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THE "SURE THING" MAN
"SOAPY" SMITH
by Jeff Smith
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   Jefferson Randolph Smith, II, no doubt the most notorious confidence man in 19th century American history, was born at Newnan, Georgia, in 1860. His ancestry was English. The Smith's had come to America around 1760 and settled in Virginia. In 1821 Jefferson's grandfather moved his family to Newnan, Georgia where Jefferson was born. By the end of the Civil War in 1865, everything the Smith family had amassed in Georgia was ruined. Jefferson's parents gathered their belongings and moved to Round Rock, Texas in the 1870's. It was during this time that young Jefferson was introduced to the world of the bunco brotherhood. Around 1877 young Jefferson Smith moved from his family and set out on his own, as a "sure-thing" man. He traveled around the country, following fairs, making a living at the shell game and three-card Monte. Jefferson had become a scoundrel

   Jefferson had a gift for organization. While at Fort Worth, Texas Jefferson began to form the core of his bunco gang, a very close knit of intelligent confidence men. Each had his own unique and specialized talents for separating victims (dupes) from their money. Alone, these men were forced to be drifters, moving from one town to the next, as Jefferson had done. Jefferson united the men, and together as an organization, they were almost unstoppable. Jefferson combined their assets, bribed policemen and politicians, and bought the best legal representation money could buy. He successfully kept himself and his men out of jail. Jefferson found that law and order worked in his favor, over that of quick vigilante justice. Although he was at odds with the law, many times he was its best friend.

   Saloon proprietors were given a percentage of his profits for the privilege of using their establishments. Moreover, he made a pact with each city he canvassed. The local townspeople would be left out of the bunco games. When Jefferson's gang needed help, he was always ready to lend a hand. The gang grew extremely loyal to their boss. The policemen also began to seek his aid in help with the poor. Jefferson had become so well known in Denver as a charitable man that Parson Tom Uzzell of the People's Church often sought Jefferson's assistance knowing well that Jefferson was of the bad man persuasion.

   In the late 1870's Jeff became so powerful and known for his crimes that laws were enacted at Fort Worth especially due to him. It was time for Jeff to move on. In 1879 Jefferson Smith arrived at Denver, Colorado with some of the Texas gang. Jefferson liked Denver's wide-open policy towards gambling. Denver was a haven for bunco men. The train depot was busy day and night, bringing in fresh sheep for bunco gangs to sheer. Jefferson combined many of the loose knit bunco men working the city into his organization. His influence grew at city hall, along with the size of his gang, and in a short time Jefferson was able to proclaim himself boss of Denver's underworld empire of crime. Jefferson Smith had transformed from a quaint flim-flam man, to that of a prominent gangster. The gang was infamously known on their recognizance. There were the actors, such as "Reverend" John Bowers, who at times played the part of a saintly man of cloth. "Professor" Turner Jackson, portrayed a mine and mineral expert. For protection there were the hard-core gunfighters like "Texas Jack" Vermillion and "Big Ed" Burns, both of Wyatt Earp's clan during the Earp - Cowboy fights at Tombstone, Arizona. There was "Shotgun" Tom Collins of the Dodge City wars and "Sure-shot" Tom Cady, plus a few dozen more cold hearted ruffians that made up the rank and file

   Jefferson began opening his own establishments to work out of. One of these was the Tivoli Club at the corner of 17th and Market Streets. Faro and roulette were popular at his club. His younger brother Bascomb soon joined the rouges. Jefferson set him up in a cigar store business, which was also used as a front for numerous swindles. A card game was ever ready in the back room for times when the shills at the train station brought over a victim to fleece. Other businesses included fake policy and lottery shops, auction houses with expensive looking, but cheap and fake products. Cheap watches and bogus diamonds were a favorite. Then there were the mining and mineral investment offices that offered stocks in phony mining companies. In all these establishments were the ever-present shell or three-card Monte games to further entice gambling while the victims waited to be served. Jefferson's empire grew so fast that he opened an office in the Chever building from which to run his operations. Victims exiting trains from the station only a few blocks away were led to one of Jefferson's numerous establishments where they could find "sure-thing" investments; perhaps stock in a winning ticket, or a winning hand in a friendly game of poker. When it was over their pockets were usually emptied of ready cash.

   Jefferson "Soapy" Smith (he preferred to be called Jeff) became infamously known for his prize soap package swindle, in which victims were thoroughly and beautifully taken. He set up his tripe and keister (stand and suitcase) on the sidewalk and began a spiel on the wonders of the soap he was selling. He claimed that in order to increase sales he offered cash prizes in several of the soap packages. He would begin to wrap up the cakes of soap with plain paper. Every couple of bars he would show the crowd some currency ranging from $1 to $100 and wrap the bill in with the soap. After mixing all of the wrapped packages together he offered them up for sale. The price ranged anywhere from $1 to $5, depending on how many packages were left to sell.

