The Life of American Con Man Soapy Smith

Soapy used three card monte and other card games to cheat his marks. Wikimedia

2. Smith began his criminal career in Fort Worth before taking it on the road

Fort Worth had more than its share of con artists and thieves in the late 1870s, and Smith lived there for a time when not on the road. It was in Fort Worth that he first produced the soap scam which gave him his nickname. It was also there that he honed his skills with card games, learning the means of stacking a deck, marking cards, and manipulating cards in monte games in the saloons and streets. The soap scam taught him the necessity of having shills working with him, and he learned to recruit and train such allies. He also witnessed the death of Texas outlaw Sam Bass, which instilled in him the desire to steal with his wits rather than with guns.

By the late 1870s Smith had refined the soap scam. It was then a showy demonstration of the bills being wrapped into the soap, after which the bars were auctioned off, one by one. In that manner Soapy could generate almost unlimited prices for the soap, which he purchased for a nickel per bar. The prize bars were carefully marked so that he could identify them. When it was their turn, a quick signal to one of his shills ensured that none of his money was lost to someone in the crowd. In 1879, after Fort Worth authorities began to take an interest in Soapy which he deemed unhealthy, he decided to take his business to Denver.

Advertisement