With few lawmen and plenty of gullible settlers, con men found the Old West a great place to practice their trade. The king of the frontier con men was a character named Soapy Smith.
Born Jefferson Randolph Smith II to wealthy plantation owners in Georgia, Soapy was well-educated and seemly had all the advantages in the world. Then the Civil War took its toll on the South and the family lost their plantation and moved to Texas. And it was here that Soapy got his start in crime, and also how he got his name.
His most famous con was the Prize Package Soap Sell. Soapy would set up a stand on a busy corner and display dozens of bars of soap wrapped in simple brown paper. As a crowd gathered, he would unwrap the soap and place money (counterfeit, of course) in amounts anywhere from $1 to $100 dollars inside the brown paper and then rewrap it. Then he would shuffle the soap and sell those plan packages for anywhere from $1 – $5. His first patron was always a shill (a confederate), who bought the first bar, opened it and found a $100 dollar bill. The crowd went wild and bought him out to the last bar.
Eventually, Soapy and his gang moved to Denver, Colorado, where he ran a number of rackets, cons and card games. There, he expanded his repertoire to include larger scams including fake stock exchanges and lottery offices. At the time, Denver had a wide-open policy towards gambling, making it the perfect place for Soapy and his companions to ply their trade. He owned and operated many of his own saloons and gambling halls, making it all the easier to lull the unwary. Of course, this kind of activity drew attention, so some of his ill-gotten gains went as kick-backs to saloon owners and as pay-offs to city officials and the so-called lawmen of the day. So strong did his empire become that he proclaimed himself the boss of Denver’s underworld crime syndicates.
Soapy was a clever man, so his scams almost always focused on travelers, rather than locals. And strangely or maybe on purpose, he was also a generous man, always quick to help his own men, as well as donating to local charities, helping the poor and opening his saloons to ministers for Sunday services. He endeared himself to the locals by lending a helping hand whenever he could. Sadly, the glory days didn’t last. Denver eventually reformed, banned gambling and tightened up on crime in the city. Soapy and his band of misfits were persona-non-grata and had to move their operations.
But a little thing like getting run out of town didn’t stop Soapy. He and his boys moved to Creede, Colorado, where the silver boom was in full swing. There, Soapy got the bright idea to form a con-man union of sorts. With his charismatic personality, he organized groups of like-minded individuals into gangs that ran cons from Alaska to Texas. Eventually, the silver played out and Soapy moved his operation to Skagway, Alaska, where the gold rush was underway.
His operations there so irritated the natives that a vigilante gang gathered to rid the town of Soapy and his gang. On July 8, 1898, at one of the vigilante meetings, one of the guards, Frank Reid, blocked Soapy Smith from entering and the two shot it out. Soapy died that same night at the age of 38. His gravestone in Skagway can still be visited. Over the years, Soapy’s legend has grown and a ceremonial wake is held in Skagway each year on July 8.