110 Years ago, on July 8, 1898, con man and onetime Denver crime boss Jefferson Randall “Soapy” Smith was killed by vigilantes (sort of) in Skagway, Alaska.
Jefferson Smith, who shares a name with Jimmy Stewart’s character in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, is one of the most famous con men of the old west. He started his career in organized crime in Ft. Worth, Texas and spent more than 20 years as the leader of a group of swindlers, the “Soap Gang,” which included several other famous con men of the time. He really gained prominence in Denver with his ingenious soap scam — as related by Wikipedia:
“Smith would open his “tripe and keister” (display case on a tripod) on a busy street corner. Piling ordinary soap cakes onto the keister top, he 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 then finished each bar by wrapping plain paper around it to hide the money. He 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. This performance had the desired effect of enticing the sale of the packages. 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 then would auction off the remaining soap bars to the highest bidders.”
He became the de facto crime boss of Denver from 1886-1895: “Newspapers in Denver reported that he was in complete control of the city’s crime and gambling underworld and accused corrupt politicians and the police chief of being on his payroll,” says the Wik. Smith later built crime organizations in Creede, Colorado and in Skagway. It was in that latter town that Smith ran afoul of a meeting of vigilantes gearing up to confront him; trying to enter the meeting with a Winchester rifle, Soapy got himself shot in the scuffle. The Skagway News reported that his last words were “My God, don’t shoot!” which, you know, seems pretty sensible even if it ain’t exactly poetry.
Every year, wakes are held throughout the U.S. in Smith’s honor. One legend states that the motto “caveat emptor” — “let the buyer beware” — was over the door of Smith’s Tivoly Club in Denver.
Information & image from Wikipedia.