December 31, 2022

Did Soapy Smith operate in San Diego, California, in 1886?

Soapy's "soap racket?"
San Diego Union
March 20, 1886

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id Soapy Smith operate in San Diego, California, in 1886?
     I occasionally find newspaper accounts in which I wonder if the unidentified bunco man isn’t “Soapy” Smith. There were a few other confidence men that operated the prize package soap racket around the country so the odds are often pretty slim that it is Soapy. However, in this case there is enough circumstantial evidence pointing to a definite "maybe." The newspaper clipping shown at the top is from the San Diego Union, March 20, 1886, and is transcribed below.

—The “soap racket” was being successfully worked on the corner of Fifth and F streets yesterday, by a follower of the circus. Several suckers bit furiously. A prominent real estate man is said to have also contributed about $12 toward paying the “fakir’s” expenses northward.

     Of interest to note is that $12 in 1886, is the equivalent of about $404.56 in 2023 dollars. Nice payoff, and that was from just one customer.
     Before calling Denver "home," Soapy was a nomad traveling around the western states and territories. There were occasions after he resided in Denver in which he went on the road once again. My research does indicate Soapy was not in Denver at the time of the San Diego incident, meaning that he was on the road and likely operating his cons. Thus, it's possible that it is Soapy. As there is only circumstantial evidence but no provenance, this article will be filed as a “maybe,” and left for future evidence to ascertain in the positive or negative.
Corner of Fifth and F streets
Looking north
Circa 1903
Courtesy of California Historical Society

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Soapy’s wedding to Mary Eva Noonan took place on February 1, 1886. Did the couple go on a trip, perhaps to California? Did Soapy possibly take her to that circus?
     Two letters from Mary in March 1886 are addressed to Soapy at 1711 Larimer Street, Denver. Soapy had his mail delivered to a local cigar manufacturer merchant to keep his residence a secret. Mary was not in Denver at the time, so could have Soapy gone on the road to work?
     On March 13, 1886, the Rocky Mountain News reported the following activity.

The Thieves Must Go

Ten or twelve tin horn gamblers, holdup [men,] and all around thieves have received official notification from the police to leave the city, and several have already complied with the modest request, [—] others have asked and have been granted an extension of time in which to get their traps together. The police are determined to rid the town of suspicious characters. Besides those served with notices, there are a number of others on the list, and they will be notified within a day or two to make themselves scarce. There will be no favor shown to anybody who belongs to the non-producing class. Every man in town who has no visible means of support will receive a notification, if he hasn’t sense enough to leave without one.

      It is possible that Soapy left Denver for a spell, just long enough for the threats to cease. Not certain is whether the police asked Soapy to leave or whether he did so on his own, but between March and December, Soapy's name does not appear in Denver newspapers. Several bunco arrests occurred during this period, but Soapy is not mentioned. 
     Letters to Soapy at the end of December 1886 indicate he was in Chicago. A February 13, 1887, letter to Soapy shows he had been in St. Louis with his wife and children during Christmas. He did not, however, stay away from Denver for long. Letters to Jeff began arriving in Denver in November 1886, addressed to 1711 Larimer Street. Jeff also began receiving letters from old friends and associates.
     As the timing of Soapy's absence from Denver coincides with the San Diego time-line, It is very possible that Soapy Smith operated his prize package soap racket in San Diego, California in 1886.
F street
Looking west from 7th street
Circa 1890
Courtesy Coons collection

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The following was added April 2, 2023

Eight days later, on March 28, 1886, the San Diego Union published that the soap fakir (Soapy Smith?) was at it again.

—The soap fakir spread his "lay-out" for a while yesterday, and caught his usual amount of custom [customers].

The soap fakir
San Diego Union
March 28, 1886

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"All men that bet should not be classed as gamblers, for some things that style themselves men will bet (to win, of course), and kick if they lose, which a gambler will never do, although he may sometimes be sucker enough to bet (to win) against a sure thing, like old monte or a brace game. A kicker, or squealer, always speaks of the money he has lost, against any game, as his money; while the gambler considers the money he loses, against any game, as lost: and it belongs to the person who won it, and you never hear one of them do any kicking."
—George Devol

December 25, 2022

Good and Evil Deeds of Jefferson R. Smith, Denver Evening Post.

Denver Evening Post
July 31, 1898

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A well-written, even if not 100% accurate, article originally published in the Denver Evening Post on July 31, 1898. Written and published just 23-days after "Soapy's" Demise, the article contains true events of Soapy's empire in Denver, Colorado, but the newspaper author did use some creative license. The article made its way around the newspapers of the US so it is not surprising that in the decades to come, book and article authors used this newspaper piece as a source.
     Below is the transcribed article.

