January 30, 2009

Molly Brown and the Mysterious Murder...

If you happen to be in Denver, Colorado between now and February 15 you might want to stop in and say hello to murder suspect, Soapy Smith.

I came across this story at Denverpost.com

"Molly Brown and the Mysterious Murder" alive with jokes
Who cares if it's not real theater? Adams Mystery Playhouse packs in crowds
By John Moore
Denver Post Theater Critic

One thing you just gotta love to hear when you walk into a theater: "The bar's open all night long!" That this bar also happens to be a casket is just a bonus.

The disarmingly friendly Adams Mystery Playhouse will never be confused with real theater — and the blue-collar audiences who consistently pack the former mortuary on Federal Boulevard probably wouldn't be packing it if it were.

The murder-mystery amusement offered here is more reminiscent of the rollicking audience-participation high jinks of the Heritage Square Music Hall, combined with the Avenue Theater's venerable crowd-pleasing whodunit, "Murder Most Fowl."

Fraternization is encouraged from the moment you park. You walk in and are sent off on a scavenger hunt, where you wander throughout the historic home mingling with shady Old West characters. A palm reader will tell your fortune for $1 a minute.

We're told this home was built by William Simpson as an escape from all the debauchery of downtown Denver. Guess it's found its way west.

Eventually you move into the playhouse, where you are served a dinner buffet seated at any of a dozen round tables of 10 each. Before you can bite into your biscuit, the silliness begins from the saloon-style stage, such as conga lines, cheap prize giveaways and "Ring of Fire" sing-alongs. Such giddiness pervades that it starts to feel like a drunken wedding reception (though this is all family-friendly and appropriate for all ages).

Audiences are told to participate as much or as little as they want, but c'mon. This is not theater for the timid. This is for birthdays, anniversaries, office parties and anyone who just wants a communal giggle. Many in the audience are just as gaudily dressed as the actors. And many are just as funny.

Oh, yeah, the play. The current offering is "Molly Brown and the Mysterious Murder," though there's not all that much Molly in this murder. No matter. Other titles in the rotating series include "Murder at an Irish Wake" and "Who Wants to Murder a Millionaire?"

Here, the setting is a traveling Wild West vaudeville. Before dinner ends, a Wild Bill Hickok knockoff named Buckhorn Bob emerges with an arrow through his head, and you're off reviewing clues, hearing alibis and playing fun interactive improv games (or, as they call it, "theatrical pantomimickry"), all leading up to an audience vote. Your suspects include the legendary Soapy Smith (Nick Guida) and Mrs. Brown herself (Marne Wills- Cuellar).

Each table gets a chance to deliberate and announce their murderer. By then, the level of creativity and investment some patrons have in all of this is striking.

There's enough shtick to shake a stick at, but these comedians are the real deal. Most impressive is Darrin Ray as lovable hayseed Geezer Gates. He won a 2002 Denver Post Ovation Award playing a sneering, creepy menace in "Paddywack," but he's clearly come full- circle here as a malapropping dimwit. One suggestion: This is the Old West, but there's one staff civilian (in a tie!) who, unless he's going to don his own character, probably shouldn't interject himself so much into things.

The Adams Mystery Playhouse has been in operation for about two years, but the empress (Wills- Cuellar) and her company have been staging similar "Death for Dinner" performances since 1990.

It'd be easy to dismiss the theatrical credibility of their shenanigans. But comedy is hard, and this audience laughed — hard. And the place is regularly packed to a capacity of 130, and not many "real" theaters can claim that.

Just remember: "Parking is free — unless you get towed."

Can I get a rim shot?

