R. Paul Wilson On: The Secret Of Soapy Smith
The name Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith is well known amongst magicians, Old West historians and cheating aficionados.
Soapy evolved from being a street swindler to a full-time racketeer with dozens of bad men and ladies of negotiable affection on his payroll.
But it all started with a simple little scam that not only gave Jefferson Randolph Smith his nickname, it seeded the future of a criminal enterprise that ended, inevitably in disaster.
Before I describe the scam, a few words on who Soapy Smith was.
Between 1879 and 1898, Soapy owned several crooked gambling joints and ran a campaign of organised crime in Denver and Creede, Colorado.
He was a fiery figure and when other villains encroached on his business, Soapy’s temper often got the better of him.
As a result he was implicated in countless lawsuits and attempted prosecutions but continued to operate until the city of Denver embarked on a campaign of reforms that forced Soapy and his gang to relocate to Creede, Colorado.
There, after building a sizeable bankroll with his soap scam, Soapy immediately took over the gaming halls, scamming the local silver miners with everything from marked and stacked decks to light-fingered ladies of the night or well-informed muggers.
As a result, Soapy and his gang (pictured below) made a fortune from the miners of Creede but not without making enemies on both sides of the law.
Several victims of Soapy’s schemes tried to kill him and when Soapy was himself charged with the attempted murder of a saloon manager, he was forced to abandon Creede and retreat to Skagway, Alaska.
Soapy was ordered to return the gold but when he arrived at a private meeting to challenge this decision, Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith was shot dead by Frank Reid in a shootout at Juneau Wharf.
I have many friends who love the intricacies of the Soapy Smith stories, his tales of crooked derring-do as he evaded capture or prosecution in Colorado before his arrival in Skagway.
They are drawn to the many scams he pulled on victims over the years or to theories about who fired the first shot (and why) in the Juneau that night.
Personally, I think the man was a dirty, low-down criminal who deserved his fate at the hands of Frank Reid but the simple con game that gave Soapy his name absolutely intrigues me.
The Soap Scam
A variation on the Purse Swindle, the soap scam works in the same way by convincing people that items they can buy for a small amount may contain large cash prizes.
It’s a lottery camouflaged as a sales pitch and it works so well that it helped fund more than three criminal empires from Colorado to Alaska.
Whenever Soapy had to skip town and start anew, his first investment was a few dozen boxes of soap, each bar wrapped in opaque wax paper.
With these bars of soap, Smith would make an enormous profit; enough to rebuild his gang and buy his way into much bigger games like monte, faro and poker.
So how does it work and why does it work so well?
As I’ve written elsewhere, street auctions can be based on several principles from sleight of hand (like the Purse Swindle) to powerful psychology (like the Jam Auction) but while victims might always end up disappointed, in the very best con games, victims have no idea they just got scammed.
Soapy’s scam was as brilliant as it was simple and depended on discipline rather than raw skill.
Here’s how a typical soap pitch might play out.
Soapy would gather a crowd and spread the word about a new formulation of soap that cleans better, lasts longer and smells just fine.
And in an attempt to spread the word about this fabulous new product, he has been authorised to offer cash prizes to anyone who cares to buy a bar of lucky soap.
While he talked and as the crowd watched, Soapy would unwrap a bar, insert a hundred-dollar bill between the soap and outer paper, re-wrap the bar and drop it into a box filled with identical blocks of wax-paper wrapped soap.
The box would then be given a shake while the crowd pushed forward to buy as many bars as they could afford.
Naturally, someone in the crowd would “find” the money and the process would begin again, this time with two or three bars containing cash and again the crowd would buy the entire box.
Thanks to the inflated price of each bar of soap and the fact that no one outside of Soapy’s gang won a dime, the soap scam was a sure-fire way to make enormous amounts of money.
The Real Work
What’s really fascinating is the simplicity of Soapy’s operation: no sleight of hand and no fake bags or boxes, yet it built the foundation of Soapy’s ongoing criminal enterprise.
Crooked soap sellers have created dozens of ways to switch out loaded bars from difficult sleights, like palming the bill as the soap is rewrapped to switching the entire wrapped block of soap before being dropped in the box or bag.
In fact, the cleverest methods required no dexterity.
Some scammers built carpet bags with secret compartments to hold back “winning” bars.
Once money was inserted under a wrapper, the bar of soap was dropped into the bag and into a secret pocket that was sealed before the bag was up-ended onto a platform and the bars of soap sold at random to the crowd.
Another method was to cut cardboard boxes to create a simple trap door.
This acted as a chute into the box below and the soap inside the box was arranged so that the bar containing the cash could drop straight to the bottom, out the pre-formed chute and into the box of soap underneath!
When the box was picked up, the flap was pushed flush and the box shaken to “shuffle” the soap.
All Too Easy
Whatever methods Soapy used in his career it seems clear that his best technique was to simply make sure his shills had first choice and that the winning bar or bars were always in the same position for them to select.
Yup – that’s probably all there was to a scam that gave one of the Wild West’s most infamous outlaws his nickname and yet, armed with this simple secret (and a ton of cheap soap), he was able to build and rebuild his own network of organised crime for two decades.
For more tales about con men, check out: