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King of the Frontier Con Men
Creede, Colorado 1892
No doubt, the most famous frontier conman of the 19th century had to be Jefferson Randolph II, perhaps better known as "Soapy Smith.” One of the slickest characters to ever come down the pike, he operated shell games and was a master of crooked gambling and other devious scams.
Smith was born in 1860 in Newnan, Georgia to a wealthy family. But, like many southern families, their prosperity came to an end following the Civil War.
In 1876, his family found themselves in Round Rock, Texas. There, 18 year-old Soapy witnessed the killing of the renowned outlaw Sam Bass. Later, Smith moved on to Fort Worth, where he quickly learned the trade of a bunko artist. He soon surrounded himself with other likeminded characters forming a gallery of professional rogues and thieves.
As the gang moved from town to town Smith earned the title "King of the Frontier Con Men." They plied their trade on unsuspecting citizens operating shell games such as three-card Monte and other short and quick games of chance.
By the late 1870’s Smith and his cronies were doing well. But Smith wasn’t one to be satisfied as long as there was still one more sucker to con. About this time Smith developed his ingenious "Prize Package Soap Sell" swindle. It was this scam that earned him the moniker of "Soapy.”
A Simple Con
The con was simple in its beauty. Smith would find a busy street corner and set up a suitcase on a tri-pod stand. The suitcase contained bars of ordinary soap wrapped in plain paper. As the curious stopped to look, he would wrap some bars with various denominations of paper money and rewrap them again in plain paper so they would be indistinguishable from the others. They were then sold for $1-5 per bar.
Naturally, one of Soapys’ cohorts would be on hand to buy the one with a $100 bill. The crowd would then swarm to buy some…which, of course, held nothing but 5¢ cakes of soap. Smith continued the swindle with great success for the next two decades.
Still, the smooth talking Soapy wasn’t satisfied. Soapy branched out at one time or another into gambling halls, freight companies that hauled nothing, and even an "army enlistment" tent. A victim's clothes and possessions were stolen while a "doctor" gave him a physical.
Soapys’ henchmen would meet newcomers posing as clergymen, newspaper reporters, freight company representatives or any disguise that could get their foot in the proverbial door.
After spotting a target, they would direct him to one of Soapy's phony businesses or mark him for a robbery.
By 1879, Smiths’ gang had moved operations to Denver, where he expanded his operations into larger scams including fake stock exchanges and lottery offices. At the time Denver had a wide-open gambling policy making it the perfect location for their operations.
Becoming more and more successful, Soapy, organized his enterprise into such a stronghold he became the self proclaimed boss of Denver's underworld crime.
Smith knew to continue to operate successfully he would have to make allies with local businesses and city officials. Therefore, he provided kick-backs to saloon owners and put city officials on his payroll. Generally Smiths’ gang didn’t target local residents but focused rather on drifters and other travelers. He also became a philanthropist by making charitable contributions to churches and poor, thereby endearing himself to the local populace.
Much of Soapy’s Denver business took place at his popular Tivoli Saloon and Gambling Hall. Over the entrance a sign read: "Caveat Emptor," meaning "Let the Buyer Beware" in Latin. But, few if any of his patrons could read Latin. Interestingly, the famed lawman Bat Masterson once worked as a dealer at the Tivoli for a time.
However, by 1892, the more upstanding factions of Denver society began demanding anti-gambling reform. In addition, Smiths’ operations began taking heavy losses partly due to rival gangs such as the Blonger Brothers. His bad temper and drinking problems didn’t help matters either.
By this time Soapy had become so well-known, it was becoming difficult for the politicians in his pocket to continue turning a blind eye as they had done for so many years. Smith decided it would be wise to pull up stakes and focused on the booming mining camp of Creede, Colorado. There he opened the Orleans Club gambling hall and Saloon, basically a carbon copy of his Tivoli Club in Denver.
