“Never con an honest John.”
~Soapy Smith (attributed)
Con artists are the criminals we hate that we love because deep down we respect them. Their biggest crimes involve outsmarting someone looking to screw them over in the first place, so it comes with a healthy sense of schadenfreude. When you rob someone, you’re forcibly stealing from them, taking what is theirs that they earned. But when you con a mark, you are letting them give you money because you’ve caught them in their greed and have found a way to take advantage of that.
Now, we’ve previously talked about cons, swindles, scams, hustles, bunkos, or what have you (we can go on all day- flimflams, gaffles, bamboozles, okay we’re done) but we’ve never really talked about the perpetrators of these crimes because, well, most of our examples of con artists come from watching movies like The Sting or, if you’re in a pinch, Matchstick Men. But that was before we heard about Soapy Smith, the 19th century con man, gambler, and crime boss with a funny name who essentially ran Denver, Creede, Colorado, and Skagway, Alaska during various periods of time and who is so respected that even today people gather for a wake in his honor on the anniversary of his death. So why not give this man a fun fact? After all, criminals are Americans too! No seriously, lots of us are criminals! Half of our staff are felons who aren’t allowed to vote!
Soapy Smith: America’s Con Artist
Soapy Smith was born Jefferson Randolph Smith II on November 2nd, 1860, in Coweta County, Georgia. He was well educated, and grew up with a relatively moneyed family. His father was an attorney, his grandfather was a plantation owner and a popular Georgia senator while his mother was a hahahaha oh nice try, she didn’t have a job, the 19th century was bullshit. Now, you might be thinking, “Wait, so his family was wealthy, and owned a plantation, and he was born right in the beginning of the Civil War…” and you’d be right to finish your thought after that ellipses—they lost most of their money after the Civil War, and eventually moved to Round Rock, Texas to start over in 1876. It was there that Soapy Smith saw the shooting of Sam Bass at the boringly named “Sam Bass Shootout” and upon pondering the fact that he just saw a career criminal get fucking killed for being a criminal, the 17-year-old naturally thought, “You know what this makes me want to be when I grow up? A career criminal.”
And that’s exactly what he did. He left home in 1877 after the death of his mother, ending up in Fort Worth, where he formed a close-knit gang of thieves to work for him, building a reputation as the “king of the frontier con men.” Now, when you think of a con men, you think of ornate, complicated long-game kind of scenarios, finding the perfect mark, ripe with hubris, and getting close to him before taking him for all he has, leaving him with nothing but his tattered pride as you ride off with the girl in tow while jangly jazz cello plays over your narration of how you pulled off the big score. Prepare to get real fucking disappointed because that shit doesn’t happen in real life, and it sure as shit wasn’t the kind of con games that Soapy Smith ran.
No, Soapy Smith sold people soap. Yes, he tricked people into overpaying for soap, and that’s how he got most of his money as well as his nickname. Now, he also worked in small cons—things like rigged poker games, the shell game, and three-card Monte, but his biggest moneymaker for a time was the Prize Package Soap Racket. Not long after moving to Texas, he devised the con, where he would set up a stand on a busy street corner with a suitcase, filled with cheap soap (we’re talking 5 cents per bar here) wrapped in plain paper. He would then take various dollar bills, ranging from one dollar up to a hundred (which at the time was a fuckton of money), and wrap other soap bars in the money before re-wrapping them again in paper. A crowd would gather excitedly, and would pay a dollar for a bar of soap, hoping theirs was the winner. Of course, it never was—through sleight of hand, he would hide the money-wrapped soap bars, only making sure to give winning bars of soap to his shill in the crowd, who would buy a bar, find some amount of money, and cause everyone else to buy bars in hopes of striking it rich. When he would start to run out of bars of soap, he’d announce that the $100 bill had yet to be claimed, and would auction up the remaining soap, getting as much as $5 per bar. That might not seem like a lot, but it was actually the equivalent of about $120 at the time.
