My name is Jeff Smith! (This is me, performing the prize package soap racket, 1890s style.) My researching peers know me as “Soapy” due to my literal obsession with my great-grandfather, “Soapy” Smith’s, history. My reenacting friends also know me as “Soapy” for my first-person performances as Soapy in which I operate short-con swindles like the shell & pea game, three-card Monte and the prize package soap racket, the know-how all passed down from father to son, generation to generation starting with Soapy himself.
(An 1898 newspaper rendition of the shootout between Soapy Smith and Frank Reid, July 8, 1898)
I grew up in a family dedicated to preserving and increasing the memory of Soapy. My parents had a building in our backyard that contained a saloon and gambling hall, complete with a full size roulette table that belonged to Soapy, a crap table two blackjack tables, a faro table and a dozen or more antiques slot machines. By 5th grade I knew more about gambling and confidence scams that most adults.
Whereas Soapy’s children and grandchildren did not wish to admit the bad side of Soapy, they chose to recognize his many good deeds and downplay the bad. I am perhaps the first member of the family to see and research both sides of this complex Old West crime boss. This has not made me very popular with some members of my family, but as my father once told me, “Jeff, he’s more interesting this way.”
(Soapy in his saloon (Jeff Smith’s Parlor) in Skagway, Alaska, 1898)
One fortunate fact is that Soapy considered himself a business man and thus saved most of his correspondence letters and documents. I personally own about 160 letters, whereas there are perhaps a thousand artifacts within the family circle. My collection, combined with copies of the remainder bundle, has given me something few other relatives of outlaws can brag about; a personal documented look into the world of a renowned criminal. This will all be made public on August 17, 2009, when my manuscript, Alias “Soapy” Smith, The Life and Death of a Scoundrel is released.
(Seventeenth Street at the intersection of Larimer Street, Denver, Colorado, 1890s. This was Soapy’s main location of operation. He had an office on the second floor of the building on the right.)
(Soapy Smith, circa 1890)
(Theater playbill for HONKY TONK (MGM 1941). Based on book, THE REIGN OF SOAPY SMITH, 1935. Clark Gable played Candy Johnson)
Quick history of “Soapy” Smith
Born: November 2, 1860, Coweta county, Georgia
Died: July 8, 1898, Skagway, Alaska. Cause of death, a bullet to the heart.
Last words: “My God, don’t shoot!”
(Playing card from a souvenir deck.)
(Jeff and daughter, Ashley Smith, in front of Soapy’s saloon (Jeff Smith’s Parlor) on July 8, 1998 (100th Anniversary of Soapy’s death), Skagway, Alaska)
Soapy Smith is most known for his prize package soap racket in which he wrapped large denomination currency inside bars of soap and mixed them in with bars that contained no bills and sold them for $1.00 each. As the pile dwindled he would begin auctioning off the remaining cakes of soap for large amounts, the victims believing they had a “sure-thing.” No one but planted shills ever won any money.
(Drawing of Soapy performing the prize package soap racket.)
He traveled around the states with a network of bunco men before settling down in Denver, Colorado. By 1889 he owned several saloons, a cigar store and gambling halls all paid for with soap. He became the Al Capone of the Old West, fixing elections and criminal operations, all the while during which he gave out large donations to the poor, churches and charitable subscriptions.
One scandal after another, and several gunfights from 1889 to 1895, finally brought his reign of power in Denver to an end. In 1897 he joined the thousands heading to the Klondike gold fields. He arrived and immediately took over control of Skagway, Alaska, until vigilantes pushed to drive him out. It was on July 8, 1898, during a meeting of the vigilantes that Soapy met his demise in a gunfight with one of four guards at the meeting’s entrance. For a century, the Smith family knew that Soapy had died under mysterious circumstances. Recently that information was released showing that Soapy was not only shot by another man, but that he was unarmed at the time. He had been murdered and it was being suppressed.
Soapy’s escapades through-out his life were published all over the United States. In fact, while the two men were alive, Soapy Smith was more widely known than Wyatt Earp. Although this popularity was reversed, Soapy’s legend is growing. Since 1974 the family holds a public wake. Now there are two. The original is held each July 8 in Skagway, Alaska and the other is held at the famous Magic Castle in Hollywood, California.
(Cover of LOOSE CHANGE magazine showing Jeff in the Smith family home with the back building saloon and gambling hall.)
(Jeff performing the shell game for a youngster, Anchorage, Alaska, February 28, 2009. Note that it’s snowing!)
To learn more about Jeff and his notorious great-grandfather, visit his website:
Be sure to watch for Jeff’s release, Alias “Soapy” Smith, The Life and Death of a Scoundrel, coming in August, 2009!