Friday, April 25, 2014

The Good the Bad and the Soapy

By Alison Bruce
He was the very model of a modern major criminal.

Jefferson Randolf Smith II, Jeff to his friends, Soapy to his enemies, came from a family of wealth and privilege. His grandfather was a Georgian plantation owner. His father was a lawyer. Until the Civil War, they had everything. By the end, they had lost it all.

The family moved to Round Rock, Texas in 1876 to start anew. Two years later, Smith was in Fort Worth to see Sam Bass, the infamous train robber, hang. By family accounts, this was a pivotal moment for Smith. When his mother died shortly after, Smith left home to return to Fort Worth and the start of his life of crime. Starting out with the basics - Three Card Monte and the ever popular shell game, soon he was known as the "king of the frontier con men".

Soapy sells in front of the Union Depot 
The con that gave him his nickname was dubbed "The Prize Soap Racket".
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. (
 [* keister: a suitcase, bag, or box for carrying possessions or merchandise. "Tripe and keister", aka tripod and suitcase, were the basic tools of con men and salesmen (sometimes both in the same person). Later the keister came to mean buttocks when "move your keister" and "fell on his keister" shifted into less literal usage.]

Soapy Smith, 1898
Smith had a gift for organization. In Fort Worth, he started gathering his team of bunco artists, each with their own specialties in the art of separating the mark from his money. In Denver, he combined their assets and parlayed them into a criminal empire that included bribed policemen, suborned judges and the best lawyers money could buy. He owned The Trivoli Club, where porters and guides were paid to steer newcomers so they could be fleeced.
As a legal loop-hole for the crooked gambling in the Tivoli Club Soapy placed a sign at the entrance that read CAVEAT EMPTOR, Latin for "Let the buyer beware." It is probable that few of his victims heeded the warning and fewer still could actually read Latin. (
Bribes and legal loopholes weren't the only thing that kept Jefferson Smith going. He might never have earned an honest buck, but he earned the loyalty of his gang and, to a certain extent, the community.
When a member of the Soap Gang needed help Jefferson was always ready to lend a hand, whether it be money or legal aid. The men in the gang grew extremely loyal to their boss. At times the policemen on the beat also sought his aid, in help with situations where they had little power. This often occurred in hard economic times when the poor population grew too large. The police called on the gambler's of Denver to help with feeding the poor and Soapy's name was always at the top of the list and rarely did he let them down. Jefferson had become so well known as a charitable man in Denver that Parson Tom Uzzell of the People's Tabernacle church often sought Jefferson's assistance, even knowing of Soapy's criminal occupation. While giving a tour of the city one day, the parson and his entourage came across Soapy. The good parson introduced Soapy as "The most infamous confidence man in American...and my friend." (

Smith's built three criminal empires. The first was in Denver, Colorado. When he and the Soap Gang were kicked out of Denver, they set up in the mining town of Creede, Colorado, which Smith pretty much took over. Once again, Soapy Smith's influence wasn't all bad.
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. (

With the Klondike Gold Rush, Smith and company moved to Skagway where he set up his last, and possibly most colorful criminal empire. This is where I learn of Soapy Smith, first while touring the sites and later in connection with Vicki Delany's historical crime novel Gold Mountain (no relation to my short story of the same name).

Next month: The Slippery Slope of Soap


Kat Flannery said...

Great post, Ali!! I had never heard of Jefferson Smith or "Soapy". I find these stories fascinating and I'm looking forward to next months post. :)

Unknown said...

You always manage the most interesting posts and today was not a disappointment. Thanks for being part of this magnificent group.

Alison E. Bruce said...

Thank you Kat and Ginger. I love this blog because it give my Research Junkie side a place to unload. :)

My kids love it too. It saves them a few history lectures. ;)

Melodie Campbell said...

You always find the most colourful characters! Great post, Ali. I learn something new every time.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Interesting post, Alison. I had heard of Soapy Smith, but didn't know anything about him.

Ciara Gold said...

I really enjoyed this post. What a fun character.

Jeff Smith said...

Wonderful telling of Soapy's early days!

Jeff Smith