April 14, 2023

Soapy Smith in Leadville, Colorado, December 1888

‘Soapy’ had his fangs in deep
Los Angeles Daily Herald
January 12, 1896

(Click image to enlarge)


December 1888

Following is a newspaper story about a man who witnesses bunko man "Soapy" Smith swindle a drunk prospector, and decides he should take advantage of the victim as well. I start the transcribing at paragraph eight, but the entire article is posted above, for those that wish to read the entire article, published in the
Los Angeles Daily Herald, January 12, 1896. From the man's memory this event took place in December 1888.
… “The night I struck Leadville, just to show I didn’t hold myself higher than the residents of Leadville, I went into Richardson’s and bought $50 worth of chips, all for the honor and glory of Kentucky Flat. In one hour and a half I was standing up against the stove thinking it over. I didn’t have enough money left to buy a split [a bet on the faro table], and the essentials for the celebration hadn’t been paid for.
     “While I was chewing on the situation by the stove, in comes ‘Soapy” Smith with a stranger called ‘Doc.’ You know ‘Soapy?’ He was the most capable bunco man that ever came over the divide. He had a record of ‘conning’ a policeman out of his star. The man with ‘Soapy’ was drunk and clamorous for a game. He had his pockets bulging with money. I heard afterward he’d sold his mine over in Clear Creek, and came over to go into the silver. ‘Soapy’ had his fangs in deep. His scheme was not to rob the man outright, but he had it fixed up with the faro dealer —to do the job smooth and clean, and leave no place open for future criticism. Smith just borrowed money from his friend to get into the game, and as fast as a card came out of the box the dealer grabbed off ‘Soapy’s’ stake, win or lose. They played entirely with $50 bills. ‘Doc’ had ‘em wrapped up in packages of ten. I didn’t know there were so many $50 notes on earth as he flashed up, and I yearned for one of the bundles; just naturally sickened and pined for it. He went on with the game, not winning and not losing, same as drunks always play. I invented a scheme to coax him out and rob him. I had a plan that would have worked, but I discarded it. I couldn’t turn crook, tough as my own luck was. All the time this foolish man was shoveling out money in $500 lots to ‘Soapy,’ and the dealer was mowing it away in his lap, it came so swift. Presently the drunk says he’ll step out into the barroom for a drink. Then I says to myself. ‘Here’s where you get action,’ and I followed him through the swing doors into the saloon.
     “He was holding on to the bar, waiting for the drink. I makes a quick step to him and whispers, ‘Smith wants some more money.’
     “The ‘doc’ makes a kick about the kind of luck his friend seemed to be playing in, but goes down in his vest for the stuff. He tossed out a little roll, which I counted in my room over in the hotel. It was $488. The price of two bottles he and ‘Soapy’ Smith broke somewhere was gone from one of those $500 packages. Kentucky Flat had its celebration all night.
     “That, Grant,” said The Busted Prospector, “was the nearest I ever came to turning a crooked trick.”
     “Oh, there was nothing wrong about that any more than any other kind of robbery—just plain stealing, that’s all,” said Crumley.
     “No, it wasn’t robbery,” argued the Prospector. “I might have stood him up and got the whole bundle. It was finding it.” —William E. Lewis in Chicago Times-Herald.
     Was Soapy in Leadville in December 1888? According to the Leadville Herald Democrat Soapy was reported in Leadville on May 1, 1888.
One of the slickest and best known rascals in the whole western country is reported … on his way to Leadville…. The gentleman … —Soapy Smith—is known to many people in Leadville, as he has been here frequently, and always with … a small valise filled with small cakes of soap in little boxes, and a very pretty Mrs. Smith, who travels with him.

     The individual telling the story said he went into "Richardson's" to gamble. In looking at the city directories for 1882-1890, I found one, Rufus Richardson listed as owning a restaurant at the rear of 123 W. 5th in 1887. On the Sanborn maps of 1886 and 1889 the address is listed as a store.
     For the entire story of this amazing confidence man, you can read my book, Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel.



"Having got him partly or wholly drunk, he is in a fit condition to understand the beauties and mysteries of 'bunko.'"
Evening Post (San Francisco)
May 6, 1876

April 12, 2023

Did Soapy Smith operate in Sacramento, California in 1887-88?

The soap trick man
Sacramento Daily Union
September 22, 1887

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as Soapy Smith operating at Sacramento, California in 1887-88?
(quick answer: Maybe.)

