The Life of American Con Man Soapy Smith
The Life of American Con Man Soapy Smith

The Life of American Con Man Soapy Smith

Larry Holzwarth - December 22, 2019

The Life of American Con Man Soapy Smith
Silver mines in Colorado kept the mining camps booming in the late 19th century. Library of Congress

6. Soapy married in Denver, and kept his wife out of his business

Jefferson Randolph Smith married Mary Noonan in Denver, and like a famous fictional criminal mastermind of a later day, told her to never ask him about his business. They eventually had three children together, resided in a respectable neighborhood, and she was active in church affairs and Denver society, for a time. To protect his family, and to convince local authorities to look the other way, Soapy made it a point to exempt residents of the city from his illegal activities. His army of “steerers” were directed to target visitors to the city, who arrived literally by the trainload, and leave the local population alone.

Besides the Tivoli Club, Soapy operated several other establishments where various bunco activities were practiced. To maintain his growing empire, he established an office in downtown Denver not far from the train station, on the corner of Larimer and 17th Street. He recruited his younger brother, Bascomb Smith, to run a cigar store which offered rigged card games along with tobacco, and served as a front for other scams. To his wife, Soapy was a successful local businessman who went to his office each day. Few of his associates knew he was married. His largesse with the public and the police protected his reputation. His wealth continued to grow exponentially. It was a grand time.

The Life of American Con Man Soapy Smith
A birds eye view of 1887 Denver from the Rocky Mountain News. Library of Congress

7. Soapy began to make Denver too hot for him

The late 19th century was both the Gilded Age in America and part of the Progressive Era of reform. Big businesses, machine politics, Civil Service, and other areas were targeted for reform by Progressives, led by journalists known collectively as muckrakers. Denver had its share of muckraking journalists. Stories appeared in the Denver newspapers connecting Soapy to the city’s criminal activities, but he appeared aloof. When the Rocky Mountain News ran an article which mentioned his wife and family, Mary found herself getting the cold shoulder from formerly friendly neighbors. Soapy came home to learn of her sudden drop in popularity.

He sent his family to St. Louis by train, armed himself with a walking stick, and visited the newspaper’s managing editor, John Atkins. Smith delivered a caning to the newspaperman sufficiently violent to fracture his skull. It led to Soapy’s arrest and a charge of attempted murder. Smith again used his skills at verbal persuasion at his trial. He pointed out had he meant to commit murder he would have armed himself with a more formidable weapon than his walking stick. Once again, he was found not guilty. The newspaper increased its efforts to expose Smith’s criminal empire and rid the city of his influence.

The Life of American Con Man Soapy Smith
Creede, Colorado was the site of Smith’s second criminal organization. Library of Congress.

8. Soapy’s criminal empire began to come under pressure in the late 1880s

The Smith criminal enterprises continued to grow in Denver, and expanded into other Colorado towns. Soapy recruited his brother-in-law, a Texas deputy marshal named William Light, to join him in Denver. Light was known to all as Cap. Cap joined Soapy in Denver in 1891, hired as an enforcer. In 1892 Soapy expanded into the town of Creede, little more than a mining camp, and assigned Cap as its deputy marshal. In March, 1892, a drunken faro dealer, William McCann, shot out streetlamps on Creede’s main street before entering a saloon. Cap found him there, and while attempting to arrest him a gunfight broke out. McCann was killed, and Cap quit Smith’s employ and returned to Texas.

Soapy’s power in Denver was by then beginning to deteriorate, in part because rival gangs had established themselves in other areas of the city and encroached upon his. He was also an inveterate gambler and a heavy drinker, both of which added to his difficulties. The Denver newspapers, led by the Rocky Mountain News, continued their calls for reform, and the more sober minded citizens of Denver began to pressure the local government. Soapy decided to yield to the forces conspiring against him and move his main operations to Creede, which was booming as a silver town, and was still free of the restrictions steadily choking his operations in Denver.