That’s enough to buy the complete series of The Wire on DVD instead of acting like you live in the 21st century and just getting the password to your aunt’s HBO Go account
He ran this scam for 20 years, and used the money he made through this and other scams to help finance criminal operations, paying off policemen, politicians and judges. Now, he didn’t always get away with it—at one point, a policeman named John Holland arrested him for the soap sell racket. Forgetting Smith’s first name, he wrote “Soapy” in the police log book—this accounts for the origin of his nickname, which spread all across the West.
He left Fort Worth for Denver in 1879 after local authorities began to pass laws specifically tailored to stopping his swindles, which might be the most the ego of a 19-year-old has been massaged by a local government outside of those small towns that elect teenagers to be their mayor. Denver was a good fit for Smith, with favorable gambling policies that served as a haven for con men, since the police were unable to keep up with the rapid growth of the city. Smith, who was a natural leader, quickly realized that by uniting independently operating bunko men, he could offer them a sense of security and comradery that they’d otherwise be lacking. He began to organize the con men in the city while forging connections at city hall and among the police, and by 1884 he was able to proclaim himself the underworld boss of Denver.
For the record, we’re fairly certain this poster never existed, it’s just a fake poster people make due to Smith’s posthumous popularity
Soapy Smith by this point had become a big time gangster by every definition of the term, with some estimating that he had 100 gangsters and con men working with him. We’re going to pause for just a moment to talk about some of these people, because they were ridiculous and kind of hilarious.
There was Ed “Big Ed” Burns, who had the most disappointing nickname of this whole group and spent nine years in prison in Joliet, Illinois after strangling a man to death in 1866, proving that it was a bigger crime to be in possession of crack in the 1980s than it was to strangle the life out of a still-breathing human in the 1860s. He also ran with people such as John “Reverend” Bowers, William “Professor” Jackson, W.E. “Slim-Jim” Foster, and Texas Jack Vermillion, who also went by the name Shoot-Your-Eye-Out Vermillion, and who looked like this in real life—
Apparently, Civil War enlistment photos required you to try to look as badass as possible.
After working in concert with local saloons to run his scams—who would allow him to dupe suckers at their establishment in exchange for a percentage of the take—Soapy in 1888 decided to cut out the middle man, opening the Tivoli club as a saloon and a gambling house. He placed a sign at the entrance way to the stairwell that took clients to the gambling parlor that read “caveat emptor,” meaning “let the buyer beware,” either as a legal loophole or because he really got off on rubbing his scams in people’s faces. He ran various cons from his establishment, including auctions for fake diamonds and watches, fraudulent lottery shops, and a bogus stock exchange that was guaranteed to lose the investor’s money (because it wasn’t real and because if you’re willing to get suckered into a fake stock exchange run out of a bar, maybe you didn’t deserve that money in the first place). He also had his younger brother, Bascomb, run a crooked poker game out of a cigar shop he operated.
Despite basically conning every gullible sad sack getting off the train at Denver, he spent a good portion of his reign as unofficial underworld boss in good standing with the general population and police force. He was very generous with his money outside of your typical bribery—he gave to charities, was always willing to lend a hand to help feed the poor, constructed churches and paid for the funerals of prostitutes who met untimely ends which, Jesus, the West had some dark shit going on back then, didn’t it? On top of that, whenever a member of his gang needed a favor, it was granted, so his crew was devoutly loyal, even as his standing became somewhat less tenable through the years in Denver. He faced at least two assassination attempts, including one in 1889 where he claimed to have had “half his mustache shot off” while shooting two of his attackers and fleeing on horseback. He also had a prolific temper, which made it harder to look the other way when he would get arrested (and almost immediately released) for crimes ranging from public disturbance to, you know, attempted murder. Finally, in 1892, Denver was in the process of establishing anti-gambling and saloon reforms, so Smith decided to take his gang and set up shop in Creede, Colorado, a mining town that had just had a silver strike.
Here it is now, with all of its 290 residents.
