Historical Highlight - Soapy Smith

 Soapy Smith Circa 1898  Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Soapy Smith Circa 1898  Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

One of the most colorful Newnan natives is a man who would leave Coweta County in his early teens and go on to be a notorious organized crime boss in the Wild West.

 

Our first introduction to Soapy Smith was through a computer game we loved to play when we were young. It was a game in which you played as a prospector making your way to the Yukon to strike it rich during the gold rush. When you reached the small mining town of Skagway, you were cordially invited to play three card Monte by a bearded man sitting in front of the saloon. He was gracious and gladly stripped you of your life savings in the most charming manner. We had no idea that Soapy Smith was a real person, much less that he grew up less than two miles from where we lived.

 

Jefferson Randolph Smith II was born in Sharpsburg on November 2, 1860. His family were prominent, wealthy Coweta citizens. Smith’s grandfather moved from Virginia to Coweta County in 1828 when he won a piece of land in the land grant lottery. He built a large, beautiful home on his new property on Shoal Creek. It was in this home that Soapy Smith was born and raised.

 

The Civil War would spell severe changes in the family’s financial situation. Their wealth was mainly built on slave labor. The severe economic depression that hit the South following the war stripped the Smith family of all of their former wealth. In 1876, Jefferson Smith packed up his family and moved them to Texas to start fresh.

 

There is no evidence that young Jeff Smith lived anything but an honest law abiding life up until the time he turned eighteen. While living with his parents in Texas, Jeff was present for a dramatic shootout between Round Rock law enforcement and famous outlaw Sam Bass and his gang. Sam Bass lost his life in the gunfire exchange. Historical accounts suggest that witnessing this event excited seventeen-year-old Jeff. Whether this event or the death of his mother were contributing factors of him leaving home shortly after this is unknown, but just a few months later he left to try and make it on his own.

 

Jeff began his career by selling inexpensive knick-knacks and jewelry for a significantly higher price at fairs. At this time, he also began to learn the standard tricks and games of a confidence man. It was a profession that was well suited to his enthusiasm and charm.

 

After a short time of traveling around to fairs learning the con man ropes, Jeff finally settled down in Fort Worth, Texas. It was an area that was deep in the heart of the Wild West and filled with shiftless criminals and fresh faced young men traveling west to make their fortune. This turned out to be the perfect combination for Jeff to form a booming business. Growing up on a plantation, he was sure to have observed in detail the workings of a successfully run business.

 

Back in Texas, Jeff earned the nickname that would stick with him for the rest of his life. He developed an ingenious con that involved him setting up a suitcase full of soap bars on a stand in a public area. He would let a crowd gather around him while he wrapped a few plain bars of soap with paper money ranging from five-dollar bills to one hundred dollar bills. He would then wrap every piece of soap in brown paper and mix the bars containing money together with regular bars. The crowd could buy as many bars of soap as they liked for a dollar each. To put this in perspective, that would be around twenty-four dollars today. Jeff would have a few plants in the crowd to buy bars and “win” the money. This gave the rest of the crowd a false sense of confidence and they would quickly hand over their money not realizing that they had no chance whatsoever at buying one of the cash laced bars. No one except the plants ever found any money in their soap. Jeff’s enemies began calling him Soapy in reference to this notorious con.

 

Not many grifters in the West had a head for business, and Jeff used his knowledge of enterprise to bring the criminals of Fort Worth together into one gang. As a unit, they were a strong force that regularly swindled idealistic newcomers out of their life savings. Under Jeff’s guidance, they were able to pool their resources and control the lawmakers and police force of the town. Jeff was careful to take very good care of anyone who worked for him. This policy allowed him to quickly gain the trust of men who were generally suspicious by nature.

 

His business dealings in Fort Worth were just a training ground for the criminal empire he would build in Denver, Colorado. Jeff was only nineteen when he arrived in Denver, but he had already gotten a good deal of experience in running a gang of criminals. Just as he had done in Fort Worth, Jeff quickly united the criminals of Denver into one gang. The Soap Gang, as they were called, were experts at separating people from their cash. They played rigged games, sold fake stocks, and passed off junk as expensive antiques and jewels. Jeff made a large fortune in Denver. He held the police force in the palm of his hand and even the local business owners liked him. He frequently donated large sums of money to help feed and clothe the poor and care for stray animals.

 Denver in the 1800s. Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Denver in the 1800s. Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

Soon after starting his Denver dealings, Jeff was able to open his own bars, clubs and businesses that had the sole purpose of swindling innocent victims. His gang members were very good at their jobs and the cons mostly went off without a hitch. In the event that one of the Soap Gang were arrested, their legal expenses were fully covered by Jeff. Jeff’s men worked hard and were well taken care of in return.

 

Jeff kept his personal life distinctly separate from his business dealings. He lived a fairly normal life with his wife and children in his Denver home. He tended to keep his work at the office. Jeff also had a dark side. He was a heavy drinker and compulsive gambler. His temper was something to be feared and was only made worse by his excessive drinking.

 

Eventually, Jeff’s empire became bigger than the town of Denver could sustain. His cons were well known to the citizens and city officials could no longer secretly support his criminal dealings. They began to distance themselves from the Soap Gang and Jeff found that he was having a harder time staying in business. After a short respite in Creede, where he took some time to start up yet another criminal empire, Jeff returned to Denver. It was a short-lived stay. He was losing control of his hold on the city. The officials who were in his power were forced to leave office, and he was making himself very unpopular by getting into frequent gunfights in local establishments. His control completely faded when he was forced to leave the city or face several years of jail time for a bar fight gone wrong. In 1897, Jeff left Colorado for the wilds of Alaska.

 Skagway as it looked the year Soapy Smith died. Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Skagway as it looked the year Soapy Smith died. Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

There was a gold rush in the Yukon. This meant that thousands of people were making their way to the area with large supplies of cash in their pockets and an unbridled optimism for their chances of making a fast fortune. The conditions could not have been more perfect for Soapy Smith. A constant supply of unwitting strangers with money was all he needed to set up a new criminal operation. He chose the fledgling town of Skagway as a base. Just as before, he organized his gang to work together and strip strangers of their savings. As always, the Soap Gang was efficient and they quickly became rich and successful in Skagway. 

 

Soapy’s demise started with a con gone wrong. A few of his gang members stole several thousand dollars in gold from a wealthy miner. The people of Skagway were very upset over the blatant thievery and demanded that all the stolen goods be returned. They were holding a meeting on the Skagway Wharf about the incident when a very drunk and armed Smith showed up intending to interrupt the meeting. He was met by four guards who had been placed around the wharf in anticipation of a disturbance. An argument ensued followed by a shootout, which ended the life of one of the guards and Smith.

Soapy Smith was only thirty-seven when he died, but he had created and run three successful criminal empires and tamed towns in the Wild West. He died a very famous man. He was known for his criminal activities, but also for his loyalty and generous spirit. Original artifacts from the Smith plantation are on display in the Male Academy Museum.