The Life of American Con Man Soapy Smith
Robert Ford, killer of Jesse James, was Smith’s main competition in Creede. All That’s Interesting

9. The petrified man and other scams

Creede was about 250 miles south of Denver, and the niceties of civilization had not yet been established extensively when Soapy decided to make it his new base of operations. He opened a new gambling establishment along the lines of the Tivoli Club, and called it the Orleans Club. In order to persuade the miners and other locals to visit the club he advertised the presence of a petrified man, which could be viewed for the reasonable price of ten cents. Once the locals entered to see the odd attraction, they were steered to the crooked games of chance which were waiting for them. As with most of Soapy’s activities, the petrified man was a fraud.

It may have been mummified remains of an Indian, though Smith had given it a name, McGinty. It may have been a skeleton covered in cement. Smith had competition in Creede, a saloon and brothel called Ford’s Exchange. It was run by Bob Ford, who had gained national fame as the man who killed Jesse James. When Ford was killed, some suspected that Soapy was connected with the drifter who did the killing. No evidence ever surfaced beyond the fact the Smith quickly obtained control of all of Creede’s gambling establishments but one, run by Bat Masterson, a former employee of his.

The Life of American Con Man Soapy Smith
Creede quickly became too confining for Soapy Smith. Library of Congress

10. Return to Denver in 1893

Smith’s absence from Denver removed the main target of the drive for reform, and it quickly ebbed in the city. At the same time Creede began to take on the trappings of a civilized town, and the attendant cries to clean up the city and the bad element which represented Smith’s income. Smith decided to return to Denver, leaving Creede in the nick of time. A fire swept through the largely wooden town in 1892, destroying most of the downtown area. The Orleans Club was one of the buildings destroyed in the fire. In Denver, Smith returned to operating the Tivoli Club, and as before, began opening other businesses designed to dishonestly rake in money.

By the time Soapy Smith returned to Denver he was completely honest about one thing. He readily admitted he was a conman. Soapy told a Denver reporter, “I consider bunco steering more honorable than the life led by the average politician.” A new scam was added to his ever-growing repertoire. He opened an office near the railroad station which purported to sell railroad tickets at steep discounts. When a mark entered to buy the reduced fare, they were told that the agent was absent, but invited him to join a rigged game of chance while waiting. Several different games were offered. Few marks could resist. Smith made more money.

The Life of American Con Man Soapy Smith
Map of 1889 Denver, still experiencing rapid growth. Library of Congress

11. Smith’s biggest competition in Denver came from the Blonger Brothers

Several smaller gangs operated in Denver, outside of the area dominated by Soapy Smith. The Blonger brothers, Lou and Sam, absorbed many of them into their own criminal activities, eventually growing into an organization which was larger than Smith’s. They operated several saloons along the same lines as those owned by Soapy, and storefronts which served as the doorways into other illicit activities. They included opium dens, gambling halls, houses of prostitution, and mining and stock frauds. They eventually set up a long con in Denver, with a storefront operation based on horse racing.

They created a betting parlor with betting windows, boards displaying odds on races, and ticker tape machines to deliver results. A similar operation was based on stock prices at the exchanges in New York and Chicago, as well as Cincinnati, St. Louis, and San Francisco. It was all fraudulent, they manipulated the prices of the listed stocks on a delay, and pocketed thousands of dollars from their customers. By then, Soapy Smith had left Denver for good. Lou Blonger continued to corrupt Denver politics and run confidence schemes in the city until 1922, when he was finally convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

The Life of American Con Man Soapy Smith
Governor Davis Hanson Waite led the crackdown on corruption in Denver. Denver Library

12. Soapy aligned himself with corrupt Denver officials in opposing the governor

In 1892 Davis Hanson Waite ran for governor of Colorado as a Populist, promising reform of the corruption in state and local governments. He won, and in 1894 ordered the removal of the commissioners of Denver’s excise, fire, and police departments, in the belief that they were on the payrolls of the Blongers, Soapy Smith, and other of Denver’s underworld. The Denver politicians refused to comply, and were joined by other city officials who feared losing their jobs. Smith offered his services and was hired as a deputy sheriff. He in turn hired several of his men and they prepared City Hall for open conflict with the state militia.