The set up in Creede was simple, and yes of course it involved prostitutes (…wait, why of course?). Smith sold the Tivoli (“here, give me money for this thing that is now illegal and being cracked down against” was probably not the actual sales pitch he gave) and basically got most of the property owners along the town’s main street to sign over their leases to him with the help of Denver-based prostitutes which, damn, they must have been spectacular hookers if they were good enough at sex to make people say, “Alright, what do I owe you? Property? Sure!” With his sex-fueled super-low rents, he handed his associates properties to run scams for him, and set himself as the town’s boss. His main moneymaking method at this point was to exhibit a mummified man he called “McGinty” that he had purchased because in the 1890s dead petrified corpses were valuable entertainment investments. Ten cents got you admission to the exhibit, but it was in line to get in that customers would spend their actual money, getting suckered in three-card Monte games and dolling out dollars at a time.
Soapy didn’t stay in his second empire for long, as Denver officials basically crawled on their hands and knees to ask Smith to come back, as his gang produced more revenue for the city then they had realized—this ended up being pretty good timing, as the entire business district in Creede was destroyed in a fire shortly after he returned to Denver after being away for less than a year.
For those curious, the Orleans Club was owned by Smith, probably due to the efforts of several very diligent hookers.
Back in Denver, Soapy and his gang continued their old ways, with Smith proudly referring to himself as a con artist without even trying to come up with some legitimate alibi. In 1893, however, Davis Handon Waite was elected as the new governor of Colorado, and immediately focused on removing corruption, which was better known as “the lifeblood of Soapy Smith.” He fired three corrupt members of the Denver fire and police board, which freaked out the rest of the corrupt city officials (which accounted for roughly “all of them, every single other official”) who refused to obey the governor’s order to have the members step down. They enlisted Soapy Smith and his gang for help and, after swearing in Smith as a special deputy, had everyone entrench themselves in City Hall, armed with guns and homemade dynamite bombs in what was called the City Hall War. Waite sent in the state militia, as well as two cannons and two Gatling guns, though thankfully for everyone involved after a standoff, all the potential combatants in city hall stood down, and the militia was withdrawn.
It wasn’t exactly a win for Smith—though he managed to avoid, you know, getting blown up by a cannon, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the governor had permission to remove the fired commissioners, at which point Waite ordered the closing of every gambling den, saloon, and bordello in the city. Soapy did manage to make lemonade out of these particular lemons, setting up an illegal gambling den, ripping off his patrons and then, using his deputy sheriff’s status (which, come on guys, how did you not think to take that away from him?) he would fake arrests of victims who had lost large sums of money, giving them the option either getting arrested, or walking away without recouping their losses. They didn’t know that he couldn’t arrest them, and they all naturally took the “not going to jail” option, leaving Smith with massive profits.
Despite the success of that venture, his time in Denver was rapidly coming to an end. He and his brother Bascomb increasingly found themselves in brawls, and he had begun to achieve notoriety in all of the West for being an outlaw and con man to such an extent that even corrupt officials knew it was career suicide to continue to support him. The final straw came when he and Bascomb were arrested for attempted murder charges after beating up a saloon owner. Bascomb was sentenced to a year in jail before Soapy managed to get him out on bail, while Soapy himself just fled, officially becoming a fugitive in the state of Colorado. That, combined with strong influence from rival gangs, meant that he would have to leave Denver, and Colorado for good, so in 1896, Soapy moved to Alaska, believing it to be the “last frontier” for his craft. His hunch proved correct when in 1897, word of a gold strike in Klondike got out, and tens of thousands naïve marks rushed to the state hoping to strike it rich.
Strangely enough, the computer game stimulation of the gold rush had a lot less swindling. Though it still had some.
