Soapy Smith - Bunko Man of the
image available for photographic prints
gambler is one who teaches and illustrates the folly of avarice; he is a
non-ordained preacher on the vagaries of fortune and how to make doubt a
certainty. He is one who, in his amusements, eliminates the element of
chance; chance is merely the minister in his workshop of luck; money has
no value except to back a good hand.
- Jefferson R. Smith
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One of the most well-known conmen of the
1800’s, Jefferson Randolph "Soapy” Smith, II, operated a number of
"rackets” in the
West for decades. From
Alaska, Smith organized groups of bunko men into gangs that operated shell
games, crooked gambling, and other scams with the likes of such men as
Texas Jack Vermillion, "Big Ed”
Burns, and numerous others.
Born November 2, 1860, in Newnan, Georgia, Smith belonged to a well-educated,
wealthy family. His great-grandfather owned one of the finest
plantations in the area and his father was a lawyer. But, like many
southern families, their prosperity came to an end after the
In 1876, the family moved to Round Rock,
an 18 year-old Soapy would witness the killing of
Sam Bass two years later. Some time later, Smith moved on to Fort Worth, where
he began his career is a bunko artist. He soon formed a small, close-knit
group of rogues and thieves to perpetuate his scams, becoming the "King of
the Frontier Con Men," as the gang moved from town to town. On
unsuspecting citizens, they practiced their games of choice, which
included the shell game, three-card Monte, and other "short cons” that
could be completed quickly.
By the late 1870’s Smith came up with his ingenious "Prize Package
Soap Sell" swindle, whereby he could take money from a large crowd. It was
from this scam that he earned the nickname of "Soapy.” The con began
with Smith setting up a keiser (a suitcase on a tri-pod
stand) on a busy street corner. In the suitcase would be piles of
ordinary soap wrapped in plain paper. As curious passers-by stopped to
look, he would begin to wrap some of the soap bars with paper money,
ranging from one dollar up to a hundred. Rewrapping in the plain
paper, he would mix them in with the others and sell the soap for $1-5
per bar. In the "crowd” Soapy would always have a "shill,” quick to buy
a bar of soap, happily opening it to find a $100 bill. The crowd was
then anxious to buy their own, which, of course, held nothing but a 5˘
cake of soap. For the next two decades, Smith continued the swindle
with great success.
By 1879, Soapy and his gang had moved to
where he expanded his operations from not only "short-cons,” but, also
into large scams including fake stock exchanges and lottery offices.
But, he and his men continued their smaller games, as well, as Denver
had a wide-open policy towards gambling, making for the perfect
setting for their deceitful games. As the money continued to
roll in for Soapy, he began to organize many of the men operating in
Denver into such a stronghold that he proclaimed himself to be the boss
of Denver's underworld crime empire.
To continue to operate his many scams
successfully, Smith provided kick-backs to
had city officials on his payroll, and generally didn’t make the locals
his target dupes, instead focusing on travelers just passing through. He
also built loyalty in his gang members, by being quick to help anyone in
need, as well as securing their quick release should they be jailed.
Continuing this "philanthropist" attitude, he also made charitable
contributions to the churches and the poor of the city, and made his
available to ministers for Sunday services, further "endearing” him
to the locals.
Much of Soapy’s Denver "action” took place in
his popular Tivoli
Gambling Hall, where over the door a sign read: "Caveat Emptor," which
means "Let the Buyer Beware" in Latin. But for those that came through the
doors for a much needed drink of whiskey or in hopes of making their
fortune at the gaming tables, they couldn’t read Latin. Interestingly, the
famed Bat Masterson worked as a dealer at the Tivoli for a time.
