Jefferson Randolph Smith was born in Georgia in 1860. As a child, he had just as much promise as any other child of that era, but Georgia wasn’t where he wanted to live his life. Maybe it was a little too tame, or maybe it was just too settled. Smith wanted something new and exciting, so as a young man, he went west. Upon his arrival in Texas, he found work as a cowboy. That was all good for a while, but Smith soon got tired of the hard work and low wages offered by the cowboy life. Basically, he was lazy, and he decided to find a different way to make a living…one that required a lot less physical labor. Smith soon discovered that he could make more money with less effort by convincing gullible westerners to part with their cash in clever confidence games. His days as a con artist began.

Smith liked swindling people, and one of his earliest methods was the “prehistoric man” of Creede, Colorado. Somehow, Smith obtained a 10-foot statue of a primitive looking human that he secretly buried near the town of Creede. Then a while later, he went back and uncovered the statue…with the addition of as much fanfare and publicity as he could muster. Once the trap was set, he began charging the public huge fees to see it. Of course, he knew it wasn’t going to take long for the public to catch on, so he wisely left town before the curious turned suspicious. I can’t imagine if he had stayed and got caught.

The nickname, “Soapy” actually came from one of his more conventional confidence games. Smith took to traveling around the Southwest, where he would briefly set up shop in the street selling bars of soap wrapped in blue tissue paper. The con came in when he promised the amazed crowds that a few lucky purchasers would find a $100 bill wrapped inside a few of the $5 bars of soap. Of course, there really were no $100 bills…at least not more than one. So, one of the first people to buy, would suddenly shout with pleasure and then would happily display a genuine $100 bill. Immediately, everyone else wanted a bar of the soap. Sales skyrocketed after that. The lucky purchaser, of course, was a plant, so Smith got his money back. Well, I’m sure he left town pretty quickly after that scam too.

When the Alaskan Gold Rush began, Smith headed north in 1897 to join in, but as with any other job, he had no intention of actually mining for gold. He eventually landed in the rough frontier town of Skagway and prepared to set up shop. Skagway was “short on law and long on gold dust,” making it a great place for Smith to perfect his con games. Before long, he became the head of an “ambitious criminal underworld” and fleeced thousands of gullible miners, along with his partners. As Smith’s reputation and his “con artist success” grew, the honest citizens of Skagway grew quite angry at being taken in. They were trying to build an upstanding community, after all. So, they formed a vigilante “Committee of 101” in an attempt to bring law and order to the town. Smith was quite emboldened by then, so he formed a gang of his own, named “Committee of 303” to oppose them the vigilantes.

On July 8, 1898, Smith tried to crash a vigilante meeting on the Skagway wharf. His intention was to use his “con-man skills” to persuade them that he posed no threat to the community. Now that would have been a good con…if he could have pulled it off. However, Smith had failed to realize just how angry the vigilantes were. When he tried to break through the crowd, Frank Reid, a Skagway city engineer, confronted him. First, the men quarreled, then they exchanged bullets. Reid shot “Soapy” Smith dead on the spot, but not before Smith had badly wounded him. Reid died 12 days later.

The funeral service for “Soapy” Smith was held in a Skagway church he had donated funds to help build. The minister chose as the text for his sermon a line from Proverbs 13: “The way of transgressors is hard.” I guess it went without saying that “the way of a con man can be death.”

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