Soapy set himself up in Skagway, known as the “gateway to the Klondike,” which now boasts a healthy tourist presence and a population density of two people per freaking square mile. He had a difficult time setting shop initially, being asked to leave after a month of running three-card Monte and pea-and-shell games, but when he returned in early 1898, he was able to get his foot in the door. He put the town’s deputy U. S. Marshal on his payroll, so that when people went to complain about being scammed, they were often left with little recourse but to either move on, or try to go to the neighboring town five miles away and see if they would have any better luck. He also opened a fake telegraph office, which was probably one of the most brazen things he did. He charged $5 for the ability to send a message “anywhere in the world” while hoping that his customers would not be concerned with the lack of responses they were getting—this occurred in 1898, and telegraph lines didn’t make it to Skagway until 1901. The wires in his telegraph office literally stopped once they reached the wall.
His saloon, Jeff Smith’s Parlor, would go on to become known as the town’s “real city hall” and the town took on a reputation as “hell on earth” for the unwary. When new arrivals made their way to Skagway, either on their way to or returning from the Klondike, members of Soapy’s gang would befriend them pretending to be newspaper writers, clergy men, and a whole variety of professions, depending on who the person would be most willing to trust and eventually give money to. The “friends” would send them to gambling dens, or suggestions for places to stay and spend or invest their money until they were wiped out. Those that looked like they might make good members of the gang were then “recruited” and Soapy would appear to pay their debts in exchange for them working for him. Needless to say, this was lucrative, and also a very effective way of getting people pissed off at you.
Another way to get everyone pissed off at you is to sport a sweet beard when the dress code clearly only allows for fancy mustaches.
By 1898, Smith was firmly entrenched in the town. Not only that, he had even managed to get a bit of legitimacy, using the Spanish-American War as an excuse to form a volunteer army with the approval of the War Department, which was officially recognized by President William McKinley. As a reminder of how absolutely cocky that was—a known and relatively famous con man decided to mail the President of the United States to get him to sign off on his volunteer Alaskan army (that would stay in state) to help out with the Spanish American War effort, and McKinley shrugged and said, “Sure, that sounds on the level, and in no way a ploy for this con artist to strengthen his control over a town in the Klondike during a gold rush.”
Skagway proved fruitful for Soapy Smith, but his temper and his loyalty towards his men would eventually ensure that it would be the last town he would set up shop. Smith’s approaches weren’t entirely accepted by everyone in Skagway, and a group of vigilantes calling themselves the Committee of 101 formed with the express purpose to expel Soapy and his gang. Smith responded by forming a “law and order society” which he claimed to be 317 members strong. The Committee of 101 posted flyers, warning of con men throughout the city, while the Law and Order Society would post rebuttal flyers, basically saying that the Committee of 101 were lawless vigilantes. Granted, most con men would pick up town once an actual group formed expressly calling you out for being a con artist, but apparently by this point in his life Soapy was feeling a bit stubborn, which proved to be his undoing.
On the plus side, the last photo taken of him alive was at least a badass one?
It all started on July 8, 1898, when an idiotic gold miner named John Douglas Stewart came into town from Klondike. He had $87 in cash (the equivalent of $2,500 now) and about $2,700 worth of gold (which would be almost 80 grand today). He put his gold in a safe which was the first and last smart thing he did in his entire life. He got roped into a game of three-card Monte with “Reverend” Bowers, “Slim-Jim” Foster, and “Old Man” Triplett, all of Soapy’s crew. Stewart lost all of his cash (which again, would be like getting duped into losing twenty five hundred fucking dollars in an alley way game of three-card Monte) and decided to keep playing—as far as his confusing account of it goes, he was offered a chance to, hypothetically, win back his money- he just had to prove he had money to cover the cost if he were actually to play for keeps (even though his next attempt to pick the right card would be just for practice). Instead of recognizing this as the oldest play in the book, he was convinced to give it a double-or-nothing shot, but first he had to show his gold as collateral. So, he got his gold, which of course they stole from him. Of course that happened, what the fuck did Stewart think was really going to happen?
