|"HOW ARE YOU FIXED FOR SOAP?"
The Prize Package Soap Racket
|Soapy sells in front of the Union Depot
Jefferson 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 offering for sale. 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 started at $1 and increased from there
in auction style as the soap packages dwindled.
Unknown to his
victims, mixed in with the crowd were members of the Soap Gang, known as shills. 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. None of his friends called him Soapy,
only his enemies called him that. Jefferson sometimes used the alias to instill intimidation
into his foes.
|Bunco steerers and another mark
Soapy utilized the Prize Package Soap Sell swindle, and the alias that came with
it, for over a decade. It helped him accrue three major empires of crime. It must be realized that according to an inflation
calculator, one dollar, the starting price on his soap 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. The main rival gang
is believed to have been led by brothers, Sam and
|Pocatello, Idaho depot gunfight 1889
|Half his mustache shot from his face
At least two attempts were made to
assassinate Soapy. One attempt on his life occurred in 1889 while sitting in a train car at the
Pocatello, Idaho, depot. A very descriptive letter in the Smith family collection tells of the
ensuing gun battle between another rival gang and some of the soap gang. Soapy had shot two of his attackers before fleeing
on horseback, at a full run. Writing to his wife, he talked of having half
his mustache shot off. This letter, and many more, will be fully viewable in the great grandson's
up coming biography on the life of Soapy.
|Soapy and the gang flee for their lives
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. When Soapy mixed his temper with alcohol, he became
a very dangerous man. He was simply becoming too well known for his criminal activities. The
local city officials could no longer look the other way, as they had done for years. The police
and city hall were openly being accused of working in league with the bunco
gang, which was not the least bit an exaggeration.
numerous reforms of the 1880's, saloons and gamblers were temporarily put out of business.
They often wandered off to towns close by to wait out the rarely long lasting reform movements. 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.
|Creede, Colorado 1892
|The Orleans Club is at the far end of the street under the flag
obtained numerous leases for low rents along the main street at Creede, with the help of some
Denver female associates of the soiled dove persuasion. It was in Creede, known at the time as Jimtown,
that Soapy began to build the second criminal empire of his life. 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. The blazing lights coming from the saloons and night
time businesses bounced off the steep walls on each side of the canyon in which the town was
nestled. The brightness gave Cy Warman, a newspaper man, the idea for a poem about the silver camp, the main Chorus being,
"It's day all day in the day time and there is no night in Creede."
all day in the day time
... and there is no night in creede.
a poem, 1892
There was plenty
of wild life, hell raising, and general disorder at first glance. Yet there was little violent
crime relative to other similar boom-towns of the era. Some historians state that it was Soapy's control over the underworld that helped keep the peace. Trouble makers were sent packing. Even Bob Ford (killer of
outlaw Jesse James) and soap gang member Joe Palmer were banned from the town for going on a
drinking binge and shooting up the town. After a short period, Soapy had a hand in allowing them
to return to the town.
It was in Creede that Soapy produced one of his more bizarre methods of obtaining
wealth and fame. He introduced "McGinty," the petrified man, claiming to have purchased
him from some miners who had unearthed him in the outskirts of Creede.
An attempt to kill Soapy occurred in his saloon, the Orleans
Club, in which Soapy came out unscathed, but friend Joe Palmer had his thumbs shot clean off.
Palmer followed Soapy to Skagway and remained there after
Soapy was killed, no one apparently ever knowing he was a member of the soap gang.
|A petrified man...but not Soapy's
McGinty was placed on exhibit
for only one dime. Soapy's profits did not come from the little dimes paid by the curious,
but rather from the shell games and three-card Monte operators who entertained the paying public
while waiting in line to see McGinty. The photograph to the left is not McGinty, but the real one does still exists. Photographs
of the original McGinty, along with the location will be disclosed in Jeff Smith's up coming biography.
THE PETRIFIED MAN
man discovered near Creede, Colo., April 9, 1892, is now on exhibition.
petrified man discovered near Creede, Colo.,
April 9, 1892, is now on exhibition.
A marvel of wonders;
every muscle, the pores of the skin, the finger nails and
toe nails all complete, in a perfect state of preservation,
as natural as life.
Skeptics, chemists, sculptors and all wise men
are especially invited.
