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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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