December 18, 2014

Grand Central Hotel: Denver's bunco bosom.

Grand Central Hotel, Denver
circa 1901
Call number MCC-9
(Courtesy of the Denver Library Digital Collection)

January 26, 2015

he Grand Central hotel in Denver, Colorado resided on the north-east corner of Seventeenth and Blake Streets, 1/2 block from Union Station, which made it one of the prime hotels utilized in a great many escapades by Soapy Smith and his Soap Gang of bunco sharps between the years 1879 to 1895, largely due to it's location, between the train station and Soapy's saloon and gambling house, the Tivoli Club. It's history of criminal association with the infamous gang of swindlers is still largely unknown. There are only a few key instances and examples, possibly due to graft, the payoff Soapy handsomely paid the hotel for its selective and occasional use.

The earliest account of Soapy performing the infamous prize package soap sell occurred in Denver in 1879. George T. Buffum was the witness, and he recorded what he saw in a 1906 collection of sketches of his frontier experiences.

I first saw him in the spring of 1879. Standing in front of the old Grand Central Hotel one day, I saw approaching me a man driving a bay horse hitched to a light buggy. He stopped by my side and lifted a box from the bottom of the buggy seat, and I noticed that it contained several cakes of soap. Looking at me squarely in the face, he said, “Will you allow me to present you with fifty dollars?” I declined with thanks, though such benevolence might have received more consideration had I been more familiar with his game.

— Alias Soapy Smith, p. 37.

The Grand Central Hotel
(Building on the right)
Courtesy Denver Library Digital Collection

The hotel was the probably the perfect residence for numerous members of the soap gang, although at this time only Ned "Banjo" (and "Professor") Parker is known to have been listed as living there in 1877 (Rocky Mountain News 08/23/1877).

William Relue, one victim of Soapy, sent him the following note:

Jan. 15th, 1887

Sir, if you will call at the Grand Central hotel, Room 7 and return to me that money you took from me on the 11th on the corner of Blake and 17th streets all will be well. If not I will see what can be done with you. If you comply with this [request] call between 2 and 3 p.m. this afternoon. Yours respectfully,

Wm. Relue

— Jefferson R. “Little Randy” Smith col.

The bottom floor of the Grand Central Hotel held street front businesses. Soapy opened a cigar store at 1531 Seventeenth Street, placing his young brother in charge and calling it the Bascomb Smith and Company Cigar Store. The whole setup was just a front for swindles, for travelers just getting off the trains. In the back of the store there was small room with a poker table, always waiting for the next victim of the "big hand" con, an illusionary innocent game of poker that never saw the dupe win. Bascomb listed the business address as his residence for a time. 

The Smith cigar store was located next to the saloon complex of George B. Fisher at 1535, 1537, and 1539 Seventeenth. A letter from Fisher to Soapy dated 1896 shows that the men were personal friends and that Fisher was well-acquainted with members of the Soap Gang. It is most probable, therefore, that victims were often brought to the Fisher saloon complex as prelude or finale to a swindle. All this information adds to the theory that the Grand Central Hotel was at one time a key instrument of the Soapy Smith criminal empire. I will report new findings as they turn up.

Grand Central Hotel: pages 34, 37, 88, 114.

There is not a man on the Denver police force who did not breath a sigh of relief when he read that “Soapy” was dead. It was bound to come, and all realized that, but the question bothering the police officials was how long “Soapy” was to go about killing other men.
Rocky Mountain News
Alias Soapy Smith, p. 584.


1787: New Jersey becomes the third state to ratify the U.S. Constitution.
1796: The Monitor of Baltimore, Maryland is published as the first Sunday newspaper.
1856: Lieutenant James Witherell of Company C, 2nd Cavalry, and two officers from the 8th Infantry, battle with a party of Apache Indians while scouting by the Rio Grande from Ft. Clark, Texas.
1862: The first orthopedic hospital, the Hospital for Ruptured and Crippled, is organized in New York City.
1865: Slavery is abolished in the United States with the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
1894: Soapy Smith and John Bowers are arrested in Denver on complaint from Thomas Moody. Soapy pays a $300 bond to get them out of jail.
1898: A new automobile speed record is set at 39 mph.
1899: President McKinley commutes the sentence of Soap Gang member “Slim Jim” Foster in the robbery of John D. Stewart in Skagway, Alaska, after one year due to his having contracted consumption.
1903: The Panama Canal Zone is acquired 'in perpetuity' by the U.S. for an annual rent.
1912: The discovery of the Piltdown man in East Sussex is announced. It will be proved a hoax in 1953. Bad man Soapy Smith had a petrified man found in 1892. It was not proven to be a hoax until 2012, when it was determined that the corpse was intentionally mummified. 

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