When it was reported to the governor that open warfare was likely, he recalled the militia and used the courts. The State Supreme Court decided that he was within his rights as governor to remove the officials, though he was chastised by the court. They found that he had escalated the situation to the point of it being hazardous to the citizens of Denver. The offending commissioners were removed, and Waites installed new officers which were allied to him. Soapy Smith returned to his office retaining his commission as a deputy sheriff, which he would soon use to his advantage.

The Life of American Con Man Soapy Smith
The Denver City Hall War was resolved in the courts in the Governor’s favor. KDVR Denver

13. Governor Waites ordered Denver cleaned up following the City Hall War

Once Governor Waites had officers of his liking in Denver’s government, he ordered them to make sweeping changes to the city. Gambling was made illegal, and the gambling halls, in the saloons and in the backs of barber shops, cigar stores, and other businesses were closed. Bordellos and other places of ill repute were likewise shuttered. As Soapy Smith watched the many businesses which had made his fortune come to an end, he recognized it as an opportunity. He was still a commissioned deputy sheriff and as such it was his duty to see that the governor’s orders were enforced. But the power of arrest was up to him.

Soapy took part as the officer in charge in several raids as they swept up the city’s gambling institutions, including on his own properties. He let it be known that those leaving the premises peacefully, and leaving behind the money on the gambling tables, would be allowed to go free. He made a similar offer when closing bordellos. The money left behind was quickly in his pockets and those of his men. Most preferred to avoid the problems of legal action, especially those caught in the bordellos who had wives. It was Soapy’s last big score in the city which had made him rich.

The Life of American Con Man Soapy Smith
Smith tried to convince Mexican President Porfirio Diaz to sanction an American Foreign Legion. Wikimedia

14. Soapy Smith became Colonel Jefferson Smith

The political turmoil in Mexico led Soapy to write to its president, Porfirio Diaz, in 1895. Smith proposed to the beleaguered Mexican President the formation of an American Foreign Legion, and offered him its services in quelling the various factional rebellions south of the border. He styled himself as Colonel Jefferson Smith, though he had no military experience. He informed the Mexican leader that a legion of tough American westerners would be of infinite value to his cause, and that the men would all be loyal to their Colonel. He established a recruiting post in Denver, but whether Diaz ever replied is disputed. Nothing came of the idea.

Despite the “cleanup” of Denver several of the activities established by Smith, the Blongers, and others continued, though in an underground manner. Bascomb and Soapy were eventually charged with attempted murder after an uncooperative tavernkeeper was beaten. Bascomb was arrested. Soapy eluded the authorities, who likely tipped him off, and fled Denver. The charge was serious enough that a warrant for his arrest throughout Colorado was issued, and Soapy fled the state. For the next few years he drifted, looking for a new location to establish another criminal empire. He went from Texas, to California, to Montana, back to California, to Portland without success.

The Life of American Con Man Soapy Smith
Soapy was forced to cut short his stay in Butte, Montana. Wikimedia

15. Many of the western cities were already too corrupt for a new player

In Butte, Montana, Soapy cheated at cards in a saloon which was owned by the town marshal. Departing hastily, in San Francisco he found well established operations of the type with which he was familiar. He also found his reputation had preceded him. A similar situation greeted him in Portland. Soapy was beginning to believe there was no way for a dishonest man to get a break when he arrived in Seattle in the summer of 1897. While there he turned his attention, as did so many others at the time, to the gold fields of Alaska and the Yukon. Smith had already visited Alaska once.

A trip to Juneau had been terminated abruptly when Soapy cheated a miner there, using the soap con rather than cards, and after being chastised by the authorities he was run out of town. He had also visited the town of Skagway, eight hundred miles east-southeast of Anchorage. It was a small, rough village of less than two hundred hunters, trappers, and prospectors. But it was on the cusp of a boom. Soapy decided that Skagway offered opportunities similar to those he encountered early in his career. With a half-dozen of his loyal men, he traveled to the mining camp via steamer, ready to once again con his way into a fortune and the control of a new town.

