My publisher found this article by Tom Noel (www.coloradowebsites.com/dr-colorado) who teaches history at the University of Colorado, Denver and appears as Dr. Colorado on Channel 9's "Colorado & Company" every other Tuesday. I thought you would enjoy it.
"Soapy" Smith was Denver's original tourist attraction
By Tom Noel
Article Launched: 09/14/2008 12:30:00 AM MDT
Denver needs a celebrity bad guy — someone who will draw in the tourists.
Chicago has Al Capone and Glenwood Springs has Doc Holliday, the gun-singing dentist. After the famous Tombstone shootout, Doc came to cure himself in Glenwood's hot springs and wound up as the star attraction of the town's cemetery. Glenwood celebrates not only his tombstone (even if the body may not lie under it), but there's also the Doc Holliday Saloon — just look for the 5-foot neon pistol on Main Street.
Once upon a time, our town had a most colorful villain, Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith, the king of all Western con-men. In Denver, Soapy earned his nickname, opening up a suitcase and offering downtown crowds a chance at easy money. He would flamboyantly wrap a $100 bill around a soap bar before sealing it with pretty pastel tissue. That bar would go on display with the other soap bars. Soapy sang out ads such as: "When you raise your arm, do you lose your charm?" For a mere $1, anyone could pick any bar and take it home.
Soapy's bills, of course, went only to his confederates, whose whoops of elation could be heard for blocks away. Two Denver police officers were among Soapy's early customers. When he balked at giving them his name, they booked him as Soapy Smith. The name stuck.
Soapy became a star at recruiting, registering, instructing and shepherding voters to the polls where they voted early and often. He masterminded the 1889 election of Mayor Wolf Londoner, an election so blatantly crooked that Londoner became the only Denver mayor forced to step down.
During Denver's notorious City Hall War of 1893, Soapy defended a corrupt city hall against the reform troops of Gov. Davis H. Waite. Supposedly while waving a stick of dynamite from atop the old city hall at 14th and Larimer, Soapy Smith yelled down at the forces of reform, "I'm closer to heaven than you are, but if you come any closer, you will get there first"
When reformers prevailed, Soapy was run out of Denver. He headed for Skagway, Alaska, where he is now the town's pride and joy. The National Park Service is restoring Jeff Smith's Parlor, a saloon, gambling hall and "business office" for Soapy's gang, which ran the town and fleeced the thousands of fortune seekers pouring into this base camp for the great Klondike Gold Rush of 1898.
Homesick hordes of lonely miners were desperate to get in touch with loved ones, so Soapy obligingly set up a telegraph office in his parlor. There he would relay messages back to the states. Astonishingly, the senders would get immediate replies such as "Little Billy is sick. Please send $100 as soon as possible to pay the doctor." Even after losing their last dollars on such scams, few checked out the back of the parlor to see where the "telegraph" wire disappeared into the cold, salty waters of Alaska's Inland Passage.
Skagway features a "Dangerous Days of '98" melodrama centered on Soapy's shenanigans and a "Ghosts & Goodtime Girls" tour with a visit to his grave. Townsfolk buried him just outside the cemetery, putting Jefferson Randolph Smith where he had long belonged: behind bars. Heavy metal bars enclose his burial plot.
As we newspaper readers know, bad news sells better than good. Sinners are more fascinating than saints. Denver needs a new heritage tourism magnet. Bring back Soapy to bring in the tourists — and the voters. When he ran Denver elections, we had more than a 100 percent turnout!