The Frontierado holiday is this Friday, August 6th. As always the festive occasion is all about the myth of the old west, not the grinding reality. Here’s another seasonal post.
JEFFERSON “SOAPY” SMITH – This figure was one of the closest things to a 20th or 21st Century gangland chief in the 19th Century. Jefferson Randolph Smith II was born on November 2nd of 1860 in Coweto County, GA. In 1876 his family moved to Round Rock, TX, where his mother died of natural causes in 1877.
Jeff was one of the Round Rock citizens who witnessed the Sam Bass Gang’s shootout with Texas Rangers when the gang arrived in town intent on robbing the Williamson County Bank. The date was July 19th, 1878 and Smith would forever after state that he had yelled “I think you got him!” as Rangers Richard Ware and George Herold shot Bass, mortally wounding him.
Shortly after that event Jeff moved to Fort Worth, TX. The story goes that Smith had begun working at confidence games to make money when he was 16 and in Fort Worth his savvy and leadership qualities let him gather around him a gang of talented and experienced crooks and con artists. The group traveled from town to town running rigged poker games plus 3-card Monte, the shell game and similar rapid-fire, uncomplicated cons and ripoffs.
Jeff was soon on his way to earning a name as a crime boss, with his gang being called the Soap Gang and Smith himself being tagged with the nickname Soapy. The soap references came from one of the gang’s favorite grifts.
Smith would pick a public place to grandly wrap up bars of soap, some with obvious paper currency as part of the wrapping. In a sort of “raffle” fashion, Soapy would begin selling the bars of soap to passersby who were motivated by hopes of buying one of the bars that had been wrapped with dollars. A secret accomplice of Smith would make a point of unwrapping a bar and proudly waving the money they had “won” inside the bar.
Naturally this excitement would help spur an immediate rush on buying the remaining bars of soap. Through skilled misdirection only fellow gang members of Soapy’s would wind up with the money-wrapped bars. At one point Smith would announce that the bar with $100.00 wrapped around it was still in the rapidly shrinking pile and “the only fair thing to do” now was to auction off the remaining bars of soap.
After getting as high an amount as possible for the bars, yet another secret accomplice of Soapy’s would grandly unwrap the bar with the hundred dollar bill, following which all participants would leave, disappointed but assuming they had taken part in a fair game.
Among the big names in Soapy Smith’s gang were legendary outlaw & con man Big Ed Burns and Texas Jack Vermillion, who worked both sides of the law in his day, even riding alongside Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Warren Earp, Sherman McMasters and Turkey Creek Jack Johnson during their revenge spree against the Clanton-McLaury Crime Faction.
The year 1879 saw Soapy arrive in Denver, CO where, over the next 3 years, he built a criminal empire larger even than the one built by the Canada Bill Gang in Nebraska. Smith grew to have most Denver politicians in his pocket and by 1887 newspapers were openly commenting on his role as the crime boss of the city, as openly in charge of illegal activities as he was in his ownership of Denver officials and lawmen.
In addition to controlling all gambling in the city, Soapy oversaw fake lotteries, prostitution, the fencing of stolen goods, the selling of counterfeit jewels & high-end watches, the dealing in stocks for nonexistent companies, the bribing of deputies and the killing of anyone who did not cooperate with his gang.
During 1888 Smith opened the plush Tivoli Club on the corner of Market and 17th Street. This combination saloon and gambling hall also included a “front” business run by Soapy’s brother Bascomb – a cigar shop.
In 1889 an election fraud scandal erupted in Denver, focusing even more unwelcome attention on Soapy and his men. The newspapers this time went all in on the (well-deserved) cynical disdain, sarcastically referring to the Unholy Trinity of Smith, the Mayor and the Chief of Police as “the firm of Londoner, Farley and Smith.” Though the Mayor was driven out of office in the scandal’s fallout, Jefferson Smith weathered the storm.
To mark his continuing legal invincibility, Soapy opened new office space in Denver’s lush Cheever area. Always efficient in his use of resources, Smith even used his office space in that reputable part of town as cover for some Big Cons against very wealthy marks.
All through these years, Smith had, as mentioned above, been bumping people off and frequently surviving attempts on his own life by criminal rivals. He often gunned down would-be assassins and other foes personally, since it was, after all, still the old west. The modern custom of crime bosses being miles away when any killing was done had not yet been established.
By 1892 the Denver voters were thoroughly sick of the open corruption and slates of reform candidates in various offices had been winning out over Soapy’s pocket politicians. The canny crime boss sold many of his Denver properties and moved to Creede, CO, a boom town which was still in its early stages following huge silver finds.
Smith schmoozed and wooed property owners and nouveau riche prospectors by showering them with his finest prostitutes from Denver. He acquired multiple lots along Main Street in Creede and rented the spaces out to criminal associates as well as to businessmen and politicians who became his new Royal Court.
William “Cap” Light, Soapy’s brother in law, was installed as a Deputy Sheriff and Smith established himself and his gang as the de facto government in Creede. He oversaw his new empire from The Orleans, his new saloon and casino.
It wasn’t long before the boom in Creede turned to bust as the mines became played out. Back in Denver, voters had – as usual – proclaimed premature victory over graft by temporarily voting out corrupt office-holders, then went back to ignoring politics. This allowed corrupt politicians to claw their way back up the ladder.
With Creede dying unexpectedly soon, Jefferson Smith moved back to Denver and began reestablishing his power base. Soon he was even more of a proto-Al Capone and sometimes condescended to talk to the newspapers himself, once proclaiming “I consider bunco steering more honorable than the life led by the average politician.”
