Stumptown was scene of Soapy Smith’s first known soap swindle
The most famous con artist of the Old West started in Portland, then traveled throughout the state working the “marks” with his signature swindle. Fifteen years later, an Oregonian shot him in a gun fight in Skagway.
By Finn J.D. John — May 28, 2017
August 1, 1882. On a sunny streetcorner in the middle of the rough-hewn, stump-strewn frontier town of Portland, a fresh-faced, wholesome-looking 22-year-old fellow named Jefferson Smith, nattily attired, sets up a big valise atop a portable tripod.
He opens it up. It’s full of little packages, wrapped with paper. He pulls out his billfold and extracts several banknotes: some ones and fives, a ten, a twenty.
Then he looks around the crowd, and starts his spiel. He has the most wonderful soap, he exults; it’s lightly scented and possessed of wonderful cleansing properties. Moreover, this soap, he assures the bystanders, can make them a tidy sum of money — if they watch him carefully.
He picks up the $10 bill and a cake of soap, wraps the bill around the cake, deftly re-wraps the whole thing in paper and drops it into the valise.
“Watch me closely, gentlemen,” he prattles — or words to that effect — as he scoops up another cake. This one he wraps with a $5 bill, and drops it back in the valise.
Finally, out comes a $20 bill — worth $440 in today’s dollars — and into the bin it goes, wrapped around a cake of soap.
Dozens of eyes watch the $20 cake as the young man gives the contents of the valise a desultory stir with his left hand, while gesturing emphatically with his right as he extolls the wonders of his product.
Then he begins his closing pitch. His wonderful soap costs just 50 cents per package, or three for $1. (One dollar in 1882 is worth about $22 today.)
And in the crowd, watching with interest, is a reporter for the Portland Daily Standard.
The presence of that reporter is how we know about this street scene today. In his news story, the reporter didn’t actually quote Smith’s sales patter; he simply referred to him as “a ‘fakir’ whose tongue appears to be hung in the middle and run at both ends.”
“During about 10 minutes in which (the reporter) was watching him, he took in about $20,” the article noted. “The whole business is one of the most transparent frauds imaginable and should be stopped.”
Apparently this advice was taken to heart by someone in Portland, because less than 10 days later, Smith had moved on up the river to Albany.
This article is the first documentation of the streetcorner swindle that would make Jefferson Smith rich and famous — and would give him a nickname: “Soapy” Smith, the late, lamented, too-soon-martyred patron saint of Old West con artistry, the most famous “bunco man” of his time. From the prize-package soap racket he would move on to ever more audacious criminal enterprises, eventually making his name as a political fixer and an organized-crime boss with multiple businesses specializing in fleecing “greenhorns” — and anyone else he could get away with fleecing.
All that was in the future, though, on this day in Portland. Young Soapy was still young and relatively inexperienced, traveling from town to town as an itinerant swindler of a fairly common type. His skills were still rough, too, by his later standards. Toward the end of his Oregon run — late October — he got in a fistfight with some disappointed soap buyers in Eugene. An older, smoother Soapy would never have let that happen.
Soapy’s Oregon run is hard to reconstruct in detail. It was early in his career, and as an itinerant swindler, he didn’t keep very good records; nor did the newspapers of the day take much notice of streetcorner hawkers. But the kind of operation he was running at that time was a turf-burner, meaning that he couldn’t stay too long in one spot; eventually the marks would get wise, and the city cops would start dreaming up charges on which he could be jailed. For a successful con artist, half the game was knowing when it was time to disappear in the middle of the night. Guess wrong, stay just one day too long, and you could end up with a new coat of tar and feathers, or worse.
Despite these challenges, Jeff Smith, Soapy’s biographer and great-grandson, was able to place him in Astoria in early July; Portland in late July to early August; Albany in mid-August; Salem in mid-September; and Eugene in mid-October. And by Feburary of 1883, he was in Utah, having apparently left the Beaver State for good.
But the Beaver State wasn’t done with Soapy yet. Oregon still had one more role to play in Soapy’s story — and it was a role that would not have pleased him much, had he known.
