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T
he history
you are about to read has been well researched by numerous members of the Smith family for many decades. We grew up knowing that a prominent bad man had a place on our family tree. In the early years family members tried desperately to protect and polish the reputation of Jefferson Randolph Smith II, alias Soapy Smith. Today, more family members just want the truth to be known, both the good with the bad.

W
e family members are fortunate that Soapy left a large amount of his paperwork intact for us to study. Because of his businessman like files we have a wealth of literally thousands of original documents and letters to utilize in our research efforts. Thousands of hours have been spent reading the pages of microfilm newspapers from Colorado and Alaska.

T
his site is not complete by any means, nor is it a detailed history. Details and answers are fully exposed and explored in Jeff Smith's biography, Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel.
 
It is important that the reader understand that we are first and foremost, historians, striving for the truth. We are well aware that Soapy Smith was not one of the "good guys." We are not proud of the bad that he did, but rather what he left behind and the lessons he taught us.

D
ue to lack of space this site does tend to focus on his bad deeds more so than his good ones. Let it be known that it is a recorded fact
that Soapy was a large and well known contributor to charity. His aid to good causes is not to be taken as an attempt to defend his crimes
.


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"I consider bunco steering more honorable
than the life led by the average politician."

                                                  Jeff R. Smith, The Road, 02/29/1896.

THE SHELL GAME
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courtesy: Bob Wood

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THE EARLY YEARS
1860 - 1879

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Jefferson Randolph Smith II was perhaps the most notorious confidence man of 19th century American history. He was born in Coweta County, Georgia, near the town of Newnan in 1860. His ancestry was English. The Smith's had come to America around 1760 and settled in Virginia. In 1821 Jefferson's grandfather moved his family to Coweta County. The Civil War (1860-1865) destroyed much of the wealth the family had amassed. They struggled during the Reconstruction years to adjust. When Jefferson was about 16 (1876) his parents gathered up their belongings and moved to Round Rock, Texas in an attempt to improve their lives.

Courtesy of Robert G. McCubbin, jr.
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Sam Bass Gang

 

Jefferson and his cousin Edwin "Bobo" Smith witnessed the fatal wounding of Texas outlaw Sam Bass and members of his gang on July 19, 1878. It was during this time that Jefferson was introduced to the world of the bunco brotherhood.

Around 1878 young Jefferson moved from his family and set out on his own as a "sure-thing" man. He traveled around the country following fairs selling cheap trinkets and fake jewelery as a "Cheap John." He soon learned short con games such as the shell game and three-card Monte. Jefferson had become a confidence man and a scoundrel.

Jefferson had a gift for organization. While at Fort Worth, Texas, Jefferson began to form the core of his bunco gang that became known across the west as the Soap Gang, a very close assortment of intelligent confidence men. Each had his own unique and specialized talents for separating victims (dupes) from their money. Alone, these men were forced to be drifters, moving from one town to the next, but Jefferson united the men and together as an organization they were harder to stop. Jefferson combined their assets, bribed policemen and politicians, and bought the best legal representation his money could buy. He successfully made it more difficult to put and keep his men in a jail. Jefferson found that the concept of law and order actually worked in his favor.

According to his cousin, Edwin Bobo Smith, Soapy's swindles were so well known that Fort Worth enacted new legislation due specifically to Soapy's activities. Soapy decided to move on to bigger and better things.

Soapy stated that he first arrived in Denver, Colorado some time in 1879. Jefferson liked Denver's wide-open policy towards gambling. The lack of being able to keep up with it's own growth made Denver a haven for bunco gangs. The Union Station train depot was busy day and night bringing in fresh victims (known as sheep) for the bunco gangs to shear. Jefferson combined many of the loosely knit bunco men working the city into his organization and his influence at city hall and the police department grew along with the size of his gang. By 1884 Jefferson was able to proclaim himself boss of Denver's underworld empire of crime.oapy stated that he first arrived in Denver, Colorado some time in 1879. Jefferson liked Denver's wide-open policy towards gambling. The lack of being able to keep up with it's own growth made Denver a haven for bunco gangs. The Union Station train depot was busy day and night bringing in fresh victims (known as sheep) for the bunco gangs to shear. Jefferson combined many of the loosely knit bunco men working the city into his organization and his influence at city hall and the police department grew along with the size of his gang. By 1884 Jefferson was able to proclaim himself boss of Denver's underworld empire of crime.

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Hell's half acre (Fort Worth)

Jefferson Smith had transformed from a quaint on-the-road flim-flam man, to that of a prominent big time gangster. The gang was infamously known on their recognizance. There were perhaps as many as 100 steerers working for Soapy such as "Reverend" John Bowers, whom at times performed the part of a saintly man of cloth. "Professor" William Jackson often times portrayed a mine and mineral expert. For protection there were the hard core gunfighters like "Texas Jack" Vermillion of Wyatt Earp/Tombstone, Arizona fame. "Big Ed" Burns, the Leadville, Colorado bunco boss was there as well as "Sure-shot" Tom Cady and a few dozen more cold hearted ruffians making up the rank and file. Each of these scoundrels have their own story of fame.