   Unknown to his victims there were mixed in with the crowd members of the soap gang. Only these shills were fortunate in picking out the lucky bars of soap that contained cash. Once opening the package and finding money inside the shill would let out a holler of celebration and begin to mingle through the crowd letting everyone within a block or two away know that they had beat the soap salesman at his own game. They were all too glad to offer tips on how to pick the right package. It was all a swindle. There was no money in the soap packages to win. No one but Jefferson's men could ever win. In the newspapers Jeff and his associates became known as the "Soap Gang". Jefferson Smith, the shrewd operator, became known all over the United States as "Soapy" Smith. The name stuck with him to his dying day. Only his enemies called him "Soapy". Sometimes Jefferson used the alias to instill fear to his foes, but to his friends, he was "Jeff."

   "Soapy" utilized this "sure-thing" swindle, and the alias that came with it, for at least a decade. It helped him accrue three major empires of crime. It must be realized that according to an inflation calculator, one dollar in 1885 is equal to twenty dollars today. The crimes of "Soapy's" organization became so well known throughout the western United States for its extensive operations in Denver that it was common for the soap gang to warn intended victims of the many swindlers roaming the city. In this manner the bunco man would gain the trust of his victim and lead him directly into a web of deception.

   "Soapy's" bunco organization had its share of hard times. To deal with were religious "do-gooders" and political reform movements, all aimed at closing down the saloon and gambling elements in the city. These attempts to clean up the city rarely lasted very long. There were also other rival grifter organizations competing for control of the underworld, and they used every means possible to dethrone "Soapy." "Soapy" was overlord of Denver's underworld from 1887 to 1895. In the mid 1890's he slowly began to lose his crown partly due to his rivals but mostly due to his own bad temper, causing him legal problems, ranging from simple public disturbances to attempted murder.

   In times of reform, when the saloons and gamblers were put out of business they often wandered off to new camps to wait out the reform movement. Once the reform wave receded a signal was given and the business men of pleasure would return to Denver often times opening up their operations in the very locations they were forced to close. During one of the heavier attempts to close saloons and gaming in 1892 Jeff organized his friends and associates into a sort of union and set out for the new silver camp of Creede, Colorado.

   "Soapy" cleverly obtained numerous leases for low rents along the main street at Creede; with the help of some Denver "Lady" associates. It was in Creede, then known as Jimtown, that "Soapy" began to build his second criminal empire. He quickly declared himself the town boss with the ranks of the underworld and gambling dens controlling much of the main business. Creede ran wide-open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

   It was in Creede that Soapy produced one of the more bizarre methods of gaining wealth and fame. He introduced "McGinty" the petrified man, claiming to have purchased him from some miners who had unearthed him in Creede. McGinty was placed on exhibit in the camp for a short time, and then moved to Denver, as Soapy got the signal that Denver was beginning to relax its restrictions on the saloons and gambling dens. It appears that Denver suffered more when so many of the businesses that produced city revenue had left. Soapy was welcomed back to Denver as the city fathers knew he would bring most of the others back with him. It was perfect timing for the gamblers and saloon men to leave Creede because in June of 1892 the entire main business district of Creede was destroyed in a horrific fire that included Soapy's Orleans Club. Creede did attempt to rebuild but never again reached the status it had when Soapy Smith ran the town.

   It was in 1896 that Soapy journeyed north and first set foot in Alaska territory. News of small gold strikes were being more frequently reported. His gambler's instinct told him that Alaska, "the last frontier", would produce the next big rush, and he surveyed the territory seeking the right location to build his third empire.

   Soapy Smith arrived at the tent city of Skagway very soon after its beginnings. He quickly set himself up in business with the proprietor of a local saloon and set out to take over the camp's underworld as boss, just as he had done in Denver and Creede. Skagway was perfect for the businessmen as well as the bunco men. The narrow trail over the White Pass and into the interior was choked with stampeders creating a bottleneck that led into and out of Skagway. The miners were in such a hurry to get onto the trail that the job of the con man was all too easy. Even when caught red-handed victims rarely stayed around to make a complaint. If they did decide to complain it was found that the deputy U.S. Marshal was not of much assistance. The marshal was in league with the soap gang. If a victim still insisted on legal justice he had to catch a boat to Dyea, the camp five miles away, to make an official complaint. Often times the victim would find himself placed under arrest in order to keep him in town for the hearing. All to often the victim was willing to accept their losses in order to get back on the trail to the gold fields.

