Soapy Smith and His Frontier Scams

Con artist Jefferson Randolph Smith II, aka Soapy Smith, gained notoriety with his “prize soap racket.” Under a gasoline flare he would sell bars of soap at night. However, to increase sales, he hid $5.00, $10.00, and $50.00 bills in some of the soap packages as prospective customers watched. Like other con men, the soap packages were a ruse because he used sleight of hand to ensure that only members of his gang purchased the “prized” bars. Thus, as far as anyone knows none of his real customers every won any of the bills he hid.

Soapy Smith

Signed image of Soapy Smith. Author’s collection.

It was this successful soap scam that resulted in Jefferson Randolph Smith II’s nickname becoming “Soapy” and his scam allowed him to finance three successive criminal empires, two located in Colorado (Denver and Creede), and the other in Skagway, Alaska. His soap scam also helped in the creation of the legend of Soapy Smith. His reputation grew larger over the years making it sometimes difficult to separate fact from fiction and by the 1960s he became known as the “king of the frontier con men.”

What is known for sure is that Smith was born into wealthy family on 2 November 1860 in Coweta County, Georgia. His grandfather was a plantation owner and his father, Jefferson Randolph Smith, an attorney. Unfortunately, at the close of America’s Civil War, his family faced financial ruin and in 1876, the same year that Samuel Clemens published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the Smith family moved to Round Rock, Texas.

Smith’s new life in Texas and a sudden lack of wealth likely produced a much different lifestyle from the genteel and wealthy existence Smith had enjoyed while living in Georgia. Perhaps, wishing for his old way of life, he got in with the wrong crowd. He soon embraced a criminal lifestyle and became a confidence man willing to exploit and defraud victims because of their credulity, naïveté, compassion, vanity, confidence, irresponsibility, or greed.

Smith’s mother, Emily Dawson Smith, died at the age of fifty in 1887. Smith left home shortly thereafter and ended up in Fort Worth, Texas. There he formed what became called the Soap Gang. They were a tight-knit and loyal like-minded group of swindlers, conmen, and defrauders that included such questionable characters as Texas Jack Vermillion,* “Big Ed” Burns,** and “Troublesome Tom” Cady.***

Texas Jack Vermillion. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Soap Gang regularly used the short con to swindle people. They liked it because it was quick, required minimal assistance, and needed little setup. Short cons that the gang used included such things as shell games, rigged poker games,**** and three card monte (a scam that Canada Bill, another well-known confidence artist of the 1800s, excelled at and advocated).

Whereas most con artists moved from town to town Soapy Smith stayed put in Colorado. In Denver he opened the Tivoli Club, a combination saloon and gambling house. He also conducted other operations in Denver that included fraudulent lottery shops, a “sure thing” stock exchange, fake watch and diamond auctions, and the sale of stocks for nonexistent businesses. Of his scams The San Francisco Call stated:

“He started gambling rooms with every robbing device known to the craft. The games appeared as fair as other games, but they were all crooked. Nobody had a chance of winning, for cards were stacked and the most ingenious devices were used for skinning patrons. If any visitor showed a disinclination to play, he was sold a gold mine which never existed [or] induced to invest in fictitious stock. As a last resort he was quietly ‘touched’ and thrown without unnecessary violence into the street.”[1]

In Colorado, Smith was busy bribing Denver officials. He also used his connections to control the underworld gambling activities as the city grew. Unfortunately, for him law abiding citizens became unhappy with all the gambling and crime. To satisfy them, local newspapers began reporting on and exposing illegal activities pursued by criminals. Thus, there also began to be allegations lobbed at Smith as being corrupt and embracing criminal activities.

The Rocky Mountain News was particularly relentless. Colonel John Arkins, manager of the News, was zealous in exposing and denouncing corruption in the police department and linking the corrupted department officials to various criminals. In fact, the News soon compelled the legislature to close saloons on Sunday, which of course made people like Smith unhappy and caused The Record-Union in Sacramento, California, to report:

“[T]he [Rocky Mountain] News has for months been making on the dives and criminal classes and the corrupt municipal machine which has so long dominated Denver politics [and] early last fall … exposed and denounced the corruption in the police department showing that it was in league with thieves, gamblers, confidence men, and courtesans for the purpose of personal gain and political power … On Monday morning in a column article, it showed up ‘Soapy’ Smith in an especially graphic manner.”[2]  

Unsurprisingly Smith did not want his criminal activities highlighted and he hated the News’ allegations against him. He decided to get revenge on Arkins and took a friend, “Banjo” Parker, with him. The men hid in the shadows and when Arkins emerged from the newspaper building, Smith struck him over the left temple with a loaded cane fracturing his skull and knocking him to the pavement senseless. Smith then pummeled, kicked, and beat Arkins as Parker stood guard and when Smith was finished with “his brutal work,” both men casually walked away.