     Many people are still talking about Soapy Smith and telling of the good as well as the bad things he did in his lifetime. For “Soapy” did do good things—sometimes.
     The exact date of Smith’s arrival in Denver is not known. Most everybody says “he was here when I came.” Others say “he came here when I was boarding at the old Lincoln hotel, and his first appearance in Denver was in ’76. Regardless of what date he came, it is a well-known fact he was here for a long time. Many know that to their sorrow.
     “Soapy’s” right name was Jefferson Randolph Smith. He got the name of “Soapy” by his ability to sell for $10 small cakes of soap in which was wrapped $1 bills. The police department gave him the name and it stuck to him through life to death.
     When he first came to Denver one of the officers had occasion to walk him to jail for selling soap on the streets without a license. It was different then from what it is now. Then an officer making an arrest walked his prisoner to the jail, put him in a cell and then wrote the prisoner’s name on the police docket. The particular officer first dealing with Smith was John Holland. He could not think of Smith’s first name, so he wrote the word “Soapy” in parenthesis, after “Smith.”
     It was Soapy Smith forever afterwards.
     It was not long until “Soapy” had gained the reputation of being a very shrewd bunco man. To carry on his unlawful vocation successfully it was necessary for him to have men to help him, and it was not long, therefore, until he was surrounded with a crowd who were willing to do almost anything he told them. These men were always talking of what a good man “Soapy” was, and after awhile there got to be hundreds of people who actually believed them.
     Smith was what was termed among the fraternity a “grand-stand player,” and a “double-crosser.” That means that he would rob or bunco some man for $1,000, and then spend $200 on some poor family or church with great display. The “double-cross” comes in against his partners in crime, who on numerous occasions got decidedly the worst of it from him. There is no doubt whatever that Soapy helped many poor families and actually kept them from starving. There is also no doubt that he made many a man poor and the victim’s family suffer.
     “Soapy” had a conscience. Some people doubt this statement, and say it is not true; but it is. His conscience only worked, however, at intervals, while he himself worked all the time. He loved his wife and family as dearly as any man, and he provided well for them, too. Nothing that money could buy was too good for them. He was intelligent, well educated and could talk faster and a little bit louder than anyone with whom he ever conversed. He could pull his revolver and shoot as quickly as any man, and the only thing he feared was a jail.
     He would go into any kind of a free-for-all fight, whether his friends were mixed up or not, and very seldom get worsted. It very seldom happened when Smith was in a fight that all his adversaries got away without some one being shot, and it was never “Soapy,” his last fight being an exception. He was never convicted here of any crime greater than plain assault, but this was due to the fact that he had a “pull” with the city and county officials, as all habitual violators of the law must have to carry on their great work successfully. He committed great offenses, but his “pull” always got him out with a small fine. This “pull” cost him many dollars as the officials bled him nearly as hard as he bled his regular victims.
     As a crook he had no specialty further than to get money. He could “deal the off,” “work a cold deck,” “do the straight big mit,” sell a bogus railroad ticket or simply talk the money out of his victim’s pockets and into his own. He nearly always got the money and that was his sole object.
     Strange as it may seem, though, with all his shrewdness, he was an unlucky gambler, and when he lost he lost heavily. This was the same with his drinking, the former usually following the latter. He sold “gold bricks., mines that were never dug and railroads that were never built. He was king of the bunco men of the West.
     He was like the shoulder blades of Katisha; people came miles to see him. He is dead now and he will be seen no more.
     “Soapy” did not win every time he caught a victim. On one occasion he came out decidedly the worst for it—but he got the money just the same. It was when he was running the Tivoli saloon and gambling house at Seventeenth and Market streets. Some of his co-workers lured a man upstairs to the gambling house. The word soon went out that the victim had money and “Soapy” went to deal faro, as was the rule when fine work was to be done. The victim was a miner who had spent several years in the mountains and was returning to his home in the East. He won a few bets, but began to lose. A well-known Denver man stepped in at this juncture and seeing what was going on, began to play also. But he “coppered” every bet the miner made. That is, whatever card the miner bet on, he bet against. The victim lost, but the citizen won. All kinds of inducements were offered to get the new player to stop, but he shook his head and listened to nothing that was said, declaring that the gambling house was public and his money was as good as any one else’s. It would not do to kick up a row or the victim would “wise up,” quit playing, and in all probability complain to the police. The citizen was allowed to win $1,800, but the victim lost $2,500 and went back to the mines the next day on money borrowed from Smith to make another stake.
