Soapy Smith, “king of the frontier con men” died in a gunfight celebrated as the Shootout on Juneau Wharf on the evening of July 8,1898. His last words, while not particularly memorable and certainly not effective, were nevertheless appropriate to the situation: “My God, don’t shoot!”
Soapy’s career began soon after the death of his mother in Fort Worth, Texas. He formed a highly disciplined cadre of ne’er-do-wells to work for him, and rose rapidly to criminal super stardom. He built three major evil empires: in Denver, Colorado, from 1886 to 1895); Creede, Colorado in 1892; and Skagway, Alaska, from 1897 to 1898. It was in Skagway that he finally made his dramatic exit.
Starting off with small-time cons such as three-card monte and shell games, he eventually employed the big con that gave him his nickname. On a busy street corner, Smith would go into an ordinary sales pitch extolling the wonders of his soap cakes. But he proceeded to wrap money around the cakes of soap – ones, tens, a hundred dollar bill. He then wrapped plain paper around them to hide the money.
He mixed the money-wrapped packages with bars containing no money and began selling the soap for a dollar a cake. Immediately, one of his shills would buy a bar, tear it open, and begin waving around the money he had supposedly won. People began buying soap, usually several bars. Every few minutes, someone would shout that he had won, always a confederate. Eventually, Smith would announce that the hundred-dollar bill remained unpurchased and began auctioning off the remaining soap bars to the highest bidders. Naturally, the only money was “won” by members of the gang.
Smith used this swindle successfully for twenty years. The proceeds from this scam and others gave him the money to pay graft to police, judges, and politicians, and live as a somewhat shady swell until his comeuppance on the Juneau Wharf at the hand of a man he had cheated.