Soapy never lacked ingenuity for duping the public out of their money. At the Orleans Club he briefly displayed a petrified man for a price of 10¢. Not surprisingly the "petrified man,” dubbed "McGinty” was also a hoax. It was merely cement poured over someone’s poor skeletal remains. However, it successfully attracted customers. The display itself was not the focus for profit, however. The objective was to lure customers in where they would be systematically fleeced in crooked games.
But, as Creede’s boomtown days began to wane, Smith soon returned to Denver where gambling reforms had relaxed once again. He resumed operations at the Tivoli, which had never closed.
Organized crime continued to flourish in Denver. However a new state governor had been elected. Davis H. "Bloody Bridles” Waite, who had promised social reform, took office in January, 1893 and immediately began investigating reports of corruption in the state.
He began by taking on Denver’s politically corrupt machine, firing three members of the fire and police board suspected as the dominant responsible culprits. But they refused to give up their cushy positions. Continuing to demand the commissioners step down, Waite threatened to call out the state militia to force them out if need be.
Denver’s crooked mayor began recruiting a "special police force” to defend city hall against any militia the new governor might order in. The force, supported by organized crime and led by ‘Colonel’ Smith, soon consisted of some 200 "deputies,” of questionable character.
By mid-March, the governor had declared Martial law and Denver became an armed camp. Waite’s heavily armed militia of about 200 men marched downtown and faced the "special police force,” which were brandishing rifles and shot guns.
The two sides faced off in a standstill as thousands looked on. In the meantime, the Chamber of Commerce and other committees frantically tried finding a compromise. Finally, it was agreed the issue would be left up to the State Supreme Court. Waite withdrew his military forces to await their decision as the city breathed a collective sigh of relief.
On April 16, 1894, the Supreme Court made its decision in favor of Governor Waite. Waite immediately went to work cleaning up the town. Gambling was made illegal in Denver and laws against other illicit activities, such as prostitution and bootlegging, were now being strictly enforced.
Topping the list of things to do was to run Smith and his gang out of town. But Smith simply conducted business "underground.” But he wasn’t able to stay off the skyline for long. He and his brother, Bascomb, were charged with the attempted murder of a saloon manager. Bascomb was arrested and jailed, but Soapy managed to escape. Now, a fugitive from justice in Colorado, Smith headed west.
When the Yukon Gold rush began in 1897, Smith saw opportunity knocking once again. He migrated to Skagway, Alaska and was soon playing his role as a crime boss again. His new base of operations was his saloon named Jeff Smith’s Parlor. Many citizens laughingly referred to it as the "real city hall,” but they were actually not far from the truth.
However, apparently Soapys’ reputation had preceded him and some of the Skagway citizenry were not too impressed with his heavy drinking and quick temper. Meanwhile, it was business as usual.
Soapys’ next scam was to build Skagway’s first telegraph station. Naturally, he put himself in charge of the operation. The telegraph office opened less than a week after construction began. There was only one thing wrong. The telegraph wires ended after only a few hundred feet, connecting with nobody. Messages were supposedly ‘received’ from families asking for men to send money home…which of course Soapy was more than obliged to do for them.
Soon, Skagway citizens had had enough of Smith and formed a vigilante group called the “Committee of 101.” They threatened to drive Smith and his gang out of town. But, Soapy formed his own group and claimed a membership of over 300. The vigilantes backed off.
Finally, when the gang took some $2,600 in gold from a Klondike miner in an illegal Three-card Monte game, Smiths’ luck began to run out. The vigilantes demanded the miners’ gold returned, but Smith claimed the miner had lost it "fairly.”
The next night, on July 8, 1898, the vigilantes held a meeting at Juneau wharf in Skagway, which Soapy decided to attend also. He arrived with a rifle. When he was barred from entering, he argued with a man named Frank Reid, one of four guards. A gunfight soon ensued, with both ending up dead. Later, it was found another one of the guards had actually shot Smith. He was buried just outside the city cemetery. His grave and his saloon which was moved from its’ original spot can still be seen in Skagway.