The Life of American Con Man Soapy Smith
The Klondike Gold Rush lured Soapy to the Alaska Territory. Wikimedia

16. Skagway was an ideal location for heading to and from the gold fields

People on their way to seek their fortune in the gold fields, or returning from them with gold, found Skagway an excellent stopping point. Those heading to the fields had cash with them, to equip themselves for their prospecting. Those returning often had riches with them, and Skagway was where they could catch a steamer to return to civilization. For Soapy, the idea of that much money passing through without him getting his hands on some of it was unbearable. One of his earliest scams in the new territory was to free a prisoner who was in danger of being lynched. Smith and his men held the prisoner until legally constituted authority arrived.

When it did the prisoner was turned over, legally tried, and subjected to a small fine, rather than losing his life to a bunch of vigilantes. Soapy’s actions put him in a position to assume the role of enforcing the law in the camp, and he took advantage of it. Soapy then established a telegraph office in Skagway. The telegraph had not actually reached the area at the time (and wouldn’t until 1901) but Soapy banked on the people passing through not being aware of that detail. The inside of the office looked like most small telegraph offices, with a sender taking messages and fees from the customers.

The Life of American Con Man Soapy Smith
Skagway, Alaska Territory, in 1898. Wikimedia

17. Soapy’s telegraph office gave him working capital in Skagway

There were telegraph wires strung inside the telegraph office, though there was no power to them, and in any case they weren’t connected to a telegraph system. Soapy’s scam was to take an outgoing message from a transient prospector and explain the distance involved would make a wait for a reply a lengthy one. The message would be dutifully taken, along with the customers money. When they returned for a reply, the message would invariably be from a loved one or business associate asking for money. Soapy would offer to wire the money, and being the only telegraph in town, he usually got an affirmative reply.

Into his pockets it went, and the prospector went on to the fields. Though there was a newspaper in town, and other papers arrived in Skagway via the steamers, Soapy simply paid them off to keep his telegraph operation secret. When some people protested, Soapy insisted that he was doing his victims a favor. Others noted that Skagway’s reputation as a den of thieves would deter legitimate businessmen from setting up shop in the town. Soapy and his henchmen decided that they would set up a legitimate business, in the form of a bar and gambling house, which he named Jeff Smith’s Parlor.

The Life of American Con Man Soapy Smith
Soapy developed some new cons in Skagway while reviving others. National Park Service

18. Jeff Smith’s Parlor was soon relieving prospectors of their funds

Jeff Smith’s Parlor, supplied with liquor and beer via the steamers, was soon in full operation, though it lacked the glamor of Smith’s earlier gambling houses. But it had tables, alcohol, and rigged games of chance, which were all Soapy needed to revive his formerly dwindling fortunes. Smith’s men assumed the guise of legitimate citizens of Skagway, such as a minister or mining engineer. Newly arrived prospectors were welcomed, befriended, and invited for a drink at Jeff Smith’s Parlor. When they arrived, they found more friendly people to welcome them, and games of chance for amusement. There were thimble games, three card monte, and others which led them to lose their money.

Many, having lost their grub stake, were forced to return to the United States without ever reaching the gold fields. Soapy didn’t care, and again claimed that he was actually helping his victims. In his view, if someone was so stupid as to lose all of their money in Skagway they would certainly not have survived very long on in the gold fields. Then in 1898 news arrived of the United States going to war with Spain and Soapy revived his military aspirations which had been crushed by the President of Mexico. Soapy raised a company of militia, installed himself as Captain, and obtained the recognition of President McKinley.

The Life of American Con Man Soapy Smith
Soapy wrote to President William McKinley to have his militia unit recognized by the US Army. Wikimedia

19. The Skagway Militia Company of 1898 was sanctioned by the federal government

By early summer of 1898 the military organization created by Soapy was duly recognized as a component of the US Military, then at war with Spain. As its commander, Soapy could declare martial law in Skagway should be have deemed it necessary. Spanish forces never threatened the Alaska Territory, and Smith’s contribution to the war effort consisted of his leading his troops on horseback during the Fourth of July Parade in Skagway in 1898. He then sat with the territorial governor and other dignitaries as the rest of the celebration unfolded. Historians later called the Spanish-American War a “splendid little war”. For Soapy Smith it certainly was.