John Moore: 303-954-1056 or jmoore@denverpost.com

"Molly Brown and the Mysterious Murder"

Murder and a meal. Adams Mystery Playhouse, 2406 Federal Blvd. Directed by Doug Proctor. Starring Marne Wills-Cuellar and rotating ensemble. Through Feb. 15. 3 hours, 15 minutes, including pre-show and dinner. 6 p.m. doors and dinner Fridays-Saturdays, plus noon Feb. 14-15. $39. 303-455-1848 or adamsmysteryplayhouse.com

January 28, 2009

Out of Politics

“I was talking to Mr. Smith yesterday.” He said. “To Colonel Randolph Smith. Colonel Jefferson Randolph Smith. Some people call him Soapy Smith. I asked him what he was doing in politics this fall. He replied, ‘Nothing.’ ‘Why, colonel, how is that?’ said I. ‘you have always been active in politics.’ ‘Yes, Behymer,’ said he, ‘but to tell you the truth, the Republican party is getting too corrupt. I can’t train with them any longer.’”
Rocky Mountain News, August 13, 1894

January 26, 2009

Klondike Ho!

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Randall Winn over on his blogger, REWinn Scrapbook had a post on December 27, 2008 on the 1994 comic book style illustrated history book called, Klondike Ho! I agree 100% with Mr. Winn that this 72 page history of the Klondike gold rush is a perfect book for youngsters. It will be the perfect starter book I would want my son to read before he goes with me to Seattle and Skagway, Alaska for the first time. It is a generic history with some mistakes commonly passed down through the decades so there is no need to pick on the author for these imperfections. No book on the market will tell a totally truthful story on Soapy's adentures ... except when mine comes out.

I found Mr. Winn's blog through a Google search and posted a comment as he had mentioned Soapy Smith was pictured in the book. He not only responded, but offered to send the book our way. Ladies and gentlemen, Soapy Smith through the eyes of author/illustrator, Curtis Vos.

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The first panel dealing with Soapy is called, Life in Skagway. Clearly it indicates that the author did his history homework. He includes the (surely exaggerated) story told of Mounties sleeping in their beds and not rising when bullets entered their room because it was a nightly occurrence. I did enjoy the bunco steerer making friends with his prey and offering to show him around town, as Soapy rests against a building observing.

Add Image
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The second panel regarding Soapy is called Soapy's Reign. In the gang to the right of Soapy is obviously "Reverend" John L. Bowers, whom the artist must have used an actual photograph of Bowers with his droopy eyes, mustache and derby hat. I was also impressed with the rendition of Jeff Smith's Parlor, again the artist obviously viewing old photographs. The alley in which John Stewart was swindled and robbed is in full view.

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The third panel is entitled Enter Bill Reid, however it should be Frank Reid. Reid's droopy handlebar mustache is no coincidence. There was little room in this generic telling of Soapy's story in Alaska to include the fact that Frank Reid once worked as a bartender in one of Soapy's saloons.

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The fourth and final panel is appropriately called, Shootout at the Dock. Although a cartoon, it is one of the few depictions of the gunfight that show Soapy and Frank at the proper distance from one another. There are only two shots fired here whereas there were between five and eight shots actually heard. There is no Jesse Murphy to finish off Soapy ... but we can't blame the author for not knowing that. Spread throughout the book are various references on Soapy and his gang. He is definitely well represented, no doubt about that.

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For a condensed comic book style account I am very impressed and thrilled to have it in the family collection. For those who wish a copy of this fun book, it is no longer in publication but Googling the title will surely turn up some copies available for purchase.

Klondike Ho! information:
  • Author: Curtis Vos
  • Format: Paperback, 72 pages
  • Published: Todd Publications (December 1997)
  • ISBN: 978-0969461241

January 21, 2009

"Sure Thing Men"...

Due to the location of a saloon on Larimer street these bunko men are probable members of the Soap Gang or the Blonger Gang.
They Worked the Old Double Lock
Game on the Grays.
The county detectives yesterday arrested two clever "sure thing" sports and lodged them in the county jail on charges of safe keeping. The names given by the prisoners are Jesse Paxton and George Hold. They dress well and live on the fat of the land. Their game is a very simple one, but the manner in which they work it is very smooth. When searched at the county jail a couple of small locks of the ordinary pattern were found upon Paxton and these told the story, when taken into consideration in connection with the story of John Decker, a littleton farmer. One of the locks could be easily opened, while the other could not. Decker met the young men in a saloon on Larimer street. The bunco men struck up an acquaintance and soon after produced the locks, one of which they opened. After playing their fish awhile they handed him a lock which he opened readily. the lock passed between them and then one of the sports made a bet that the farmer could not open it. Decker put up all his cash-$40-but found it impossible to open the lock. He complained to the officials and the arrests followed. It is said that the prisoners have buncoed at least a dozen victims by the manipulation of the locks.
Rocky Mountain News, September 22, 1894

"Soapy's Stars Arrested"

Soapy's Stars Arrested.