Saloon proprietors were often paid a percentage of the profits taken in by the bunco gangs for the privilege of using their establishments. Soapy and his gang liberally spent their money in local stores and made many friends in the lower downtown business districts where they worked and thus they were popular with the many of the locals. Moreover, Soapy made an unwritten pact with each city he canvassed. The local townspeople would be left out of the bunco games.lower downtown business districts where they worked and thus they were popular with the many of the locals. Moreover, Soapy made an unwritten pact with each city he canvassed. The local townspeople would be left out of the bunco games.

Saloon proprietors were often paid a percentage of the profits taken in by the bunco gangs for the privilege of using their establishments. Soapy and his gang liberally spent their money in local stores and made many friends in the lower downtown business districts where they worked and thus they were popular with the many of the locals. Moreover, Soapy made an unwritten pact with each city he canvassed. The local townspeople would be left out of the bunco games.lower downtown business districts where they worked and thus they were popular with the many of the locals. Moreover, Soapy made an unwritten pact with each city he canvassed. The local townspeople would be left out of the bunco games.

"You may have nerve - you may have plenty..."
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"Five will get you ten - and ten will get you twenty!"

TO PLAY THE SHELL GAME
AND SEE ACTUAL FILM FOOTAGE

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When a member of the Soap Gang needed help Jefferson was always ready to lend a hand, whether it be money or legal aid. The men in the gang grew extremely loyal to their boss. At times the policemen on the beat also sought his aid, in help with situations where they had little power. This often occurred in hard economic times when the poor population grew too large. The police called on the gambler's of Denver to help with feeding the poor and Soapy's name was always at the top of the list and rarely did he let them down. Jefferson had become so well known as a charitable man in Denver that Parson Tom Uzzell of the People's Tabernacle church often sought Jefferson's assistance, even knowing of Soapy's criminal occupation. While giving a tour of the city one day, the parson and his entourage came across Soapy. The good parson introduced Soapy as "The most infamous confidence man in American...and my friend."sought his aid, in help with situations where they had little power. This often occurred in hard economic times when the poor population grew too large. The police called on the gambler's of Denver to help with feeding the poor and Soapy's name was always at the top of the list and rarely did he let them down. Jefferson had become so well known as a charitable man in Denver that Parson Tom Uzzell of the People's Tabernacle church often sought Jefferson's assistance, even knowing of Soapy's criminal occupation. While giving a tour of the city one day, the parson and his entourage came across Soapy. The good parson introduced Soapy as "The most infamous confidence man in American...and my friend."

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Soapy's saloon and gaming hall, Denver, Colorado

Steerers and boosters were always enthusiastic about giving a potential dupe the proper (but bogus) means to win big at Soapy's games. One of these was The Exchange, a fake stock market investment firm in which victims placed money on a companies stock in hopes of winning a quick return on their wager. The Exchange was rigged so that only the Soap Gang made a profit.

CAVEAT EMPTOR!
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Similar to what the upstairs Tivoli Club may have looked

Jefferson became very successful at his chosen occupation and opted to work out of his own establishments rather than give tribute to others for working out of their places of business. He opened several gaming halls. One of these was the Tivoli Club at the corner of 17th and Market Streets. Faro and roulette were popular at his club. Soapy was a true gambling addict and his game of choice was faro. He often played until he, or the faro bank, was tapped out.

As a legal loop-hole for the crooked gambling in the Tivoli Club Soapy placed a sign at the entrance that read CAVEAT EMPTOR, Latin for "Let the buyer beware." It is probable that few of his victims heeded the warning and fewer still could actually read Latin. Jeff's younger brother, Bascomb, joined his older brother's gang in the late 1880s. Jefferson set him up in a cigar store business, which was used as a front for numerous swindles. A card game was ever ready in the back room for times when the steerers at the train station brought over a victim to fleece. Other businesses included fake policy and lottery shops, auction houses with expensive looking but cheap imitation watches and diamonds for bidding. There were fake mining and mineral investment offices, that offered stocks in phony mining companies. In most of these establishments were the ever present shell games and three-card Monte to further entice gambling while the victim waited for services that were non-existent.

"Streets of doom"
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Soapy's playground: Intersection of Seventeenth & Larimer streets

The lower downtown part of Denver on Seventeenth Street, between the Union station and Larimer Street was known by some as the "Streets of doom."  It was said that if a potential victim could get from Union Station to Larimer Street without giving any money to members of the Soap Gang then they would be relatively safe from financial harm.

Soapy ran numerous businesses along Seventeenth Street, including the Tivoli Club on the south-east corner of Seventeenth and Market Streets. Soapy ran his organization from an office in the Chever Block located on the south-east corner of Seventeenth and Larimer Streets.

Soapy's empire organization needed a headquarters thus he opened an office in the Chever building on the corner of Seventeenth and Larimer Streets from which to run his operations. Victims exiting trains from the station, only a few blocks away, were led to one of Jefferson's numerous establishments where they were sure to find sure-thing investments, a shell game or a good poker-hand in a friendly game of poker. By the time Soapy's victims left one of his swindle shops their pockets were invariably emptied of ready cash. This was a daily occurrence in Denver between 1883-1895.

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