Admission 10 cents,
914 Seventeenth street
(facsmile of an original handbill)
A thin dime was all one needed
to see McGinty, the Petrified Man...Games played while waiting in line cost extra. McGinty was in Creede camp for only a short
time, and then moved to Denver. Soapy and the other sporting and saloon men recieved word that
Denver was relaxing its restrictions on drinking and
gambling. It appears that Denver suffered more from imposing the reforms when so many of the businesses that produced city
revenue had left for Creede. The only way to get them all back was to allow them to operate as they had done in the past,
without restrictions. Soapy was welcomed back to Denver as the city fathers knew he would bring most of his associates back
with him. It was perfect timing for the gamblers and saloon men to leave Creede because on June 5, 1892 the entire main business
district of Creede was destroyed in a horrific fire. Soapy's Orleans Club was one of the buildings lost in the fire. Creede
did attempt to rebuild, but never again reached the status it had when Soapy Smith ran the town.
|The Soap Gang poses as mineral investors
THE DENVER CITY HALL WAR
|Soapy faced two cannons & two gatling guns
Soapy resumed business at the Tivoli Club in Denver and it was business
as usual, as if nothing had ever changed. This open attitude caught the eye of the new Colorado governor, a member of the
newly formed Populist Party, whose platform was based on social and political reforms. The Governor
decided to use the capital of Denver as an example of his electoral might and the party platform.
He started with city hall, firing three members of the fire and police board. The other corrupt city officials, fearing for
their positions, banded together and refused to obey the governor's orders
to abandon their power. The furious governor ordered the eviction of all who ignored his orders and threatened to call out
the state militia to force them out if need be.
Denver's corrupt city officials fortified city hall against attack and called
on Soapy and the underworld to aid in their cause. Soapy knew that if the hands of power changed in Denver, he might be forced
to leave the city. So aid their cause he did. Soapy was sworn in as a special deputy, and with
a handful of his men, he directed part of the defense of Denver City Hall and entrenched himself
in the upper floors of the center tower. He had with him, homemade dynamite "torpedo" bombs,
that were meant to throw down upon advancing troops. The lower floors had armed policemen, sheriffs and firemen ready and
willing to open fire on the state militia. Crowds of Denverites dangerously flooded the streets around
city hall and waited for the war to begin.
The state militia arrived, bringing with them
two cannons and two Gatling guns. Commanders deployed the weapons of destruction in the middle
of the street and awaited the order to fire on city hall. That order was given and reversed numerous
times throughout the day, and there was grave concern that many bystanders might be killed. In the end,
the governor was convinced by cooler heads that no blood should be shed, and so the city hall war ended peacefully. Soapy
and the combatants inside city hall celebrated their victory, but it would prove to be short
lived. Denver was tired of criminals running city hall. Gambling was eventually shut down within
city limits. It did not go away, it just went underground, hidden away from the eyes of the lawman.
|Many ways to trick and trap a sucker
Soapy was not a man
to let an opportunity slip by him. He used the deputy sheriff commissions and badges given to him during the city hall
war, to stage fake raids on his gaming dens.
The raids would take place just as Soapy's victims lost what money they had in a "sure-thing" hand
of poker, or other game of chance. Victims, usually out-of-towners, would be "arrested" and taken towards the jail.
Victims invariably would plead that they were from out of town and did not know it was illegal
to gamble. The "officer" would feign sympathy and allow their victim to go free, if they promised to leave the city
immediately, naturally leaving their lost money behind. Most victims were all to happy to do so, rather
than face a night in jail and the fines that accompany it.
There isn't a man in this town, who gives more to the poor than I do. What
if I do take a few tributes from the other fellows? Don't these guys come here
to the city to lose their dough? Guess the roulette wheel would get it if I didn't.
Jeff R. Smith, Denver Republican, 1/20/1896
Soapy Smith's decade reign of corruption and power were coming to an end in
the mid 1890's. Soapy and younger brother Bascomb were constantly being reported in the newspapers, getting into saloon
brawls that sometimes led to gun-play. In 1895 Jeff and Bascomb severely assaulted John Hughes, a rival saloon proprietor.
|Bascomb's home for one year
|Jailed for nearly killing John Hughes
Bascomb was apprehended on a charge of attempted murder and sentenced
to one year in prison. Soapy skipped town to keep from enjoying the same fate. Soapy made several unsuccessful attempts to
beat the rap, and get Bascomb out on bail, but the courts would not conduct his trial without Soapy's presence. When
Soapy refused to show up in court for his hearing, he became a fugitive from justice. Several times, it was reported that
he had snuck back into the city on business, but he left as quickly as he had arrived for fear of arrest. The crown of
Denver's underworld was passed to Jeff's rivals, Sam and Lou Blonger.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel
or text may be used without prior written consent.