George Wilder, Joseph Bowers, W. H. Casey and Charley Adams, who are known to fame because of their ability to fleece the innocent lamb were arrested yesterday by Officer C. H. Hunter. They were taken before Justice Harper and gave bonds on the charge of bunco steering. They are the "stars of "Soapy" Smith's outfit and as the police intend to make it uncomfortable for the Seventeenth and Larimer street steerers, they are starting in with the known experts.
Rocky Mountain News, June 17, 1894.

January 17, 2009

News renderings: Beating of Arkins...

It does not pay to be a reformer up in Denver. The Republican, of that city has been making war on a gang of corrupt officials and nearly everybody connected with it were arrested for contempt of court. Colonel Arkins, of the Rocky Mountain News, has been paying his respects to the crooks of the city, and just as he was leaving the office the other night he was assaulted by "Soapy" Smith, one of the toughest of the gang he has been making war against. Smith knocked him down with a loaded cane and seriously injured him before assistance could come. Smith was arrested and locked up in the station house.
Arizona Weekly Journal-Miner, August 7, 1889

January 15, 2009

Was Wm. Wilson a member of the Soap Gang?

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After Soapy Smith was killed in Alaska the Soap Gang members who were not jailed fled back to the states. There were members of the gang who invested their ill gotten gains into real estate and retired to a quiet life. Others met their end violently. At least one went insane, swearing his old enemies were trying to shoot him. Still others had no choice but to continue the life of a bunko man, always hoping for the big score. Some denied ever knowing Soapy Smith while others bannered their association proudly. William Wilson fits into the latter category.

January 14, 2009

Quick quotes...

When Soapy Smith owned the gamblers in Creede his cognomen was commonplace. Now since he has been chosen to lead the Denver redeemers they call him Sapolio de Smythe. Great it is to be a leader of the republican gang.
Alamosa Leader, circa mid-1890s

January 13, 2009

Quick quotes...

"Some of the stories about clever robberies perpetrated in Skaguay by “Soapy Smith should break the monotony by an additional chapter detailing the lynching of that enterprising person. That “Soapy” is engaged in robbery wherever he is may safely be taken for granted."
San Francisco Call, April 2, 1898.

January 10, 2009

Quick quotes...

ADDENDUM: New information added 03/29/2022. See "ADDENDUM" below.

