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Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith II (November 2, 1860 – July 8, 1898) was an American con artist and gangster in the American frontier.

Soapy Smith
Soapy Smith 1898c.jpg
Smith at bar in Skagway, Alaska, 1898
Jefferson Randolph Smith II

November 2, 1860
DiedJuly 8, 1898(1898-07-08) (aged 37)
Cause of deathGunshot wounds
OccupationCon artist, gangster, gambler, saloon proprietor, political boss
Spouse(s)Mary Eva Noonan
ChildrenJefferson Randolph Smith III, Mary Eva Smith, James Luther Smith
Parent(s)Jefferson Randolph Smith I
Emily Dawson Edmondson

Smith operated confidence schemes across the Western United States, and had a large hand in organized criminal operations in both Colorado and the District of Alaska. Smith gained notoriety through his "prize soap racket," in which he'd sell bars of soap with prize money hidden in some of the bars' packaging in order to increase sales. However, through sleight-of-hand, he'd ensure that only members of his gang purchased "prize" soap. The racket led to his sobriquet of "Soapy."

The success of his soap racket and other scams helped him finance three successive criminal empires in Denver, Creede and Skagway, respectively. He was killed in the shootout on Juneau Wharf in Skagway, on July 8, 1898.

Early yearsEdit

Jefferson Smith was born on November 2, 1860, in Coweta County, Georgia, to a wealthy family. His grandfather was a plantation owner and Georgia legislator, while his father was an attorney.[1][2] However, the Smith family was met with financial ruin at the close of the American Civil War and in 1876, they moved to Round Rock, Texas, to start anew. It was in Round Rock where Smith began his career as a confidence man.[3] In 1877, Smith's mother died and he left home shortly thereafter, but not before witnessing the death of the outlaw Sam Bass in 1878.[1]


Smith moved to Fort Worth, where he formed a close-knit, disciplined gang of shills and thieves to work for him. He quickly became a well-known crime boss, and eventually, the "king of the frontier con men."[4] His gang of swindlers, known as the Soap Gang, included men such as Texas Jack Vermillion and "Big Ed" Burns, and they moved from town to town plying their trade on unwary victims.[4][5] Their principal method was short cons, in which swindles were quick and needed little setup and assistance. The short cons included the shell game, three-card monte, and rigged poker games, which they called "big mitt."[6]

Prize soap racketEdit

Smith's most well-known short con was a ploy the Denver newspapers dubbed the "prize soap racket."[7] Smith would setup a display case, piled with bars of soap, on a busy street corner. As he sold the bars of soap and spoke to a growing crowd of onlookers, he would wrap money—ranging from one to a hundred dollars—around a few select bars of soap. He then wrapped plain paper around all the bars so that the money was hidden.

He then made the appearance of mixing the money-wrapped "prize soap" in with the regular soap and sold the soap to the crowd for one dollar per bar. Then, a shill 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. The performance led to the sale of even more bars of soap. Midway through the sale, Smith would announce that the hundred-dollar bill still remained in the pile. He would then auction off the remaining soap bars to the highest bidders.[8] Through manipulation and sleight-of-hand, the only money "won" went to his shills.[9]

On one occasion, Smith was arrested by policeman John Holland for running his prize soap racket. While writing in the police logbook, Holland had forgotten Smith's first name and wrote "Soapy."[10] The sobriquet stuck, and he became known as "Soapy Smith."


In 1879, Smith arrived in Denver for the first time and by 1882, he had successfully built the first of his three empires. Con men usually moved from town to town to avoid the law, but as Smith's power and gang grew, so did his influence at city hall, which allowed him to remain in the city, protected from prosecution. By 1887, he was reputedly involved with most of the criminal activities in the city. Newspapers in Denver reported that he controlled the city's criminals and underworld gambling, and accused corrupt politicians and the police chief of accepting bribes.[11]

Tivoli ClubEdit

In 1888, Smith opened the Tivoli Club—a combination saloon and gambling house—on the southeast corner of Market and 17th Street. Allegedly, a sign above the entrance to the gambling games read "caveat emptor," Latin for "let the buyer beware."[12] Smith's younger brother, Bascomb Smith, joined the gang and operated a cigar store that was a front for dishonest poker games and other swindles, which operated in one of the back rooms.[13] Other operations included fraudulent lottery shops, a "sure thing" stock exchange, fake watch and diamond auctions, and the sale of stocks in nonexistent businesses.

