dollars out of their pockets.
Smith provided an order of sorts, protecting his friends and associates from the town's council and expelling violent troublemakers. Many of the influential newcomers were sent to meet him. Soapy grew rich in the process, but again was known to give money away freely, using it to build churches, help the poor, and to bury unfortunate prostitutes.
Creede's boom very quickly waned and corrupt Denver officials sent word that the reforms there were coming to an end. Soapy took McGinty back to Denver. He left at the right time, as Creede soon lost most of its business district in a huge fire on 5 June 1892. Among the buildings lost was the Orleans Club.
Back to Denver
On his return to Denver, Smith opened new businesses that were nothing more than fronts for his many short cons. One of these sold discounted railroad tickets to various destinations. Potential purchasers were told that the ticket agent was out of the office, but would soon return, and then offered an even bigger discount by playing any of several rigged games. Soapy's power grew to the point that he admitted to the press that he was a con man and saw nothing wrong with it. In 1896, he told a newspaper reporter, "I consider bunco steering more honorable than the life led by the average politician."
Colorado's new governor, Davis Hanson Waite, elected on a Populist Party reform platform, fired three Denver officials he felt were not abiding by his new mandates. They refused to leave their positions and were quickly joined by others who felt their jobs were threatened. The governor called out the state militia to assist removing those fortified in city hall. The military brought with them two cannons and two Gatling guns. Soapy joined the corrupt officeholders and police at the hall and found himself commissioned as a deputy sheriff. He and several of his men climbed to the top of the city hall's central tower with rifles and dynamite to fend off any attackers. Cooler heads prevailed, however, and the struggle over corruption was fought in the courts, not on the streets. Soapy Smith was an important witness in court.
Governor Waite agreed to withdraw the militia and allow the Colorado Supreme Court to decide the case. The court ruled that the governor had authority to replace the commissioners, but he was reprimanded for bringing in the militia, in what became known as the "City Hall War".
Waite ordered the closure of all Denver's gambling dens, saloons, and bordellos. Soapy exploited the situation, using the recently acquired deputy sheriff's commissions to make fake arrests in his own gambling houses, apprehending patrons who had lost large sums in rigged poker games. The victims were happy to leave when the "officers" allowed them to walk away from the crime scene rather than be arrested, naturally without recouping their losses.
Eventually, Soapy and his brother Bascomb Smith became too well known, and even the most corrupt city officials could no longer protect them. Their influence and Denver-based empire began to crumble. When they were charged with attempted murder for the beating of a saloon manager, Bascomb was jailed, but Soapy managed to escape, becoming a wanted man in Colorado. Lou Blonger and his brother Sam, rivals of the Soap Gang, acquired his former control of Denver's criminals.
Before leaving, Soapy tried to perform a swindle started in Mexico, where he tried to convince President Porfirio Diaz that his country needed the services of a foreign legion made up of American toughs. Soapy became known as Colonel Smith, and managed to organize a recruiting office before the deal failed.
Skagway and the Klondike gold rush
When the Klondike Gold Rush began in 1897, Soapy moved his operations to Dyea and Skagway, Alaska (then spelled Skaguay). His first attempt at occupying Skaguay ended in failure when miners' committees encouraged him to leave the area after operating his three-card monte and pea-and-shell games on the White Pass Trail for less than a month. He traveled to St. Louis and Washington, DC, and did not return to Skagway until late January 1898.
Soapy set up his third empire much the same way as he had in Denver and Creede. He put the town's deputy U.S. marshal on his payroll and began collecting allies for a takeover. Soapy opened a fake telegraph office in which the wires went only as far as the wall. Not only did the telegraph office obtain fees for "sending" messages, but also cash-laden victims soon found themselves losing even more money in poker games with newfound "friends". Telegraph lines did not reach or leave Skagway until 1901. Soapy opened a saloon named Jeff Smith's Parlor in March 1898 as an office from which to run his operations. Although Skagway already had a municipal building, Soapy's saloon became known as "the real city hall". Skagway was gaining a reputation as a "hell on earth", with many perils for the unwary.
