The first time I ever heard of Soapy Smith was in an old cartoon. Indeed, for the longest time, I put him right up there with the likes of Elmer Fudd, Bugs Bunny, and Mickey Mouse. Someplace in my teenaged years, I discovered he was a real person when I was flipping through an old west book that belonged to my father.
Soapy Smith was a conman. At least that’s the nicest thing we can say about him. The way he operated sounds more like something a Mafia Don or head of a drug cartel might do. Had he been working today, the FBI would be camped out on his doorstep just waiting for him to do something.
A list of the illegal things he was into reads like the worst sins in the Bible. He was heavy into prostitution, buying off public officials, and cheating people out of money and properties. At times he operated like Robin hood. Other times like the Devil himself.
Soapy’s real name was Jefferson Randolph Smith II. A pretty impressive name for a not so common crook.
He was born in 1860 in Coweta County, Georgia. Soapy came from a family that was well educated and wealthy. His grandfather owned a plantation and had been a popular legislator. His dad was a lawyer.
All that changed with the South losing the Civil war. Broke, the Smiths moved to Round Rock, Texas, in 1876. Soapy began his career as a conman there.
He left home after the death of his mother and went to Ft. Worth. Here’s where he formed a close-knit gang of assorted other con men and thieves to work for him. Soon, he wore the crown of the “king of the frontier con men.” He was also forming the philosophy and tactics that would make him a well-known crime boss.
The gang subscribed to the philosophy of “A fool, and his money is soon parted.”
They moved from town to town with one objective: to separate people from their money or property. They did this through prostitution, the old Shell Game, three-card Monte, and rigged poker games.
In the late 1870s, early 80s, Soapy came to Denver, Colorado. It’s in Denver that he earned the name he’d be known by.
You have to admit; he had a great racket going here. What he’d do is sell bar soap. Well, so far, no harm done.
After all, there are perfectly legitimate companies that sell soap. Some have even done things like put drinking glasses and towels in as a reason to buy their product. Or promised your whites will be dazzling white and can remove that pizza stain from your favorite T-shirt.
Soapy took this to a whole new level. He’d have several unwrapped bars of soap on his stand. While he’s telling everyone how great the soap is by telling them that they’ll get their muddy pants clean or their whites whiter than white, he started wrapping money around some of the bars.
He’d wrap different values of anywhere from a one-dollar bill to a hundred dollars around the bars. He then folded the money wrapped bars into paper, so they matched a large tub full of soap he was selling. He then APPEARED to mix the soap bars into the bars in the tub.
When people started buying them, a plant out in the audience would announce he got a bar with money and flash a bar that had money around it. It had the desired effect. Everyone was buying the soap.
Now a hundred dollars doesn’t sound like a lot of money by today’s standards. But remember, we’re talking the 1870s here. That one hundred dollars would translate out to a little less than two thousand dollars in 2020. I know many people who willingly lay down one, five, even more dollars to buy a lottery ticket with odds against winning so high that one could say you have zero chance of winning.
Soapy preyed on the same thing people today hope for, a break. And he was convincing enough to make them think that it could happen.
The police quickly figured out what was going on, and this is where Soapy got his handle. A Denver Policeman named John Holland arrested him. While writing the incident up in his logbook, he forgot Soapy’s full name and gave him the nickname of “Soapy.” The name stuck, and he became “Soapy Smith.”
He was able to use the same scam for the next 20 years. It and other scams helped finance a criminal empire.
If there were a manual out there for running a criminal empire, then Soapy was reading it every day and following it to the letter. To protect his kingdom, Soapy paid off police officers, judges, and even politicians and used almost the same tactics to build three major criminal organizations in Denver (1886-1895), Creede, Colorado (1892), and Skagway, Alaska (1897-1898).
As the crime boss of Denver, Soapy did what the likes of Capone and others would do. Typically criminals move about to avoid detection. Not soapy. He owned City Hall and the police and was able to avoid prosecution.
In 1888 he opened the Tivoli Club at the corner of Market and 17th Street. The building was a combination saloon and gambling house. According to legend, the words “caveat emptor” or “Let the buyer beware” was above the staircase leading up to the gambling games. I guess you couldn’t say he didn’t warn them.
Several “front” businesses such as cigar shops and the like opened into poker games and the brothel that operated in the back rooms. Fraudulent lottery shops, stock exchanges, and auction houses also abounded.
Because of payoffs, some local police officers refused to arrest Smith and his associates. Others were afraid of him and his organization. Even when they were arrested, a cadre of friends, lawyers, and associates was ready to get them out of jail.
Also, Smith wasn’t alone in trying to be the crime boss of Denver. There were several attempts on his life, and he shot several assailants. He became increasingly known for his gambling and bad temper.
In 1892, things changed in Denver. There was a massive move to get rid of gambling, and there were saloon reforms. Seeing the change, Smith sold the Tivoli, packed up his operation, and moved to Creede, Colorado.