Many of the bunko men practiced their cons at
the Denver Depot, taking advantage of the many
off the train. Photo 1881.
image available for photographic prints
It was during this time that
Soapy was joined
by his younger brother, Bascomb, who operated a cigar store, which was
actually a front for crooked card games and other swindles. The gang was
also running the fake stock exchange and lottery shops, as well as bogus
For several years, Smith settled down making Denver his home. Though
Denver newspapers published that he was in complete control of the
criminal and gambling underworld in their city and rightly accused him of
being in cahoots with city politicians, including the police chief, his
operations continued to prosper.
Though his main operations were in Denver,
Soapy also expanded and in
1885, was working with another con artist in Leadville,
Colorado. Partnering with
a con who went only by the name of Old Man Taylor, the two operated a successful shell game upon the many
In 1891, Soapy talked his otherwise law-abiding brother-in-law from
joining his criminal empire in Denver. William "Cap" Light, who had been serving as a
deputy marshal in Belton,
changed his colors when he joined Smith.
Light was with
Soapy when the
gang "attacked” the Glasson Detective Agency. Allegedly the agency had
attempted to force a confession from a pretty young girl and upon hearing
about it, Smith and his men raided their offices with pistols in hand.
This further led to Soapy's reputation as a hero with many of the locals.
However, by 1892, polite society in Denver had begun to demand
reforms. Smith had also begun to lose his "crown” as the Denver boss,
partly because of rival gangs such as the
Blonger Brothers, but also due
to his own bad temper and drinking problems. He had also become so
well-known, that it was becoming difficult for his "paid” politicians to
continue to turn a blind eye as they had done for so many years.
Finding many of his operations restricted and seeing opportunity in the
booming mining camp of Creede,
Soapy and his gang moved their empire. He soon opened the Orleans Club
gambling hall and
operated much like his Tivoli Club in Denver, but without the restrictions
that had been imposed in the larger city.
At his new club, Soapy briefly displayed a petrified man for a price of
10˘. The "petrified man,” affectionately called "McGinty” was also a hoax,
as it was actually nothing more than cement over skeletal remains.
However, the oddity brought customers into the
made a small profit. But the objective was that once they were inside, the
"dupes” would take advantage of the crooked card games. In the meantime,
he had convinced his brother-in-law, William "Cap” Light
to accept a position as a deputy marshal in the camp. Once he had wielded
his influence, he claimed himself as the "camp boss.” As such, he
protected his friends and associates and expelled violent troublemakers.
Again, he also endeared himself to the camp by using his money to build
churches and help the poor.
But, Creede’s boomtown days would not last and Smith
soon returned to Denver.
The gambling reforms had relaxed once again in the city and
Soapy again took up
operations at the Tivoli, which had never closed.
Denver City Hall War
Though organized crime continued rampant in Denver, a new state governor
had been elected. Running on a platform of social reform, Davis H. "Bloody
Bridles” Waite took office in January, 1893 and immediately began to look
into corruption in
By the following year, in March, he was ready to take on Denver’s
politically corrupt machine. He began by firing three members of the fire
and police board who he felt were the main instigators of corruption
within city hall. He further demanded that the city immediately begin to
clean itself up or he would do it for them.
Replacing the corrupt men with his own appointees, when the new men
arrived, the current commissioners refused to leave. Interestingly, the
state charter allowed the governor to make appointments, but did not grant
him the power to force a municipal government to accept the appointments.
The other corrupt city officials, fearing for
their own positions, backed their bosses, and collectively refused to
abandon their power. The city also took the matter to the district court,
who issued a temporary injunction forbidding the governor from
interfering with the city’s appointees. However, Governor Waite and his
attorneys insisted that the State’s chief executive was not subject to a
review by a district court. Continuing to demand that the commissioners
step down, Waite threatened to call out the state militia to force them
out if need be.
Denver’s mayor then began to recruit a
"special police force” to defend city hall against any militia that the
governor might send in. The political force, backed by the money and
support of organized crime, including Soapy Smith
and Lou Blonger, was soon stacked with some 200 unsavory "deputies,” led
by none other than Soapy Smith, who was
now dubbed "Colonel Smith.”