In later years, Soapy would develop the prize-package soap swindle to a science. Working with a team of “cappers,” or secret confederates, he would set up his valise — a specially built case with a secret compartment inside, which would enable him to sort the soaps on the fly — and start his routine, wrapping a dozen or so cakes of soap with bills ranging from $1 to $100. The $1 cakes would occasionally go to a mark; the larger denominations, though, would be pulled out of the valise only when one of the cappers made a purchase. The capper would joyfully “discover” a $10 bill in his soap and go frolicking off with it. Soapy would glibly point out that the $20 and $100 packages were still in play, and resume his sales.
As the number of bars in the valise dwindled, Soapy would switch to an auction format, and people would bid up the price of the remaining soaps. From there, it was simple enough. Near the end of the soap supply, Soapy would simply sell the $100 package to a capper, and the crowd, disappointed, would melt away.
It was a few years after leaving Oregon that Soapy Smith settled down in Denver to build the first of his three major organized-crime empires. He seems to have realized that rather than living on the lam, one step ahead of the law or the vigilance committee, he could establish himself in a morally flexible town which a lot of suckers pass through. He could then fleece those out-of-town greenhorns to his heart's content, while leaving the locals strictly alone and building their trust and goodwill with copious local philanthropy.
Soapy built elaborate criminal empires first in Denver, then in Creede, Colo., and finally, after the Klondike Gold Rush broke out, in Skagway, Alaska. At their peak, these operations ran multiple crooked saloons and gambling dens, lottery shops, auctions for imitation jewelry and watches, and even fake stock exchanges.
But as he got older, Soapy’s bad habits started to catch up with him. Throughout his mid-30s, his drinking problem worsened, and when drunk his temper was terrible. The morale and discipline of his confederates — the “Soap Gang,” the cappers and assistants whose loyalty was always Soapy’s number-one asset — started to go to seed.
It all came to a head on July 8, 1898, on the Juneau Wharf in Skagway. Three members of the Soap Gang had swindled a miner out of $87 in a game of three-card monte. Wanting more money to play, he offered some gold dust from his bag, which contained $2,700 worth; one of the swindlers snatched the bag and and ran.
A vigilante group demanded that Soapy return the money; Soapy refused, loyally standing behind his men’s claim that the miner had lost it all fair and square playing three-card monte. The vigilantes were meeting on the pier to decide what to do about it when Soapy loaded his Winchester rifle and went down to the meeting in an apparent attempt at intimidation.
When he got there, he found the vigilantes had posted four guards to bar any Soap Gang members from the meeting. One of them, the only one of the four who was armed, was an Oregonian: Frank Reid, a teacher from Linn County who had joined the gold rush a year or two before. (It’s tempting to wonder if Reid might have bought some soap from Soapy when he was working the marks in Albany 15 years earlier; he was, at the time, 48 years old, so he would have been in his early 30s.)
The three unarmed guards stepped aside for Soapy, who was almost certainly liquored up and in a bad humor. The fourth, Reid, did not. Soapy went for Reid with the rifle, either to clobber him with it or shoot him; Reid pulled his revolver; and a second or two later, Reid was mortally wounded and Soapy was stone dead. Soapy's last words were, "My God, don't shoot!" -- but, unfortunately for him, he was addressing them to a man who likely knew he was about to die of wounds Soapy had inflicted on him.
Soapy Smith was just 38 years old when he died. His passing was largely unlamented at the time, but in subsequent years his career would be refurbished in nostalgic memory in the typical manner of American bad guys from Jesse James to D.B. Cooper. Today, remembering the copious philanthropy that was always necessary to ensure the support of the local population, he is sometimes depicted as a sort of fast-talking Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. And the true story of Soapy Smith can sometimes be hard to pick out from among all the legends that have developed.
The world was probably a better place after Soapy Smith was removed from it. But it was, without question, a less interesting and colorful one.
(Sources: Smith, Jeff. Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel. Juneau: Klondike Research, 2009; Collier, William Ross & al. The Reign of Soapy Smith. New York: Doubleday, 1935)