Fortunately, Smith didn’t get away with his attack on Arkins. As Arkins’ wounds were being dressed, he talked to police and Smith was arrested later that same evening for assault. A preliminary trial was then scheduled, and he was bound over. Ultimately, the cruel beating brought an end to Smith’s influence and corruption in Denver and so, as The Los Angeles Times stated, it seems that Arkins “proved that a newspaper can clean up a town of corruption.”[3]

After Arkins beating, more newspapers in the Denver area began highlighting crime in the city. This resulted in a reform movement against saloons and gambling dens. With so much negative publicity Smith decided to sell Tivoli and he then moved his operations to a colorful mining town called Creede. The town was small in comparison to Denver, but there Smith opened the Orleans Club, which then resulted in other Denver gambling houses relocating there too.  Smith also quickly gained influence in the town, and it was not long before he had established himself as the uncrowned king of Creede’s criminal underworld just like he previously had in Denver.

Photo of Creede, Colorado in early 1900s. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

At its peak Creede had a population estimated to be between 10,000 and 30,000. Some of the notable residents that could be found in the town were Robert Ford (the man who killed Jesse James) and Bat Masterson (a U.S. Army scout, lawman, professional gambler, and journalist known for his exploits in America’s Old West). Unfortunately, just as Creede was growing, a fire destroyed most of its business district in 1892, including Smith’s Orleans Club that was burned to the ground. A year later, in 1893, the Silver Panic hit and that ended Creede’s prospects of growth because the price of silver plummeted and most of the silver mines closed. So, Smith returned to Denver.

Back in Denver, Soapy Smith opened several new business ventures. He used these businesses as fronts for his cons, but his days of being king of the criminals in Denver was nearing its end. A new governor was elected in 1894 and he was opposed to crime. He therefore began to crack down on criminals by instituting anti-corruption reforms. He also ordered the closure of gambling dens, saloons, and bordellos.

Even though life was more difficult, Smith continued his cons. Eventually, however, he and his younger brother, Bascomb, became so infamous in the Denver area that even corrupt city officials that were taking bribes from them would no longer protect them. Everything came to a head when Smith and Bascomb were charged with attempted murder for the beating of a saloon manager. Bascomb was arrested and jailed but Soapy Smith managed to escape and when Bascomb was sentenced, Soapy Smith remained at large.

Around the time Bascomb was freed, the “wanted” Soapy Smith arrived in Alaska. It was 1897 during the Klondike Gold Rush and he quickly reestablished his operations in Dyea and Skagway. Unfortunately, his initial attempts in Skagway failed and so he traveled to St. Louis and Washington, D.C. before returning back to that town in January of 1898. According to Skagway’s second resident, John F. Greene, when he was asked about Skagway and Soapy Smith, he maintained that Smith was the most interesting aspect of the town and stated:

“I landed in Skagway in July of 1897 just a few months after the first Dawson strikes. I stopped there … where only one man and his family before me had stopped and watched men coming in and trying to get over the pass into the Klondike Country. None of them stopped in Skagway … during all this hurry and confusion of the first days of the gold rush we had no disorder, positively none. While there was no law, every man was secure in his property. … Every man his own judge and jury … Then came the marshals and the lawyers and the Judges. Then when the bad men realized that they were accountable only to the law the laughed … and a reign of hell began in Skagway. It was just at this time that Soapy Smith butted into the history of Alaska.”[4]

Smith applied the successes he had achieved in Denver and Creede to Skagway and soon undertook the same tactics that had made him king of the underworld. He got certain Skagway officials, such as the Marshal, on his payroll. With officials under his thumb, he then opened a fake telegraph office and received fees for sending bogus messages. He also ensured that message senders visited his new operations that he named “Jeff Smith’s Parlor” and opened in March 1898. Moreover, he ensured that his new friends played at the tables in his “fixed” poker games.

Picture of Soapy Smith’s gang in front of Jeff Smith’s Parlor. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Smith also established a new gang in Skagway. He used them to help him fleece money from unsuspecting visitors. Newcomers to Skagway were greeted by Smith’s men pretending to be newspaper reporters or clergymen so that they could determine the best way to get the newcomer’s money. Visitors were also steered by gang members to gambling dens and dishonest businesses where they were easily overcharged or defrauded.

Soapy Smith in Skagway bar

Soapy Smith at a Skagway bar in 1898. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

With all the swindling and defrauding going on, it was not long before Smith began to experience problems in Skagway just like he had in Denver. Concerned citizens formed a vigilance committee called the Committee of 101. The committee threatened to expel Smith and his gang and so to counteract their allegations and appear respectable, Smith formed his own “law and order society.” However, many con men and gamblers were intimated by the threats of the Committee of 101 and left town.