   One of the more humorous swindles (if one can find humor in it) was the Skagway telegraph office. According to legend, miners could send a message anywhere in the world for a mere $5. Try to imagine how difficult it was to reach Skagway, Alaska, in 1897. Ships were leaving the docks of Seattle, full with passengers, and the captains knew little of the route. There were ships that became lost! Passengers spent a week or more getting to Skagway on overloaded junk heaps that shipping companies had the nerve to call a boat. Passengers and their gear were tossed ashore as quickly as possible so that the captain could quickly sail back to the states for more passengers.

   Imagine yourself there, dropped off with a crowd in a new, little explored territory that is perhaps thousands of miles from home, and there it is. A telegraph office! Now you can send a message home letting family know you are alive. After paying your $5 and while the clerk is sending the message he informs you of the region. He answers all your questions and in between he gathers information about you and your situation. Who are you traveling with? Where are you headed and when? Do you have enough cash to make it through the winter? He seems to genuinely care and at the conclusion, you leave the office satisfied and with new hope.

   Later, while taking in the sites of the new camp, you run into the friendly clerk again and he informs you that you have received a reply to the message sent earlier. It is after hours and the office is closed but he gladly offers to take you to the office and retrieve the telegraph message if you pay the additional $5 up front. After paying the clerk takes you to the office. Inside there are a few men sitting at a card table playing poker. Greetings are made as the clerk is informed that his wife needs him at their tent immediately. You are eagerly invited to sit in on the game and play a few hands while you wait for the clerk to return. Before too long, you are out a large portion of your ready cash because you were certain you held a "sure-thing" hand. Even if you realize later that you had been swindled there is no time to complain to the law. Every hour you waste before getting on the trail to the gold fields means more claims being staked out and means less for you. Chalking up the loss to experience you hit the trail the next morning. (A little historical note, there was no telegraph line to Skagway in 1897.)

   Soapy operated several saloons while controlling Skagway, but the most famous was Jeff Smith's Parlor, opened in the spring of 1898. Skagway had a city hall but many called Jeff Smith's Parlor "the real city hall". It was from this saloon that Jeff oversaw his operations.

   The White Pass & Yukon Railway Co. had arrived at Skagway before there was a town. They were interested in laying track along the trail to make their fortune. But by the time they returned to begin building things had changed in Skagway. Soapy and other business proprietors realistically feared that a railroad would hurt their businesses. Skagway was a starting point for the stampeders, not the destination. Arriving at Skagway by ship, the miners could literally step off the boat and onto a train, without ever having to visit much of the town.

   The White Pass & Yukon Railroad had already spent a large sum of money to get to this point and their investors were not about to except a loss because of some tinhorn bunco man. The railroad had to get Soapy Smith out of their way somehow and they knew he was not about to voluntarily step aside. They did not have to wait long for a legitimate reason.

   After an altercation where a returning miner had been bilked out of his poke worth about $2,600 near Jeff Smith's Parlor news spread quickly and with it a vigilante group reorganized. A meeting was held with Soapy's presence unwanted. Soapy felt he of all citizens should be allowed at this meeting in order to defend himself. Angry and drunk, he grabbed his rifle and draped it over his shoulder and walked down to the wharf. Several of the gang trailed a distance behind him, just in case of trouble. Arriving at where the guards were stationed, Soapy walked up to Frank Reid and started arguing with him. Soapy made an attempt to strike Reid in the head with the barrel of the rifle, but Reid grabbed the barrel and forced it downward. Reid pulled out a pistol and began to fire. At the same instant, Soapy had jerked the rifle back towards Reid and returned fire.

   When the shooting had ceased, Soapy Smith was dead and Frank Reid lay badly wounded. Twelve days later he too would pass away. There are numerous theories about what took place. Who fired first? How many shots were fired? Who else shot Soapy? Did one of the bullets taken out of Soapy match Reid's gun? Witnesses claimed to have heard upwards of eight shots being fired. Then there is the unexplained side entry or exit wound in the body of Soapy and the accusations that he had been shot in the back. The Skagway News reported that although there were arguments going on about who actually shot and killed Soapy, Frank Reid was given the honor of killing Soapy Smith. Very few historians agree that Frank Reid killed Soapy.

   There is much more to the story of Jefferson Randolph Smith. Much will be revealed in the upcoming book by his great grandson, Jeff Smith. For other pictures and more stories of his life be sure and visit www.soapysmith.net where you will also be able get the news of the release of this biography.

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