     For years when the cold winds of winter were causing people to seek shelter in some building as it blew the snow in great drifts, “Soapy’s” conscience would hurt him. Every Christmas morning when happiness seemed only for the rich, he would buy a barrel of dressed turkeys and stand on the street corner. He would give one of the turkeys to every man who came along that had the appearance of being poor. When one barrel was gone he would get another and would put in the day in this occupation. He made many a home happy by doing this. Last year was the first time he missed giving something to all the poor people he met, and there is little doubt that his absence was noted more than that of any other one man who lived in Denver. Families who had not had a square meal in months got one on Christmas through the kindness of Smith. Yet the money was robbed from other people.
     When it was “day all day in the daytime” at Creede “Soapy” ran the town and made “no night.” He went into the camp during the excitement with a large gang of followers who elected him marshal. They had everything their own way. Anybody he wanted there removed, and those whom he did not want were furnished with a time table of the train leaving the camp and were requested to vacate. They always complied with the request. They were wise men. After a while the better element got a foothold in the camp and then came the fire that wiped out the town. Smith left the camp.
     This was the beginning of the end. He never prospered after that. He came back to Denver and found the Populists in power and a new set of officers to deal with. Although some of the old ones still remained on the force.
     When the city hall war was on Smith took an active part in the bloodless battle. He mustered up a company of sharpshooters, armed with Winchester rifles, but he did not need them. From that on he seemed doomed. Whatever else can be said of the Populist administration, it was the one responsible for breaking up Smith and his gang. He was arrested many times. In fact so often that he got to thinking it was done for the purpose of having him resist arrest so an excuse could be made to kill him. During that administration when “Soapy” had occasion to go to police headquarters he would enter with his hands held as far above his head as he could get them, and the first words he would say were, “Gentlemen, I am unarmed.”
     Smith took more pleasure in “turning” (which means doing the actual bunco) a “gentleman,” than he did any one else. His conception of “gentleman” was a man well dressed and sportively inclined.
     Robert Fitzsimmons, the champion pugilist of the world, knows this well. When Fitz was here the first time, long before he had studied anatomy and discovered the solar plexus, he was picked up by the “Rev.” Joe Bowers, the same man that was with Smith when he was killed. This “pick up” consisted of an introduction that had been arranged for. Bowers was introduced as “Colonel Huntington, general manager of the Southern Pacific railroad, with headquarters in New York.” “Colonel Huntington” said he was out here in his special car on a business trip and would in all probability leave for New York the following night. He invited Fitz and his wife to accompany him on the trip. Fitz wanted to get to New York and he welcomed the invitation gladly. He seemed to reach out for it and take it to his bosom.
     “Colonel Huntington” Suggested a walk, as he did not like the curiosity seekers that followed Fitz to be gazing at him too. They got into a carriage and were driven several blocks as fast as he horses could go, so the crowd could not follow. Then they got out of the carriage and walked down Seventeenth street. “Huntington” was met by a well dressed man who talked “railroad,” and said he had a business transaction to attend to. They all started up to Larimer street. The “colonel” knocked at a door not far from Seventeenth street and a voice said “Come in.” “Soapy” was on the inside but Fitz did not know him and he was introduced as Major Southern. The Colonel and the major talked over “business” and a game of poker was proposed. Fitz had a little over $400 with him and was wearing a diamond in his cravat and a diamond in each of his cuff link buttons.
     The game dragged along for a time. Not much money changing hands and to make it interesting the $25 limit was taken off, leaving the same “open.” There were four men in it—“Major Southern,” “Colonel Huntington,” Fitzsimmons and the man they met on Seventeenth street. A jackpot was going around and had been sweetened until there was $20 in it. “Colonel Huntington” suggested that every one sweeten $10 just for fun and with a “you-can’t-bluff-me” air “Major Southern” said: “We’ll make it $20 more.” The other man, of course, hurried in with his $30, which only left Fitz to be “bull-headed.” He thought of the trip to New York in the “colonel’s” special car and dropped in his $30. This made the pot worth $140—and “Soapy” was dealing.
     “Colonel Huntington” was sitting next to the dealer, next Fitz, and then the man who was playing just to be sociable.” The “colonel” seemed disgusted and passed on the blind without looking at his cards. Fitz opened the pot and the sociable man stayed in. It was worth $140, but Fitz opened it low with an even $100. “Major Southern” looked at his hand and said: “Oh, I’ll stay.” He dropped in his hundred. “Colonel Huntington” picked up his cards with the remark that the pot was worth fighting for and he raised $150, making $250 he put in.
     When he said “fight” Fitz glanced at him, then skinned his cards down and his three tens were still there. He stood the raise. The sociable man said he did not know the game very well, but he guessed he would stay. “Major Southern” passed out. “Colonel Huntington” drew one card. Fitz drew two and the sociable man took one. Fitz caught a pair of sevens with his three tens and pulling all his money from his pocket, bet $150. The sociable man raised the bet $150 and “colonel Huntington” dropped out. Fitz only had a few dollars in change left and he was very much excited. He was about to speak for a showdown when the sociable man suggestively asked him what his diamonds were worth. Fitz replied $300, but he would let them go into the pot for $150 if it was agreeable. It was, of course, and into the pot went the cuff buttons. He was growing more excited every minute and somehow his cravat would not come undone. He grabbed the tie and jerked it from his neck, tearing it in two and threw the whole thing into the pot.