Worse trouble was in store for Smith because on 7 July 1898 John Douglas Stewart, a Klondike miner, returned to Skagway carrying a sack of gold dust valued at $2,700. Three of Smith’s gang members learned of his treasure and convinced him to play three-card monte. Unfortunately, Stewart did, and he lost. When he refused to pay the three men grabbed his sack of gold dust and fled.

Stewart reported the theft and as news broke about the robbery broke in Skagway, city-wide indignation grew. Most citizens believed it was Smith’s gang that had committed the crime. Hubbub over the robbery reached fever pitch the following day and that is when the Committee of 101 demanded that Smith return the gold. He refused and claimed that Stewart had lost fairly. The Salt Lake Herald provided a summary of what happened next:

“Soapy got drunk and went out to fight them all. Arriving at the place where an indignation meeting was being held, Soapy found five men guarding the entrance. He rapped Frank Reid, the city engineer, over the head with a rifle. Reid snapped his pistol at Soapy and Soapy shot him in the groin. Standing on one foot Reid put three bullets into Soapy, killing him instantly.”[5]

Depiction of the shoot out between Frank H. Reid and Soapy Smith. Author’s collection.

Soapy was also hit in the left leg and on the left arm near his elbow. Tales of about Smith’s murder appeared in newspapers throughout the country and elsewhere. For instance, in British Columbia, The Weekly News Advertiser out of Vancouver reported:

“At 9:30 o’clock Friday night, July 8th, the checkered career of ‘Soapy’ Smith was brought to a sudden end by a 38-calibre bullet from a revolver in the unerring right hand of City Surveyor, Frank H. Reid, of Skagway. The latter now lies at the hospital dangerously wounded by a bullet from Smith’s rifle.”[6]

This drawing taken from a photograph depicts the gathering at Skagway City Hall by the Committee of 101 on the day that Soapy Smith was killed. Author’s collection.

As Smith’s remains were being taken to the undertaker, Reid was being carted off to the doctor’s office. An examination of Reid found that he had been shot by a Winchester, 45-calibre. The doctor’s findings also resulted in the following information:

“[T]he ball entering two inches above the groin on the right side and making its exit an inch to the right of the point of the spinal column. The ball made a compound comminuted fracture of the pelvic bone and several fragments of this were removed.”[7]

Soapy Smith autopsy

Autopsy of Soapy Smith. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

As Reid was being tended to and before he was removed to Bishop Rowe Hospital, Deputy Marshal Taylor, who had ties to Smith, was thrown out of office. J.M. Tanner was then sworn in as Deputy Marshal and twenty-five other men were deputized to assist him in clearing the town of criminals. Tanner and his armed deputies then conducted a thorough search and captured some twenty-seven members of Smith’s gang. There was brief talk of lynching the twenty-seven men before order was restored and before Miss May Shanly, Soapy Smith’s mistress, was ordered to leave town.

Reid died twelve days later from his injuries and the three men that robbed Stewart were put on trial, convicted, and served brief sentences. Skagway officials linked or connected in any way to Smith were forced to resign and new elections were called to replace them. As to the infamous Soapy Smith, he was buried several yards outside the city cemetery in a dirt-covered grave.&

Soapy Smith grave

Soapy Smith’s grave in Skagway. Courtesy of Wikipedia.


* John Wilson Vermillion, known as Texas Jack Vermillion, was a gunfighter of the Old West who often played poker, participated in the Earp Vendetta Ride, and ended up on a wanted poster after killing a man he accused of cheating at cards in Dodge City. He then went and joined Soapy Smith’s gang.
** Edward “Big Ed” Burns became a bunco artist in Chicago around 1861. In 1866, he strangled a man and went to Joliet prison in Illinois. After his release he continued with his bunco career in Chicago, but eventually headed west to the American frontier where he was known as “Big Ed.” He became the boss of a gang in Leadville, Colorado and, like Texas Jack, eventually joined the Soap gang.
*** Tom Cady, known as “Troublesome Tom” and “Sure Shot” was a member of Smith’s gang who acted as capper, played the shell game, and had a nasty temper probably enhanced by the fact he carried a 12-inch dirk.
**** Gang members called these fixed poker games “big mitt.”
& After Smith’s burial the Committee of 101 entered his premises and conducted a search. They found the sack of gold dust belonging to Stewart in a trunk at the rear of Smith’s saloon and nearly all of the $2,700 was recovered.

References:

  • [1] The San Francisco Call, “End of Soapy Smith; Bad Man,” July 24, 1898, 17
  • [2] The Record-Union, “East of the Rockies,” July 31, 1889, 1
  • [3] The Los Angeles Times, “Fearless Editors,” August 5, 1949, 30
  • [4] The Sun, “Lawless Days in Skagway,” October 25, 1908, 25
  • [5] The Salt Lake Herald, “Passing of Soapy Smith,” September 4, 1898, 16
  • [6] The Weekly News-Advertiser (“In the Wild North,” July 20, 1898, 2
  • [7] Ibid.

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