Soapy took McGinty – the petrified man – with him to Alaska, to help lure customers into his newest venture. His control of the town was fairly tight, though there were murmurings against his activities. His cronies and militia force gave him the upper hand. But as it had in Denver and Creede, as well as other stops along the way in his colorful career, his own taste for alcohol led him into black moods and gambling binges of his own. The citizens of Skagway formed a group which they called the Committee of 101 to confront Smith and his henchmen. He refused to be cowed into submission.

The Life of American Con Man Soapy Smith
Smith’s men gathered outside Jeff Smiths Parlor in Skagway. University of Washington

20. Smith formed his own group to oppose vigilante law

Soapy Smith responded to the formation of the Committee of 101 by announcing his own group, and letting the citizens of Skagway know that he had over three hundred men at his disposal. It was evident to all of both factions that Smith had no intention of traveling to the gold fields himself. He was content to remain in town, waiting for the miners and prospectors to bring the gold to him, and devising new means of helping them to do so. He even brought out the old soap bar scheme for a brief appearance. By then Skagway had grown in size several times over and the town included among its populace assayers, mining engineers, city engineers, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals.

Its economy though was irretrievably linked to the metal coming from the gold fields, and the emerging town leadership continued to protest over Smith’s activities. Sometime in early July, a miner arrived in Skagway from the fields, flush with gold. His name was John Douglas Stewart, and the amount of gold he was carrying varies with the source, with most agreeing it was $2,600. Some claim a bit more. He was quickly befriended by men working for Soapy Smith, and welcomed at Jeff Smith’s Parlor. There he was liberally plied with drink and companionship, and entertained with games of chance.

The Life of American Con Man Soapy Smith
Soapy Smith’s men in Skagway, Alaska. Alaska Digital Archives

21. A day at Jeff Smith’s Parlor was an expensive undertaking

The newest friend delivered to Jeff Smith’s Parlor brought with him from the gold fields $2,600 in gold, (about $80,000 today). It took Smith’s henchmen most of the rest of the day and evening to extract it from him. But they were persistent, as their boss would have wanted, and they managed to get it all. Stewart first lost only the cash he had on him, about $90. When he was offered a loan to continue the game, he went with the hustlers to the safe, in a nearby store, where he had secured his gold. The hustlers then stole the sack, according to Stewart’s version of the story. He reported the theft to a deputy marshal, unfortunately for him one on Smith’s payroll.

The merchants and businessmen of Skagway had no problem with miners spending all of their hard-earned money in the town. In fact, they welcomed it. It was the idea of his spending – or rather losing – all of it in one establishment to which they objected. Leading members of the committee met, and sent a message demanding that Soapy return the money. He refused. They then demanded that he return most of the money. He refused again. When the demand for repayment became more strident, Soapy replied that the miner had lost the money in “sporting games”, and that he had not been forced to play, but did so of this own free will. By then Skagway’s leading citizens had had enough of Jefferson Randolph Smith.

The Life of American Con Man Soapy Smith
Three card monte has long been favored by con men. Alamy

22. The city declared the game which had been played was illegal

When the fleeced miner made it known that he had lost his fortune in a game of three-card monte, the opponents to Smith were outraged. Three-card monte was a game in which playing cards are used in place of the pea in a shell or thimble game. The gambler must pick where the target card lies after several manipulations by the dealer. It was fixed with both palmed cards masking the target card and by getting the gambler intoxicated as the game went on. Reflexes slowed by the effects of alcohol made it more difficult to follow the flying hands of the dealer. As in many hustles, a little bit of winning led to much more losing.

The vigilantes were called to a meeting to be held the following day at which the manner of dealing with Soapy was to be discussed. It wasn’t long before one of Soapy’s minions heard of the meeting and informed his boss. At first Soapy shrugged it off. Then he reconsidered. Always enamored of his own skills at persuading others to do his bidding (which were obviously considerable) he decided to attend the event. Whether he believed he could win over his opponents to his way of thinking is doubtful, since he opted to take a rifle with him.