     The sociable man had a king full on fours.
     “Colonel Huntington” had a pressing engagement and hurried Fitz out of the room. He said he had some diamonds in his car that he would give the prize fighter while on the trip to New York.
     The next night Fitz, accompanied by his wife, asked the depot policeman to show them “Colonel Huntington’s” special car, as they were going East with that distinguished gentleman that night. After being assured that there was no special car in the city and had not been, it dawned upon Fitz that he had been against what is commonly known as the “big mit.” His wife had enough money to purchase the tickets for Chicago and they left that night., but not in a special car. Fitz tells this story himself when confidential.
     Parson Tom Uzzell knew “Soapy.” He is glad that he did, for on several occasions Smith helped him out of predicaments that were extremely embarrassing. On one occasion the parson went to Creede to dedicate a tent that had been erected for religious worship. It was thought by many that a church would not be allowed to open its doors, so lawless was that great mining camp, but Smith knew the parson and he was as welcome as the flowers that bloom in the spring.
     The parson arrived in the camp on a Saturday and was met at the depot by “Soapy,” who escorted him to a hotel and introduced him to every man, woman and child in the town. The parson did not retire until late and when shown his room disrobed, and doubling his trousers up placed them beneath his pillow so they would not be stolen. In the pockets of the trousers was $75 in a purse.
     During the night the parson was awakened by a tug at his pillow and opened his eyes just in time to see the form of a man making a hasty exit through the window. He felt for his trousers and found they were gone. He thought there was no use in crying over spilled milk, or lost trousers, so he went to sleep again. He had his breakfast served in his room the next morning, using the bedspread for a napkin. He informed the landlord, through the mediation of the porter, of what had occurred during the night, and the landlord sent up a pair of blue overalls to replace the trousers that had been stolen. The parson searched the pockets, thinking the theft of the night might have been a joke, but he found nothing. He pulled on the overalls and went down into the office where the first man he met was “Soapy.”
     The bunco man welcomed the parson and said he had heard that the reverend gentleman had been robbed during the night. “Soapy” sympathized with the loser of the $75 and the trousers and said: “Parson, I’ve just got a twenty-dollar note with me and I am going to play faro, and win out for you.” He left the place but returned in an hour and handed the parson $120, which he said he had won at bank.
     Others told a different story. They said that “Soapy” had tried to win out for the parson, but lost $800 in doing it. Then he borrowed the $120 from two different men and gave it to Uzzell, at the same time telling him that he had won it at the gaming table.
     The church was dedicated the next day and the parson came back to Denver. The second day after his arrival here he met an old friend on the street and they stopped and began to talk. The old friend had been imbibing freely and told the parson he had heard of the robbery at Creede. He dragged the minister into a saloon, wrote out his check for $25 and insisted on Uzzell taking it. For five consecutive days the parson met this old friend, although he asserts the meetings were accidental, and each time was made to accept a check for $25. This made the parson $170 winner on the robbery and besides, he saved several souls. The day he arrived in Denver from Creede Uzzell found the stolen pocketbook, minus the money, in his upper coat pocket. How it got there is still a mystery that the parson does not try to solve. He carries the purse now.
     There was another occasion when “Soapy” and his gang did the parson and his congregation a good turn. The tabernacle in which Mr. Uzzell was and is yet the pastor was badly in debt. There were two notes to meet and the congregation being poor it looked for a time as though the holders of the notes would take the building. It became noised about among the sporting fraternity that the parson was much distressed. The cause was also known, so a party of gamblers got together and sent quite a sum of money to the preacher, who immediately called a meeting to offer prayers for those who were so kind to him.
     During the meeting the door opened and a boy walked to the pulpit and informed the parson that a gentleman was on the outside and desired very much to see him.
     “Tell him I’ll be there in a minute,” said Mr. Uzzell and the boy left. He returned again shortly and said the business was urgent and the gentleman at the door must see him immediately. The parson went to the door and found “Soapy,” who shook the minister’s hand warmly, at the same time dropping a $10 gold piece into his palm. The parson was introduced to ten gamblers that ”Soapy” brought with him and each gambler dropped a $10 gold piece into his hand as Smith had done. Smith said they had just come down to make a call and inquire how business was and then they left. When the parson went inside with his eleven $10 gold pieces he told his congregation of what had occurred and ordered the prayer meeting continued for two hours longer.
     When “Soapy” did things like these the general public seldom heard of them, but when a bunco trick was turned it was published in all the papers that “Soapy” Smith had caught another sucker.” These two cases wherein Smith aided the parson would never have been known had not Mr. Uzzell told of them himself.
