Lamplight On History: Soapy Smith

Soapy Smith

Soapy Smith

Soapy Smith was born Jefferson Randolph Smith II 1860. He was known as the “king of the frontier confidence men”, due to his reputation as a con man and gambler. He was considered a gangster and the most famous “[tippy title=”sure-thing” header=”off”]”slang used by confidence men; a gamble that cannot be lost. “It is a sure-thing that you will win.” – Source: wikipedia[/tippy]” bunko man(con artist) of the old west.

Originally born of education of wealth, his family lost their fortune at the end of the American Civil War. They traveled to Texas to start anew. Soapy left the family shortly after and began his con artist reputation in Fort Worth, Texas.

There are plenty of stories abound of his years exploiting Texans and then Coloradans, and I hope to explore those with you in the future. For this installment, I want to tell of Soapy’s years in Alaska during the Gold Rush. But I’d be inconsiderate in the least if I were to skip where the nickname “Soapy” came from.

According to wikipedia:

Smith would open his “tripe and keister” (display case on a tripod) on a busy street corner. Piling ordinary soap cakes onto the keister top, he began expounding on their wonders. As he spoke to the growing crowd of curious onlookers, he would pull out his wallet and begin wrapping paper money ranging from one dollar up to one hundred dollars, around a select few of the bars. He then finished each bar by wrapping plain paper around it to hide the money. He mixed the money-wrapped packages in with wrapped bars containing no money. He then sold the soap to the crowd for one dollar a cake. A shill planted in the crowd would buy a bar, tear it open, and loudly proclaim that he had won some money, waving it around for all to see. This performance had the desired effect of enticing the sale of the packages. More often than not, victims bought several bars before the sale was completed. Midway through the sale, Smith would announce that the hundred-dollar bill yet remained in the pile, unpurchased. He then would auction off the remaining soap bars to the highest bidders.

Through manipulation and sleight-of-hand, the cakes of soap wrapped with money were hidden and replaced with packages holding no cash. It was assured that the only money “won” went to members of what became known as the “Soap Gang.”

When news of gold strikes in Alaska reached Soapy, he felt a calling to “the last frontier” to strike his newest claim. Soon after a tent-town was set up in what is today the Alaskan town of Skagway, Soapy arrived and set up shop. He went in business with a local saloon owner, John Clancy, and quickly took up the position as the boss of the underworld crime syndicate. Due to Skagway’s geographic location, it was almost assured that every gold-seeker was forced to travel through Skagway, and in doing so, travel through Soapy’s operations as well. Soapy’s con operations caught the passerby’s while they were in a hurry to strike their own claims. Many times, their haste would prevent them from lodging complaints when catching Soapy and his crew red-handed, and even when they did file a complaint, they never got anywhere due to the fact that the Deputy US Marshal was in cahoots with Soapy. And thus, a prime scenario existed for Soapy Smith to do his work.

Broadway Avenue, Skaguay (now Skagway), Alaska May 1898

Broadway Avenue, Skaguay (now Skagway), Alaska May 1898

One of Soapy’s clever swindles involved the opening of a fake telegraph office. Here, newly arrived gold-seekers were able to send a telegraph message back home. For $5 dollars, one could send a message anywhere in the World. The swindle? Telegraph cables didn’t exist in Skagway at the time. And that was only part of the scheme!

The clerk at the telegraph office — a member of Soapy’s crew — would ask questions of the person sending the message, and answer any they might have. While sending the message, he’d provide information and strike up seemingly genuine conversations with the traveler. It must have been nice for lonely adventurers to meet someone so cordial in a new and strange land, and probably worth the five bucks. Later, the message-sender would run into the clerk who would inform them that they had received a reply back at the telegraph office, and for $5 more he could relay the message. Back at the office, another gentleman informs the clerk that there’s an immediate situation with his wife at home. The clerk tells the message recipient to make himself comfortable until he returns. In the office, a poker game is in progress and the person waiting is invited to a spot at the table. “Sure thing” hand after hand, the newcomer gets squeezed of all his bets. Eventually, the now broke gentleman begins to suspect he was swindled but alas, there’s no time for retaliation… For the spoils of the Klondike await.

And it was schemes such as this that made Soapy renown throughout the country. It’s noteworthy that Soapy wasn’t your average no-good outlaw as some of these stories might make him seem. He was known to donate huge sums to charitable causes, such as those that fed stray dogs, the hungry, the sick and the uneducated. When the town council asked residents to chip in to fund a night watchmen for the neighborhoods, Soapy argued that a single watchmen wouldn’t suffice and personally contributed enough to pay for a second.

Soapy’s reign wasn’t accepted by everyone, and the city’s underworld population seemed to split into two groups; “real-estate grifters” and the “bunco men.” A vigilante organization was formed to rid Soapy and his gang out of Skagway. They printed a handbill and posted it around the camp which read:

Warning!

A word to the wise should be sufficient!

All Confidence,
Bunco and
Sure-thing Men,

And all other objectionable characters are notified to leave Skaguay and

White pass Road Immediately.

And to remain away.

Failure to comply with this warning will be followed by prompt action.

101.

Skaguay, Alaska, Mch 8, 1898.

Many bunco men heeded the warning, but not Soapy and his followers. They posted a sign of their own which read:

ANSWER
TO WARNING

The body of men styling themselves 101 are hereby notified that any overt act committed by them will be promptly met by the Law abiding Citizens of Skaguay and each member and HIS PROPERTY will be held responsible for any unlawful act on their part and the law and order society consisting of 317 citizens will see that Justice is dealt out to its full extent as no Blackmailers or Vigilantes will be tolerated.

The Committee.

And thus, Soapy spoke. His bluff worked, and the vigilantes crawled back into hiding.

Stay tuned for the second part of Soapy Smith’s adventures and legacy in Alaska. In the meantime, if you’d like to read more, please visit this website maintained by members of Soapy’s current-day relatives.

Related Posts:

2 thoughts on “Lamplight On History: Soapy Smith

  1. Thank you for publishing a historically correct version of my great grandfather’s criminal adventures in Alaska. You only nipped the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the amount of exciting events in his life. He was a well known crime boss in Denver, Colorado until his brassy escapades and gunfights threatened jail time.

    My book on his life and death will be coming out in the spring of 2009. Thanks again.

    Jeff Smith

Leave a Reply