(IMPORTANT EDITOR’S NOTE: Shortly after I posted this article to the website, I received a comment from Jeff Smith, the great-grandson of Soapy Smith, and a gentleman who graciously corrected some of the misinformation I had picked up about his great-grandfather and passed along below. I urge you to read Jeff’s comment on this post — located at the end of the article — for his corrections and clarifications. I also encourage you to learn more about Soapy Smith from Jeff Smith’s website, “Alias Soapy Smith,” and Jeff’s blog, “Soapy Smith’s Soap Box.” But be warned: The information on that website and that blog is “addictive,” so give yourself lots of time to go there a look around. Heck, if I were you, I’d be sure to bookmark both sites in your browser so you can return there often!)
Soapy Smith was like many other early residents of Denver — he took a gamble just going there. In Soapy’s case, within a few years after his arrival in the little community at the foot of the Rockie Mountains, he thrived as one of Denver’s vice lords, becoming one of the dominant figures in the world of casino and club gambling.
Born in Georgia in 1860, Jefferson Randolph Smith attained a good education, thanks to his parents’ efforts and his intelligent curiosity. He was able to quote both Scripture and the classics fluently when he left the impoverished South in the 1870s, made his way to Texas, and hired on as a cowboy. It was his aversion to the dirty living conditions and filthy bathing conditions at the end of long cattle drives that soured him on that career, and also gave him the nickname “Soapy.” A seniority system when cowboys cleaned up left Smith among the last to use the bathwater — which also left him with a vocal and vigorous love of soap bars, hence the name “Soapy.”
At the end of these cattle drives, Soapy became fascinated by the various shell games and other gambling activities in cow towns such as Abilene. Although his first gambling efforts lost him all of his months of hard earned cattle drive money, he learned a valuable lesson: If he were to master gambling, he could separate the other “suckers” from their money and do much better than hard months herding cattle.
Where better to work his new plans for wealth than the gold fields and rough towns of Colorado? He showed up in Leadville in 1885 and by 1886 had moved on to Denver. There he made his early fortune with a scam as a preacher, standing on a busy street corner selling soap and preaching sermons on the importance of cleanliness and godliness. He sold the soap by wrapping dollar bills, and sometimes as much as 50-dollar bills, in soap which he sold for $5 a bar. Of course, he planted his “associates” in the crowd to buy the bars with money inside, letting only soap go to the marks who thronged to the chance to make easy money.
Within a few years, Soapy Smith was known as the most prominent “bunco artist” in town. He had a friendly relationship with Denver’s police force, and even did a great number of charitable acts with the money he made (and often gambled away himself; always a sucker for a bet). He began giving out free turkeys to the needy every Thanksgiving and often gave money to churches and rescue missions. At one point, he was called on by the police to meet young wives and their children who had been abandoned by their husbands. And Soapy frequently gave money out of his own pocket to help transport those abandoned families from Denver back to their hometowns.
After a long career as a leading member of the gambling community in Denver, Soapy moved on. He ran gambling establishments in other Colorado towns and resort locations, finally drifting further west. The Yukon Gold Rush drew him to Skagway in 1897, where he established himself as gambling boss for a year. He was killed in a shootout with a civil reformer named Frank Reid in 1898.
The stories of Soapy Smith and other colorful figures of Denver’s “underworld” from the city’s founding in the mid-1800s through the 1960s are told in a fascinating little book, “The Seamy Side of Denver: Tall Tales of the Mile High City,” by Phil Goodstein (New Social Publications, Denver: 1993). Goodstein has had a career as an historian, college professor, and has become famous for his walking tours of Denver. He has written several books on Denver’s lesser known, more colorful history. I highly recommend the book, which you might find for sale occasionally on Amazon.com and eBay.