The Golden Fleecer

Who the devil was Soapy Smith?

Some would say the devil was Soapy Smith.

He was a swindler, a con artist, a bunco steerer. In the 1880s and ’90s he fleeced rubes from Denver to Skagway, Alaska and at many points in-between. He was dubbed “Soapy” because an early con involved selling overpriced soap by tricking gullible passers-by into believing $50 and $100 bills were wrapped around some of the bars under their paper wrappings. He also knew the pea-under-the-shell game and three-card monte.

Soapy Smith meets his end

Artist’s rendering of Soapy Smith, gunned down by a Skagway vigilante

Here’s how his patter ran, according to authors William Ross Collier and Edwin Victor Westrate in “The Reign of Soapy Smith, Monarch of Misrule”:

“Wake up! The hour has come to face the problems of our country! … One question–the supreme question–before us today is vital to the welfare of the republic! Gentlemen, the all-important question which I propound to you and for which I earnestly seek the answer is this:

How are you fixed for soap?”

When Denver launched a petty-crime crackdown, Soapy and his gang decamped to–and effectively took control of–Creede, a silver-mining boomtown memorialized by its resident poet-and-newspaper-editor, Cy Warman:

Here’s a land where all are equal

Of high or lowly birth

A land where men make millions

Dug from the dreary earth.

Here meek and mild-eyed burros

On mineral mountains feed,

It’s day all day in the day-time

And there is no night in Creede.

Nightless as it may have been, after the sun went down, Soapy and his gang had many ways to flimflam one hapless schmo after another in his saloon, the Orleans Club (where, as Warman noted in verse, “everything was open wide/ and men drank absinthe on the side”). But Soapy had a reputation as a Robin Hood in some quarters, which was referred to, tongue-in-cheek, by the San Francisco Call:

“‘Soapy’ was not altogether bad at heart. He had been known to hand out to a less fortunate man the entire profits derived but a short time previous by knocking some Reuben on the head and ravaging his pockets.”

The journalist Richard Harding Davis went to Creede and had a chance to observe Smith in 1892, leading to this passage in Davis’ book “The West From a Car Window,” illustrated by artist and later, world-famous sculptor Frederic Remington:

“”Soapy” Smith … was a very bad man indeed, and hired at least 12 men to lead the prospector with a little money, or the tenderfoot who had just arrived, up to the numerous tables in his gambling-saloon, where they were robbed in various ways so openly that they deserved to lose all that was taken from them.”

Pickings were rich in Creede until the Silver Panic of ’93 turned many “mushroom towns” of the Colorado Rockies into spores blowing on the winter wind.

Cy Warman versified about that, too:

And now the Faro Bank is closed

And Mr. Faro’s gone away

To seek new fields, it is supposed,

More verdant fields. The gamblers say

The man who worked the shell and ball

Has gone back to the Capitol.

Yes, he was writing about Soapy, who with his minions returned to Denver and had some large-scale misadventures: the governor had to call out the National Guard on Soapy when he was holed up in City Hall with his paid-off bureaucrats; Smith tried to start a sort of Foreign Legion of expatriate U.S. toughs in Mexico; and he planned a takeover of the town of Cripple Creek, which was foiled. Then he lit out for Skagway, where gold had been found in 1897.

And there, after a few lively months running a gambling hall and again effectively running the town by bribing the local cops, Soapy found the hail of gunfire that would kill him, at the hands of vigilantes on July 8, 1898. Smith’s exit made front-page news all over the nation.

The Library of Congress holds many collections that bring America’s Wild West heritage into sharper focus, ranging from the Chronicling America online collection of historic newspapers to photos, manuscripts and, of course, books.




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