      On April 23, 2023 I published a story on the possibility that Soapy Smith operated his prize package soap racket in Sacramento, California, in mid-July 1885. My conclusion is that “The timing, between June 23 and August 1, 1885, is right, thus Soapy may have operated in Sacramento, California, on July 14, 1885.”
     Since posting that story I have found two more newspaper clippings in which a prize package soap racket operator worked the streets of Sacramento in late September 1887 and mid–February 1888. The following is from the Sacramento Daily Union, September 22, 1887.
The soap trick man—the sharper who gulls the verdant by offering for sale little packages of soap, into which he ostensibly puts a $5 greenback, the purchaser finding to his disappointment that it was only a pretense—has commenced business on the streets. His scheme is little if any better than the shell game for the public.
This newspaper account is dated just over two years after the initial prize package soap man in Sacramento, July 15, 1885. All I have at this time is circumstantial evidence that I supply from Soapy’s timeline, via my book, Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel and my extensive files. We need to keep in mind that it is possible that any one of the three, or even all of them, are different individual bunko men. One, two, or all three may be Soapy. Also possible is that none of them is Soapy Smith. 
     In 1887 Soapy was an established criminal and political power in Denver, Colorado. He was married and had a child on the way. Though well established, Soapy still needed to leave Denver periodically, for short periods of time, sometimes longer, depending on the severity of his crimes, until the memory of his crimes were swept under a rug.
     I investigated the known traveling plans and locations of Soapy, and whether he was in Denver previous to and post September 22, 1887, to see if a trip to Sacramento was possible. Following is what I uncovered.
  • On January 1, 1887, the Rocky Mountain News reported that Soapy had made a trip to St. Louis to see his wife when she was close to giving birth. Though eight months previous to the soap man in Sacramento, this is the first of many trips Soapy made going east of Denver. A February 13, 1887, letter to Jeff shows he had been in St. Louis with his wife and baby son during Christmas. A month after their son Jefferson was born, he wrote to his wife Mary on March 19, 1887, Mary and the baby were still at her mother’s in St. Louis, and trips were still being made to see them.
  • In July 1887 the Rocky Mountain News somehow got hold of Soapy's travel itinerary and published it.
Soapy Smith, one of the local celebrities of Denver and one of the most pushing business men in the city, left last Tuesday evening in the rain for a month’s sojourn in the East. While absent he will give away small samples of Denver’s best soap and new crisp fifty dollar bills among his friends at Saratoga, Long Branch, Coney Island, Brighton Beach and other health and pleasure resorts. We are sorry to lose “Soapy” from among us, but will console ourselves by allowing the “Hifen” to unload its surplus amount of “soft soap” on the susceptible candidates. With Smith out of the way, the “Hifen” has no rivals in the state.
      How did the News obtain Soapy's itinerary? Possibly a reporter had cultivated a source within the soap gang. Equally possible, though, is that Soapy or a confederate purposely led a reporter to believe that Soapy was headed east when actually he went in another direction. No evidence shows he went east at this time. He may have gone as far east as St. Louis to see his family or in the opposite direction altogether. Soapy could not afford to have his actions and his comings and goings generally known because whether true or untrue, his reputation linked him to any criminal event within his general vicinity. Another concern for Soapy was that publication of his travel plans would not only alert the law but also any rivaling bunco operations. Either entity, or both, could spell trouble. So he learned to be secretive or to misdirect the newspapers and his enemies when he planned on traveling.
  • Soapy acted as timekeeper in a boxing match on November 18, 1887, eighteen miles from Denver.
     So, we see that Soapy left Denver in July, about two months before a trip to Sacramento would be made. We also know that about two months after the Sacramento trip, Soapy was "eighteen miles from Denver."
     Technically, the timing is right for Soapy to possibly have gone to Sacramento.  

Ordered the police to stop the soap trick man
Sacramento Daily Union
February 14, 1888

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     Two years, seven months after the first recorded soap scammer in Sacramento, California, and almost five months after the last incident, the mayor of Sacramento orders the city police to "put a stop" to a "soap swindler." The Sacramento Daily Union, February 14, 1888 published the blurb.
Mayor Gregory yesterday ordered the police to put a stop to the soap swindler’s operations on K street. Why does the Mayor make fish of one and fowl of another? Why does he not give the same orders regarding the Chinese lotteries and the faro banks?
Is it Soapy Smith or another soap sell operator? Again, I am working with circumstantial evidence from Soapy's timeline via my book and files. In 1888 Soapy's criminal and political empire in Denver, Colorado, is larger and more powerful than it was five months previous. In 1888 he opens his first saloon enterprise, the Tivoli Club. His wife and child are back at home in Denver, in their new home. Did Soapy travel back to Sacramento? Once again, I investigated the known traveling plans and locations of Soapy, and whether he was in Denver previous to, and post February 14, 1888, to see if a trip to Sacramento was feasible.
  • From January through May 1888, Denver citizens read little of Soapy Smith in the Denver newspapers. There seems to have been a reform movement going on within the city, demanding police action.
  • On January 26, 1888, the Rocky Mountain News reported Soapy's role of timekeeper during a boxing match in Boulder County, Colorado. During the match one of the boxers was knocked down, and possibly when Soapy completed the ten count mark before the downed fighter again arose, the referee either did not hear Soapy's ten count indicating the fight was over or he chose to ignore it and let the fight continue. Accusations of foul play were made but with no apparent repercussions.
  • On January 31, 1888, Police Chief Henry C. Brady had his officers sweep the streets of confidence men and tinhorn gamblers. Fourteen men were arrested, all within proximity of Larimer and Sixteenth streets. Seventeenth Street, where Jeff was based, was seemingly ignored. Soapy was likely out of the city, having been in Boulder for the boxing match there. Likely Soapy operated his prize package soap racket in surrounding towns, but likely not Boulder itself. Could be that this is when he headed to Sacramento. 
  • At some date after February 12, 1888, when the building's owner received permission from the city of Denver to open a saloon, Soapy's Tivoli Club saloon and gambling house opened its doors. The earliest mention of the Tivoli Club is published in the Rocky Mountain News on November 22, 1888, due to an anti-gambling raid by the city police. If Soapy went to Sacramento, then it is probable that the Tivoli opened well after February 12th.
  • On July 8, 1888, Soapy was definitely back in Denver when he swindled two men who reacted with their fists. “A ‘soap’ man and two grangers [farmers] got into trouble yesterday morning, in which the grangers, as usual, got the worst of it.”
I was surprised when the first Sacramento date, July 14, 1885, fit into Soapy's timeline making it possible that it was Soapy operating the prize package soap racket there. However, I did not expect all three Sacramento dates to fit into Soapy's timeline. However, there is no provenance yet, so it could simply be a good coincidence. All three will go into my files as "possibles."


