Sunday, August 06, 2006

Soapy Smith - King of the Fontier Con Men (1860-1898)

Jefferson Randolph Smith was born in Noonan, Georgia in 1860 to an aristocratic Southern family. Jeff's father, a slave owning lawyer, was financially devastated after the Civil War. The family moved to Texas to find a new life. A solid education was sought for young Jeff, who became an eloquent speaker. Often quoting scriptures and the classics, Jeff's education did the family little good. He found his first job as a cowboy.

Jeff went on his first cattle drive in 1876. After months on the trail, the drive ended up in Abelene, Kansas. Smith wandered the streets and was attracted to a corner where a gambler had set up his shell game. In this game one of three walnut shells hides a pea. The shells are then manipulated and the "sucker", for a price, chooses which shell the pea is under. It didn't take long for Jeff to lose his entire wage to the gambler.

After the loss, Jeff decided that there wasn't any reason for him to slave away on the trail for four months when as a professional gambler he could earn the same wage in minutes. For the next ten years, Jeff wandered the frontier. There were stories that he rode with outlaw gangs. These stories were never proven true. Gambling was in Smith's blood and his ambition was to become the best poker player in the west.

Smith showed up in Leadville, Colorado in 1885. First thing he saw was an old man surrounded by a crowd. Jeff had heard of Old Man Taylor while a boy in Texas. Taylor was known as "King of the Shell Game". With the gift of gab that Jeff possessed, he soon talked Taylor into a partnership in the shell game. It didn't take them long to be making fast, easy money.

One day Taylor showed Smith the "soap trick". Soap was wrapped in paper, and a $100 was wrapped inside one of the bars. The soap was then put on sale at $5 per bar. Of coarse Jeff picked the "loaded" cake of soap and showed off the $100 prize. A stampede followed and they were soon selling 5 cent bars of soap for $5. The suckers were all in hope of easy money!

Jeff moved to Denver with an "improved" soap swindle. He usually set up his little folding table on a street corner near the train station. Smith went out of his way to leave the "locals" alone, and to only fleece the suckers who were passing through town. He entertained the crowds with songs and jokes. Then some of the bars of soap were loaded with $10, $20, and even a few $100 bills. He told the crowd to watch closely, and then gave them the chance to buy a bar of soap for $5. Jeff had formed an organization of con men, who always got the prizes. A complaint was filed with the police, and when he was booked at the police station, the arresting officer couldn't remember Smith's first name but did remember that the swindle involved soap. The officer wrote "Soapy" Smith on the log. The name stuck.

Soapy was the first, and probably the most successful gangster in the west. Before too much time passed Smith opened the Tivoli Saloon and Gambling Hall. Above the door a sign read William Barclay "Bat" Masterson, An Owlhoot in his own right "Caveat Emptor", "Let The Buyer Beware" in Latin. Unfortunately there wasn't anyone in Denver who could read Latin! Bat Masterson was a dealer at the Tivoli.

Soapy developed close ties to the police department and his gangs arrests were reported to him so he could arrange the release. Smith was also a "social worker" handing out free turkeys to the needy on Thanksgiving. He donated heavily to church welfare programs and allowed ministers to hold Sunday services in his saloons.

The silver boom in Creede, Colorado enticed Soapy to move his gambling operation there. It didn't take long for Smith to establish himself as the town's boss and to take over gambling in Creede. Soapy built the Orleans Club on Creede Avenue and organized a makeshift government. He provided protection for his friends with his "government's" backing. Creede finally tired of Soapy's mob rule, and he moved on.

Smith opened a railroad ticket office back in Denver. He advertized tickets to Chicago for $5. When the buyers arrived, they were told that the tickets were not sold every day. They were then shown Soapy's gambling den in the back room.

Colorado governor "Bloody Bridles" Davis H. Waite had about enough of the lawlessness in Denver. He ordered the city to clean itself up or he would do it for them! Soapy became "Colonel" Smith overnight and raised an army to fend off the state militia from city hall. Smith stationed himself in the cupola of city hall with a dynamite bomb and dared the militia to fire on him.

Twenty thousand people turned out to watch the war! The total population of Denver at the time was one hundred six thousand. Federal troops from Fort Logan arrived to act as a peace keeping force. Governor Waite agreed to withdraw the militia in favor of the federal soldiers. Waite also agreed to allow the Colorado Supreme Court to decide the case.

The court issued it's verdict soon after the confrontation, it stated that Waite had the power to remove the commissioners, however the governor was chastised for moving so quickly to bringing in the militia. New commissioners took office, and one of their first actions was to run Soapy Smith out of town.

Soapy drifted around the west after the City Hall War. He went down to Mexico and nearly convinced the Mexican President, Porfirio Diaz, that Mexico needed a foreign legion. Smith got so far as to have a recruiting office set up before the deal fell through.

The Yukon Gold Rush of 1897 brought Soapy to Skagway, Alaska. Before long Smith was the "boss" of Scagway. He ran the town with an iron hand for about a year before the citizens had enough and an uprising put an end to his rule. Soapy lost a gunfight on July, 8, 1898 at the age of 37. He's buried in an unmarked grave in a Scagway cemetery.

Visit the Friends of Soapy Smith website.


Blogger Jeff Smith said...

Hi, George.

Friends of Bad Man Soapy Smith now has a blog. Soapy Smith Soap Box

March 12, 2009 1:21 AM  

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