In his book, Professor Conrad Norcross Addison, historian in residence at the University of Alaska, recounts scores of roundtable conversations in which he participated in the late 1940s, ‘50s, and the early ‘60s. “Name three people you would invite to dinner,” was a favorite topic and mental exercise that frequently turned into a game of one-upmanship among colleagues that sometimes ended in shouting matches and on one occasion, a fist fight.
The topic on the night of the knock-down and drag-out, was a gambler and con artist named Jefferson Randolph Smith. Smith was nominated for discussion by a young, “first-year” assistant professor who was joining the roundtable for the first time. A rather verbose senior professor of Old West history challenged the first timer by asking, “Why would you want to associate with a character of such ilk? There is nothing good about Soapy Smith that can be said.”
Smith earned his nickname – “Soapy” – by pretending to be an itinerant vendor on the street-corners of Denver, Colorado. When a crowd assembled, Smith would make a show of hiding ten or twenty dollar bills under the label of a five-cent bar of soap. When his shills were in place, Smith would continue his act by selling one or two bars of soap for just five dollars to his nameless conspirators. Naturally they would open the wrapper and find the bills and hold them up for all to see. With that, the soap was sold to anyone who wanted one.
Selling nickel bars of soap for five dollars was not the only scam Smith worked. Another was found in nearly every Denver barbershop. The sign in the window advertised a shave and haircut for two-bits, but after a customer was lathered up and the barber stood over him with a newly honed razor the price increased to one dollar. It took very little time for Soapy Smith to become a known con man with several rackets found in bars and gambling halls from Colorado to Texas, and later in Alaska.
Smith wasn’t just a kid with wild hair. He was born just before the Civil War (1860) in Georgia into a wealthy family of cotton farmers and lawyers. But, like others of the time the Smith family fortune was gone by the end of the war. In 1876, the family moved to Round Rock, Texas.
In Texas, Smith soon assembled a cadre of thieves and ruffians to help him become the “King of the Frontier Con Men.” By 1879, he moved to Denver to sell soap and later to expand his operations to more complex and profitable frauds. He opened telegraph offices without telegraphs or telegraph operators. He established hauling companies that did not own a horse or a wagon.
By making regular contributions to local charities, Soapy was able to settle down in Denver for a few years, but the Denver newspapers published accounts of crimes and other underworld activities and continually linked their stories to Jefferson “Soapy” Smith. With one enterprise after another, Smith expanded his influence into other Colorado cities and Smith’s wealth increased day-by-day.
Everyone knew Smith’s time in Denver was coming to an end, and it did in 1892 when polite society demanded a clean-up at city hall. Smith had lost most of his charm, his “paid” politicians failed to control elections and could no longer turn blind eyes as they had done for years. and rival gangs of thugs were beginning to challenge his title of local crime boss.
In 1894 Smith ran afoul of Colorado governor David Waite. Waite was elected on a platform of social reform in 1893 and immediately began a cleanup campaign against crime in every form. He fired members of the fire and police boards and when they refused to leave office, he had them arrested. Then it was Smith’s turn to be the governor’s target.
When the gold rush in the Klondike began in 1897, Soapy saw his only way out of Denver was on the road to Skagway, Alaska. When he arrived, Skagway was like other mining towns and it did not take long to claim the title of “boss” of the town. Working from his saloon named Jeff Smith’s Parlor, Soapy’s scams began again in earnest. His saloon soon became known as “the real city hall.”
Notwithstanding, most Skagway citizens were not impressed with Soapy and would not tolerate his heavy drinking and bad temper when it got entirely out of hand.
Soon, several Skagway citizens had had enough of Smith and his gangs. A vigilante group, who called themselves the “Committee of 101,” threatened to drive Smith and his gang out of town. However, Soapy retaliated by forming his own group of more than 300 members. Hoping to force the vigilantes into submission, it worked. For a short time.
In early July 1898 the vigilante group learned that Soapy and a few of his thugs took two-thousand dollars’ worth of gold from a Klondike miner in an illegal Monte game. They demanded the money be returned but Soapy refused. The next night was July 8, 1898, the vigilantes organized a meeting to take action against Smith in Skagway. Soapy decided to attend, arriving with a Winchester rifle draped over his shoulder. When he was barred from entering the meeting, he argued with one of four guards who was blocking his way, a man named Frank Reid.
The argument resulted in a gunfight, and when it was over, both men, Reid and Smith lay dead in the street.
Ray Hahn is a retired educator, but he has never stopped teaching. His decades of researching, writing and editing a newsletter for the South Jersey Postcard Club has been a world-class education in trivia. In addition to postcard collecting, Ray’s other interests include history, genealogy, and touring the world with his wife Marie. Ray often advises his readers to “Join me as we explore the world one postcard at a time.” Ray and Marie live in New Jersey.