Soapy Smith was by far the most notorious con man of 1880’s Denver, Colorado. His real name was Jefferson Randolph Smith and he had a gift for words.
Born in Georgia, he helped work the family farm. His father was a lawyer and a drunk, and the farm and his business failed.
In 1876, Smith moved his family to Texas, to take up law in a new state, but was to fail at his law practice there as well.
So to help out his family, young Smith took odd jobs delivering groceries, being a runner for a hotel, meeting trains to help newcomers to his employer’s place of business, and a cowboy.
After herding cattle from Texas to Kansas and back again, Soapy would stop in at the saloons and gaming houses and try his luck. Seems he had excellent success as a gambler.
Deciding to make his way alone, Smith took off for Leadville, Colorado to try his luck. Here he met an man named Taylor, who was proficient with the old shell game, three walnut shells and a pea, guess which shell the pea was under.
In his late teens, he became a hawker for Taylor, learning the tricks of the trade for the shell and soap games, which became Smith’s signature con.
This young man, smooth talking and professional, took over for Taylor and hired shills of his own to scam the unknowing public.
Whether it was speaking to a crowd, entertaining at a dinner party or, most likely, pleading his case in court, Soapy was a wonderful speaker.
He had other nefarious skills, such as gun for hire, check fraud and selling worthless mines. These were just to fill in the time.
His first con in Denver, was selling soap, hence the name “Soapy”. He would tell his rapt audiences that he had hidden twenty and one hundred dollar bills in certain bars. For the price of five dollars a bar, they could walk away with twenty or one hundred.
Many came forward and won twenty dollars. The crowd went wild, pushing forward to buy a bar of soap with the big money in it.
What the crowd didn’t know was that the winners were hired by Soapy, the bars marked, and thus the big pay off.
For years Soapy Smith reaped the rewards of his con games. He opened his own gambling house, the Tivoli Saloon and Gambling Hall in Denver, making lots of money and living an expensive life style.
Many sore losers at his establishment went to the police and filed complaints against Smith for cheating. Also, beatings and shootings of customers were reported.
In 1891, Smith left Denver and settled in Creede, Colorado, a popular mining town. He sent for a few of his cohorts from Denver and set them up using his con games.
The town didn’t have a government at the time and Soapy decided the best way to protect his interests was to become an avid instigator of forming a town government.
He soon controlled the town. Violence was at a minimum, everything was running smoothly. The railroad ran a line into Creede and the town was on the map.
Tiring of the calmness of the town he formed, Smith headed back to Denver and his gambling parlor. He was a happy man.
By 1894, Colorado was in trouble. Silver had been demonetized and the state’s economy was failing. Along came the new governor, who demanded an end to the lawless of the state.
This didn’t sit well with Soapy and his friends and they figured that any new men the governor put into power would bode ill for them.
Smith and his friends became involved with the City Hall War. Resistance of the proposed changes put his men in city hall and threatened to blow it up.
Governor Waite called out the army, complete with heavy fire power. Soapy named himself “Colonel Smith” and refused to leave city hall.
Civilians were coming and going and the army didn’t want to fire into the building with so many innocents in city hall.
Eventually, the problem was defused, and Smith and his men left city hall. With all this going on, Soapy decided to leave Denver again.
He told everyone that he and a few friends were going to take a trip to Japan. People were curious about why he decided this, but they were being conned again.
Soapy Smith and his friends went to Skagway instead. This was in 1897, where the new gold rush was found. He packed his old stand bys, his shells and soap and flourished in this lawless new town.
However, this town would be Smith’s downfall. In 1898, a miner with $2700 in gold, gambled with Soapy and lost all his money. The miner claimed his gold was stolen and called a committee meeting to deal with the felon.
Though there was no evidence that Soapy stole the miner’s money, he was, however, told to return the gold to the miner. Smith refused.
He and a few of his friends tried to get into the meeting, were turned away, things got ugly, shooting started and Soapy Smith was killed instantly. He was only 38 years old.