originally published January 30, 2014
We live in the age of the celebrated antihero. A villainous protagonist like Tony Soprano or Walter White may vanquish our moral resistance, but those are fictional lawbreakers; in reality we want our deviants either behind bars or tucked snugly into the niche of the Robin Hood villain, should such a notion actually exist. Perhaps our Edward Snowdens and Julian Assanges are the closest we’ll get to a genuine, for-the-folks criminal.
Often a criminal’s edification as a philanthropic scofflaw arises through a population’s selective posthumous memory of the crook, or an outright misinterpretation of the truth. In the case of Jefferson “Soapy” Smith, both factors appear to have been in play.
Soapy Smith was a con man, a swindler, and the closest thing to a mob boss as could be found in the post-Civil War frontier lands of the mountainous west. He didn’t so much terrorize Denver (among other places) as he came to possess them. And like any titan of the underworld, he started small.
He started with soap.
The scam was downright elegant. Smith would set up a display on a busy street corner, visibly wrapping numerous bars of soap in dollar bills, ranging from one dollar to $100. Each bar was then wrapped in plain paper and tossed into a pile with some soap without a prize. Smith then sold the soap bars lottery-style to eager passers-by for $1 apiece. Of course Soapy knew where the money-laced bars were, and with deft sleight-of-hand, he sold only the prizeless bars to the slack-jawed masses. His shills, fellow gang members dressed as ordinary citizens, would end up “buying” the prize bars, and would react with an appropriate jubilance.
As the stack of available soap whittled down, Soapy would announce that the $100 bar had not yet been found, and then would auction off the rest. The scam was a huge money maker, and with it Soapy funded his first criminal empire on the streets of Denver. He also earned the nickname he’d be stuck with for the rest of his life and beyond.
Soapy had moved there at the age of 19 after leaving the financial struggles of his family life in Round Rock, Texas. He had witnessed the dramatic shooting death of noted train robber Sam Bass, and from then on the gangster lifestyle was too enticing to pass up.
Soapy knew the best way to shmush his heels into the sticky oatmeal of criminal management was to grease the local officials with enough bribe money to keep him and his associates free from harm. Fortunately, not every marshal in the old west was the Gary Cooper type, steadfastly tied to honesty, honor and duty. The civic wheels were hungry for grease, and Soapy Smith was sitting on an unending supply of lubricating greenbacks.
After assaulting reporter John Arkins of the Rocky Mountain News, the paper began to spread the word about Soapy’s real agenda. They told of crooked bunko scams, rigged gambling dens and shady three-card monte games. And they made him famous by spreading the word nation-wide.
By this time Soapy’s racket had grown up. He ran the Tivoli Club, a saloon and gambling hall that wasn’t far from where his brother, Bascomb Smith, operated a cigar store – a front for backroom poker games. At thirty years old Soapy was funding high-end swindles all over Denver, he had his fingers knuckle-deep in bogus diamonds, phony pocket-watches and worthless stocks. Rivals tried to take him out, and either Soapy or his gang would fire the first bullet. It didn’t matter – there was no cop in town who would haul him in.
By 1892, Denver’s few honest politicians were struggling to squeeze a few indigo droplets of light and legitimacy into their town. Rather than fight them off, Soapy rounded up his gang and bolted southwest to Creede, a town in the midst of a vivacious silver boom. He slipped comfortably into his second criminal empire, controlling the town from his home base in the Orleans Club, another stereotypical old-west gambling saloon that bore Soapy’s sooty fingerprints.
As the silver mine dried up and began spewing out more rocks than Charlie Brown’s Halloween bag, Soapy dropped his claim in Creede and moved back to Denver. It was business as usual, as Soapy opened business after business to front his illegal operations. Even when Governor Davis Hanson Waite tried to oust some of Soapy’s corrupt politicos from office, Soapy was deputized and the town council refused to budge. The situation escalated, with the state militia hauling Gatling guns and canons into town to take back City Hall. It very easily could have been a bloodbath, but the issue was instead passed over to the courts.
This did not bode well for Soapy. At first he happily took advantage of his new title as an enforcer of the law, and when the gambling halls were ordered to be closed, he simply went in and arrested his own patrons who had lost large sums of money. He’d let them go free out back (to their undoubted relief), but made sure they never had the chance to win back their loot.
Eventually the heat was too hot, and Soapy had to vanish. Next stop: Skagway, Alaska.
In December of 1897, Soapy swooped into the new settlement of Skagway and employed his skills to quickly become the local boss of the underworld. Law enforcement was scarce in the region, with just one marshal in town. Naturally, the marshal was firmly crammed into Soapy’s pocket.
The following summer, a man named John Douglas Stewart rolled into town with close to $3000 in gold and cash. Soapy’s loyal goons did their duty to scam Stewart’s money into their possession through a nifty game of three-card monte, but in order to get the gold (which was about $2600 of that $3000), they had to snatch it by force. The marshal wasn’t going to help Stewart get his money back, but he was able to unload his woes to the Citizens Committee, a vigilante group that had been looking for a way to wash Skagway clean of its Soapy filth.
On a warm Friday night in July, Frank H. Reid led the plan. Soapy was drinking in his parlor, when one of his gang members passed him a note that an angry crowd was congregating on Juneau Wharf. Soapy slung his Winchester rifle over his shoulder and tucked his new Colt .41 double action revolver into his holster. He had six or seven men with him, but he told them to stay back while he took care of the issue.
It was a classic shootout. The two men, Reid and Soapy, stood just a few feet apart, yelling at one another. Reports are mixed as to who drew their weapon first, but both initial shots rang out as one. Reid was hit in the leg and belly, Soapy took one in the arm and another above the knee. Jesse Murphy, another member of the vigilante gang, swooped and grabbed Soapy’s rifle from him, blasting a bullet clean into the con man’s heart at point-blank range. Soapy’s gang tried to rush in and help, but the vigilantes stepped into the light with greater numbers. The gunfight was over.
As the dust cleared, the so-called King of the Con Men was dead and Frank H. Reid spent twelve days slowly dying from his wounds. Yet despite their relative positions on the spectrum of right and wrong, it’s Soapy whose memory is honored. Even though his money came from illicit means, he spent piles of it on building churches and helping out those in need. His legacy has been draped in the Robin Hood cape, his reputation one of loyalty, quick wit and generosity.
Or was he simply a criminal?