August 31, 2009

Did Soapy operate on trains?

(Click image to enlarge)
Railroad letter of recommendation, 1882

A very interesting letter from the collection of Soapy Smith's great-granddaughter Geri Murphy showing that (according to the letter) Soapy Smith worked for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. It reads,

DENVER AND RIO GRANDE RAILWAY CO.
Office Superintendent First Division,

South Pueblo, Colorado, May 12, 1882.

To whom it may concern

The barer Mr. Jeff. R. Smith has been in the employ of this company for the last fourteen months in the capacity of train baggag [sic] master. During that time he has served us it has been to the satisfaction of all concerned. He leaves our employ in good standing.

W.H. Bancroft
Div. Supt.

J.H. Walker
T.M. [Train Master]


Bancroft later became president of the line between 1884-1886. Walker was still listed as Train Master in 1895.

Although the letter is on railroad stationary and inked by the Superintendent's office official stamp it is unlikely Soapy worked for the railroad in a legitimate occupation. There are several other possibilities.
  • Soapy may have voluntarily paid for the document in order to be able to operate his short con swindles such as the shell and pea game or three-card monte inside the passenger cars of the Denver and Rio Grande railway. The letter probably could have protected Soapy from being arrested or ejected from a train when caught running games by railroad police or other lawmen.
  • The document could also have been manufactured to get out of a vagrancy charge. The same style of defense was later used by Soap Gang member, John "Reverend" Bowers.
  • The document could have been a part of an elaborate swindle. Later famed boxer, Robert Fitzimmons was conned into believing one of the members of the Soap Gang was actually the president of the railroad.

2 comments:

  1. There's a world of possibilities! I like the idea that he wanted a low-level but respectable position on the railroad, for either short or long cons. It brings to mind the Yellow Kid, when he was pushing his miracle baldness cure scam. He would establish himself in small town barbershops, never as a barber, but as a bootblack, his lack of social position making people underestimate him, leaving them much more susceptible to being taken. (I have trouble with these comment things, so I'm signing as Anonymous, but it's really Henry Parke)

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  2. Hi, Henry. Thank you for your response. It's a worthy idea that deserves discussion. Whether Soapy actually worked for the Denver and Rio Grande Railway Company is questioned. There is little doubt in my mind that he used the document in some fashion while he swindled passengers. In my book I figured that it was to keep the train "police" from bothering him.

    Jeff Smith

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