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Old West Legends IconOLD WEST LEGENDS

Soapy Smith - Bunko Man of the Old West



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Soapy Smith

Soapy Smith.

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A 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 American West for decades. From Texas, to Colorado, to 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 Civil War.

In 1876, the family moved to Round Rock, Texas where an 18 year-old Soapy would witness the killing of outlaw
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 Denver, Colorado 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 saloon owners, 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 saloons available to ministers for Sunday services, further "endearing” him to the locals.


Much of Soapy’s Denver "action” took place in his popular Tivoli Saloon and 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.


Continued Next Page 


Also See:


Old West Poker

Saloons of the Wild West

Scoundrels of the Old West


Soapy Smith's Office at 17th & Larimer

Soapy Smith's Office at 17th & Larimer, painting by Herndon Davis, 1941, courtesy Denver Public Library

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From Legends' General Store

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