On the evening of July 8, 1898, a blazing flash of gun fire illuminated the summer night’s sky and sent the townsfolk of Skagway, Alaska into a panic. That night, a fire fight raged for a few moments between vigilantes and con men on the wooden planks of the Juneau Wharf. At the end of the shootout, the Wild West’s most famous confidence man collected his final reward in a haze of gun smoke and a pool of blood.
That confidence man was Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith II a con artist, swindler and all around bad man. Smith derived his nickname "Soapy" from his prize packaged soap racket that he and his gang started in the late 1870's or early 1880's.
On a busy street corner, Smith piled ordinary soap cakes onto a display case and tripod, Smith 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 wrapped plain paper around each bar to hide the money. Smith 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. Through slight-of-hand, Smith ensured the "money" bars only went to members of his gang. 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 would then auction off the remaining soap bars to the highest bidders. Smith operated this swindler’s scheme and others just like it throughout Colorado and eventually in Skagway, Alaska where his life came to a brutal end.
Luckily, the Denver Public Library helps keep the memory of this rascally outlaw alive with various collections. Experience the voice of 106 year-old Roy D. White’s oral history recording (OH97) as he discusses his acquaintance with Soapy Smith, a detailed description of the infamous soap swindle, and the opportunity he never took to join Soapy’s racket. White also reminisces about Soapy’s schemes in Skagway and the supposed criminal turf war that lead to Soapy’s ultimate demise at the hands of Frank H. Reid. Browse the libraries digital collections at http://digital.denverlibrary.org/ for wonderful photos of Soapy. And check out the books: Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel by Jeff Smith and That Fiend in Hell: Soapy Smith in Legend by Catherine Holder Spude.
Take it all in and decide for yourself, is Soapy Smith truly the baddest man in Wild West lore?