January 3, 2012

Soapy Smith in San Francisco 1883-84.

On this day: January 3, 1884, Soapy Smith was arrested a second time in 3 days for operating his prize package soap sell racket on the streets of San Francisco. The following comes from my book, Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel.

On December 26, 1883, he paid $4 for a vendor’s license in Phoenix, Arizona. Six days later, on New Year’s Day, he was arrested in San Francisco for operating the “soap racket.” The Daily Evening Bulletin gave a detailed description of his methods.

Jeff Smith’s “Soap Racket.”
A sharp young man, Jeff Smith by name, who has been working the “soap racket,” as it is called, to large crowds on the street corners in the business part of the city for several weeks, was obligated to suspend operations at the corner of California and Front streets this morning at the request of Detectives Ross, Whittaker and Colby. They compelled him to fold up his camp-stool, strap his valise and go with them to the city prison, where he was charged on the register with conducting a lottery game. He appeared a trifle disturbed at the interruption, for it is not probable that he will gull simple countrymen for some time to come. For some time past complaints have come to the police regarding certain swindling soap vendors, whose plan of operations have been … about the same as Moses’ plaint to the Vicar of Wakefield after his return from the fair. Smith it seems has been in the habit of setting up his stock by opening his valise containing small packages of soap wherever he thought he could attract a crowd. His soap sold for fifty cents a package or three for one dollar, but the attraction was that he rolled greenbacks, one dollar and five dollars, in the packages before the eyes of the crowd, but by skillful manipulation the purchasers never obtained a lucky package. About a month ago another vendor was arrested, but allowed to go on his promising to leave the city. Smith was arrested at the ocean beach on New Year’s day, but as he also promised to leave, was allowed to go.

That was just the day before, so this time Jeff was detained for seven days before release “by Police Judge Lawler, who held that the offense charged did not come under the provisions of the ordinance.” According to the newspaper, Jeff had been in San Francisco for several weeks, but seven days prior he was in Arizona. It is possible, then, that the soap peddler from a month previous had also been Jeff, that he had come from Iowa to San Francisco and on to Phoenix and returned.

The police court ordered Jeff to vacate San Francisco. He disobeyed and was again arrested on St. Valentine’s Day for once more engaging in the soap sell racket. He was not in jail very long, though, as evidence of violating any city ordinance was lacking. The San Francisco Call reported that once again “Judge Lawler sustained the motion to dismiss, on grounds that the facts did not bring the case within the law.” Possibly Jeff escaped prosecution through bribery, but more probable is that San Francisco in 1884 had few regulations that pertained to bunco men and their games.

San Francisco: pages 40-41, 60, 82, 85, 109-10, 118-19, 152, 242, 361, 409, 411-12, 418, 425, 428-29, 432-33, 450, 463-65, 472, 492, 504, 527, 545, 574, 587.

Jeff Smith


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