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.
Through manipulation and sleight-of-hand, the cakes of soap wrapped with money were hidden and replaced with packages holding no cash. It was assured that the only money "won" went to members of what became known as the "Soap Gang."
Smith quickly became known as "Soapy Smith" all across the western United States. He used this swindle for twenty years with great success. The soap sell, along with other scams, helped finance Soapy's criminal operations by paying graft to police, judges, and politicians. He was able to build three major criminal empires: the first in Denver, Colorado (1886-1895), the second in Creede, Colorado (1892), and the third in Skagway, Alaska (1897-1898).
Smith opened an office in the prominent Chever block, a block away from his Tivoli Club, from which he ran his many operations. This also fronted as a business tycoon's office for high-end swindles.
Soapy was not without enemies and rivals for his position as the underworld king. He faced several assassination attempts and shot several of his assailants. He became increasingly known for his gambling addiction, his bad temper and heavy drinking.
As dishonest as Smith was, he was also generous to charities, donating to numerous organizations and non-denominational churches that helped the poor.
With brother-in-law and gang member William Sidney "Cap" Light as deputy sheriff, Soapy began his second empire, opening a gambling hall and saloon called the Orleans Club. He purchased and briefly exhibited a petrified man nicknamed "McGinty" for an admission of 10 cents. While customers were waiting in line to pay their dime, Soapy's shell and three-card monte games were winning dollars out of their pockets.
Smith provided an order of sorts, protecting his friends and associates from the town's council and expelling violent troublemakers. Many of the influential newcomers were sent to meet him. Soapy grew rich in the process, but again was known to give money away freely, using it to build churches, help the poor, and to bury unfortunate prostitutes.
Creede's boom very quickly waned and the corrupt Denver officials sent word that the reforms there were coming to an end. Soapy took McGinty back to Denver. He left at the right time, as Creede soon lost most of its business district in a huge fire on 5 June 1892. Amongst the buildings lost was the Orleans Club.
Colorado's new governor David H. Waite, elected on a Populist Party reform platform, fired three Denver officials he felt were the main instigators of corruption in City Hall, calling out the state militia to assist. The troops brought with them two cannon and two Gatling guns. Soapy, called to assist the corrupt officeholders and police, was commissioned as a deputy sheriff and with some of his men climbed to the top of City Hall's central tower with rifles and dynamite to fend off any attackers. Cooler heads prevailed, however, and the battle over corruption would be fought in the courts, not on the streets. Soapy Smith would be a key witness on the stand.
Governor Waite agreed to withdraw the militia and allow the Colorado Supreme Court to decide the case. The court ruled that the governor had authority to replace the commissioners, but he was reprimanded for bringing in the militia, in what became known as the "City Hall War."
Waite began cleaning up Denver and ordered the closure of all gambling dens, saloons and houses of ill repute. Soapy exploited the situation, using the recently acquired deputy sheriff's commissions to stage fake arrests in his own gambling houses, apprehending patrons who had lost large sums in rigged poker games. The victims were happy to leave when the "officers" allowed them to walk away from the crime scene rather than face arrest, naturally without recouping their losses.
Eventually, Soapy and his brother Bascomb became too well known, and even the most corrupt city officials could no longer protect them. Their influence and Denver-based empire began to crumble. When they were charged with attempted murder in the beating of a saloon manager, Bascomb was jailed, but Soapy managed to escape, becoming a wanted man in Colorado. Lou Blonger and his brother Sam, rivals of the Soap Gang, took over control as kingpins of the Denver criminal underworld.
Before leaving, Soapy tried to pull off a swindle started in Mexico, where he tried to convince President Porfirio Diaz that his country needed the services of a foreign legion made up of American toughs. Soapy became known as Colonel Smith, and managed to organize a recruiting office before the deal collapsed.
Smith's men played a variety of roles, such as newspaper reporter or clergyman, with the intention of befriending a new arrival and determining the best way to rid him of his money. The new arrival would be steered by his "friends" to crooked shipping companies, hotels, or gambling dens, until he was wiped out. If the man was likely to make trouble or could not be recruited into the gang, Soapy himself would then appear and offer to pay his way back to civilization.
When a group of vigilantes, the "Committee of 101", threatened to drive out Soapy and his gang, he formed his own "law and order society," which claimed 317 members, to force the vigilantes into submission.
During the Spanish-American War in 1898, Smith formed his own volunteer army with the approval of the U.S. War Department. Called the "Skaguay Military Company," it had Soapy as its captain. Smith wrote to President William McKinley and gained official recognition for his company, which he used to strengthen his grip on the town.
On 7 July 1898, John Douglas Stewart, a returning Klondike miner, came to Skagway with a sack of gold valued at $2,700. Three gang members convinced the miner to participate in a game of three-card monte. When Stewart balked at having to pay his losses, the three men grabbed the sack and ran. The "Committee of 101" demanded that Soapy return the gold, but he refused, claiming that Stewart had lost it "fairly".
On the evening of 8 July 1898, the vigilantes organized a meeting on the Juneau Company wharf. With a Winchester rifle draped over his shoulder, Soapy began an argument with Frank Reid, one of four guards blocking his way to the wharf. A gunfight unexpectedly began and both men were fatally wounded.
Soapy's last words were "My God, don't shoot! Letters from J. M. Tanner, one of the guards with Reid that night, show that another guard fired the fatal shot. Soapy died on the spot with a bullet to the heart. He also received a bullet in his left leg and a severe wound on the left arm by the elbow. Reid died 12 days later with a bullet in his groin and leg. His tombstone bears the epitaph "He died for the honor of Skagway." The three gang members who robbed Stewart received jail sentences, and the rest were dispersed.
Soapy Smith was buried several yards outside the city cemetery. Every year on 8 July, wakes are held around the United States in Soapy's honor. His grave and saloon are on most tour itineraries of Skagway.
SOAPY SMITH'S TO BECOME OFFICES LARIMER ASSOCIATES PLANS RENOVATION, ADDITION TO BUILDING CONSTRUCTED IN 1880S.(Business)
Oct 21, 2000; Byline: John Rebchook News Real Estate Editor Larimer Square Associates Inc. is converting the former Soapy Smith's Eagle Bar at...