The king of the Old West’s con men was Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith. He made his money by running “sure-thing” con games, which he would use to trick naive gamblers out of their money. But Smith wasn’t just skilled at slight of hand. He was adept at organizing gangs of criminals until he gained influence in town politics. He did this in several places until he was finally shot in Skagway, Alaska, during the Klondike Gold Rush.
Smith got his first great success in Denver in the late 1880s. His most famous game was the “prize soap racket.” He convinced people to buy overpriced soap in the hope of finding the one which contained a five dollar bill, but the prize bar always ended up in the hand of one of his accomplices. It was this con that got him his nickname, when he was arrested for selling this soap without a license. The policeman could not remember his given name, so he wrote down “Soapy,” and the nickname stuck. A soapy and slick individual he certainly was.
As Soapy continued his cons, he worked on building a criminal empire until he was able to influence politics by supporting corrupt politicians, using his gambling money to buy votes. By 1889 newspapers reported that he was giving bribes to the mayor of Denver, chief of police and many officers, which allowed him to continue his crimes with impunity. He left town in 1892 after some legal reforms, but these were short lived. A few years later he was back in Denver at his old ways, opening businesses to serve as fronts for his criminal activities.
Davis Hanson Waite was elected governor of Colorado in 1893, and he set out to dismantle the political system that allowed men like Smith to continue unchecked. He was given power over two seats on the Denver Fire and Police Board, and he fired both Jackson Orr and D. J. Martin for refusing to enforce the gambling laws, thus shielding men like Soapy Smith. They refused to leave their offices, and barricaded themselves in the city hall.
They were joined by other disgruntled officials, and they barricaded the doors and prepared to hold out against anyone who might come against them. Some of the governor’s party wanted to pursue the matter in the courts, but Waite thought it was a time for action and not trials. He called out the state militia, and Federal troops were sent to join the group. They marched into Denver with cannon and Gatling guns on March 15, 1894. A photographer was on hand to capture the event.
300 men gathered inside the hall, Soapy Smith among them. They knew that defeat meant the downfall of their political system, so they were prepared to fight to the last. Details of photographs taken at the time show interesting moments in the mob. You can see closeups in this gallery:
The military moved in to the square in front of the hall, and planted their cannon in front of it. The town seemed to be on the brink of war. But the order from the governor to open fire never came. In last minute negotiations the Colorado Supreme Court agreed to take on the case, and the governor decided not to use the military against the rebels.
In its decision, the court held the governor did have the power to remove the officials, but he was not allowed to call out the militia to force them to vacate their offices. After this decision the governor’s appointees were installed.
The City Hall War was the beginning of the end of Smith’s criminal empire. His saloons were closed one by one, for violating the gambling laws. Finally Smith left Denver, escaping from punishment for assaulting a saloon owner. He would continue his cons for several more years, moving to stay ahead of the law. He traveled to Mexico and finally Alaska. It was there, in the boomtown of Skagway, where he met his end in the shootout on Juneau Wharf.
Unless otherwise noted, images are from the Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library.
“That Fiend in Hell”: Soapy Smith in Legend by Catherine Holder Spude (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012).
“The Reign of ‘Soapy’ Smith” by Harry L. Suvdam. Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthy vol. 51, no. 3, January 1901 (New York: Frank Leslie Publishing, 1901).
Sketches of Colorado edt. Will C. Ferril (Denver: The Western Press Bureau Company, 1911) vol. 1, p. 47.
The History of the Government of Denver with Special Reference to its Relations with Public Service Corporations by Clyde Lyndon King (Denver, CO: Fisher Book Company, 1911) p. 211 – 216.