Smith's men played a variety of roles, such as newspaper reporter or clergyman, with the intention of befriending a new arrival and determining the best way to rid him of his money. The new arrival would be steered by his "friends" to dishonest shipping companies, hotels, or gambling dens, until he was wiped out. If the man was likely to make trouble or could not be recruited into the gang, Soapy himself would then appear and offer to pay his way back to civilization.
When a vigilance committee, the "Committee of 101", threatened to expel Soapy and his gang, he formed his own "law and order society", which claimed 317 members, to force the vigilantes into submission. Most of the petty gamblers and con men did indeed leave Skagway at this time, and Smith resorted to other means to appear respectable to the community.
During the Spanish–American War in 1898, Smith formed his own volunteer army with the approval of the U.S. War Department, known as the "Skaguay Military Company", with Soapy as its captain. Smith wrote to President William McKinley and gained official recognition for his company, which he used to strengthen his control of the town.
On July 4, 1898, Soapy rode as marshal of the Fourth Division of the parade leading his army on his gray horse. On the grandstand, he sat beside the territorial governor and other officials.
On July 7, 1898, John Douglas Stewart, a returning Klondike miner, came to Skagway with a sack of gold valued at $2,700 ($78,870 in 2013 dollars.) Three gang members convinced the miner to participate in a game of three-card monte. When Stewart balked at having to pay his losses, the three men grabbed the sack and ran. The "Committee of 101" demanded that Soapy return the gold, but he refused, claiming that Stewart had lost it "fairly".
On the evening of July 8, the vigilance committee organized a meeting on the Juneau wharf. With a Winchester rifle draped over his shoulder, Soapy began an argument with Frank H. Reid, one of four guards blocking his way to the wharf. A gunfight, known as the Shootout on Juneau Wharf began unexpectedly, and both men were fatally wounded.
Soapy's last words were "My God, don't shoot!" A letter from Sam Steele, the legendary head of the Canadian Mounties at the time, indicates that another guard, Jesse Murphy, may have fired the fatal shot. Soapy died on the spot with a bullet to the heart. He also received a bullet in his left leg and a severe wound on the left arm by the elbow. Reid died 12 days later with a bullet in his leg and groin area. The three gang members who robbed Stewart received jail sentences.
Soapy Smith was buried several yards outside the city cemetery. Due to the way Smith's legend has grown, every year on July 8, wakes are held around the United States in Soapy's honor. His grave and saloon are on most tour itineraries of Skagway.
Soapy Smith's fame
Smith’s fame began in 1889 in Denver when he assaulted editor John Arkins of the Denver Rocky Mountain News. The newspaper declared war on Smith and the Soap Gang, sending articles and warnings about the bunco gang all across the U.S. Smith's fame continued to grow right up to and beyond the day he died. The story told in the Skaguay News on July 9, 1898, and newspapers throughout the country was that one brave man had sacrificed himself to slay a vicious con man – the con king of Skagway – so Skagway could be freed of all crime.
By 1907, ten years after the founding of Skagway, aspiring politician Chris Shea authored a booklet using photographs taken by Sinclair and professional Skagway photographers Theodore Peiser and Case and Draper. He called it, after a collage of photographs, "The Soapy Smith Tragedy". This booklet was the first book published on Smith.
By the 1950s, Smith had become sort of a Robin Hood figure, who took from the miners and gave to the poor widows, orphans, dogs, and criminals who lived by their wits. Smith, the antihero, was a loyal friend who stood by his men, outwitted stuffy reformers and conventional citizens, and lives on as the rascally King of the Con Men.
- Skagway, Alaska – July 8 is the annual (since 1974) Soapy Smith Wake, which is held at the Eagles Hall. This event used to take place at Soapy's graveside in the city cemetery, but is now held in the downtown area.
- Magic Castle, Hollywood – July 8 is the annual Soapy Smith Party, complete with costume contests, charity gambling, and magic shows.