Politics and other consEdit

Due to receiving bribes, some of the police officers patrolling the streets would not arrest Smith or members of his gang, and other officers feared Smith's quick and violent anger. Occasionally, when Smith or one of his men were arrested, their friends, attorneys, and associates were always ready to obtain their quick release from jail. An electoral fraud trial after the municipal elections of 1889 brought attention to the corrupt ties and payoffs between Smith, the mayor, and the chief of police—a combination referred to in local newspapers as "the firm of Londoner, Farley, and Smith."[14] The mayor lost his job, but Smith remained untouched. He opened an office in the prominent Cheever block, one block south of his Tivoli Club, from which he ran his many operations. This also fronted as a business tycoon's office for high-end swindles.[15]

Smith was not without enemies and rivals for his position as the underworld boss. He faced several attempts on his life and shot several of his assailants. He became known increasingly for his gambling and bad temper.[citation needed]


In 1892, with Denver in the midst of anti-gambling and saloon reforms, Smith sold the Tivoli and moved to Creede, a mining boomtown that had formed around a major silver strike. Using Denver-based prostitutes to get close to property owners and convince them to sign over leases, he acquired numerous lots along Creede's main street, renting them to his associates.[16] After gaining enough allies, he announced that he was the camp boss.[citation needed]

With brother-in-law and gang member William Sidney "Cap" Light as a deputy sheriff, Smith began his second empire, opening a gambling hall and saloon called the Orleans Club.[17] He purchased and briefly exhibited a petrified man nicknamed "McGinty" for an admission of 10 cents. While customers were waiting in line, Smith ran shell and three-card monte games to swindle even more money.[18]

Smith provided an order of sorts, protecting his friends and associates from the town's council and expelling violent troublemakers. Many of the influential newcomers were sent to meet him. Smith grew rich in the process but was also known to give money away freely, using it to build churches, help the poor, and to bury unfortunate prostitutes.[citation needed]

Creede's boom very quickly waned and corrupt Denver officials sent word that the reforms in Denver were coming to an end. Smith took McGinty back to Denver. He left at the right time, as Creede soon lost most of its business district in a huge fire on June 5, 1892. Among the buildings destroyed was the Orleans Club.[19]

Return to DenverEdit

On his return to Denver, Smith opened new businesses that were nothing more than fronts for his many short cons. One of these sold discounted railroad tickets to various destinations. Potential purchasers were told that the ticket agent was out of the office, but would soon return, and then offered an even bigger discount by playing any of several rigged games.[20] Smith's power grew to the point that he admitted to the press that he was a con man and saw nothing wrong with it. In 1896, he told a newspaper reporter, "I consider bunco steering more honorable than the life led by the average politician."[21]

Colorado's new governor, Davis Hanson Waite, elected on a Populist Party reform platform, fired three Denver officials he felt were not abiding by his new mandates. They refused to leave their positions and were quickly joined by others who felt their jobs were threatened. The governor called out the state militia to assist removing those fortified in city hall. The military brought with them two cannons and two Gatling guns. Smith joined the corrupt officeholders and police at the hall and found himself commissioned as a deputy sheriff. He and several of his men climbed to the top of the city hall's central tower with rifles and dynamite to fend off any attackers.[22] Cooler heads prevailed, however, and the struggle over corruption was instead fought in the courts, in which Soapy Smith was an important witness.

Governor Waite agreed to withdraw the militia and allow the Colorado Supreme Court to decide the case. The court ruled that the governor had authority to replace the commissioners, but he was reprimanded for bringing in the militia, in what became known as the "City Hall War."[23]

Waite ordered the closure of all Denver's gambling dens, saloons, and bordellos. Smith exploited the situation, using the recently acquired deputy sheriff's commissions to make fake arrests in his own gambling houses, apprehending patrons who had lost large sums in rigged poker games.[24] The victims were happy to leave when the "officers" allowed them to walk away from the crime scene rather than be arrested, naturally without recouping their losses.

Eventually, Soapy and his brother Bascomb Smith became too well known, and even the most corrupt city officials could no longer protect them. Their influence and Denver-based empire began to crumble. When they were charged with attempted murder for the beating of a saloon manager, Bascomb was jailed, but Soapy managed to escape, becoming a wanted man in Colorado. Lou Blonger and his brother Sam, rivals of the Soap Gang, acquired his former control of Denver's criminals.[25]

Before leaving, Smith tried to perform a swindle started in Mexico, where he tried to convince President Porfirio Diaz that his country needed the services of a foreign legion made up of American toughs. Smith became known as Colonel Smith, and managed to organize a recruiting office before the deal failed.[26]

Skagway and the Klondike Gold RushEdit

Jeff. Smith's Parlor
Soap Gang in 1898
2009, before restoration

When the Klondike Gold Rush began in 1897, Smith moved his operations to Dyea[27] and Skagway (then spelled Skaguay). His first attempt at occupying Skaguay ended in failure when miners' committees encouraged him to leave the area after operating his three-card monte and pea-and-shell games on the White Pass Trail for less than a month. He traveled to St. Louis and Washington, D.C., and did not return to Skagway until late January 1898.[28]

Smith set up his third empire much the same way as he had in Denver and Creede.[29] He put the town's deputy U.S. marshal on his payroll and began collecting allies for a takeover.[30] Smith opened a fake telegraph office in which the wires went only as far as the wall. Not only did the telegraph office obtain fees for "sending" messages, but also cash-laden victims soon found themselves losing even more money in poker games with newfound "friends".[31] Telegraph lines did not reach or leave Skagway until 1901.[32] Smith opened a saloon named Jeff Smith's Parlor in March 1898 as an office from which to run his operations.[33][34] Although Skagway already had a municipal building, Smith's saloon became known as "the real city hall". Skagway was gaining a reputation as a "hell on earth", with many perils for the unwary.