     Smith was accused of being implicated in every confidence game in Denver, which was untrue, as there were others, and they are still here, too. Of course, it was not “Soapy’s” fault that he and his men did not catch all the unsuspecting and get their money, but sometimes they came so fast that he could not handle them all. But he got the blame for it just the same. The police would give it out that “Soapy” had buncoed another man and it would be published that way, and would be believed by every one but the police and some of the inner circle.
     One day during the Populist administration, “Old Yank” Adams, who was known as a friend of Smith’s, went to headquarters to inquire about his pet dog. The dog had been lost and “Yank” thought perhaps the police might know what had become of it. The lieutenant in charge of the office at the time immediately concluded that “yank” was there for the purpose of finding out if some one who had just been buncoed had complained, and that he had not lost the dog at all. So the lieutenant sent for “Soapy,” had him arrested on the charge of “suspicion,” and held him for two hours waiting for some one to come in and complain about him. No one came and Smith was released.
     “Soapy” was not the kind of man that was always trying to get some officer stripped of his authority, as two well-known detectives of St. Louis can testify. He was in St. Louis several years ago and was standing in a saloon when two detectives, who were very much under the influence of liquor, entered. The bartender pointed “Soapy” out to them and said he was a bad man from the West. The detectives wanted to gain some notoriety, and approached Smith, saying: “You are ‘Soapy’ Smith, a gun-fighter from Denver, ain’t you?”
     “Soapy” acknowledged that the detectives were right in their identification, but said he was no fighter. Some words passed, when one of the detectives pulled his revolver from his pocket and struck Smith over the head. The other detective drew his gun, and before “Soapy” could defend himself he was very badly beaten. The detectives sent him to police headquarters on the charge of vagrancy, which charge they trumped up against him to save themselves. “Soapy was so badly hurt that the police surgeon was obliged to dress his wounds.
     While this was being done Chief Harrigan came into the office and inquired how Smith got hurt. The detectives said he had resisted arrest and they were obliged to “trim him up.” By some means the chief found out the true state of affairs and asked “Soapy” to bring charges against the detectives for their cruel treatment.
     “I thought of that,” said “Soapy,” “but I investigated and found that both men have families depending upon them for support and I decided not to do it.”
     The chief insisted, saying that he did not want such men on his force and some one had to make the charges.
     “Well, I’ll never make them, and if I am subpoenaed, I’ll testify that I started the fight,” said “Soapy.” He left town the next day and the detectives are still on the force.
     “Soapy” and Edward Chase, still a very rich resident of Denver, were in partnership at one time and here is where he gained the reputation of being a “double crosser.”
     Smith and Chase did a good business. One day two families of Germans came to town and it did not take an experienced eye to tell their nationality. They stopped at a down town hotel and during the day one of the Chase-Smith men got into conversation with the heads of the families and found out that they had about $8,000. This was quickly reported to “Soapy,” and he began laying plans to get this money. He went to see the Germans and entered into negotiations to sell a mine. The mine was in California, he said, and he had just taken out $6,000 worth of gold. He would sell a half interest of it for $8,000 and would put $5,000 of his own money into a fund along with the $8,000 to be used for development work and to buy machinery. He went to Chase and got the $5,000, and to make the play good he said he would put the money in any man’s hands whom the German’s would name. The only person they knew in this city was the man they had met in the hotel corridor, an accomplice of Smith’s. They seemed to think that this individual was all right and just as Smith had expected they chose him. They all started for California but just after getting over the state line “Soapy” received a bogus telegram telling him to come back, that his wife was dangerously ill. He turned the man that was supposed to have the money over to the Germans and took the next train for Denver. The man gave the Germans the slip at a little station further West and also came back to this city, leaving the Germans practically penniless and in a strange country.
     When Soapy arrived here he immediately dissolved partnership with Chase, kept all the money and gave the other man the ha-ha. This was told on him among the fraternity and from that date he was called a “double crosser.”
     While “Soapy” was in Creede he thought it would be a good plan to find a petrified man, so he had an image made and buried. It was “found” by a miner who was prospecting and “Soapy” purchased it. He put it in a store room and exhibited it, charging 10¢ admission. It was exhibited all over the state until the novelty wore off and then it was stored in a basement.
     Then Smith began selling half interests in this petrified man and made considerable money out of the transactions. He would sell a half interest in this fraud nearly every day. Each purchaser would be intimidated to such an extent that he would gladly abandon all claim and not give the bunco man any trouble. The price of half this fraud ranged from $25 to $250 and it is said that it was sold at least 100 times, but the goods were never delivered, Smith always retaining possession of both halves.
     This petrified man is now in an express office in Seattle, where it is held for charges.



