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SOAPY SMITH—19TH-CENTURY CON MAN, GANGSTER, POLITICAL BOSS PART 2

SOAPY SMITH CAME a long way from practicing the prize soap racket: He put politicos on the take and didn’t have to move around so much. Until, that is, the politicos got reform-minded (or perhaps raised their prices unreasonably).

Boomtown Relocation. In 1892, Soapy and his gang moved operations from Denver to Creede, a silver boomtown about 260 miles to its southwest. They took along Denver prostitutes to help their operation.

Soapy Smith and associate. Image from pinterest.com Collection by Nancy Mayr, Smith’s great granddaughter.

In time, Soapy became camp boss of Creede, with his brother-in-law a deputy sheriff. (It’s unclear to me whether a brother-in-law became deputy, or whether a deputy joined the family.) Either way, Creede was Soapy’s second empire.

Wikipedia notes that “Smith provided an order of sorts, protecting his friends and associates from the town’s council and expelling violent troublemakers…. 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.”

McGinty the Petrified Man. Wanna see a petrified man? It’ll cost only one thin dime; the line forms here. And, while waiting in line, why not try your luck at a shell game or three-card monte?

Business was good in Creede until most of its business district was destroyed by fire on June 5, 1892.

The Great Creede Fire of ’92. Soapy owned the Orleans Club. Image from affotd.com.

Another Good Con. Soapy decided to give Denver another try, this time with McGinty in tow. [Ed: Reword?]

In 1894, Smith got (bought?) himself a commission as deputy sheriff. Later when the governor ordered closure of Denver’s less salubrious establishments, Smith used his deputy sheriff badge to good effect: He’d raid his own places and threaten those who had lost on rigged gaming.

Wikipedia says, “The victims were happy to leave when the ‘officers’ allowed them to walk away from the crime scene—without recouping their losses—rather than be arrested.”

There’s Gold in That Thar Gaming. Smith’s first attempt to exploit the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush was unsuccessful when the Skagway miners’ committees objected to his three-card monte and shell games. He returned a year later, put the town’s deputy marshal on his payroll, and got to business.

This and the following image from Wikipedia.

One con was particularly outrageous, albeit relatively short-term: Smith opened a fake telegraph office, the wires of which ended at the office wall. For awhile, the place got fees for “sending” messages. It also provided a venue for friendly games of poker while awaiting responses.

Skagway didn’t get real telegraphy until 1901. By then, Soapy Smith had been in a local grave for three years. He was shot dead on July 8, 1898, by a member of a vigilance committee in the Shootout on Juneau Wharf.

July 15, 1898.

Soapy’s Heritage. In Skagway, an annual Soapy Smith Wake is celebrated each July 8.

In the 1941 movie Honky Tonk, Clark Gable’s character was to be named Soapy until Smith descendants pressured a name change to “Candy Johnson.” I wonder what the Johnsons felt.

Image from alaskapublic.org.

Last, Wikipedia notes that in the 2020 movie The Call of the Wild, “an extra bearing a striking resemblance to Smith can be seen in an Alaskan saloon in a dark suit and wide-brimmed white hat.”

My advice: Be wary of buying soap from this person or playing his three-card monte. On the other hand, each would have its entertaining moments. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2020

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