February 3, 2023

Did Soapy Smith go to Virginia City in 1885?

The Soap Selling Fakir
Lyon County Times
July 4, 1885

(Click image to enlarge)

 id "Soapy" Smith go to Virginia City in 1885?
In the Lyon County Times, July 4, 1885, there is a mention of a "soap selling fakir."
      The soap selling fakir who offered such splendid inducements to Carsonites and a few Daytonites on circus day, is said to have cleared up about $800 in Virginia City. Where is the fool killer?
      The following day, July 5, 1885, the Weekly Elko Independent (Nevada), quotes the Virginia Chronicle (Virginia City, Nevada)

The Soap Selling Fakir
Weekly Elko Independent
July 5, 1885

(Click image to enlarge)

The Soap Selling Fakir.
     The fakir who offered such splendid inducements to our citizens to acquire sudden wealth by purchasing a cake of his soap and receiving an envelope alleged to contain a $100 bank note in return, is said to have cleaned up $800 last Monday. Several prominent citizens contributed materially toward swelling the hawker’s receipts to such a handsome sum. Among those who invest most liberally, was a learned professor, a prominent hardware merchant, a druggist and a well-known carpenter. The men are not particularly anxious to achieve notoriety as speculators in a scheme where they have since learned that “the more you put down the less you take up,” and in contrast with which three-card monte and ten dice games are sure things to bet on.—Virginia Chronicle.
     Is this Soapy Smith in Nevada in 1885? There are several mentions of the prize package soap sell racket being operated in Nevada, specifically in Virginia City, and the timing was indeed right for the prize package operator to be none other than Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith.
     In 1884-85 Soapy was working to create an empire in Denver, Colorado, and is known to have traveled about the Western states and territories during this period.
     In May 1885 Soapy had inadvertently sold his prize soap to a local resident in Denver. Soapy had a rule of not involving the local Denver citizens in his scams, and this was the first time, in print, that he swindled a Denverite. This was also the first time the alias of “Soapy Smith" was used in print. It placed a "target" on Soapy's back. The city of Denver had sold Soapy the business license, and to protect its reputations, the city quickly passed an ordinance forbidding 'cash prize schemes,' pointed directly at Soapy's prize soap sales.
     Nine days later, Soapy was again in the news. A fight broke out between a victim of the soap sell and one of Soapy's men at the corner of Arapaho and Sixteenth Streets. On June 23, 1885, the city decided to rescind his peddler’s license. Soapy left Denver for an extended cooling off period, fully intending to return. 
     During the periods when Soapy was not in Denver, he toured around the country operating the soap sell racket. Finding articles of prize package soap operations, let alone any provenance that the soap "fakirs" listed in the newspapers were "Soapy" Smith, is difficult as very rarely did the con men stay around long enough to be arrested and/or interviewed.  
     For forty-two days, from June 23 to August 1, 1885, there are no sign of Soapy in Denver or the newspapers. Ten days after leaving Denver, on July 4, 1885, the first newspaper report of the “soap fakir” in Virginia City appears.
     Newspaper accounts regarding soap racket operators and Soapy Smith stopped being published. Soapy's name does appears again on August 2, 1885. He is in Rawlins, Wyoming, where he is the timekeeper during boxing match being fought there. Manager of one of the boxers is Soapy's personal friend, famed lawman and gambler Bat Masterson.
     Soapy returns to Denver and in August 1889 is
held by the grand jury to answer for assault with intent to kill.
He was present yesterday in the criminal division of the district court and gave a bond of $1,000, John Kinneavy becoming his bondsman.
     In that four years between 1885-1889, there are no other reports of "soap fakirs" in Virginia City or Nevada. Soapy leaves
Denver on August 26, and in his September 2, 1889, letter to Mary, he wrote that he was going to Spokane Falls. No records of his activities there nor anywhere during his absence have yet been found, perhaps until now.
     After four years of  no reported "prize soap swindles," the Carson Daily Appeal for October 9, 1889, publishes the following simple message.

The Soap Selling Fakir
Carson Daily Appeal
October 9, 1889

“Look out for the swindling soap games.”
     Eight days later, on October 17, 1889, after a fifty-day absence, Soapy returns to Denver. Note the timing coincidences in this story from 1885 to 1889. Though it can certainly be a coincidence, it can also be addressed as circumstantial evidence that Soapy Smith paid a visit to Virginia City in 1885.



"If he knows the exact position of only one of the 52 cards, he will eventually win all the money in sight."
—John Scarne

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