Smith's men played a variety of roles, such as newspaper reporter or clergyman, with the intention of befriending a new arrival and determining the best way to rid him of his money. The new arrival would be steered by his "friends" to dishonest shipping companies, hotels, or gambling dens until he was wiped out. If the man was likely to make trouble or could not be recruited into the gang, Smith would then appear in person and offer to pay his way back to civilization.[35]

When a vigilance committee, the "Committee of 101", threatened to expel Smith and his gang, he formed his own "law and order society", which claimed 317 members, to force the vigilantes into submission.[36] Most of the petty gamblers and con men did indeed leave Skagway at this time, and Smith resorted to other means to appear respectable to the community.[37]

During the Spanish–American War in 1898, Smith formed his own volunteer army with the approval of the United States Department of War, known as the "Skaguay Military Company", with himself as to its captain. Smith wrote to President William McKinley and gained official recognition for his company, which he used to strengthen his control of the town.[38]

On July 4, 1898, Smith rode as marshal of the Fourth Division of the parade leading his army on his gray horse. On the grandstand, he sat beside the territorial governor and other officials.


Newspaper headline of the fight
Autopsy of Soapy Smith

On July 7, 1898, John Douglas Stewart, a returning Klondike miner, came to Skagway with a sack of gold valued at $2,700 ($82,620 in 2017 dollars[39]). Three gang members convinced the miner to participate in a game of three-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 Smith return the gold, but he refused, claiming that Stewart had lost it "fairly".

On the evening of July 8, the vigilance committee organized a meeting on the Juneau wharf. With a Winchester rifle draped over his shoulder, Smith began an argument with Frank H. Reid, one of four guards blocking his way to the wharf. A gunfight, known as the Shootout on Juneau Wharf, began unexpectedly, and both men were fatally wounded.

Smith's last words were "My God, don't shoot!"[40] A letter from Sam Steele, the legendary head of the Canadian Mounties at the time, indicates that another guard, Jesse Murphy, may have fired the fatal shot.[41] Smith died on the spot with a bullet to the heart. He also received a bullet in his left leg and a severe wound on the left arm by the elbow. Reid died 12 days later with a bullet in his leg and groin area. The three gang members who robbed Stewart received jail sentences.

Soapy Smith was buried several yards outside the city cemetery. Due to the way Smith's legend has grown, every year on July 8, wakes are held around the United States in his honor.[42] His grave and saloon are on most tour itineraries of Skagway.

Soapy Smith's fameEdit

Smith's fame began in 1889 in Denver when he assaulted editor John Arkins of the Denver Rocky Mountain News. The newspaper had declared war on Smith and the Soap Gang, sending articles and warnings about the bunco gang all across the U.S. Smith's fame continued to grow right up to and beyond the day he died. The story told in the Skagway News on July 9, 1898, and newspapers throughout the country was that one brave man had sacrificed himself to slay a vicious con man – the conking of Skagway – so Skagway could be freed of all crime.[43]

By 1907, ten years after the founding of Skagway, aspiring politician Chris Shea authored a booklet using photographs taken by Sinclair and professional Skagway photographers Theodore Peiser and Case and Draper. He called it, after a collage of photographs, "The Soapy Smith Tragedy". This booklet was the first book published on Smith.[44]

By the 1950s, Smith had become a sort of a Robin Hood figure, who took from the miners and gave to the poor widows, orphans, dogs, and criminals who lived by their wits. Smith, the antihero, was a loyal friend who stood by his men, outwitted stuffy reformers and conventional citizens, and lives on as the rascally King of the Con Men.[45]

Legacy and portrayalsEdit

Soapy Smith's grave


  • Skagway, Alaska – July 8 is the annual (since 1974) Soapy Smith Wake, which is held at the Eagles Hall. This event used to take place at Soapy's graveside in the city cemetery but is now held in the downtown area.
  • Magic Castle, Hollywood – July 8 is the annual Soapy Smith Party, complete with costume contests, charity gambling, and magic shows.



