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THESE DAYS, IT’S COMFORTING to learn that our country has survived earlier crooked politicians, gangsters, and conmen. Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith II is just such a character. Jeff practiced classic cons and perfected several of his own in late-19th-century Colorado and the Klondike. Here, in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow, are tidbits on this “king of frontier con men” and his heritage that continues to this day.
Jefferson Randolph Smith II was Georgia-born; his grandfather, a plantation owner and Georgia legislator; his father, an attorney. Left in financial ruin after the Civil War, the family moved to Round Rock, Texas. Jeff ran away from home at age 17, already adept at three-card monte and the shell game. His claim to fame, and his nickname “Soapy” as well, came from a team endeavor he perfected.
The Prize Soap Racket. Jeff’s prize soap racket began as an itinerant con. He would set up a display to sell soap at a town’s street corner, with shills attracting a crowd. He’d wrap bills, ranging from $1 to $100, around selected bars of soap. Then he’d wrap all the bars, prize ones and otherwise, in plain paper and sell each for $1.
One of the prize soaps would be “bought” by a shill who would proudly wave the money around. Sales would increase, with other bills appearing. However, through Jeff’s manipulation and slight-of-hand, only the shills would be lucky.
Once the soap supply diminished, Smith would remind the crowd that the soap wrapped with the $100 bill had yet to be sold. He’d then turn things into an auction, with highest bidders getting the remaining soap bars. A shill walked away, temporarily, of course, with the Benjamin.
According to Wikipedia, “On one occasion, Smith was arrested by policeman John Holland for running the prize soap racket. While writing in the police logbook, Holland had forgotten Smith’s first name and wrote ‘Soapy.’ ”
Why Travel? With a scam this good, why be an itinerant con? Instead, settle down by including the local police and politicos in on the take.
Soapy built his first of three empires in Denver in 1882, four years after his arrival. Bribing the police chief and politicians, he controlled the city’s underworld gambling. Later, Soapy remarked, “I consider bunco steering more honorable than the life led by the average politician.”
Tomorrow in Part 2, Soapy moves up into silver-mining country, and then really up-country to the Klondike. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2020