Jefferson Randolph Smith II – known as Soapy for reasons explained in more detail below, was one of the most famous confidence men of the American West. He was also a notorious gangster who at various times played important roles in organized crime in Denver, Creede (both in Colorado) and later, in the mining town of Skagway (Alaska).
At some point in the late 1870’s (or possible the early 1880’s), Smith began what the papers called “The Prize Package Soap Sell Swindle” – hence the nickname. The swindle was fairly simple: Soapy would set up to sell cakes of soap on the street, and as he spoke to the growing crowd, he would pull out his wallet and begin wrapping paper money ranging from one dollar up to one hundred dollars, around a select few of the bars. He then finished each bar by wrapping plain paper around it to hide the money. He mixed the money-wrapped packages in with wrapped bars containing no money. He then sold the soap to the crowd for one dollar a cake. A shill planted in the crowd would buy a bar, tear it open, and loudly proclaim that he had won some money, waving it around for all to see. This performance had the desired effect of enticing the sale of the packages. More often than not, victims bought several bars before the sale was completed. Midway through the sale, Smith would announce that the hundred-dollar bill yet remained in the pile, unpurchased. He then would auction off the remaining soap bars to the highest bidders. Through manipulation and sleight-of-hand, the cakes of soap wrapped with money were hidden and replaced with packages holding no cash. It was assured that the only money “won” went to members of what became known as the “Soap Gang.” This swindle continued to work for twenty years or more.
In 1897, Soapy moved to Skagway, to capitalise on the Klondike Gold Rush. He to run all manner of confidence games and illegal gambling. The last was to prove his undoing – a disgruntled ‘customer’ of one of Soapy’s Three Card Monte games raised a small vigilante group, and summary justice was dealt out on Soapy. He remains a popular figure, and on this day each year festivals are held in his honour in Skagway, Hollywood and other places.
The Ballad of Soapy Smith – Al Oster