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  • Writer's pictureDennis McCaslin

Chronicle of the Old West - The Soapy Smith Saga

Jefferson Randolph Smith started life as a cowboy. But early on he discovered manipulating three halves of a walnut shell and a pea was a lot easier than an 800-pound cow.

He started out operating the shell game in San Antonio, Texas. When he wore out his welcome there, he moved onto the Colorado gold fields. There he learned the con of selling small cubes of five-cent soap for one dollar.

With an audience in front of him, Jeff Smith would make a big show of placing paper money inside the wrapper of the cubes of soap. Of course, the money ended up in his pocket or the hands of an associate. He did the con so well that he became known as “Soapy” Smith.

Soapy moved on to Denver and expanded his horizons even more by putting together a gang that did everything from picking pockets to stuffing ballot boxes. To stay ahead of the law, the operation moved to Creede, Colorado and then in 1897 to Skagway, Alaska.

Finding Alaska’s miners a little less gullible, Soapy decided to use a more direct approach by just mugging the miners and stealing their gold.

On July 8, 1898 a group of citizens met to organize a clean-up campaign. Now, I’m sure you understand that the cleaning-up they were about to do wasn’t similar to the committee that meets periodically to clean up the church grounds.

Soapy sent his gang to break up the vigilant ones. Finding themselves out gunned, Soapy’s gang backed down. So Soapy went there with rifle in hand. After a few words, he shot one of the vigilantes, and was in turn shot dead.

And, his gang was only saved from a similar fate by the timely arrival of the U. S. Infantry.

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