November 19, 2011

Soapy Smith and the World's Industrial & Cotton Centennial Exposition, 1884-85


In my book there is a newspaper writeup in which Soapy Smith states he and some of his men attended the 1884-85 World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans, Louisiana. Investigating the massive size and constant incoming and outgoing traffic via the railroad and steamship it is a sure-thing he and his gang plucked easy cash from the crowds with various short cons such as three-card monte or the shell and pea racket. It's even possible he auctioned off his infamous cash laden prize soap.

The following comes from my book.

Jeff's name was absent from the Denver newspapers for much of 1884 and for the first five months of 1885. He seems to have kept an extremely low profile as he established himself in the city. During this period, he might still have been traveling, and one trip might have led to a stay of many months. Eight years later, in 1893, the Rocky Mountain News published an uncharacteristically humorous story about Jeff, said to have been told by Jeff himself. The setting is among men aboard a train returning to Denver. Called upon for a story, Jeff told one that occurred on his return from the New Orleans World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition, which ran from December 16, 1884, to June 2, 1885.

How His Eyes Were Blinded and How He Was Fooled.

The crowd of “sports” … found perennially partaking of the lavish hospitality of Col. Jefferson R. Smith, better known as “Soapy” Smith, the prince of bunco men, had drifted around to the prevalent bank hold-ups and railroad robberies as a topic of conversation. The party had been entertained with numerous blood-curdling tales of the James and Dalton gangs, interlarded with invitations from Jeff to “have something, boys.” And a lull that succeeded one of the libations was broken by a suggestion that their host had not contributed to the fund of stories. Now, if there is one thing more than another that is characteristic of the Hon. Jefferson, it is his extreme modesty as to himself and his exploits. He blushingly announced that what he knew about robberies and desperadoes wouldn’t hold a candle to the thrilling tales that had just been told, but he was finally induced to impose a severe strain upon his memory, and so began:

“It was several years ago—yes, Ed, before I discovered the ‘petrified man’ at Creede. Don’t interrupt me, or you’ll make me forget. As I was saying, it was several years ago, during the world’s fair at New Orleans. I had been down to take in the sights of the Mardi Gras festival. No, Ed, I said ‘take in the sights.’ I wasn’t there on business, Shut up!


“Well, as I was about to remark before you inserted your insinuation, I was on my way back to Memphis after the festival was over. We had passed Little Rock and as I was feeling restless, I had been walking up and down the length of the train, from the smoker to the rear Pullman.

At the first station out of Little Rock I noticed a suspicious looking fellow board the train. At the next station another got on, and when the train station was reached and a third man mounted the car steps, my suspicions were aroused. You know I have quite a reputation as an amateur detective, and this conjunction of the planets incited my sleuthing propensities. I kept my eye on the trio and before long they got together in the smoker and began to hold a whispered conversation. I started to walk up the aisle past them to get a drink of water. Yes, sometimes, when I can’t get anything else. Well, you know I am no sort of a hand to dress up and I looked rather rough in my slouch hat and high boots that day. I looked hard at them as I passed and I noticed that my glance had the effect of disturbing them considerably. I had on a big silver Mardi Gras badge, partially hidden by my coat, and I suppose they caught sight of that and the hump where my gun stuck out of my pocket and took me for a town marshal or a local officer of some kind.

“I went on up the aisle and was filling the cup at the water cooler when one of the trio got up and came forward. The car was nearly empty and I didn’t know but he might attempt violence. But he held out his hand and said, ‘How-d’ye do, friend.’ I was surprised, but I shook hands with him, just to be polite, and was about to tell him he had the advantage of me, when he turned and walked back to his seat without a word.

“When I had recovered from the mild surprise that his behavior had occasioned I felt something crumpled up in the hand he had shaken, and upon looking I found it to be a crisp $100 note. ‘Great Scott! What’s this?’ I thought. ‘These fellows have been up to some mischief and think they can bribe me not to blow on them.’ I happened to have a couple of thousand with me of course. If I’d been dead broke no one would have come near me.
“Did I get off at the next station and telegraph the police? No, you bet I didn’t. I dropped into the nearest seat and spread my handkerchief over my face and the next thing I knew it was morning, and we were putting into Memphis.

“As I walked up the street the news boys were crying ‘All about the big robbery,’ and I bought a paper to see what it was. When I had read about ten lines I hired that boy to kick me … round the city hall park, and then I went down to the Zoological gardens and let the monkeys make faces at me the rest of the day. Three men had broken into the court house of a county back in Mississippi and robbed the safe of the county treasurer of $12,000 in notes and coin! They had been followed to the nearest railroad, where they took the night train and that was the last seen of them. Twelve thousand dollars! And I was tickled over that measly little hundred. If I had only known—”

But here “Soapy” became entangled in his reflections and nobody thought it best to disturb him.

The Cotton Exposition was an event Soapy and bunco men in general yearned for. We know that Soapy purchased "fair lists" while nomading around the west swindling the unwary. Fairs were one thing but an exposition of this size was the golden goose, not to be passed up. Although it is most probable that Soapy did attend and operate at the event, there is no provenance other than his own word. The newspapers of New Orleans only mention a bunco gang problem a full two months before opening day.

Cleaning up the city before the exposition
The Louisiana Democrat
October 14, 1884

Soapy was certainly not the only confidence man to operate at the exposition. Crime related to the event started on the streets once visitors disembarked from the trains and boats, but it did not stop there. Even the organizers and city officials took advantage of the situation. The fair was plagued with corruption and scandals. Even the state treasurer saw the opportunity to run off with almost two million dollars of state money including most of the fair's budget.

Birds-eye view of the
World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition

When he arrived at the exposition is not known. Opening day was December 16, 1884 but where Soapy was is not certain because he was still in his nomad stage. From artifacts in the family collection we know he purchased a vendors license in Del Norte, Colorado on September 13, 1884 but that appears to be the last record I have dating before December 16. He possibly attended the event at the time it opened but he definitely did not stay there in New Orleans the whole time as newspapers in Denver relate his arrest on May 12, 1885, and again on May 22. It is very possible he could have returned to New Orleans and stayed until "after the festival was over" (June 2, 1885) as he stated, then returning to Denver where on June 23 his peddler's license was rescinded by the Denver city council.

Tulane University in New Orleans has a large collection of exposition artifacts. They made the YouTube video below about the remains. Interesting to note is that Tulane University has a connection with Soapy. One of his grand-uncles, Anthony Peniston, a physician was a co-founder of the School of Medicine in New Orleans, which later became the Tulane University. His portrait hangs in Founders Hall, and Peniston Street in New Orleans is named in his honor. (Click here for more information)

Soapy's story included a fanciful meeting with some safe robbers, in which, “Three men had broken into the court house of a county back in Mississippi and robbed the safe of the county treasurer of $12,000 in notes and coin!”

I used the Library of Congress to search newspapers for any robberies that fit Soapy's description. I found not a single robbery in Mississippi remotely resembling a robbery of that nature between 1884-1885. I found similar robberies though.
  • February 14, 1885 (Galveston, Texas): The county treasurer's safe was robbed by two masked men of $1,000 in cash and $22,000 in State securities.
  • June 3, 1885 (Kandiyohi County, New Mexico): Treasurer's safe robbed of $7,000 cash

Wikipedia: World Cotton Centennial.

World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition: page 93-94.

Jeff Smith


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