By having several of his working girls cozy up to property owners, they convinced them to sign over their leases. Soon, Soapy acquired numerous lots on Creede’s main street and rented them to associates. Once he had the backing, he announced he was the camp boss. In short, using his money and properties, Soapy proclaimed himself mayor.
Soapy opened the Orleans Club. With the help of his brother-in-law and a gang member, William Sidney “Cap” Light, who was now the Deputy Sheriff, he started his second empire.
Smith provided an order of sorts for the small town. He also protected his friends and associates from the Legitimate Town Council and sent troublemakers packing. To curry favor with the locals, he used his money by helping the poor, built churches, and buried the unfortunate.
Along the way, some of his associates became friends with another old west outlaw named Bob Ford, who shot and killed Jesse James. There have been rumors, mostly unsupported, that Soapy may have had something to do with Ford’s killing. The suspicion is that Soapy at least suggested it to O’Kelley (who killed Ford). If Soapy did, O’Kelley never confirmed it and took it to his grave.
What is known is that Soapy left Creede to return to Denver just a few days before the great Creede fire destroyed the community. The situation had changed in Denver, making it possible for him to return to his criminal enterprises there.
Besides, the silver in Creede had begun to play out, and who wants to be king of a ghost town.
Soapy was soon back up to his old tricks in Denver. But the State of Colorado was about to interfere with his life.
Davis Waite was elected Governor of Colorado on a reform platform. One of his first tasks was to fire three Denver officials he felt weren’t abiding by his mandates. They refused to leave and were soon joined by others who felt their jobs were threatened. The state militia was called to remove those fortified in City Hall.
Smith joined the corrupt officeholders and police in City Hall. He was given a commission as a Deputy Sheriff. Armed with rifles and dynamite, he and several others climbed to the top of City Hall with the intent to fight off any attackers.
Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and the incident known as the “City Hall War” came to a close.
Smith continued being the crime boss, but soon he got a little too big for his own good. His patrons in the City Hall and other places could no longer offer the protection he needed. When he was charged with the attempted murder of a saloon manager, he ran, leaving others to take control of his various enterprises.
His running took him to Skagway, Alaska.
It was 1897, and gold was the attraction for many. Soapy was soon up to his old tricks there. His first try at taking over Skagway failed. A Miner’s Committee encouraged (whatever that means) him to leave. He didn’t return till the following year.
He got a U.S. marshal on his payroll and sat about collecting friends and allies. His best front was a Telegraph Office. For a fee, they’d send a telegraph message for a miner. Since telegraph lines hadn’t reached Skagway yet, any messages sent went from the desk to the trash can. The place also served as a front for rigged poker games.
Smith opened a saloon called Jeff Smith’s Parlor. Besides drinking, it also offered the same rigged games he’d ran for years as well as the usual house of ill-repute. Despite having a city infrastructure, Smith’s Saloon became the “the real City Hall” because he was running Skagway at this point.
The problem was there were some solid citizens in the community, and they were getting tired of Smith and his gang. They knew all about Smith and companies deception, and so they formed a group known as the “The Committee of 101” threatened to expel Smith and company.
Smith retaliated by forming his own Law and Order society with 317 members and forced the vigilantes into submission.
The war for Skagway had begun.
July 8 marks the day Soapy Smith met his maker.
The previous day, a miner named John Stewart came in with a sack of gold. A couple of Soapy’s associates separated him from it in a game of three-card monte. When Stewart balked at paying them, the men grabbed the money and ran.
This is what Stewart said occurred:
I told Foster I should hold him for the money, and the old man, Van Triplett, said we acted as if we could not trust him, and gave some of the money back, and then said he would give us a chance to win it [all back], so Foster turned the right card and [Triplett] started to give him the money, but said, ‘Supposing you had bet that in earnest, did you have the money to put up?’ Foster said, ‘No,’ and turning to me said, ‘You have the money,’ and I said no, I did not have any money; that he took it all, but he said, ‘You have some dust,’ and wanted me to get it just to show the old man that we had the money in case the bet had been a real one. Bowers and I went to Kaufman’s store to get the money and Van Triplett and Foster remained behind. We came back with the dust and I unrolled it and showed them the sack, and the old man said he did not know if that was gold, and Bowers said, ‘Open it and show it to him, as he don’t know gold dust when he sees it,’ but I did not open it, and [was] just about to roll it up again, when Foster grabbed it and handing it to the old man, said, “Git!” and I started to grab the old man when they held me and said if I made a noise it would not be well for me. I pulled away from them and started after the old man, but could not see him and then went across the street and asked a party where there was an officer: that I had been robbed of $3,000 by some men over there.
The officer he went to was Deputy U.S. Marshal Sylvester S. Taylor. It didn’t get him anywhere because Taylor was on Soapy’s payroll, and he told Stewart that if he stayed quiet about the matter, he’d see what he could do.