DENVER, Oct. 13.—J. P. Davenport, a wealthy sheep raiser from Grand Junction, was buncoed today out of $2,000 in a dice game by Court Thompson , a notorious bunco steerer. He paid the money by check on which payment was promptly stopped.
Silverton Standard , October 20, 1894.
What does this have to do with Soapy Smith you might ask The name "Court Thompson" is actually Corteze D. "Cort" Thomson, husband of Denver madam, Mattie Silks. Cort was involved in the Cliff Sparks shooting in 1892 and is believed to have held a grudge against Soapy ever since, as did Mattie Silks no doubt. It was Mattie, in 1898 who claimed Soapy, the marshal, and other soap cronies, were planning on robbing and murdering her. As it does not fit the normal m.o. of Soapy to murder women, it is wondered if Mattie was exaggerating a story in revenge for perhaps not being allowed to work a brothel in Skagway. This story and all the details will be unfolded in my upcoming book, which naturally will be announced here. 
The swindling of Alexander Blair.
Since the killing of Cliff Sparks in 1892, poor "Cort" Thomson, received blame for numerous crimes committed by Soapy Smith and the Soap Gang. The newspaper article below blames Thomson for the swindling of Alexander Blair.
Silverton Standard, October 20, 1894.
DENVER, Oct. 13.—J. P. Davenport, a wealthy sheep raiser from Grand Junction, was buncoed today out of $2,000 in a dice game by Court Thompson , a notorious bunco steerer. He paid the money by check on which payment was promptly stopped.
Corteze D. "Cort" Thomson, husband of Denver madame, Mattie Silks. Cort was blamed in the Cliff Sparks shooting in 1892 and is believed to have been used to add confusion to the murder case. Naturally, Thomson and Silks held a grudge against Soapy ever since. It was Mattie, in 1898 who claimed she overheard Soapy and Deputy US Marshal Taylor planning her murder. As it does not fit the normal method of operation for Soapy to murder women, it is wondered if Mattie exaggerated a story in revenge, or even overheard what was intended for her ears, to convince her to leave Skagway quickly, which she did. Silk's knew Soapy in Denver and probably did not want her talking to Skagway newspapers about "the real Soapy Smith."
(The following is from Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel)
Though Jeff’s Tivoli Club [in Denver] was “closed,” his other criminal activities prospered, fixed poker games being the swindle of choice. In an 11-day period Jeff’s men were arrested in 4 separate incidents involving crooked poker in a room at the St. Charles Hotel on Market Street. On September 27, 1894, Bascomb, Jackson, and Hoffses were arrested after a poker game with a greenhorn. Jeff furnished the bonds.[1] Eight days later Bowers and Jackson in a card game took $240 from a Freeman Libby.[2] Three days later on October 8, George Wilder, Hoffses, George Van Orten, and John Kerr were arrested for cheating at poker.[3] Newspapers gave one “long-con” game, extensive coverage.
Alexander Blair was a sheep farmer whose range was near Rawlins, Wyoming. Returning from Kansas City where he had sold several carloads of wethers[4] for a good price, he stopped over in Denver on Sunday, September 30, 1894. On Monday he met an old friend named Jackson whom he had known years prior in Wyoming. Jackson showed Blair around the city, and they talked old times. It is probable that Jackson was W. H. Jackson of the Soap Gang and that he passed on crucial personal information about Blair to another member of the gang, believed to be John Bowers. On Tuesday Blair shopped about town for sheep shears. At the door of a hardware store on Arapahoe Street, someone stopped and addressed him by name. Although not recognizing the man’s face, Blair was pleased with his manner.
The man introduced himself as “Taylor,” a partner in a company interested in purchasing mines in Northern Wyoming and Arizona. Upon stating that he knew both states well, Blair was offered payment for services as a guide to the mines. Blair expressed interest, and Taylor took him to meet the other two partners, one of whom was Jeff [Soapy Smith]. A deal was made whereby Blair would guide the party at $5 per day and expenses. The trio invited Blair to join them in a private room at the St. Charles hotel. Refreshments were brought in, and a friendly game of poker was suggested. When the game was over, Blair was a little behind, owing the pleasant Mr. Smith the small sum of $29. Blair wrote out a draft for this amount on the First National Bank of Rawlins. In a later interview Blair stated,
I lost $29, … and as I didn’t have the change one of the men told me to write a check. I am a very poor writer and it’s about all I can do to write my own name. One of the men filled out the check and it was for $29. I signed it….[5]
Jeff informed Blair that if he would visit Jeff’s office everyday for any consulting that might be needed, beginning immediately until they were ready to leave for Wyoming, Jeff would pay him $5 a day. Blair agreed. On the fourth day, October 4, Jeff regretfully informed Blair that the partners had decided not to invest in the Wyoming-Arizona mines, so his services would no longer be needed. Paid for his services as agreed and with nothing to hold him in Denver any longer, Blair left for home. Jeff and the other partners accompanied Blair to Union Station and bid him a friendly farewell.
Once home, Blair was shocked to discover that his bank had cashed the check he had signed, not for $29 but for $1,029. Blair realized at once that his check had been altered and that his paid stay in Denver for four days was to give a Denver bank time to clear the check with Blair’s Rawlins bank.
Blair immediately returned to Denver and in Justice Howze’s court swore out a complaint that resulted in an arrest warrant for Jeff Smith on the charge of forgery. An informant alerted Jeff of the warrant, and before he could be apprehended, Jeff walked into the office of the clerk of the court and said; “Well, I hear I am in trouble. Make out a bond.” The papers were prepared, signed, and Jeff walked out a free man.[6]
At a hearing on October 18 before Justice Woodson, for reasons unknown, Blair did not appear. The Denver Post reported Jeff’s statement to the court:
He said that the complaining witness was an old-time poker-shark, who owns 10,000 sheep in Wyoming, and the only trouble with him was that he was beat at his own game.
“Somebody told Blair,” said Jeff, “that I was a richer man than Dave Moffat, and he afterwards tried to obtain $500 from me. When he comes to Denver again I will have him arrested on the charge of blackmail and perjury.”
The court after absorbing the eloquence of Jeff’s appeal dismissed the charges, and the happy southerner joined his faithful subjects. Rev. Bowers and Jackson were waiting at a safe distance…, and Jeff informed them that the docket was once more cleared of its black marks against the Smith family.[7]
After the Blair case Justice Woodson openly declared that he would no longer take bunco cases in his courtroom. He stated that the blame for failing to convict thieves was too often laid upon the justices and that he was tired of being unfairly blamed.[8]
[1] RMN 09/28/1894, p. 8.
[2] RMN 10/05/1894, p. 5.
[3] RMN 10/09/1894, p. 8.
[4] wethers: castrated rams.
[5] Denver Sun10/13/1894.
[6] RMN 10/13/1894, & Denver Republican 10/13/1894.
[7] Denver Post 10/18/1894.
[8] RMN 10/20/1894, p. 4.

