The dirt on notorious conman Soapy Smith
Spanning the Wild West to the Klondike Gold Rush, soap swindler who built a criminal empire met his end in Skagway North of 60 Mining News - February 2, 2024
Last updated 2/1/2024 at 12:45pm
In the annals of outlaw lore, a figure less infamous but no less intriguing than other notorious ne'er-do-wells left his mark on the world. Amidst the Klondike Gold Rush, a time speckled with countless renegades and hustlers, a man by the name of Soapy Smith remains a local enigma around his various stomping grounds, his notoriety now persisting as a fanciful tale of the Wild West.
There were many dangers faced by people flooding the American West in the late 19th century. And at least as dangerous as inclement weather, tuberculosis, or a stray bullet was the good old-fashioned crook. At its roots, the tale of Soapy Smith is a story of a swindler, and a pretty good one to boot.
For some two decades, from Denver, Colorado, to the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska, Soapy made a living with little more than a good line, a quick hand, and a code of morality that matched the shades of the New York Times bestselling smut novel.
"Soapy was a confidence man," said Jane Haigh, Kenai Peninsula College history professor and author of a book on Soapy's escapades, who spoke on the conman at the Kasilof Museum. "Confidence men used elaborate tricks and ruses in order to basically talk their victims out of their money."
Her book "King Con" chronicles Smith and his various criminal operations. In it, she details his path to kingpin, starting with him setting up shop on the streets running the classic shell game out of a Keiser (a suitcase on a tripod stand). In the beginning, his schemes ranged from straight up lies to innocuous misleadings, however, his appetite for more would inevitably grow.
It was here that Smith would earn his moniker of Soapy, arguably from his most famous swindle, the "prize soap racket" or "prize package soap sell," in which he would sell bars of soap ranging between one to five dollars (although some accounts say 50 cents) with the chance that inside the packaging, there were hidden 10, 20, and even 50-dollar bills (other accounts state the possibility of even 100 dollars).
"There actually are firsthand accounts of guys who saw him on the street corner, and he would do this for two or three hours at a time and get a big crowd," said Haigh. "Not so much because everyone thought they were going to win soap, but because it was a great performance."
The catch, Smith would have a shill, sometimes called a plant or ringer, that would purchase a bar of soap and "win" the money. From there, it was easy to ride the wave of excitement at a chance of over $3,000 in today's money. If you didn't win, hey, at least you got a bar of soap, albeit, overpriced.
To keep the gambit up, only Smith's cohorts were ever able to buy a bar that held money. And from this Soapy's moniker stuck, he would run this swindle for years until his untimely demise.
On Nov. 2, 1860, in Newnan, Georgia, Jefferson Randolph Smith II was born into a family whose history seemed an unlikely precursor to his eventual deeds.
Before being known as Soapy, he was the son of a wealthy family that lost everything after the Civil War and moved west to Texas in 1876. Arriving in Round Rock at 16 years of age, though his legend is most associated with chicanery in Colorado and Alaska, Smith spent two short years there before truly beginning his career as a swindler in Fort Worth.
Considered by some to be one of the most well-known con men of the 1800s, Smith quickly organized groups of bunko men into gangs that operated shell games, crooked gambling, and other scams with the likes of Texas Jack Vermillion, "Big Ed" Burns, and numerous other outlaws.
Forming a close-knit group of rogues and thieves to perpetuate his schemes, Smith quickly became the "King of the Frontier Con Men" as the gang moved from town to town. Unsuspecting citizens would play their games, often the shell game, three-card monte, and other "short cons" that could be completed swiftly before anyone became the wiser.
By the late 1870s, Smith came up with his ingenious Soap Sell and his new title was carried along with it.
Perhaps tired with the small cons, by 1879, Smith and gang moved onto Denver, where they expanded their operations into larger scams, including fake stock exchanges, lottery offices, and bogus diamond auctions. Despite these attempts, the group continued their smaller cons as well, as Denver had a wide-open policy toward gambling, making it the perfect setting for deceit.
As the money continued to roll in for Smith, he began to organize most of the men operating in Denver into a veritable underground and proclaimed himself the boss of Denver's newest crime empire.
Crime, politics, and philanthropy?
To continue to operate his many scams successfully, Smith provided kickbacks to saloon owners, had city officials on his payroll, and generally avoided making the locals the target for his dupes, focusing instead on travelers just passing through.
Calling it a spade, he began to bribe.
Leaning into the often disputed "honor amongst thieves," Smith built loyalty amongst his gang members by being fastidious and quick to help anyone in need or to secure a quick release in the event of an associate getting nabbed by the coppers.
Continuing this "philanthropic" attitude, he also made charitable contributions to churches and the poor of the city, even going so far as making his saloons available to ministers for Sunday services, further endearing himself to the locals.
His activities would eventually see his brothers join him, with his younger brother Bascomb operating a cigar store which also functioned as a front for yet more swindling, and his once law-abiding brother-in-law, previously a deputy marshal in Belton, Texas, who would come on to join the lucrative lifestyle of the larcenous.
Though his primary operations were in Denver, Smith also expanded. In 1885, he was working with another con artist in Leadville, Colorado by the name of Old Man Taylor, the two operated a successful shell game upon the many unsuspecting miners.
Perhaps one of his most conspicuous actions occurred in 1891, where his brother-in-law, William "Cap" Light, joined Smith for an armed assault on the Glasson Detective Agency.