Stewart didn’t stay quiet. He told anyone who would listen what had happened. Soon, the streets were starting up in an uproar.
Things concerning the incident get a little confusing here. Some say that Soapy dug in and said that if Stewart hadn’t made such a big deal about it, he would make amends. Others say he would make amends and promised his mn would do nothing of the sorts in the future.
According to a promise made by Smith, the money was supposed to have been returned by 4 PM that day. But 4 PM came and went, and no money. Word reached Smith that there was trouble coming, and he is reputed to have said, “By God, trouble is what I’m looking for.”
Trouble arrived in the form of U.S. Commissioner Charles A. Sehibrede. He demanded that Soapy meet him at the Marshal’s office. In the Marshal and a reporter’s presence, Sehibrede demanded that the money be returned, and the people who did this arrested.
I don’t know if he got the answer he expected because Smith stuck to his story. It’s reported that:
.. the boys who had the money won it in a fair game, and they should keep it. He also said he had a hundred men who would stand behind him and see that they were protected. The judge finally told him he [Smith] could not afford to stand up for a gang of thieves, but he [Smith] almost screamed—”Well, Judge, declare me in with the thieves. I’ll stay with them,” and with that he passionately beat the table with his fist and left the room.
After he left, Sehibrede asked if he swore out warrants, would the Marshal arrest them. He was told he would.
But the time for a negotiated settlement had run out.
Two separate vigilante groups decided to do something about it. The larger group, the “Citizens Committee,” had a meeting at Sylvester Hall. So many people showed up the facility couldn’t accommodate them all. Additionally, several of Smith’s men showed up, intending to disrupt the meeting.
As a result, another meeting was held at the Skagway Wharf Improvement Company building, most commonly known as Juneau Wharf.
At the meeting, four men were appointed to keep trouble makers (Smith’s men) out. Of the four, the only one who was armed was Frank Reid, and that was with a .38 caliber pistol.
About nine that evening, Smith received a message that things were about to get uglier and that if he wanted to do something, this was the time to do it.
He decided to attend the meeting. Arming himself with a rifle, Soapy took a walk to the wharf in the company of several of his men. Ordering his men to stay back a little, he walked on.
According to accounts, the men were in at least three different groups. When Soapy encountered the first group, he ordered them off the wharf. They were happy to comply.
The second group of men was Josias Tanner, a ship and barge Captain, and Jesse Murphy, a railroad employee. Soapy walked past them without acknowleding their existence.
That left Reid standing between him and the meeting.
According to accounts, Reid told Soapy he couldn’t go any further. The two men began to argue and swear at each other. Now here’s where witness accounts differ.
They all agree that Reid still had his 38 in his belt, and Soapy had the rifle on his shoulder. No one seems to agree on who shot first. Some say Reid drew and fired, others that Soapy tried to fire at Reid. What is agreed on is that the Shootout on Juneau Wharf began unexpectedly.
Allegedly, Soapy brought the rifle off his shoulder. If he meant to shot Reid or club him aside isn’t clear, but Reid blocked it with his arm. Somehow, Reid got cut in all this by the rifle but managed to push it down and drew his own weapon. He pointed it at Soapy and pulled the trigger. The hammer fell on a defective round and didn’t discharge.
Someplace in here, Soapy is supposed to have said, “My God, don’t shoot!”
Soapy jerked the rifle away and accounts state was that both men fired at the same time. There were at least five shots fired. Reid took a bullet in his leg and then fired off two rounds at Soapy.
One bullet grazed Soapy’s left arm while the other went through the left thigh right above the knee.
Soapy chambered another round, and this time shot Reid in the stomach. Reid collapsed to the dock, mortally wounded.
As Smith’s men rushed toward their wounded leader, Jess Murphy, one of the guards along with Reid, grabbed Soapy’s rifle away from him and, turning it towards Soapy, pulled the trigger.
This might also have been where Soapy uttered his last words of “My God. Don’t shoot!”
It didn’t do any good. Smith died on the spot.
As Soapy’s men surged forward, Murphy pointed the rifle at them. One of Soapy’s men is supposed to have pulled his weapon and aimed it at Tanner. But seeing Murphy aiming his boss’s rifle at him and the approach of “Committee” men pouring out of the meeting, he didn’t fire. Someone is supposed to have yelled, “They killed Soapy, and if you don’t get going, they’ll kill you too.”
Before long, all of Soapy’s men had either fled or been rounded up. The Army came in to keep the peace and threatened martial law.
Stewart’s gold was found with Soapy’s possessions, and except for $600.00 was all accounted for. It was returned to him.
Tanner became a deputy U.S. Marshal.
Frank Reid died of his wounds twelve days later. His funeral was the largest Skagway had seen up to that point. His headstone was inscribed with “He gave his life for the honor of Skagway.”
The king of con men was buried several yards outside the city cemetery.