Stewart tried to file a complaint with the Deputy Marshall Sylvester S. Taylor, but found that Taylor had come down with a nasty case of “gets paid by Soapy Smith to look the other way in these situations.” Stewart, instead of realizing that this was all his own damn fault, continued to complain to anyone he could get a hold of, including the US commissioner stationed at Dyea, the neighboring town. Smith addressed the protests of Stewart, saying that he lost his money and gold in a fair game, which wasn’t fooling anyone. Over a dozen people went to him, pleading that he turn in his men and disavow the robbery. Smith for his part would not give up his men, though he did at one point make it known that if Stewart had just kept his mouth shut he would have made a point to get him most of his gold back.
Pictured above: Soapy Smith’s family crest, probably
Many in the town were not happy, since a lot of Skagway’s economy depended on gold miners feeling that their findings will be safe with them while they stay in the town—the robbing of a miner was just bad business. Smith at first acquiesced, saying that if the papers didn’t write about the incident, he’d return the money by 4PM that day (the fact that Stewart managed to make such an uproar about this crime on the same day it happened was pretty impressive, especially since there was a five mile trek involved at one point). The more Smith thought about it, the more pissed off he became over the situation, and eventually he decided not to return the gold, standing by his insistence that the gold was won fair and square. Two vigilante groups, including the Committee of 101, demanded the return of the gold, and on that evening they held a meeting on the Juneau wharf (which, despite its name, was just the name of a wharf in Skagway). The group had four men guard the entrance to the dock, to make sure no one disturb the meeting, which of course they did, because Soapy Smith was pissed off and this was the Wild West days.
What occurred next is awesomely known as the Shootout on Juneau Wharf. Soapy Smith, with a rifle over his shoulder and a pistol in his pants (not a euphemism), strolled over to the wharf with six or seven of his men after hearing there was an angry crowd riled up about the situation. The men lagged well behind him, and Smith strolled up to Frank H. Reid, the only guard of the four to be armed. The two argued, and soon a fight broke out—Smith hit Reid with his rifle, cutting his arm, and Smith pulled out his gun, pulling the trigger on a faulty cartridge first. In the struggle, the two eventually fired on each other, with somewhere between five and nine bullets loosed. Reid was shot in the leg, and Smith was shot in the thigh and was grazed in the right arm. Smith then managed to shoot Reid in the lower abdomen and groin area, which would eventually prove to be a fatal wound (Reid would die in the hospital twelve days later).
Frank H. Reid died like he lived: with his mustache game on point
At this point, Jesse Murphy, an Irish employee who had only recently made his way to Skagway, ran over to help, wrestling the rifle from Smith before turning it on the con man. Smith shouted out his last words, “My God, don’t shoot” which did not help, because Murphy absolutely did just that, killing him instantly with a shot through the heart. The events all happened extremely quickly, and by the time Smith’s gang could get to the action, he was dead, and Murphy was pointing their fallen leader’s rifle at them. That, combined with the fact that everyone at the meeting stormed out upon hearing the gunshots, forced Smith’s men to scatter. Soapy Smith’s crime empire died there with him, with most of his crew leaving town or being apprehended by vigilante groups. He was 37 when he died, leaving behind three children and a wife.
Since his death, Soapy Smith has taken on a bit of a romanticized role in some segments of pop culture. There are Americans who every year on July 8th toast Soapy on the anniversary of the time of his death (around 9:15 at night), and he has been portrayed in multiple films, including the 1941 film Honky Tonk where he was played by none other than Clark Gable (the name was changed to Candy Johnson for legal reasons, but the character was based on Smith). At the end of the day, he was an imperfect con man and criminal whose lifestyle caught up with him, but he’s an easy figure to romanticize, as he represented the true pioneering spirit of the Wild West.
So we salute you, Jefferson Randolph Smith II, and would like to remind all of you that if you ever see someone setting up a game of three-card Monte outside of a casino, you 100% are going to get ripped off, so for fuck’s sake do not take everything you have out of a safe for proof that you can pay double or nothing, because you might just end up getting a guard and a con man/underground crime lord killed. This has been a PSA against being a dumbass when strangers ask you to gamble with them.