We haven’t done one of these in some time, so come with me, back to the 19th century in the American West where we shall meet the infamous Soapy Smith.
His real name was Jefferson Smith and he was born just before the Civil War in Georgia. His family was quite wealthy but lost everything during William Sherman’s devastating March To The Sea where General Sherman marched his troops through Georgia and literally destroyed everything, every house, every building, every field as they went. Alas Smith’s lands were in the way of this march and the family was ruined.
In his late teens, after his mother died he Round Rock Texas for Fort Worth and began his career as a con man.
He started simple enough, with games of 3 card monte and shell games on the street. His sleight of hand was excellent and he soon formed a little gang who specialized in these tricky little games. They would roll quickly through a town, setting up some simple games where sleight of hand could separate some citizens from their money and then roll out.
It was small time stuff. Kid’s stuff. Then Jefferson Smith started to think bigger and came up with the scam that gave him his nickname Soapy: The Prize Package Soap Racket.
He became a travelling salesman, setting up a case on a tripod in the middle of the street. He would then launch into his routine, selling soap to the crowds that would gather. While he waxed eloquent on the virtues of the wonderful soap he was selling he would pull out his wallet, take several bills ranging from 1 to 100 dollars in value and wrapping the money around a few bars of the soap. He would then wrap all the soap in paper and as his speech and demonstration came to an end, declare buying time ready to begin.
Naturally it was quite exciting. The soap sold for a dollar a bar and people would buy in order to get one of teh bars with money. Often shortly into the buying frenzy people ion the crowd would start finding the money and yell excitedly. If the soap supply started to get low and the $100 bill not yet found, the prices would go up and the crowd would even start bidding wars.
Quite smart. Do i need to tell you that no one ever got any of the money? Soapy Smith’s gang was still together, but now the gang acted as plants in the crowd. Soapy was always great at sleight of hand, right? He palmed all the money soap except for a few which would carefully find their way to the plants.
He ran this con for 20 years and it netted him a fortune. So much that he set up operations in Denver, Colorado. He built a saloon and gambling hall called The Tivoli Club. On the front door hung a sign saying “Caveat Emptor”. It became as huge as the games were rigged. Smith used his fortune to build himself a criminal empire, paying off cops, lawyers and judges. He ran businesses from fraudulent lottery shops to “sure-thing” stock exchanges, fake watch and bogus diamond auctions, stock sales of nonexistent businesses. He had a hand in criminal enterprises across the city and directly paid off both the mayor and chief of police.
By 1892 Denver was undergoing huge anti gambling and saloon reforms of which he was responsible in no small part, so he picked up and moved the Tivoli Clup to Creede Colorado, a town in the middle of a mining boom.
He brought with him Denver prostitutes to cozy up to property owners and convince them to sign over leases, and in this way acquired numerous lots along Creede’s main street, renting them to his associates. Soon he controlled the town outright.
However boom towns are famous for the boom and the bust. As the town’s mining fortune waned Smith got word that the Denver reforms were ending, and so back to Denver he and his crew went. He became even wealthier and more powerful, but eventually a new Governor came in dedicated to reform. He even sent in militia to remove from the Denver Courthouse 3 corrupt officials he fired who refused to leave. Reforms came again, harder and tighter.
Smith used the new reforms to his advantage. He would stage raids on his gambling dens. Police in his pay would raid the room and proceed to arrest everybody. These raids were timed when big players had bet large amounts of money in poker games. The players would be given mercy and allowed to walk away. They were grateful not to be arrested and leave quickly, leaving Smith all their money.
But Smith was too big, too well known. Eventually even the corrupt officials couldn’t protect him. When Smith and his brother beat a saloon manager to death, his brother was jailed and Smith fled becoming a wanted man. He high tailed it to Alaska.
In Skagway Alaska, 1897, the Klondike gold rush was getting going and Smith did exactly what he had in Colorado, soon becoming one of the most powerful men in town. However a vigilante group opposed to him rose up, the Committee of 101. Smith set up his own counter group, a “law and order society” and things remained tense as he proceeded to dominate the town so much so that his saloon became known as “the real city hall”.
On 7 July 1898, , a returning Klondike miner named John Douglas Stewart came to Skagway with a sack of gold containing $2,700.Three gang members convinced him to participate in a game of 3 card monte. When Stewart balked at having to pay his losses, the three men grabbed the sack and ran. The “Committee of 101” demanded that Soapy return the gold, but he refused, claiming that Stewart had lost it “fairly”.
The next night the Commitee of 101 organized a meeting on the wharf. Smith showed up with a Winchester rifle on his shoulder. A gaurd named Frank Reid blocked his way and the two began arguing. The argument got heated and thus the Shootout on Juneau Wharf began. Smith was shot 3 times by a second guard protecting Reid. One of the bullets was a direct hit to the heart and Smith died on the spot. Reid was shot himself and also died 12 days days later
The 3 gang members who had grabbed the sack of money were arrested and sent to prison.
The town of Skagway, Alaska continues to hold a wake every year on the anniversary of Smith’s death.