"The generality of people throughout the world are of the opinion that gamblers are the worst people on the face of the earth. They are wrong, for I tell you there is ten times more rascality among men outside of the class they call gamblers than there is inside of it."
—George Devol

December 22, 2022

Soapy Smith ill over some caned tamales

San Francisco Chronicle
May 19, 1898

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San Francisco Chronicle
May 19, 1898

The friends of “Soapy” Smith are somewhat alarmed because of a sudden illness which last night seized the captain of the “Skagway Guards.” It is feared that Captain Smith has been poisoned by some canned tamales he ate.
Joseph D. Barry
Witnessed and reported by Joseph D. Barry, a reporter stationed in Skagway, Alaska. Besides this article, Barry played an important role in Skagway history reporting on the "Bunko Men and Their Tricks," San Francisco Chronicle, April 10, 1898, and later acted in the capacity of an official witness and jury member in the May 31, 1898, inquest into the death and robbery of prostitute Ella D. Wilson, who may have been murdered by associates of the soap gang.


Joseph D. Barry
Nov 21. 2022

Joseph D. Barry: page 506.

"After Canada Bill lost his pile in a backwoods village gambling shack, George Devol demanded, "Don't you know that game is rigged?" Canada Bill replied: "Of course, I know the game is rigged. But it's the only game in town."
—George Devol

December 19, 2022

Mock Auctions: How Cheap Watches are “Worked Off” on Countrymen.

San Francisco Chronicle
June 22, 1879

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ock auction houses were a very successful addition to "Soapy" Smith's swindle businesses in Denver, Colorado. 
The mock auction is a swindle in which a victim bids on and purchases what he is made to believe is a high quality gold watch, but in fact, he is paying good money for a very low quality one. Past research and articles I have published on Soapy's mock auction houses were based on period newspaper articles, which gave some great information, while leaving open-ended questions, as to the details of where and how the watches were obtained. Based on letters in the family collection, I believed that Soapy purchased the cheap watches. One letter in family hands comes from C. C. Lamos, a retail and supply company from Chicago, dated December 4, 1883.
Friend Jeff

      Am dam [sic] sorry the watches did not pan out all ok.… You must always send them back at my expense as I hate like the duce [sic] to have any of the old boys kick on me. I had rather pay the difference myself. 6 oz white watches nice ones 4.25 each, is the best anyone can do. They are nice ones. Just got in a fine lot today. The Silver watches I have just [illegible] up to the Waltham agency here and will see what they say. He sends this reply and you can’t get any made I don’t think this season as they are very busy at the factory for holidays.
     [John] Waller is still in Oregon doing well as usual he is making big money this year. Wishing you the best of good luck.

I am yours only
Lamos [1]
The fact that the letter is an apology for poor quality watches had me wondering how Soapy kept a constant supply of watches coming in as any break in the supply would shut down the auction house until more watches were received.
     I came across a good answer from a newspaper article published in the San Francisco Chronicle, June 22, 1879.

How Cheap Watches are “Worked Off” on Countrymen.

      The CHRONICLE has repeatedly shown up in its columns the snares and nefarious methods adopted by bunko and cheater “steerers” to entrap country visitors and rob them of their hard-earned money. There is yet another class of swindlers, whose victims are numbered by the legion, who nightly ply their thieving art, and from the peculiar manner with which their operations are conducted they are seldom or never caught and consequently but little publicity is ever given to their transactions. The swindlers referred to are certain Cheap John establishments on Kearny street and their game is so ingeniously played that frequently city people and bucolic visitors whose wisdom teeth have been cut by experience with bunko and cheater men, readily fall into the trap and are swindled. For the benefit of those who do not know the game alluded to or the history of it.

