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.