By the year of release:


  • In The Alaskans (1959–1960), John Dehner portrayed Soapy. In one episode, "Remember the Maine", the story of the Skaguay Military Company is dramatized.
  • In Alias Smith and Jones (1971–1972), Sam Jaffe portrayed Soapy Smith in three episodes: "The Great Shell Game" (aired February 18, 1971), "A Fistful of Diamonds" (March 4, 1971), and "Bad Night in Big Butte" (March 2, 1972).
  • "The Saga of Soapy Smith" (1968) is an episode of Bill Burrud's Treasure!.
  • In The Country Mouse and the City Mouse Adventures episode "The Klondike Mice" (1998), Soapy Smith is one of the villains.
  • In Deadwood (2004–2006), Gill Gayle plays the Huckster, a prize soap package salesman based on Soapy, in all three seasons.[citation needed]
  • In Klondike (2014), Ian Hart portrays Soapy Smith. The series depicts Smith operating in Dawson City in 1897 as opposed to Skagway and instead of dying in a shootout, he is stabbed to death by a Tlingit.
  • In An Klondike (2015–2017), Michael Glenn Murphy portrays Soapy Smith. Smith's nationality was changed to English in the series, which depicts him as operating in the fictional town of Dominion Creek.

Theatrical portrayals and re-enactmentsEdit

  • The Days of 98 Show with Soapy Smith[47] – since 1923. Annual live theatrical production in Skagway retelling Soapy's story.


  • The Ballad of Soapy Smith (1983) is a play by Michael Weller featuring Denis Arndt as Soapy.[48]
  • "The Ballad of Soapy Smith" (1965) is a song by Al Oster, Northland Music Company (Call of Alaska, FR-1009).
  • A replica of Jeff Smith's Parlor, Smith's saloon in Skagway, Alaska, is at the White Horse Ranch movie set in Landers, California.
  • Artist Ed Ruscha painted and drew several works with Soapy Smith's name


  1. ^ a b Smith 2009, p. 26.
  2. ^ Smith 2009, p. 20.
  3. ^ Smith 2009, pp. 26-27.
  4. ^ a b Robertson 1961.
  5. ^ Smith 2009, pp. 74-92.
  6. ^ Smith 2009, p. 197.
  7. ^ Smith 2009, p. 40.
  8. ^ Smith 2009, pp. 38-51.
  9. ^ Smith 2009, p. 45.
  10. ^ Smith 2009, p. 52.
  11. ^ Smith 2009, pp. 62-63.
  12. ^ Smith 2009, p. 124.
  13. ^ Smith 2009, p. 89.
  14. ^ Smith 2009, pp. 83-84.
  15. ^ Smith 2009, pp. 138-39.
  16. ^ Rocky Mountain News 02/29/1892, p. 6.
  17. ^ Smith 2009, p. 209.
  18. ^ Smith 2009, pp. 237-43.
  19. ^ Smith 2009, p. 245.
  20. ^ Smith 2009, p. 71.
  21. ^ The Road, 29 February 1896
  22. ^ Denver Times, 23 March 1894
  23. ^ Smith 2009, pp. 294-316.
  24. ^ Smith 2009, p. 321.
  25. ^ Smith 2009, pp. 374-79.
  26. ^ Smith 2009, pp. 361-63.
  27. ^ Smith 2009, pp. 450-51.
  28. ^ Spude 2012, pp. 22-34.
  29. ^ Smith 2009, p. 442.
  30. ^ Smith 2009, p. 510.
  31. ^ Smith 2009, p. 480.
  32. ^ Collier's Weekly, 11/09/1901
  33. ^ Smith 2009, p. 482.
  34. ^ Lyon, Robert (ed.) (2010). Jeff. Smiths Parlor Museum: Historic Structure Report : Skagway and White Pass District National Historic Landmark, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, Skagway, Alaska (PDF). Anchorage, Alaska: U.S. Dept. of the Interior, National Park Service, Alaska Regional Office. Retrieved 8 July 2018.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  35. ^ Pierre Berton, The Klondike Fever, Knopf, 1967, p. 149
  36. ^ Smith 2009, p. 468.
  37. ^ Spude 2012, pp. 35-55.
  38. ^ Smith 2009, pp. 487-90.
  39. ^ "2700 in 1898 dollars - Wolfram-Alpha".
  40. ^ The Skaguay News, 15 July 1898
  41. ^ Archives of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, RG 18-A, Samuel B. Steele Collection, Vol. 154, File 447-98, Letter dated July 11, 1898.
  42. ^ The publicized events are held at the Eagles Hall in Skagway, Alaska (since 1974), The Magic Castle in Hollywood, California (since 2004), and the White Horse Movie Ranch in Laverne, California (since 2006).
  43. ^ Spude 2012, pp. 115-123.
  44. ^ Spude 2012, pp. 126-123.
  45. ^ Spude 2012, pp. 188-196, 213-214.
  46. ^ "You Can't Win".
  47. ^ "The Days of 98 Show - Home".
  48. ^ NY Times review of the play


Further readingEdit

External linksEdit