September 14, 2009

Soapy in Salt Lake, Utah 1882.

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Soapy's license to operate in Salt Lake, Utah, 1882
Geri Murphy Collection

The above merchants license was scanned to me by my cousin Geri, which was saved by Soapy and his wife. It comes from the city of Salt Lake, Utah and is dated June 12, 1882. The license gives Soapy ["J. R. Smith"] permission to "transact business as MERCHANT, at South Temple between East Temple and 1st East Streets ... for the term of 3 months" for the small sum of $2.75, and is signed by Mayor William Jennings, Recorder John T. Caine and Deputy H. M. Wells.

White House Hotel ad

Salt Lake Herald
July 12, 1882
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The Salt Lake Herald for June 14, 1882 shows that a "J. R. Smith" was listed at the White House Hotel, however his name does not appear in the newspaper again until July 12, 1882 where he again a "J. R. Smith, Denver" checks into the White House Hotel. I continued searching the Herald through August 2, 1882 knowing another license has him in Portland Oregon operating there.

Surely Soapy operated some of his short-con swindles like the shell and pea game or three-card monte but there is no definite provenance. It can be assumed that he played the field in the surrounding towns until he returned to Salt Lake on July 12. It is very probable that he returned to Salt Lake for the July 14, 1882 arrival of John Robinson's famed traveling circus. As a researcher this is where the tedious reading of every page pays off. Had I stuck with the name search device for the newspaper I probably would not have noticed the obvious reason for his return to the city. There is a good lesson there for fellow researchers.

Fair lists

Official route for the Robinson's circus.
unknown date

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There is a copy of a letter in my collection dated July 1883 from C. C. Lamos to Soapy. Lamos, a Chicago based supplier of goods for the bunco men, including cheap watches and other prizes Soapy sold and auctioned off to his victims. The letter speaks of mutual bunco friends and associates who are doing well and where they are. At the end of the letter Lamos writes, "Fair lists are not ready yet." The obvious meaning is that Soapy and other bunco men purchased lists that gave the location and dates of fairs and circuses which nomad bunco men followed from town to town. Looking at the route list on the left it can be noted that these circuses did not stay more than a couple of days in any one location, a perfect senario for the bunco gangs that followed them. Sometimes bunco gangs were able to pay the fair and circus managers for the previledge of working on the grounds, but were just as successful in buying a city merchants license and perhaps paying off the local law officer to look the other way while they sheared the locals.

"The long-heralded circus and menagerie of the veteran John Robinson made its grand entry into Leadville [Leadville, Colorado?] yesterday morning, and gave a most imposing street parade, in which a score of the cages shone out conspicuously in contrast with the balance. Owing to the fact that they were different from the ordinary style usually seen in the past. The weather was propitious and the crowds on the street very large. ... It is estimated by the management that over 10,000 tickets were sold yesterday." —Salt Lake Herald, July 14, 1882.

When the circus arrived in Salt Lake it

"Almost seemed as if Salt Lake had gone mad on the circus, and about all that could be heard on the streets yesterday was circus, circus, circus. It was the principal topic of conversation, … All day long the neighborhood of the show grounds presented a scene of life and bustle by no means customary in Salt Lake. … Robinson’s show is the largest traveling company that ever witnessed Salt Lake, and their spread of canvas surpasses anything heretofore seen in the city." Salt Lake Herald, July 15, 1882.

The circus arrived into town and left after two days of performances.

"This morning the whole circus was loaded on the cars [train] at a few minutes to 1 o’clock, and started for Ogden [Utah], from which point it takes the Central Pacific, and plays at Corinne [Utah] and some other towns on the west to California. ... Mr. Foster, the energetic press agent, says the circus will play back this way, after it starts eastward. Mr. Foster leaves for Sacramento this afternoon." —Salt Lake Herald, July 16, 1882.

Sacramento is but 481 miles from Portland, Oregon where Soapy purchased another city merchants license. Could Soapy have been following the John Robinson circus?

The shell man works a circus

A little relative History of
the John Robinson Big Show

In the 1870’s the Robinson circus became the one of first circuses in the U.S. to own its own railroad cars. At the zenith of the Robinson circus in the 1890’s, at least thirty-five cars were needed to transport the entire company. This made the Robinson circus a very attractive enterprise for motivated confidence gangs to attach themselves to.

This quickly became a problem for the reputations of the circus managers who allowed bunco men to prey on circus grounds with management permission. In 1870 it was said that

"some circus proprietors were not pleased with all these moths hovering around their candle cannot be doubted. As part of their 1870 advertising, Van Amburgh & Co. inserted this notice in newspapers: 'No sideshows, other than those belonging to Van Amburgh & Co., allowed with this exhibition.' This keeps off dice, cards, jewelry cases, chuck-a-luck, thimble rigging and the thousand other things usually hanging on to . . . a great concern. We’ve got the scoundrels this year, and we are aided by authorities everywhere." —Republican Register (Galesburg, IL), June 21, 1870.

In 1879, during Cooper & Bailey’s stand in Jackson, Michigan, the local paper reported,

"The sheriff and marshal in Jackson arrested twenty-one con men, crooks, etc. . . . who were following the circus. The circus detective pointed them out and they were jailed until the show left town.” —Daily Citizen (Jackson, MI), June 3, 1879.

The fact that local law enforcement and circus management worked in tandem against the bunco men makes Soapy's legal purchase of a merchants license more reasonable and legitimate that he would in most cases be able to continue operating just outside the circus grounds.


Geri Murphy Collection
Jeff Smith Collection

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The John Robinson Big Show tent, 1899.


  1. This adds a whole new aspect to "the game" Soapy played and highlights his resourcefulness in engaging in what appears to be legitimate merchant activity...such cleverness!...and I love how they were referred to as 'Moths hovering around their candle"

  2. I am very happy to know that you enjoyed the post. Hearing from followers really helps make the effort worthy. thank you.


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