Early Denver was built on promise. The promise of fortune was to be had in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. The promise of finding a fresh start by striking it rich on a claim. The promise of showing off your wealth with the comforts home in the middle of the Wild West.
However, the city did not look as wild as it was in the beginning. By the time the 1880s rolled around, wooden frame, buildings gave way to brick and mortar structures. Log cabins were razed for early mansions reflecting the wealth dug out of the Rockies. As new arrivals explored the city and passed by Millionaire’s Row on 14th street, it made them more earnest in their quest to be part of the action.
By now the boom city was witness to 20 years of a gold and silver rush, some who staked their claim are wealthy beyond their dreams, but many are eking out an existing and waiting for the chance of a quick score.
While the sidewalks were built out of wooden planks, but they were no less busy, carrying people to daily tasks. Many are visitors still searching for an easy score.
The dream of an ungodly wealth is why many still pour out of Union Station to find a quick rest bit in the town before venturing west to a mining town. A young man with a few coins in his pocket might get a room at the Oxford hotel, which is a few feet away from the station, while others might venture to Larimer Street to the Windsor Hotel, the most prominent hotel of 1880s Denver.
That young men traveling through Denver might see a well-dressed gentleman setting up shop on 17th and Larimer. Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith was setting up shop for weary travelers. His product of choice was a simple bars of soap, at 25 cents apiece. Smith’s soft southern drawl would peddle the soap to newcomers who just came off the dusty trail, from either train or horseback. The neatly dressed, well-groomed unassuming man had a trustworthy face, something that was lacking for road-weary travelers.
Some would call his price for soap highway robbery since you could find the same bar of soap at some shops for 5 cents. In comparison, 25 cents back in the 1880s would be the equivalent to $5 or $6 today.
But many walking by will drop two bits for soap because convenience fancies practicality sometimes. Even through traveling by train was the fastest mode of transportations for the time, but you would still be on the road from point A to point B for days, if not weeks. Why not spend a little bit more for a necessity, not the first time anyone would pay for convenience, nor the last.
Later in the day, Smith would change his tune and put a higher value on soap. “Cleanliness is next to godliness, but crisp greenbacks in the pocket is a paradise itself. For $5 you get a bar of soap and maybe $100!”
During his speech, he wrapped money of various denominations $100, $20, $10, $5 and dollar bills around the soap and replaced the blue-paper wrapper. He tossed the re-wrapped soap into the basket and several onlookers stepped up for their chance at doubling their money, or possibly more.
The first participants unwrapped their soup and found $5 or $10 and then a loud yell would come out of the crowd from a man who won $20 dollars. The noise would draw the attention of more and hurried murmurs of the man who won it big would move from person to person until even more would drop their money in the southern gentleman’s hand.
But little did they know, aside from those on the take, that a fool and their money just parted. Many an unsuspecting visitor to Denver fell for one of the most famous cons in town. Soapy played an elaborate game to swindle what would be today’s equivalent of $100 from those fresh on the hopes of winning big with little effort.
He did wrap some of the soap with larger bills, but used sleight of hand to remove lower denomination dollars from the soap. For the ones that still held $20 or $100, he slightly crinkled these bars of wrapped soap so that his assistants would grab them to start the run on the unofficial lottery.
The fix was in from the very start any person peaked interest in making easy on the streets of Denver. The town was also built on the promise of con artists, swindlers, chiselers and miscreants fleecing visitors to town out of their hard-earned money.
If a person duped would cause a stir, some of Soapy’s gang would rough up or even kill them. This helped keep the wild in the Wild West on the streets, because even though civilization was creeping in from all sides, chaos still ruled downtown Denver.
Legend has it, Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith was born in Georgia in 1860. Following the Civil War, his family moved to Texas for better prospects. As a teenager he was a cowpoke on the Chisholm Trail, which made him acquainted with saloons, gambling halls and bunco artists in Texas and Kansas cow towns.
He became intrigued with the con artist life after he was cleaned out in a walnut shell game at a carnival in Abilene Texas. He went to a friend to borrow $20.
“You don’t mean you’re going to try again?” the friend asked.
“No” said Soapy.
“I’m going to join the show and learn that game.”
His mentor at the carnival was Clubfoot Hall.
In 1878, the carnival arrived in Leadville where he learned the soap scam from “Old Man” Taylor
Soapy and his associates moved to Denver in the 1880s to run any number of schemes in town. All bets were off for newcomers, but there was an ironclad rule that not even Soapy would break, “don’t steal from Denver residents.”
The rule was established by Denver’s boss of the underworld, Lou Blonger who said it was okay to run any number of schemes on others traveling through the city but leave the locals alone.
Reasons for this rule were simple: Strangers to a city are less likely to contact the police for fear of embarrassment. Nobody new to a city wants to admit they were bilked out of money from three-card Monty.
It was easier to take care of any complainers who were duped out of their money. There may not be a public outcry to find a missing traveler, but there would be hell to pay for any blue-collar worker not making it home from work that day.
The city government of that time also favored kickbacks and under-the-table deals with bunco artists than cleaning up town. Soapy flourished in this environment until citizens were pushing hard for reform.
But in 1892 there was a reformation movement going on in town. Soapy read the writing on the wall and moved to the southern Colorado mining camp, Creede, the latest boomtown in Denver to not only run the con games in town but the government itself.