January 8, 2009

Quick quotes...

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“Jeff Smith’s Parlors,” read the sign over one door. Here the headquarters of the notorious “Soapy Smith” gang. Here the “Fly,” the unsophisticated one, was invited into the “Parlor” by the proverbial “Spider,” with the usual result. Here crime flourished unhampered, with the connivance of the constituted authorities.

Quote source: Grit, Grief and Gold; A True Narrative of an Alaskan Pathfinder, by Dr. Fenton B. Whiting, Seattle, Peacock Publishing Company. 1933. p. 28.

Photograph source: Morning Oregonian (Portland), July 22, 1898, p. 8.

January 7, 2009

A letter to Soapy Smith...

ADDENDUM: 03/29/2022

New information is always being found, even when 13 years has passed. See the names list at the bottom of this post as some of the men have been identified.

Here is a letter & envelope from bunco man, John Taylor, to Soapy Smith (January 17, 1887). This artifact belonged to my cousin, Jefferson Randolph "Little Randy" Smith and was copied by me in 1990.

THE ENVELOPE (click to enlarge)
The envelope addressed to Soapy at 1711 Larimer was not his residence. He had all his mail delivered to another location, this one being the J. F. Chatard & Company, a merchant cigar manufacturer.
THE LETTER (click to enlarge)
Here is my rendition of the letter contents.
Jan 17, 1887
Friend Jeff

I write these few lines to let you know that I am going away for a few weeks. I leave this afternoon for Los Angeles. I am going to try and work the lower country. They close Bank on Friday. I heard Buckley had them stop on account of Lew [sic] Rickerbaugh [sic]. I hear that he tried [sic] to have Dublin kill [killed?] in Arizona and they say that is the reason he [Buckley] had them stopped.

Valentine has not-showed up yet. The Bucket shop is running all right. You can write and if I stay any time in Los Angeles I can have it forwarded to me.

