Soapy Smith – Bunko Man of the Old West


Soapy Smith

Jefferson “Soapy” Smith

“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

One of the most well-known con men of the1800s, 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. Sometime 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 make 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 tripod 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.

Soapy Smith's office in Denver, Colorado.

Soapy Smith’s office in Denver, Colorado.

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 kickbacks to saloon owners, had city officials on his payroll, and generally didn’t make the locals his target dupes, instead of 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.

Union Station, Denver, Colorado

Union Station, Denver, Colorado

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 diamond auctions.

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 unsuspecting miners.

In 1891, Soapy talked his otherwise law-abiding brother-in-law from Texas into joining his criminal empire in Denver. William “Cap” Light, who had been serving as a deputy marshal in Belton, Texas, 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 anti-gambling and saloon 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.

Creede, Colorado, 1892

Creede, Colorado, 1892

Finding many of his operations restricted and seeing opportunity in the booming mining camp of Creede, Colorado, Soapy and his gang moved their empire. He soon opened the Orleans Club gambling hall and saloon which 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 saloon and 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *