February 16, 2013

Soapy Smith, boss of a criminal organization?

ecently on a history discussion board the difference between nineteenth century criminal gangs and criminal organizations was debated.

The definition of a criminal gang is basically a group or band of people acting together for criminal ends. The definition of a criminal organization is a little more complex. I am relating to clans of the nineteenth century which did not have the technology of later period Mafia style syndicates to become national and even international outfits that naturally effected size differences between the earlier and later time periods. Those differences leave many people believing that the old west criminal associations are not properly defined as criminal organizations but I disagree.

According to the definition found on the Legal Dictionary, "Modern organized criminal enterprises make money by specializing in a variety of crimes, including extortion, blackmail, gambling, loan-sharking, political corruption, and the manufacture and sale of illicit narcotics." Narcotics were not illegal in the nineteenth century so there was no interest by criminals to sell them, however, the other enterprises were sold in abundance by the Soapy Smith organization.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines criminal organization as any group having some manner of a formalized structure and whose primary objective is to obtain money through illegal activities. Such groups maintain their position through the use of actual or threatened violence, corrupt public officials, graft, or extortion, and generally have a significant impact on the people in their locales, region, or the country as a whole.

The justice system defines a criminal organization as having the following characteristics (among others):
  • Exclusive membership - need formal admittance to join.
  • Oath of silence taken by members, punishable by death if broken.
The Soap Gang definitely had an oath of silence but I can't be sure what sort of punishment was administered to those who broke the oath mainly because there is only one example I can think of, and that was for a con man who used Soapy's name as his own.  The communication between Soapy and this man (Green) was done via letters by mail so it is unknown what form of punishment would have been dealt.
  • Monopolistic intent - seeks control of an industry or business thru violence (motivated by money, profit).
  • Members have common ethnic or familial background (related to each other).
This is a point for later period organizations such as the Italian mobs of the early and mid twentieth century. Soapy did involve his brother and brother-in-law. Perhaps just as tight as family, the members of the Soap Gang kept close ties to one another even after they moved away. Letters in my collection support this.
  • Organization is self-perpetuating (passing the baton to younger members, new recruits).
  • Protected by police, lawyers, and courts. Intimidation and bribery of law enforcement/judicial officials as well as general population.
  • Some public support due to profit motive/self-preservation.

Considering all of the above it is my opinion that Soapy Smith and the Soap Gang were definitely a criminal organization. What say you?

"There was hardly a straight [honest] game in the city, and bunco steerers were deployed at the railroad depot and at hotels to steer strangers against the dishonest houses. If the victim squealed, police arrested the victim, then provided evidence to charge him as drunk and disorderly."
——Governor Davis Waite, Colorado


1741: Benjamin Franklin publishes America’s second magazine The General Magazine and Historical Chronicle.
1804: After pirates seize U.S. Navy frigate Philadelphia, Lt. Stephen Decatur leads a raid to burn the ship.
1857: The National Deaf Mute College (later renamed Gallaudet College), in Washington, DC is incorporated. It is the first school in the world for advanced education of the deaf.
1857: Fort Des Moines in officially becomes Des Moines, Iowa.
1862: Around 14,000 Confederate soldiers surrender to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant during the U.S. Civil War at Fort Donelson, Tennessee.
1868: The Jolly Corks organization in New York City changes its name to the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (BPOE).
1878: The silver dollar becomes U.S. legal tender.
1881: Outlaw Dave Rudabaugh is sentenced to 99 years for stealing the U.S. Mail after pleading guilty in New Mexico Territory.
1883: Ladies Home Journal begins publication.
1898: Sylvester Scovel of The World distinguishes himself with tireless coverage of the Maine disaster and its aftermath. He becomes a friend of Soapy Smith while living in Skagway, Alaska.

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