- In at least one episode (King Meets Soapy Smith) of the radio drama Challenge of the Yukon, Sergeant Preston of the North-West Mounted Police travels to Skagway and confronts Soapy.
- In the John M. Ford Star Trek novel How Much for Just the Planet?, a Federation exploration and prospecting starship is named USS Jefferson Randolph Smith (NCC-29402).
- Soapy Smith is the villain in the Lucky Luke album Le Klondike, by Morris, Yann and Jean Léturgie. The story features Smith's saloon and fake telegraph, but set in Dawson rather than Skagway.
- A fictionalized version of Soapy Smith (and his death) features in George Markstein's 1978 novel Tara Kane.
- Soapy Slick is the crooked saloon operator and profiteer, based on Soapy Smith, in the Uncle Scrooge comic series.
- In the 1994 video game The Yukon Trail, the player meets Soapy and his gang. If the player plays Soapy's shell game, Soapy will swindle the player out of any money the player bets over $1.
- Smith is mentioned in James A. Michener's novel Alaska.
- Soapy Sid is a character in P.G. Wodehouse's short story Pearls Mean Tears. Bertie Wooster is vacationing in France with his Aunt Agatha when Agatha's pearls go missing.
- He is the main villain of the 1978 novel Yukon Gold by William D. Blankenship.
- He is the villain in the novel Lili Klondike by Mylène Gilbert-Dumas.
- He appears in Denver, in Jack Black's autobiography You Can't Win.
- He is mentioned in several novels and short stories written by James Hendryx.
- A character in the video game Gun features a safecracker named Soapy Jennings.
- He is a major character in the novel The Great Alone by Janet Daily.
- Smith is depicted as a business rival of and antagonist to Robert Ford in the novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen.
- Smith was also mentioned in Jason's gold by Will Hobbs as one of the main villains.
- Smith is a character in the novel Marshal Sands and Mrs. Molly by V. E. Bixenstine, (2007)
By year of release:
- The Girl Alaska (1919) is believed to be the first portrayal of Soapy Smith. The film was shown in a theater in St. Louis, where Soapy's widow and son lived and caused them to sue the production company.
- In Call of the Wild (1935), Harry Woods portrays Soapy.
- In Honky Tonk (1941), Clark Gable portrayed Soapy Smith. Due to legal pressures from the descendants, the name "Soapy Smith" was changed to "Candy Johnson".
- In The Great Jesse James Raid (1953), Earl Hodgins portrays Soapy.
- In The Far Country (1955), John McIntire portrays a likable badman, clearly, but loosely based on Soapy Smith. The film, starring James Stewart, is set in Skagway during the Klondike gold rush.
- In Klondike Fever (1980), Rod Steiger portrayed Soapy in a Canadian-produced, fictional adaptation of the adventures of Jack London.
- In The Alaskans (1959–1960), John Dehner portrayed Soapy. In one episode, "Remember the Maine", the story of the Skaguay Military Company is dramatized.
- In Alias Smith and Jones (1971–1972), Sam Jaffe portrayed Soapy in three episodes: "The Great Shell Game" (aired February 18, 1971), "A Fistful of Diamonds" (March 4, 1971), and "Bad Night in Big Butte" (March 2, 1972).
- "The Saga of Soapy Smith" (1968) is an episode of Bill Burrud's Treasure!.
- In Deadwood (2004–2006), Gill Gayle plays the Huckster, a prize soap package salesman based on Soapy, in all three seasons.
- In Klondike (2014), Ian Hart plays Soapy Smith in all six episodes, though the series has Soapy working his skills in Dawson during the winter of 1897/98 instead of Skagway.
Theatrical portrayals and re-enactments
- The Days of 98 Show with Soapy Smith – since 1923. Annual live theatrical production in Skagway retelling Soapy's story.
- The Ballad of Soapy Smith (1983) is a play by Michael Weller featuring Denis Arndt as Soapy.
- "The Ballad of Soapy Smith" (1965) is a song by Al Oster, Northland Music Company (Call of Alaska, FR-1009).