Yours truly.
John Taylor

The contents of this letter can only be speculated on at this time. This is what we know so far.
John Taylor: The author of the letter was a good friend of Soapy Smith. This is possibly the "Old Man Taylor" often regarded as Soapy's mentor in biographies. The Smith family has several letters from Taylor to Soapy but obviously we do not have Soapy's responses so the conversations are one-sided. 
"Bank:" this refers to the gambling game of faro.  
Buckley: This is probably Chris "Blind Boss" Buckley, the Democrat force who controlled gambling in San Francisco. According to the book, The Killing of Charlie Storms by Luke Short - A Closer Look, he forced Rickabaugh out. Buckley said Rickabaugh would never turn a card in SF. Buckley ruled and Rickabaugh was kicked out of SF.

Lew Rickerbaugh: This is likely Lewis Rickabaugh, A well known gambler who in October 1880 had leased the gambling concession from the Oriental Saloon in Tombstone, Arizona. He eventually partnered with Wyatt Earp.

Dublin: Likely Henry "Dublin" Lyons who was Charlie Storms' partner. Possibly the same man Rickabaugh had ousted from Tombstone, Arizona during the "Gambler's War" there in 1881. According to this letter Rickabaugh tried to kill him.
Valentine: Currently unknown but it is possible Soapy sent Valentine but he had not arrived as of the writing of the letter. 
"Bucket shop:" An unauthorized office for the sale of stocks or other transactions regarding them: originating as a colloquialism in the U.S. about 1881. Also to bucket, meaning to swindle. From the bucket into which falls the cards, recording-tape, or ticker-tape of this establishment. A big store operation. A fake stock market office, also known as the Exchange.

January 4, 2009

Play three-card Monte (game)

Now you can play the game that caused the death of Soapy Smith, Three-card Monte! This is a fair version though (what would you expect?).

January 2, 2009

Denvers 1894 war on coin gambling machines...

The 1890s saw the introduction of trade stimulators and "nickel-in-the-slot" machines (slot machines). The Rocky Mountain News (April 7, 1894) said of the machines,
"The nickel-in-the-slot machine is not very old, but as a money maker it can give points to faro and roulette and beat them with hands down. If a good machine can get a good play - and most of them do - there is at least $20 in the box every night."
Denver city was going through populist reform whose followers were desperately fighting to rid the town of saloons and gambling halls.


In April it was noted that young boys were playing the machines located in hotels and cigar stores. On April 6, 1894 Leonard De Lue, Chief of county detectives took it upon himself to launch a raid on businesses that possessed machines made for gambling purposes.

Without any warning that the machines were illegal to possess, county officers raided numerous cigar stores and saloons in the business district and netted over 100 machines.

Sheriff Burchinell protests that Chief De Lue stepped out of bounds of city affairs by acting on his own. The proprietors are up in arms because they do not actually own the machines, but rather split the profits with the machine owners. To top it off the detectives confiscated the machines keeping the money inside the machines, which mandated that Chief De Lue had to stand guard over the haul with a drawn revolver to keep thieves at bay.


Proprietors who had their machines taken included the Blonger brothers and William Deutsch, a partner of Soapy Smith. Which means that of the 100 or so machines taken, it is likely one or more of these machines pictured in the drawings belonged to the two biggest crooks in the city. If only we knew where those machine are today.

Having once been a collector of antique gaming machines and equipment I recognized a few of the machines in the drawings. It took a little while to identify them and find modern photographs of like machines but I was pretty successful in that end.

The coin machine in the drawing titled, TAKING IN A SURE THING, appears to be a poor drawing of a Clawson Automatic Dice Machine.

The coin machines in the drawing, RESULTS OF THE RAID, are numerous. On the floor in the foreground, there are 14 of what look to be Caille Winner Dice machines. This is pretty certain as there are no known copy-cat machines made by competing firms.

In back, on pedestals are, a poker machine with 5 playing card reels. This may be a Mills Jumbo Success but there were similar machines copied by other companies. The machine to the left of the Mills is a Farris Wheel. The next one to the left is probably the Clawson Automatic Dice machine. The rest of the counter top machines on the floor are examples of various trade stimulators and payout machines.


The genre were called Jacks machines or pin-drop machines. Carlo was the name of the machine shown in the first row.

The machines depicted in the drawing to the right are by far the most detailed. Below are some photographs of machines in private collections.