As armed characters guarded city hall,
Governor Waite ordered
State Militia to forcibly remove the commissioners. By mid-March, the
governor had declared marshal law and Denver was an armed camp. Waite’s
military force of about 200 men marched downtown, along with two Gatling
guns and two twelve-pound canons. Pointing their large weapons directly at
city hall, they faced the "special police force,” who were assembled with
rifles and shot guns. With "Colonel Smith” at the helm, the "police force”
dared the militia to fire on them, threatening to use dynamite if they
The two sides faced off in a standstill as thousands of civilians looked
on. In the meantime, the Chamber of Commerce and other committees of
citizens were working feverishly at a compromise that would prevent the
opening of hostilities. Finally, it was agreed that the issue would be
left up to the State Supreme Court. Waite withdrew his military forces to
await the decision as the city of Denver breathed a sigh of relief.
On April 16, 1894, the Supreme Court made its decision, a conclusive
victory for Governor Davis Waite and the board of commissioners was
replaced the next day. The political machine was smashed and new policies
began to be developed almost immediately to clean up the town. Soon,
gambling was made illegal in Denver and the new authorities cracked down
hard on other illicit activities, such as prostitution, bootlegging, and
the many and varied bunko activities. One of their first priorities was to
run Soapy Smith out of town. But Smith simply took his operations
"underground. However, he and his brother, Bascomb, were soon charged with
the attempted murder of a
manager. Bascomb was arrested and jailed, but
Soapy managed to escape and,
a wanted man in
soon wandered westward. The
Blonger Brothers then took control of the
When the Yukon Gold rush began in 1897,
Soapy saw all sorts of new
opportunity and soon made his new home in Skagway, Alaska. Like other
mining camps, it didn’t take him long to claim himself as "boss” of the
town, which he ran with an iron hand. Working from his
Jeff Smith’s Parlor, Soapy's cons began once again in earnest. His
became known as the "real city hall,” even though Skagway already had an
official one. But, some of the Skagway citizens were not so impressed with
Soapy, who’s heavy drinking and black
temper had begun to get completely
out of hand.
Soon, a number of Skagway citizens had had enough of the man and a
vigilante group, who called themselves the "Committee of 101,” threatened to
drive Smith and his gang out of town. However,
Soapy retaliated by forming
his own group that he said had more than 300 members. Hoping to force the
vigilantes into submission, it worked.
When the Spanish American War began in 1898, Smith formed his own
voluntary militia with the approval of the U.S. War Department. Called the
Skagway Military Company, Soapy became its captain, strengthening his
control of the town.
In the meantime, the
vigilante group did not like what they were seeing
and when Soapy's gang took some $2,600 in gold from a Klondike miner in an
illegal Three-card Monte game, the
vigilantes re-emerged and demanded that
Soapy give him back his gold. Soapy, of course, refused, claiming that the
miner had lost the gold "fairly” in a sporting game. The next night, on
July 8, 1898, the
vigilantes organized a meeting in
Hearing of the meeting, Soapy decided to attend himself, arriving with a
Winchester rifle draped over his shoulder. When he was barred from
entering the meeting, he argued with one of four guards, a man named Frank
Reid, who was blocking his way.
Before long a gunfight erupted and when the
smoke cleared both men lay dead. Soapy's last words were reportedly:
"My God, don’t shoot!” Later, it was found that it was actually another
one of the guards who had actually shot Smith. Three other members of
Soapy's gang who were involved in "robbing” the miner received jail
sentences. The rest of the gang soon drifted apart.
Soapy Smith was buried just outside the city cemetery. His grave and his
has since been moved from its original location, can still be seen in
of America, updated April, 2015.
Old West Poker
Saloons of the Wild West
of the Old West
in Skagway, Alaska.
image available for photographic prints
image available for photographic prints
"I consider bunco steering more
the life led by the average politician."