Davis Hanson Waite took office in 1894 as Colorado’s new governor and began doing all he could to impose reforms on Denver by using his higher office to clean house. When he tried removing 3 of Soapy’s pocket politicians as part of his anti-corruption crusade, the City Hall War broke out.
The trio of Smith’s cronies plus several more of his loyalists in the Denver government barricaded themselves in City Hall, joined by Soapy himself, who was appointed a Deputy Sheriff. Smith and his men were armed with rifles, pistols and dynamite, with Jeff among the men openly wielding a rifle from atop City Hall’s central tower against the besieging Colorado State Militia. The militia had brought with them 2 cannons and a Gatling Gun.
Ultimately, Governor Waite backed down, dispersed the militia and took the issue of his firing of Denver office-holders through the courts. In the end the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the governor was within his power to replace the 3 City Commissioners, so he did.
Other anti-corruption forces woke up and built on that victory by clamping down on crime in Denver. The slippery Soapy cunningly held on to his Deputy Sheriff position, and he and his fellow gang member (and fellow Deputy Sheriff), his brother Bascomb, pretended to be part of the “cleanup” effort in the city, playing the whole situation to their advantage.
As time rolled along, Soapy’s pocket men were once again all being replaced one by one with more honest politicians. Soapy began casting about for a new place to start over. His hand was forced when he and Bascomb were charged with the attempted murder of a saloon manager who refused to play ball with the “deputies.” Bascomb was arrested but Jeff managed to flee Colorado with warrants hanging over his head.
Needing to get as far away as possible the brazen grifter tried running a con against Mexico’s on-again, off-again dictator Porfirio Diaz. Soapy was lulling Diaz along by trying to get him to buy into financing an American Legion consisting of Smith and a selected “army” of his tough guys, claiming such hardened fighters were needed to help KEEP Diaz in power this time.
Unknown parties tipped off Porfirio that Soapy was likely going to run off with whatever money that Diaz gave him to launch this American Legion. With this VERY high-profile mark shrewdly backing away from involvement with Soapy, he instead fled to Alaska in 1897 as the Klondike Gold Rush raged.
History repeated itself as Smith eventually built up another criminal organization centered around Skagway and Dyea, AK, but not without substantial difficulty this time. Shortly after this first attempt to keep his gambling, shell games and 3 Card Monte cons going up north, armed miners and others united to make it clear to Soapy and his men that they were not welcome. Smith returned to the U.S. for a time.
By late January of 1898 Soapy and some loyal followers were back in Skagway, where he bought the town’s Marshal and then tried duplicating the empire-building efforts that had worked back in Denver and Creede. As a new wrinkle, Jeff Smith and company opened a fake telegraph office in Skagway, charging fees to send messages along their telegraph lines … which, unknown to their victims, didn’t really run anywhere.
March of 1898 found Soapy opening a saloon called Jeff Smith’s Parlor, and, as he built up his powerbase, the establishment quickly became known as Skagway’s “REAL City Hall.”
A large vigilante group called the Committee of 101 violently opposed Smith’s attempts at carving out a new criminal kingdom for himself. Soapy built up his own gang of 317 men against the vigilantes, but, instead of fighting rival gangsters like he was used to doing, this time Smith was up against armed men who could not be intimidated OR bought.
Though Soapy and his closest men, like Policy Bob, remained rock-solid throughout this conflict, many of the rank and file of his criminal gang grew intimidated by the Committee of 101 and skipped town, preferring to pursue their dishonest trades elsewhere in Alaska or back in the Continental United States.
With the Spanish-American War raging, the disgracefully dishonest Smith used it as an excuse to launch one of his ballsiest cons. He renamed his remaining underlings the Skaguay (sic) Military Company and appointed himself its Captain, claiming he had War Department authorization for this and therefore he and his men were entitled to be armed.
While Smith’s enemies were waiting for slow word back from Washington to verify the claim – Soapy even wrote personally to President William McKinley, hoping he’d back him up on this – Smith tried to swiftly win the war of violent influence in Skagway before his bluff could be called.
The vigilantes of the Committee of 101 weren’t easily bluffed, however, and Smith was saved only by the fact that President McKinley, presumably unfamiliar with Soapy’s notoriety, okayed his Skaguay Military Company.
With the Commander in Chief cluelessly backing Smith’s latest con, it seemed he might be able to bilk money from the War Department while building upon his Skagway foothold, stalling his unit’s departure for the front through every trick his fertile mind could come up with.
Fate took a hand instead. A prospector named John Douglas Stewart lost his new fortune of $2,700 (worth much more today, of course) to Soapy’s 3-card Monte con artists and wanted it back. The Committee of 101 backed the aggrieved prospector and demanded that Smith return the man’s money. Soapy refused.
Everything came to a head on July 8th in the Shootout on Juneau Wharf, where a firefight between Soapy & some of his men and 4 of the vigilantes ended with the gangster being shot to death. Frank Reid or Jesse Murphy may have fired the fatal shots on Smith, who caught bullets through the heart, left leg and left arm.
Reid died 12 days later from the bullet wounds Jeff Smith had given him in his groin and right leg. With Soapy’s power now broken via his death, the 3 accused con artists of his in the John Douglas Stewart case got jail sentences.
Jefferson R Smith II was buried several yards away from the Skagway cemetery. Many books have been written about him yet he is still largely unknown to the general public.
FOR MORE KLONDIKE GOLD RUSH FIGURES LIKE THE MONTANA KID, KLONDIKE KATE, SWIFTWATER BILL AND OTHERS CLICK HERE.
FOR DANITES: GUN-SLINGING “KNIGHTS” OF THE OLD WEST CLICK HERE.
FOR THE WILD TIMES IN LAS VEGAS, NM CLICK HERE.
FOR THE WILD TIMES IN SIDNEY, NE CLICK HERE.