of the most notorious con men and swindlers of the Old West was
a man known as Soapy Smith, who perpetrated most of his nefarious
deeds in Colorado and Alaska but who got his start in Texas
before he was ever known as Soapy.
He was born Jefferson Randolph Smith II in Georgia to a prosperous
and educated family. The prosperity came to an end after the Civil
War and the man who would be Soapy moved to Round
Rock with his family when he was 18, just in time to witness
the shootout that killed Sam
Bass. Not long after that, he bid his family adieu and set out
to become what he described as a “sure thing” man. Most people would
call him a con man.
One of his
first scams was selling jewelry, most of it fake, as “Cheap John.”
Smith ended up in Fort
Worth where he brought together a group of thieves and con men
that operated together as a single unit. Under Soapy’s direction,
the gang closely resembled the kind of crime syndicate that would
prevail in the 1920s and 30s. Each member was recruited and retained
because had a special skill, whether it was the shell game, three-card
Monte, bribery, or beating people up. Resources were pooled with
some of the money going to bribe politicians and policemen.
As a result, Soapy had a low opinion of both. He once said, “I consider
bunco steering more honorable than the life led by the average politician.”
The name “Soapy” came from his most famous scam. Smith would set
up his display featuring bars of soap wrapped in plain paper on
a busy street corner. He would then wrap some of the soap with paper
money, including a few hundred dollar bills. Then he would rewrap
the bars in plain paper and mix them in with the others and sell
the soap for a dollar or two a bar.
Smith always arranged to have a crowd around him, including a shill
who was eager to buy a bar of soap and take a chance, though chance
had nothing to do with it; the shill always opened a bar of soap
with a hundred dollar bill inside. This led other people to try
their luck, but, again, luck had nothing to do with it. The scam
was a proven winner for longer than you might imagine and earned
him the name Soapy Smith. His gang was known as the Soap Gang.
Soapy and his gang of misfits got so good at what they did that
Fort Worth eventually
passed laws aimed specifically at Soapy and his gang. That was okay
with them. They were going to the big leagues – Denver – where Smith
became the unofficial but undisputed boss of Denver crime. The gang
would come to include men who passed themselves off as ministers
or professors and others with less subtle talents, hardened gunfighters
like Texas Jack Vermilion and Big Ed Burns.
Growing up as he did in the era of the Old West outlaw and seeing
the “Robin Hood of the West” gunned down in Round
Rock, Soapy understood the importance of public relations. He
gave generously to charities and food drives and presented himself
as a friend to the people he ripped off, though he tried to concentrate
his activities in certain parts of town to let otherwise unsuspecting
locals off the hook.
As his empire grew, people tried to kill Soapy and Soapy tried to
kill them, too. He eventually ended up in Skagway, Alaska where
he met his end one night at the hands of some riled up victims.
His last words were, “My God, don’t shoot!”
Soapy Smith ended up a long way from Texas,
where he first set out to be a “sure thing” man. The only sure thing,
as it turned out, was that he would die the same way Sam
Bass did, in a hail of gunfire.
© Clay Coppedge
May 10, 2014 Column
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