Allegedly, the agency attempted to coerce a confession from a young woman, and upon getting word of the doing, Smith and gang raided the office with pistols in hand. With no further context, this apparently was seen by the locals as a heroic act and further cemented his reputation as more of a vigilante figure than a crime boss.
From this operation Smith went, naturally, into politics, helping to rig the voting of local elections and running protection rackets. Though he remained in the class of nonviolent gentleman-criminals, by 1892, he was beginning to lose his "crown" as the Denver boss, partly because of rival gangs, but also due to his reported bad temper and drinking problem.
Furthermore, he had become so well-known at this point that it was increasingly difficult for the politicians on his payroll to turn a blind eye as they had done for many years.
Finding many of his operations restricted and seeing opportunity in the booming mining camp of Creede, Colorado, Smith and his gang moved their empire.
Petrified man of Creede
Easily considered one of his most bizarre scams, Smith got it into his head to display a "petrified man," in his new saloon.
Affectionately called McGinty, this petrified man was nothing more than a skeleton covered in concrete. Sometimes referred to as the prehistoric man, the oddity nevertheless brought in many customers to witness it – for the low price of 10 cents, of course.
While this side gig was fun, the true objective was to take control of the new mining camp. Convincing Light to accept a position as deputy marshal, Smith once again exerted his influence to protect his friends and associates, as well as expel violent troublemakers.
Add on the usual church donations and alms for the poor, and he once again endeared himself to the community.
In the end, Creede's boomtown days would not last, and Smith would return to Denver as the heat had finally died down enough.
According to Haigh's account, Smith bounced around a lot despite setting up shop in Creede, spending some time in Texas for fresh marks and making frequent trips to St. Louis to see his wife and children. It was around this time that he would make his first trip up to Alaska.
"In April, the legendary Soapy Smith shipped out from Seattle, and then he was in Juneau and in May, he was in Coal Bay (Homer)," said Haigh. "But then it was back to Denver again in June, and he didn't go to the Klondike again until July of 1897. There's a year there I can't account for."
His first shot at pilfering the riches of the various Alaskan rushes and booms of the time were not successful. He was sussed out in the Southeast.
"He tried to practice his soap game in Juneau and was arrested. It was under a fake name, but you could tell it was him," Haigh said.
After a $25 fine and a new relationship with the authorities in Juneau, he made his way to the Kenai Peninsula. According to Haigh, this is around the time prospectors were determining if Hope, Alaska, would be the next big spot for untold riches.
"He knew that there was a gold rush there. We all know there was a small one at Sunrise. I think he hoped that it would be big enough so he could move his activities there. But we all know how small Hope was at the time. It was never going to amount to much and I think he realized that right away, so he got right back on the boat and went back to Coal Bay."
Although Hope was a bust, Smith kept contacts and connections everywhere he went and when word trickled down from the North of the rumblings of a big find in the Klondike, Smith moved quickly.
"He gets to Skagway in 1898 and builds a saloon," said Haigh. "He was there right from the get-go. I don't think Soapy had any intention of going to the Klondike itself. I don't know how he figured out Skagway was the place to go, but it was an obvious location because it was a jumping off point."
The way of transgressors is hard
Short on law and long on gold dust, Skagway was a center of gold rush commerce moving in and out of the Klondike and the perfect place for a swindler.
Setting the groundwork for the usual racket he ran in Colorado, Smith rebuilt several of his schemes to fleece the unsuspecting stampeders. Around this time, several newspapers were already established in Skagway, as news needed to be available for the next big find.
Buying out one of the editors, Smith tried to keep his activities mum but also to use it to promote the port town as something more than it was – including a story about a telegraph line.
"Of course, there was no actual telegraph line to Skagway, but maybe you didn't know that, so you could still pay for the telegraph to your loved ones, and then the reply would come saying 'please send money,'" said Haigh. "And Soapy's response to the criticism was that he was saving people. If you were so stupid as to be caught by these tricks, he was saving you from sure death in the Klondike."
Unlike the seemingly lawlessness of the Klondike, Smith immediately rubbed the locals the wrong way. For the more proper businessmen in town, his actions were no good. If you scored big in, say, Dawson City, and you know that Skagway was full of crooks trying to swindle you out of your newly gotten gold, you would avoid that place like the plague.
And so, the good people of Skagway decided enough was enough. Forming a vigilante "Committee of 101" in an attempt to bring law and order to the town, undaunted, Smith formed his own gang into a "Committee of 303" to oppose them.
In the end, in the summer of 1898, Smith attempted to thwart a meeting of the Committee of 101 on the Skagway wharf. According to some, the full truth is perhaps lost to time as such an event quickly fell prey to the fun of the telephone game – each party telling their own version of the tale.
One account suggests he went to talk his way out of the mob, much like he had done through most of his career. Underestimating the anger of the townsfolk, when he tried to break through the crowd, a Skagway resident named Frank Reid, a veteran and schooled engineer, confronted him.
Exchanging harsh words, Reid shot Smith dead on the spot, but not before Smith badly wounded Reid, who would pass away 12 days later.
However, Haigh had a different retelling, "People have suggested that he kind of knew the game was up. So, he got really drunk, which was a bad idea for him because he tended to be really lacking in common sense when he got drunk."
According to the author, he apparently arrived with a Shotgun.
"Frank Reid was one of the guards and they basically shot each other simultaneously," she added. "Although, if you go to Skagway, you'll find other opinions about whether it was just one guy."
Funeral services for Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith were held in a Skagway church, to which he donated funds to help build. In the end, the minister chose as the text for his sermon a line from Proverbs XIII: "The way of transgressors is hard."