January 18, 2015

Soapy Smith and the American Institute Fair of 1897.

The American Institute Fair
New York 1897

t is known that Soapy Smith

traveled around the western states following fairs and expositions from which to operate, in his early career as a confidence man. Records show he visited Washington D.C., and his cousin, Edwin Bobo Smith, in early November 1897. Afterwards, he traveled to New York, and was there in early December as well. Soapy was obviously traveling around the eastern seaboard states, and he had a small band of his gang with him. As big as New York is, and was, I am betting that he went there several times, operating short-cons (games of chance), and then leaving the city, to keep from being arrested as he surely feared being extradited back to Denver for missing his court dates in the assault charge stemming from his attack on John Hughes of the Arcade saloon. His younger brother, Bascomb, was serving a one-year sentence, so there is little doubt that Soapy would see time in prison as well.

If I am correct, it seems logical that Soapy went to New York, to make some money ("business before pleasure"), before going to see his cousin. If that is the case, then he was most likely in New York during the final weeks of the American Institute Fair, that ended November 3, 1897. It would have been the perfect place to go for swindling tourists and out-of-townees.   

The American Institute Fair was a technological exposition held annually in New York beginning in 1829. The last one closed in 1897. The American Institute was founded "for the encouragement of agriculture, commerce, manufactures, and the arts." The fair is sometimes referred to as the first world's fair in the U.S., but on a much smaller scale, attracting about 30,000 attendees per year. It was held at Niblo's Garden in New York before being moved to the Crystal Palace in New York. The card above advertises it being held at Madison Square Gardens.

The American Institute Fair
circa 1845
(Click on image to enlarge)

"At these fairs were displayed the finest products of agriculture and manufacturing, the newest types of machinery, the most recent contributions of inventive genius...[the fairs] served a two-fold purpose: that of playing the part of demonstrator to the public and that of furnishing an incentive to the exhibitors, both through competition and through the desire to win the very liberal awards and premiums."
— F. W. Wile, A Century of Industrial Progress, New York, 1928.

The American Institute Fair

At scheduled intervals the Guards would exercise a neat maneuver and fire a volley into the air as Jeff would lift his hat and acknowledge the plaudits of the crowd. It was Soapy’s greatest hour.
— Rev. John Sinclair
Alias Soapy Smith, p. 522.


1778: English navigator Captain James Cook discovers the Hawaiian Islands, which he names the Sandwich Islands.
1803: President Thomas Jefferson, in secret communication with Congress, seeks authorization for the first official exploration of north America by the government.
1836: Jim Bowie arrives at the Alamo in Texas to assist the defenders during the Texas Revolution.
1862: The territories of Arizona and New Mexico are admitted into the Confederacy.
1864: The trial of Christopher Lower, David Renton alias "Doc Howard," James Romain, and Billy Page for the murder of Lloyd Magruder begins in Lewiston, Idaho Territory. Lower, Renton, and Romain are believed to have been members of the outlaw gang “the Innocents."
1872: The Grand Ducal Ball in Denver, Colorado Territory is held in honor of Russian Grand Duke Alexis.
1880: Sometime in June Soapy Smith’s father moves himself and his children, minus his deceased wife and living son, Jefferson (Soapy), to Belton, Texas.
1896: The x-ray machine is exhibited for the first time.

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