From the time the Cheap John gets it until it is disposed of to some victim looking for a bargain, the following will be of interest. The proprietors of these Cheap John stores will, during the day, when they are short of material, visit the various pawn-broker establishments in the city and buy up the unredeemed cheap silver and white metal case watches at an average price of $2.70 apiece. The watches, with a sufficient number of steel chains, are then taken to a gold plater, who soon after turns them out with bright gold cases. The plating is done with 18-carat gold, and a white metal or brass case watch is sold as an 18-carat gold watch. If it is a silver case watch it is sold with the guarantee that it is on a “coin basis.” In the employ of these Cheap John stores are some six or eight cappers. During the night they are given a watch to “work off,” and if successful they receive for their services a dollar a piece. The chronometer, the brand of which is generally Swiss, is “worked off” as follows: Capper No. 1, having received the watch before the evening’s business has opened, waits until the store is filled by a crowd of the curious when he approaches the auctioneer and intimates to him that he would like to sell his watch, which is either an “heirloom” or one that cost him $75. The auctioneer takes the watch and tells the “owner” he will charge him one dollar for selling it. The watch is offered for sale and Capper No. 2 bids $5 for it, which is quickly followed by bids from the other cappers until it is run up to say $10, and at that price it is knocked down to the bidder.


Then speaks up, and says he will not allow the watch to go for such a low figure. He is informed by the auctioneer that he can make one bid for the watch, which he does, $16, and at that figure it is sold to him. The auctioneer claims his dollar for selling it, and, of course, as the “owner” has not that amount, the watch is then auctioned off again. It is now, the victim takes his first bite. The watch is started at $2, and the countryman maybe bids $5. The cappers crowd around him and explain its mechanism, the solidness of the case and the clearness of the crystal, etc. Greeny is caught; and the bids are run up on him until he bids $35 or $40, when it is knocked down to him at that price. He is then taken to the back of the store and charged one dollar for buying the watch, and if he asks for a guarantee, he is given the following: “Received of John Doe, $40, for a watch. —.” The countryman no sooner reaches the sidewalk with his presumed prize when he is roosted by another capper, who tells him that if the watch is gold he will give him $50 for it. They go to a jewelry store near-by where the watch is tested with water contained in a gold bottle. The jeweler demands one dollar before he will give the result of the test, and the money is handed over, and the victim is told that the watch is not gold, and he is advised to take it back to the auction-house and have it sold. He does so and the auctioneer again puts it up for sale and knocks it down to one of the cappers, who bids $2.50 for it. The seller retains one dollar as his commission, and hands over the balance, $1.50 to the countryman, who is

OUT JUST $38.50

On his bargain. It frequently happens that among the watches purchased by the Cheap John there is a small one. A satin-lined case is made for it, and it is then given to one of the cappers, who presents it at the mock-auction counter with the story that it was a wedding-present to his wife and that he is compelled by reduced circumstances to thus part with it. It is at once offered for sale, and “worked off” on some victim whose sympathies are interested by the tale of domestic affliction which caused the sacrifice of the marital memento, and who imagines that he is purchasing a first-class watch at a price far below its actual value.
     I found the details of how the mock auction houses operate to be of great interest, as Soapy's mock auctions in Denver likely utilized many of the same methods. Some of the information is new to me, such as
  • the purchase of "cheap silver and white metal case watches" from local pawn brokers, cheaply gold-plated, and then auctioned as being high quality gold watches.
  • The detail of the set-up and how the cappers lure-in the victims to bid.
  • The elaborate play of the capper offering to purchase the victim's new watch at a nice profit, with the condition of visiting a local jeweler for an appraisal, only to find out that the watch is not worth the price the victim paid for it.
  • Most notable for me is how the victim is lured back to the auction house, allows the watch to be auctioned off again, resulting in the loss of the bulk of the amount originally paid as well as the loss of the watch itself, thus allowing the swindlers to auction off the same watch to another victim.  

Click to enlarge

[1] Letter from C. C. Lamos to Jeff R. Smith, December 4, 1883. 

Mock Auctions: pages 15, 30, 43, 45, 47-48, 51, 58, 75-76, 88, 90, 92, 120, 129-32, 138, 159, 162.63, 180, 188, 190-91, 202-05.