The Life of American Con Man Soapy Smith
Skagway quickly rounded up Soapy Smith’s gang following his death. Digital Journal

23. The meeting on Juneau Wharf, July 8, 1898

Smith arrived at the meeting on Juneau Wharf early on the evening of July 8, carrying a rifle across his shoulder, but not threatening anyone with the weapon. When he announced his intention to attend the meeting to four men guarding the wharf, they refused to let him pass. Earlier in the day Smith had announced to several people around town that he intended to repay a portion of the gold, and that he wanted to discuss the matter at the meeting. The four men were not persuaded by Smith’s usual verbal gymnastics, and refused to allow him to enter the wharf. The impasse seemed to be unsolvable. The four men blocking Smith had orders not to allow any of Smith’s cohorts – they were called Soap Men – to enter and disrupt the meeting.

One of the men guarding the wharf, whose name was Frank Reid, a city engineer, accosted Smith and the two engaged in a verbal altercation for a few moments. An account from an eyewitness, one of the vigilantes, claimed that Smith struck Reid once or twice with his rifle, cutting Reid’s arm. Reid responded by drawing his pistol, at which Smith shouted, “My God, don’t shoot”. Reid shot Soapy Smith at least four times (the gun misfired at the first shot), and Smith fired back almost simultaneously. As Smith lay on his back, disarmed and wounded, another of the vigilantes, Jesse Murphy, shot him in the heart, killing him. Reid died of the wounds inflicted by Smith about 12 days later.

The Life of American Con Man Soapy Smith
The autopsy revealed Smith died from a shot through the heart. Alaska Digital Archive

24. The aftermath of Smith’s killing was a confused affair

Immediately after Smith was killed, all credit, if that is the word, went to Reid, who later died of his wounds. Although Murphy told several of the authorities that he had fired the fatal shot, his report was filed by the police and no further action taken. Reid was given a hero’s funeral. Murphy was forgotten. The vigilantes were kept in check by federal troops and the rest of Smith’s gang was quickly rounded up. Most of them were simply run out of town. All but six hundred dollars of Stewart’s gold was discovered among Soapy Smith’s belongings, and returned to the miner. The rest of the gold likely was used in a payoff.

Smith’s body was finally taken from where it lay near the wharf and was buried outside the city cemetery. His final criminal empire, like its predecessors, was relatively short-lived. How much money he actually made and subsequently squandered in three cities of the American west is anybody’s guess. He died just before the dawn of the 20th century and except for western history buffs his name is generally unknown. That he was a true character of American history is undeniable. He was a liar, thief, confidence man, hustler, pimp, and graft artist. He not only didn’t deny it, he was proud of it, considering himself for all of his faults, as better than a politician.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Soapy Smith: Bunko Man of the West”. Article, Legends of the West. September, 2019. Online

“Soapy Smith: Con Man’s Empire”. Article, HistoryNet.com Online

“The Legend of Soapy Smith”. Shaylon Cochran, KDLL. Alaska Public Media. Online

“Denver, A Boom Town History”. Gayle Baker. 2004

“Soapy Smith’s Lawman”. Mark Boardman, True West Magazine. December 30, 2018

“Lou ‘The Fixer’ Blonger”. Article, The Daily Grifter. Online

“Alias Soapy Smith”. Jeff Smith. 2009

“The Reign of Soapy Smith”. William Collier. 1935

“Far Western Populist Thought: A Comparative Study of John R. Rogers and Davis H. Waite”. David B. Griffiths, Pacific Northwest Quarterly. October, 1969

“Soapy Smith and Denver’s City Hall War”. Joshua Horn, Discerning History. January 21, 2014. Online

“‘That Fiend in Hell’: Soapy Smith in Legend”. Catherine Holder Spude. 2012

“The History of Skagway, Alaska”. Article, Explore North. Online

“Soapy Smith’s Legacy”. Mark Boardman, True West Magazine. March 18, 2013

“Wired on Crime: Soapy Smith’s Telegraph Con”. Article, Another Century. Online

“Jeff Smiths Parlor Museum”. Article, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. National Park Service. Online

“The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Klondike Gold Rush”. Howard Blum. 2011

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