March 14, 2011

Soapy Smith, Deputy Sheriff

(Click image to enlarge)

It's true, Soapy was officially given a commission as a deputy sheriff of Arapahoe County, Colorado in which the city of Denver resided. This is not a forgery made by Soapy, but the real deal, made out and signed by the County Sheriff, William K. Burchinell on April 17, 1894, the day of Denver’s transition from the old police and fire board to the new one appointed by Populist Party Colorado Governor Davis H. “Bloody Bridles” Waite. The firings and appointments from and to the old board is what touched off the infamous Denver City Hall War on March 15, 1894 of which Soapy and his men were combatants.

… Given the recent past history of discord and with police forces in disarray, the sheriff wanted to be ready. It seems likely that many such appointments were made that day, and Jeff, having proved able to lead men to city hall on March 15 and able to calm subsequent disturbances there, could be a valuable man to have ready to serve. And so the following document was prepared and signed:

To Whom it may Concern:
Know all Men by these Presents, That posing especial confidence and trust in the integrity and ability of Jeff R. Smith I, WM. K. BURCHINELL, Sheriff of said County of Arapahoe, in pursuance of, and by authority vested in me by law, have appointed, and do hereby confirm him, the said Jeff R. Smith to be a Deputy Sheriff in and for said County Without Compensation from County And all of his official acts legally performed while acting as such Deputy Sheriff are entitled to full faith and credence. Witness my hand and seal this 17th day of April 1894
Wm K Burchinell Sheriff of Arapahoe County

When word got out that Jeff was a lawman, Burchinell denied it. He also denied that Jeff carried any legal weight during the siege at city hall.

I will say that I did not put a single deputy sheriff in the city hall…. If Soapy is running around making arrests then he is doing so illegally and is liable to arrest for impersonating an officer. For all I know he is a special policeman [but not a deputy sheriff].

Eventually, the sheriff admitted giving Jeff a deputy sheriff’s commission but that it had since been revoked A commonplace practice among political figures was to deny involvement with Jeff. It was nothing personal. Most of them worked with him and liked him, but denial was sometimes a necessary part of that friendship. - Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel, p.321.

The commission was said to have been revoked but Burchinell did not actually do so, thus Jeff and his younger brother, Bascomb, along with numerous other thugs who worked for the Republican Party in the last election were able to retain their legal positions and Denver went through a period of violence between newly appointed Populists city police officers and Republican deputy sheriffs. Numerous shooting and murders were the result.

For Soapy and the Soap Gang, they used the documents and the badges that came with the commission in swindles against visitors to Denver. Fir instance, once a victim had been swindled in the final hand of a gaffed poker game (“big mitt,” “big hand”) several “officers” (members of the Soap Gang) would enter the room and arrest the gamblers, as gambling in Denver at this time was closed down by the new administration. One of the “officers” would take custody of the victim and start walking him to jail. The victim would naturally plead ignorance of the city ordinance, so feigning compassion, the “officer” would let his arrestee loose on the condition that he leave the city immediately. This method worked most of the time in convincing their conquered victims to leave Denver before they realized they had been had. Over a period of about eleven months this scenario was repeated, with the last known usage of the deputy sheriff commission by Soapy occurring in May 1895.

Following are just a few of the known reported episodes involving the commissions being used after they were supposedly revoked.


Bascomb Smith, a brother of Jeff Smith, recklessly discharged his pistol at Thirteenth and Market last night, and when Officer Shuck attempted to arrest him he resisted with tooth and nail, finally flashing a deputy sheriff’s badge. The policeman was never phased [sic], however, and Smith was gathered in. -Rocky Mountain News, 05/12/1894.


…in Overland Park [Colorado], for an unknown reason, Jeff arrested a man. The police doubted his authority, but Jeff exhibited a deputy sheriff badge that had been given to him by Sheriff Burchinell. [Boulder Daily Camera, 06/18/1894] The outcome is not recorded, but the “fall out” was. On June 19, 1894, the News charged that the sheriff had appointed a very large number of the lawless element as deputy sheriffs. Professional gamblers, tin horns, [and] confidence men of every degree are said to bear the badge of the office, and to flash it when themselves or one of their pals gets into trouble to protect him.

One of the rights that follow being commissioned a deputy is to carry a gun, and everyone of this element with a commission does carry one. When Soapy Smith and men of his ilk who are deputies flourish revolvers and strike down police officers who don’t walk along according to their lines of duty, is it not time that the extent of this outrage upon law and order should be discovered and proper steps taken to rectify the outrage? Rocky Mountain News, 06/19/1894, p. 4.

The Denver Republican usually supported Jeff but this time did not:
The sheriff says he gave Jeff Smith a commission for some special work several months ago, but has since revoked it. The Colonel still retains his commission and badge.
It is strange, in the face of the sheriff’s statement, that nearly every bunco steerer arrested by the police has in his possession, a revolver and deputy sheriff’s badge. Bascomb Smith, who was arrested last week, was thus equipped, although Mr. Burchinell denies having ever given him a deputy sheriff’s commission [Denver Republican clipping saved by Soapy, unknown date but probably June 1894. Jeff Smith collection.]. –Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel, pp. 339-40.


BURCHINELL IS POLITE.Protest to Soapy Smith About Displaying a Deputy’s Badge.
Sheriff Burchinell has addressed a letter to “Soapy” Smith, informing him that reports of Smith’s displaying a deputy’s star had reached him, and that he had instructed his deputies to arrest Smith upon a recurrence of this conduct. Sheriff Burchinell chafes at the suggestion that Smith is a deputy sheriff, and says he has no right to carry weapons as such. -Rocky Mountain News, 05/11/1895, p. 8.



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