April 3, 2023


"You can't cheat an honest man--Never give sucker an even break--and never smartin' up a chump!"
—W. C. Fields

April 3, 2023

Was Soapy Smith in Sacramento, California in 1885?

The "soap man"
Sacramento Daily Union
July 15, 1885

(Click image to enlarge)

as Soapy Smith in Sacramento, California in 1885?
The quick answer: Very possible.
      I came across the mention of a "soap man" in the Sacramento Daily Union,
July 15, 1885.
The gambling games following the circus found Sacramento a poor place to operate in yesterday, as the Chief of Police shut down upon them all in short order. In fact none of the schemes, including those of the “soap man” and the “greenback man,” were allowed to commence. Even the individual who sold articles, promising to give a prize with each, was advised to close his operations.
     My first thought is "could this be Jefferson Randolph Smith, alias 'Soapy?'" Though on the rare side, there were other prize package soap racket men operating in the West, so my first task is to find any circumstantial evidence indicating that it could be Soapy. One way to accomplish this is to search my book, Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel and my files to see where Soapy was at during the period of the newspaper facts, which in this case is previous and post July 15, 1885. Usually I can determine, on a possibility scale, whether it could be Soapy Smith or not. What I gather goes into my files for possible future discovery that may alter the potential feasibility of the "soap man" being Jefferson "Soapy" Smith.
     The following information comes from my book and files.
     Soapy's name was absent from the Denver newspapers for much of 1884 and for the first five months of 1885. He seems to have kept an extremely low profile as he established himself in the city. During this period, he might still have been traveling, and one trip might have led to a stay of many months. Eight years later, in 1893, the Rocky Mountain News published Soapy's own words that he had gone to operate at the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans, which ran from December 16, 1884, to June 2, 1885.

     The absence of Soapy's name from the newspapers ended in May 1885 when J. Brockman, a Denver resident, had Soapy arrested for swindling him. Soapy did not want to return the victim’s money. The Rocky Mountain News reported the incident.
     The arresting officer, Henry W. Barr, did not have enough evidence to prove that Soapy had actually swindled Brockman, so he arrested Soapy for being in violation of the city lottery ordinance and had him held in jail pending receipt of $500 bond. The following day John P. Kinneavy, saloon entrepreneur and Soapy's friend, posted bail. At the trial on the lottery charge, attorney Judge Miller represented Soapy and was able to get him off with a fine.
Smith claims that he does not pretend that everyone can be lucky and was very indignant when Judge Barnum fined him $25.00. He gave notice that he would appeal the case.
No appeal of the case is recorded. On the day of the trial, the city council passed an ordinance against schemes like the soap racket, including 
any person who shall be engaged in any fraudulent scheme, device or trick upon the streets, through fares or public places or elsewhere in the city, or who by the aid, use or manipulation of any article or articles, thing or things what so ever in packages, boxes or otherwise arranged, whereby persons are induced, or sought to be induced, to purchase any such packages, articles or thing with a view to obtaining money, jewelry, or other property therein contained or therein connected in any manner. And it shall constitute no defense.
The ordinance seemed designed to stop Soapy in particular and all bunco men in general. Soapy was able to continue his street business for a solid month before the city council adopted a resolution on June 23, 1885, to rescind his peddler’s license. Soapy then left Denver for an extended cooling off period. For forty-two days, from June 23 to August 1, 1885, there is no sign of him. Then his name appeared in an August 2, 1885, news account of a boxing match in Rawlins, Wyoming. Soapy was the timekeeper. 
     The timing, between June 23 and August 1, 1885, is right, thus, the conclusion is that Soapy Smith may very well have been operating in Sacramento, California, on July 14, 1885.
There are two more dates in which Soapy Smith could have operated in Sacramento, California. You will find them both HERE.



"Son, one of these days in your travels, a guy is going to come up to you and show you a nice brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is not yet broken, and this guy is going to offer to bet you that he can make the Jack of Spades jump out of the deck and squirt cider in your ear. But, son, do not bet this man, for as sure as you are standing there, you are going to end up with an earful of cider."
—Damon Runyon