"A sucker has no business with money in the first place."
—"Canada Bill" Jones

December 6, 2022

Possible "Victim" Cover-up in Denver Discovered

San Francisco Chronicle
May 6, 1893

(Click image to enlarge)

San Francisco Man Taken in by Denver Card Sharks
 "First time I ever got caught" (Soapy Smith)
This post was originally supposed to be about a new "victim" (Charles Anderson) swindled by the soap gang that I recently uncovered during a search through newspaper archives, but in looking through my files I found something very interesting. A Denver newspaper appears to have another version of the same incident, on the same day, but with a different individual, and with Soapy Smith being the victim.
     I found an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, May 6, 1893. See the photo at the top of this post, and the text below.

A San Francisco Man Taken in by Denver Card Sharks.

      DENVER, May 5.—Charles Anderson and wife arrived on a morning train from San Francisco, en route for Boston. While waiting for their train the couple took a stroll to see the city. By a clever piece of work Anderson was induced to bet on a hand of cards. He ran as high as $475 and gave his check for it. Of course he lost. He sought the patrolman on the beat and was directed to police headquarters. Detective Peterson was sent to demand restoration of the check on pain of instant arrest. The check was returned and the couple continued on their way across the continent. Soapy Smith’s gang are supposed to be the rascals who inveigled Anderson into the game.
Obviously, Mr. Anderson was pretty lucky in getting his check returned. In this article it would appear that Soapy and the gang simply lost out in collecting their booty.
     Before writing up this post I performed some research through my files, for additional information. Ironically, on the very same day that the San Francisco Chronicle story was published (May 6, 1893), another different version was reported in the Rocky Mountain News. One in which the victims name was completely different, and one in which Soapy was the "victim," being "buncoed" out of ten dollars, by a Swede named Nels Larson, not Charles Anderson.
     Below is the article and text for the Rocky Mountain News version.

Rocky Mountain News
May 6, 1893

 (Click image to enlarge)
An Innocent Swede Does Up the Wiley Thimble Rigger.
     Soapy Smith was buncoed out of ten great big silver dollars yesterday morning by a country Swede named Nels Larson. Larson and his wife on their way from the coast to Boston stopped over a few hours and Larson, who had heard of the growler [faro] attempted to buck it in the Tivoli Club. He was steered against a game of faro and lost $40 in cash and $270 besides, for which he presented a draft on Boston for $470. Soapy Smith was out at the time and one of his men cashed the check and gave Larson only $200 in change. The Swede went to his wife, and when she heard of his loss she made him telegraph to have payment on the draft stopped. Jeff Smith heard of this and he had a lively chase to catch Larson to get his money back. Larson and his wife had, meantime, applied to the police for aid. Just before the train pulled out all interested parties came together, and Smith was compelled to accept $190 back for the check for which he had given $200.
     "First time I ever got caught," said Jeff to Detectives Cook and Peterson, who accompanied Larson.
     The crime was most likely real, but the facts appear to have been altered to protect Soapy and the Denver police. Could it be as simple as a mistake in reporting the name by the San Francisco Chronicle? The published story in Denver was written up so as to make fun of Soapy and his loss, but was the loss real? Could someone friendly to Soapy and the gang (Denver police?), have told the Rocky Mountain News, a false account of the incident, including falsifying the victim's name, in order to protect Soapy and the police (Detectives Cook and Peterson?) from being reported as allies and victors in the swindle? To keep the newspaper from finding out that the victim was not so fortunate as the story stated?
     In addition, though it may be a simple coincidence, I found the name "Charles Anderson" in one of Soapy's notebooks (artifact #69) that I posted on September 23, 2020.

Soapy Smith's notebook
Page 1 side-view
Artifact #69
Jeff Smith Collection

(Click image to enlarge)
The notebook notation reads,
"Frank H. Anderson
818 Market St.
San Francisco, Cal

Charles Anderson
834 Folsom

Ella Gusset
same address"

Note "same address" at bottom, meaning that they live at the same address as Frank H. Anderson in San Francisco, just as victim "Charles Anderson" did in the newspaper account. Could the "wife" have been Ella Gusset? Why did Soapy have these names in his notebook? Could he have been gathering information in case Anderson's bank chose to reject cashing of his check? Fighting a bank in such a case was common, sometimes Soapy won, sometimes he didn't. In one incident it is reported that "witnesses" were used to testify that the victim was actually "a known gambler," and one who has "previously reneged on paying his gambling debts."
     Interesting how two newspaper articles from 1893 can open up a potential case of corruption.



"I don't know what a scoundrel is like, but I know what a respectable man is like, and it's enough to make one's flesh creep."
—Joseph De Maistre