Significance – Jefferson Soapy Smith was a notorious 19th century in the Denver Area. He was crime boss who had his finger in a number of illicit actives. One of his avowed philosophies was, A gambler is one who teaches and illustrates the folly of avarice; he is a non-ordained preacher on the vagaries of fortune and how to make doubt a certainty.

Inscription – In the 1880s and 1890s Denver was the nations headquarters for con men, a dubious honor that maintained into the early years or the 20th century.

The most famous con man was Soapy Smith who sold $5.00 bars of soap from 17th Street, claiming that some had one hundred dollar bill inside the wrapper.

Location – 39.749980, -104.996182

Details – In the days of the Wild West, Denver had no gambling laws, making it the ideal setting for confidence men and their deceitful games. Today, we use the term con man for those practitioners of confidence tricks used to defraud a person or group after first gaining their confidence.”

The legendary Jefferson Soapy Smith was a late 19th century confidence man and gambler par excellence. Known as the “king of the frontier confidence men,” he was beyond comparison the most artful grifter of his day. Smith was a con artist, saloon and gambling house proprietor, gangster, and crime boss of the Old West. As a crime lord, Soapy organized a large and powerful gang of talented scoundrels and rogues. Between 1884 and 1895 he controlled the criminal underworlds in Denver and Creede, Colorado.

The Prize Package Soap Racket – In 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge is opened. Life magazine starts in Los Angeles and the University of Colorado School of Medicine is founded. Well-educated and silver-tongued Jefferson Smith has made his way from Texas and was making a tidy profit selling soap to miners all over Colorado earning the nickname Soapy Smith in the process.  (His enemies referred to him as Soapy until his dying day.)

What made Soapys brand of personal hygiene so attractive to the miners? His announcement that one out of 10 of the nickel cubes of soap featured a double wrapping, the inner of which might hide anything from a $20 – to a $50 bill. Smith made a great production of wrapping the prizes into the soap packages. His elaborate soap show and the possibility of found money, allowed him to sell nickel bars of soap for $5 apiece. What the miners didnt notice was Smiths shills receiving the prized bars of soap or the wrapping money magically disappearing into Soapys pocket.

Once he perfected his routine in the gritty mining camps, Soapy headed into Denver. Back in the day, he stood right about the place where his medallion is now set. How are you fixed for soap? Smith would ask passerby along 17th Street. Standing next to his tripe and keister (stand and suitcase), Soapy would loudly launch into a soliloquy on the wonders of his special soap. Not only was it great at cleaning mine grime off of skin, but there was also the possibility of a cash prize inside. In the big city version of this con, Smith would wrap up cakes of soap with plain paper. Every couple of bars, he would show the crowd some currency, ranging from $1 to $100, and wrap the bill in with the soap. After mixing all of the wrapped packages together, he then offered the soap for sale at $1-5 per bar. A shill in the crowd was quick to buy a bar of soap, open it and gleefully find a $100 bill. Once finding money inside, this member of the Soap Gang would let out a whoop and holler of celebration and proceed to mingle through the crowd, letting everyone know that they had beat the soap salesman at his own game. The crowd was then anxious to buy their own, which, of course, held nothing but a 5-cent cake of soap.

A gambler is one who teaches and illustrates the folly of avarice; he is a non-ordained preacher on the vagaries of fortune and how to make doubt a certainty, Smith noted.

Much of Soapys Denver “action took place in his popular Tivoli Saloon and Gambling Hall, formerly located near this medallion at what is now 17th and Larimar. There was a sign over the door a sign read: “Caveat Emptor,” which means “Let the Buyer Beware” in Latin.

For the next decade, Smith continued the swindle with great success. Denver is also where he entered into the arena of political fixing. For favors, Smith could sway the outcome of city, county, and state elections.  He became known all over the United States as the infamous crime boss; “Soapy” Smith, head of the “Soap Gang.”

Polite society in Denver was growing tired of local corruption. Residents demanded anti-gambling and saloon reforms. Finally, in 1894, gambling and other illicit activities were made illegal in Denver. Newly appointed authorities cracked down hard on gaming, prostitution, bootlegging, and the many other bunko activities. A priority was to run Soapy Smith out of town. Smith took his operations “underground, but finally left Denver seeking opportunity booming mining camps like Creede, Colorado. Later he cashed on the Yukon Gold rush in Skagway, Alaska, but lost his life in a shoot out.

Soapy Smith was the last of his kind, an Old West crime figure who refused to give up the old ways in the face of a constantly changing, modernizing nation.

Quiz Questions

  1. The con in the term con man is a shortening of what word?
  2. What was the name of the 1896 gold rush in Alaska?
  3. When did gambling become illegal in Denver?
  4. Who was the last Old West crime figure?
  5. What is the English translation of the Latin term Caveat Emptor?