It seems I can’t log onto my computer without seeing some pop-up ad promising massive wealth with minimal work. The technology part is new, but the idea isn’t. For as long as there have been riches available for the getting, people have loved the idea of a get-rich quick scheme.
Today, we’re going to talk about one of the schemingest schemers of the Old West. I’m talking about Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith II, who was a conman while Charles Ponzi, namesake of the Ponzi scheme, was still a babe in diapers. Keep your eyes wide open and hold onto your wallet, Folks. The hand is quicker than the eye!
A Clean Start
Jefferson Randolph Smith II was born in 1860 to a wealthy Georgia family. The 1860s weren’t exactly the best of times for wealthy, Confederate plantation owners! At the end of the Civil War, the Smith family was flat broke. The family moved to Texas, while Jefferson was still a teenager, hoping to make a clean start. And it wasn’t long before Jefferson was cleaning up as one of the Old West’s most notorious con artists.
Some ideas are brilliant in their simplicity. If you want to get rich quick, it makes sense to sell an item that virtually everyone needs to achieve your goal. Hmm . . . what did everyone use, every day? Soap! Jefferson Smith headed to the general store and purchased enough soap to make Costco proud. Then, the man who would be known as “Soapy” went into business.
Soapy was 99.44% pure scoundrel. He set up his tripod display case on busy street corners and extolled the virtues of his soap cakes like they were the missing link between the watching crowd and a lifetime of happiness! When he had everyone’s attention, he would pull out his wallet and wrap paper money around a few of the soap cakes. The crowd could clearly see him putting several $1 bills around some bars of soap. But he didn’t stop with $1 bills! Even in the 1880s, $1 was not lasting wealth, so he sweetened the pot by putting larger bills on some of the bars—including one $100 bill! He would wrap each bar in paper, so the audience could no longer see which bars were “lucky.”
Next, he would combine the soap cakes with the money with the ones that were plain ol’ soap. And he would officially open for business! The bars of soap were offered for $1 each—which was a lot for a 5¢ bar of soap, but not much for a 5¢ bar of soap that might be wrapped in a $100 bill! Hey, you could buy 2000 bars of soap with that kind of loot!
Of course, the only people who ever “won” the lucky packages of soap were Soapy’s shills who were as slippery as he was! Once the sale was well under way, Soapy would announce that the $100 bill was still on the table. The remaining bars of soap went up for auction. Naturally, that bar went to a member of Soapy’s Soap Gang, too!
Not Exactly Mr. Clean
During the early years, once Soapy had “cleaned up” in one town, he and the Soap Gang would move to the next town. It was a Denver newspaper that first called the scam, the “Prize Soap Racket.” That racket hit it over the net for Soapy. He ran it all over the Western U.S. for twenty years. It earned him enough money to be able to diversify! Soapy began building Old West empires—crime empires, that is. Emperor Soapy ruled Denver and Creede, Colorado, as well as, Skagway, Alaska. The Prize Soap Racket, and other short cons raised enough capital to buy off officials.
In Denver, Soapy opened a saloon and gambling hall. The Tivoli Club had a sign over the door, which clearly warned patrons to “Caveat Emptor!” It’s too bad the patrons that could read didn’t know Latin because, “Let the buy beware,” was excellent advise when dealing with Soapy. While in Denver, Soapy also operated fake lottery houses and auction houses that sold “expensive” jewelry and watches that would probably turn you skin green! His fake mining and investment offices issued stock in non-existent businesses. Caveat Emptor, indeed!
When it became too tough to run a dishonest business in Denver, Soapy and Company headed to Creede, Colorado. It was bad business as usual! Soapy built a new empire with the help of some of Denver’s finest prostitutes. He bought up buildings like they were little red hotels in a Monopoly game. He also bought, the Orleans Club, a saloon, which was the perfect place to display the petrified man he purchased for exhibit. For a mere 10¢ the curious could view “McGinty,” the mummified man. When things in Creede dried up like McGinty, Soapy went back to Denver for a spell. But, then, he headed for Skagway, Alaska.
Alaska, Soapy’s Final Frontier
Soapy arrived in Alaska in time to get in on the ground floor of the Klondike gold rush. Soapy wasn’t one to brave the elements panning for gold, however. He would wait for someone else to strike it rich and then he would swindle the poor sap out of everything he could get his hands on. Soapy opened another saloon, Jeff Smith’s Parlor, and began to rake in the dough by whatever means necessary.
The gifted grifter didn’t know when to stop. Oh, he was getting away with a lot. When the Spanish American War broke out, Soapy formed his own militia, the Skagway Military Company, in which he was captain. He also began operating a phony telegraph office in an area with no telegraph poles. But, eventually, he crossed the wrong group of men.
When Soapy’s men took an estimated $2,600 in gold (That was enough to buy 52,000 bars of soap!) from a Klondike miner, in an illegal card game, a vigilante group that called themselves the Committee of 101 said enough was enough! The group, which had previously formed for the sole reason of washing the town clean of Soapy and his scummy companions, demanded that Soapy repay the gold. Soap said, “Nope,” and that was his downfall!
On the evening of July 8, 1898, Soapy was killed in a gunfight, known as the Shootout on Juneau Wharf. He uttered what may be my favorite last words ever uttered by anyone: “My God, don’t shoot!” That was one time when his silver tongue failed him. He died of a gunshot to the heart. Soapy was buried just outside of the Skagway city cemetery.
The thing about schemers is that there’s always another one waiting in the wings. Five years after Soapy’s demise, Charles Ponzi immigrated to America. And, if you’re interested in earning thousands of dollars a day, from the comfort of your home, let me know. There’s a pop-up ad for that!