December 7, 2014

The earliest (first) known soap sell racket (1856)?

"Vox Populi" Print,
Lowell, Massachusetts.
courtesy of Capitalism by Gaslight

hen researching the prize package soap sell racket for my book, Alias Soapy Smith, one of the mysteries I wanted to solve, was whether Soapy Smith had invented the scam, as some earlier biographies suggested. I sought out the earliest examples of the swindle I could find, and quickly learned that Soapy was not the first to use the con, although there is no doubt that he is the most famous of the soap spielers. In searching old newspapers I found a few, but none earlier than the 1870s. I am thrilled to have accidentally come across this newspaper ad for the confidence trick, dating way back to 1856!

The following is from the Capitalism by Gaslight page.

“Grand gift distributions” and “prize packages” awarded cash and gifts to people who purchased tickets through the mail, attended special theatrical performances, or purchased products. Similar to lotteries (some charged they were too similar), gift distributions promised people would qualify to receive amounts of money and luxurious goods that were otherwise out of their reach.

Using a variety of techniques, prize package operators were swindlers by degrees. Major Ross induced customers to buy more bars of soap than they needed by entering into drawings for everything from handkerchiefs and gold watches to tracts of land. The fine print, however, reveals that people had only a one-in-20,000 chance of winning the grand prize – a house – if it existed at all.

Following is the text from the ad.

"Let those now wash who never washed before,
And those that often wash, now wash the more!"

Is in town with pints, quarts, gallons, hogsheads, tierces of soap. Yes, any quantity of soap:
Ranging from 25 cts to $500, for only $1. WHO WILL BUY!
The Major may be found at town hall,
Thursday, March 27, at 7 o'clock, P.M.
Admittance Free. Ladies respectfully invited.
Come, See, and Hear
Ross, Soap Man.

The list of prizes given is hard to decipher from this digital copy, but it includes a plot of land, gold watches, gold and silver charms and jewelry, all the way down to handkerchiefs. All told, over $1000 in merchandise is offered up as prizes. Below the list of prizes is the "remarks," which unfortunately are too small to read and be able to copy faithfully, but enough of it can be partially made out to form the opinion that it is a "warning" that not all who buy a chance will win a prize. It also explains that with each sale of soap, an envelope is given, in which contains a slip of paper. That slip of paper informs the purchaser if there is a prize to be awarded. Naturally, as in Soapy Smith's soap racket, Major Ross surely had shills and boosters working with him, hidden in place-sight within the crowd, who would expertly play the part of purchaser who "won" a prize. These bunko-sharps would make a spectacle of themselves, loudly proclaiming, and then claiming their prize in front of all to see. At this point the soap man would announce that certain larger prizes still remain unclaimed, which always excited the crowd to purchase up the remaining cakes of soap. 

Capitalism by Gaslight

Prize Package Soap Sell Racket
(There are numerous posts and they're not in order of importance so make sure to scroll) 

Prize Package Soap Sell Racket: pages 8, 15, 37-39, 41, 43, 45-56, 48, 52, 55-56, 58, 75, 95-97, 106, 119-20, 149, 159, 163, 410, 464, 485.

Not the least amusing trait of “Soapy” Smith’s character is the eager interest which he takes in the preservation of law and order. The interest is, of course, not purely unselfish, for he realizes that crimes of violence create a sort of public opinion likely to be unhealthy for his own peaceful, if peculiar, industry. He feels that there are times when fine distinctions get confused, and therefore he is always foremost for law and order coupled with life, liberty and the pursuit of a sure thing.
San Francisco Examiner
Alias Soapy Smith, p. 493.


1787: Delaware is the first state to ratify the U.S. constitution.
1796: John Adams is elected the second president of the U.S.
1836: Martin Van Buren is elected the eighth president of the U.S.
1863: George Ives, a member of the “innocents” outlaw gang, robs and kills Nick Thiebalt in Ruby Valley, Montana Territory.
1868: The outlaw James-Younger gang robs the Gallatin, Missouri bank. John W. Sheets, a former captain in the Union Army, is shot and killed by Jesse James.
1871: The town of Kit Carson, Colorado Territory is surrounded by thousands of buffalo, who are ranging 200 miles farther west than usual. The Indians of the region say that it is a prediction of a bad winter.
1874: Twenty-six Indians surrender to Captain Keyes and the 10th Cavalry at Kingfisher Creek, Indian Territory.
1874: Four men rob the Tishomingo Bank in Cornith, Mississippi. Newspapers and some historians say it is the work of the James-Younger gang.
1875: John Clark brings the first flock of sheep into Arizona Territory.
1878: The first train to enter New Mexico Territory comes from Colorado via the Raton Pass.
1888: Buffalo Bill Cody visits Cheyenne, Wyoming.

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