Denver Legends: Soapy Smith, Part 2

Soapy Smith and his gang set up shot in Creede, Colorado where he opened the Orleans Club saloon and gambling hall.

Soapy ran the town, by corrupting local officials to intimidating any that wouldn’t take a kickback. The gang killed with near impunity claiming self-defense if anyone spoke up or questioned the cons they fell victim to.

 

Soapy eventually put his fingers in the political scene. He made his brother-in-law chief of police and in the 1892 municipal election, Soapy ran a slate of candidates who were bought and paid for by the con man. The Creede city hall was held in the back room of the Orleans Club.

 

The number of schemes going on ran the gamut, from his gang taking a “collection” in the saloon and gambling halls to build a church to setting up a mining syndicate office to fleece prospects of their gold dust. Anyone complaining about being ripped off was met with guns. More times than not the miners gave up their ore than their lives.

After a fire devastated downtown Creede, a Soapy returned to Denver to run his schemes again, but the town changed during his short time away. He adapted by opening the Tivoli Club on the corner of 17th and Larimer.

In the evenings Soapy would go down to the first floor saloon to deal poker and three-card Monte to the rubes his men steered in from the street.

 

Soapy made it back to Denver just in time to be a footnote in the City Hall War, a showdown between Colorado’s Governor Davis Waite and local officials he appointed to oversee the city. Several commissioners were asked to resign and when they didn’t, the Governor mustered the Colorado National Guard to surround City Hall on 14th and Larimer and remove the commissioners from office by force.

The Commissioners weren’t going to be removed without a fight; they called on the Police and hastily appointed sheriff’s deputies, including Soapy Smith, to stand off against the militia. Some of the 200-plus men on the side of the Denver officials were con artists like Soapy Smith and his gang.

It was rumored that Soapy yelled at the militia: “If your men take one step against city hall you and Waite will be dead.”

Eventually the standoff ended with no bloodshed and the deputized grifters faded back to their seedy roles around Union Station. Even though the locals were not to be swindled, it didn’t mean that all were in love with what Soapy and others were doing. Efforts were being made to “clean up” Larimer and Market streets from the bad reputation it fostered.

The reformation movement wasn’t the main reason Soapy moved onto greener pastures, but the silver crash of 1893. In 1894, he spent some time in Houston he met with the President of Mexico and proposed creating a Mexican Foreign Legion with Soapy in command.

 

“Colonel” Smith wanted 80,000 pesos to run the recruiting operation but the President offered 4,000. He went back to Denver to set up a recruiting office on Larimer, which attracted a good number of volunteers.

 

The contract was canceled after the President learned about Soapy’s nefarious activities. Soapy’s reputation made it nearly impossible to grift at his regular haunts. The reformation movement in Denver prevented him from starting up again and even Creede shunned him. The police chief told him to keep moving by with other towns like Salida, Leadville, Aspen, Telluride and Silverton giving him the same response.

Soapy and the gang eventually reunited in Seattle where they convinced him that better prospects in Skagway, Alaska. They sailed for new fortune in the Klondike in the summer of 1897.

Once in Skagway, he opened Jeff’s Place and made it his base of operations. It was a perfect place to swindle gold rush fortunes since prospectors were stranded in town when winter set in.

When he couldn’t get the gold dust from the miners through gambling, he invited them in to see an eagle he had in a back room. He’d knock them out and the miner would wake up in the alley without any legal recourse to gain their money back.

He recycled previous schemes like establishing an enlistment office for the Spanish-American War. When the recruiters undressed for a medical examination, Soapy’s men rifled through their clothes.

He also created other phony businesses, a merchants’ exchange, cut-rate ticket office, reliable packers and telegraph office. It would cost $5 to send a telegram to the States with a reply costing another $5. Soapy was able to hide the fact that there were no telegraph lines out of Skagway.

Soapy was running the town in the spring of 1898, but the honest locals were already not happy with his con games.

His downfall came when a miner put down a dollar for a drink and complained about not getting change back and the bartender threw him out.

The miner returned a U.S. Marshal and Soapy’s bartender shot both men. A vigilante crowd grabbed the bartender to hang him, but Soapy stepped in claiming that there would be a trial.

But the bartender was found not guilty, proving that he had total control over Skagway. In the summer of 1897 a Committee of 101 was formed to protect the townspeople. In response, Soapy created his own Committee of 303

The July 4th parade was the breaking point for the Committee of 101 where members were incensed about Soapy’s strutting during the parade. They met in secret to figure out a way to rid themselves of Soapy, but his gang dispersed the gatherers.

On July 8th a miner came to Skagway with $2,300 in gold dust. He was lured by the eagle ruse to Soapy’s back room where he was robbed. The victim went to Frank H. Reid, the head of the Committee of 101 where the group marched to Jeff’s Place.

Soapy met them with Winchester rifle in hand, so the mob retired to a wharf and barricaded themselves in for a meeting. Soapy went in to confront the Committee, Reid saw him coming and fatally shot him. As he was fatally struck, he shot mortally wounded the guard.

Soapy’s funeral was a simple ceremony with few attendees. The text read was from Proverbs 13:15 “The way of the transgressor is hard.” He was buried in a pine box with an unmarked grave.

The man who shot Soapy Smith died 12 days after getting shot and was the hero of Skagway. His grave was 20 feet from Soapy’s with an epitaph that read, “He gave his life for the honor of Skagway.”

While Soapy was remembered primarily as a villain in Alaska, many of his friends in Denver from the old days recalled a different Soapy.

Following his death, The Denver Times reported that Soapy was known as much for his charity as he swindling abilities. He returned losses to those he knew couldn’t afford it. On Christmas day he bought turkeys and passed them out from the same site as his soap stand with the greeting, “Merry Christmas and good luck.”

 

“He was the warmest-hearted man I ever knew. He never threw over a friend.”

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