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  • Writer's pictureJenifer Brown

#22 The Adventure to Great Soap & How to Find it: Soap Swindler, A True Alaskan Story.

Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith II was a confidence man & gangster in the Alaskan gold frontier in the mid to late 1800s. We know people like him today as con men.

Born on November 2, 1860, to a wealthy family Jefferson didn't want for much growing up. He lived a life of wealth up to the Civil War, His family lost much of their wealth. Until 1876, he and his family were decent people.

In 1877 Jefferson set off on his own, going from town to town he had a whole bag of tricks and cons to gain money, horses, whiskey, and whatever he felt he needed.

When the Klondike Gold Rush began in 1897, Like many before him Jefferson saw great promise to make money in a town called Skagway, Alaska.

His first attempt at making money in Skagway landed him in his first pinch when local miners were swindled while Jefferson operated his three-card monte and ball-and-cup games. He was forced out by local groups to pack it in & move out of town. He did not return to Skagway until late January 1898.

When he returned to Skagway, Jefferson opened a fake telegraph office in which the wires went to a fake pole outside. His bogus office charged fees for sending messages. While they waited, Jefferson's con gang chatted people up, inviting them to a local card game, where they cheated them further. Skagway didn't get a real Telegraph system until 1901.

To date, Jeffersons' biggest swindle of all was soap making with the promise of getting rich with each bar purchased. Jefferson would set a display case on the street corner, stacked with bars of soap. Each soap bar was wrapped in brown paper so that the money was hidden from sight. Each bar he claimed could have $1 to $100 wrapped inside. Explaining this to the growing crowds, a frenzy would begin.

He would take a special lot above his head, showing the crowd & telling them of the wealth they could find while mixing the money-wrapped soap in with the regular soap. He would sell the soap to the crowd for one dollar per bar. Placed in the crowd would be a mark. This was one of Jeffersons many gang members who would buy a bar, tear it open, and yell that he had won money, waving it around for all to see.

This con performance led to the sale of many bars of soap. A quarter-way through the sale, Jefferson would shout that the hundred-dollar bill still remained on the table. Doubling down on the con, he then would auction off the remaining soap bars to the highest bidders. Through trickery & sleight-of-hand, the only money "won" went to his con gang. Jefferson's con gang portrayed many characters in hopes of conning the influx of newcomers. The cons played reporters, miners, pastors & railmen, finding personal ways to rid newcomers of their money.

During one of these sales, Smith was arrested by a policeman for running his soap sale. When he was booked into jail, the officer had forgotten Jefferson's first name and inserted "Soapy" Smith. From that evening on he became known as "Soapy Smith."

On the evening of July 8,1898, the Skagway law committee Had enough after "Soapy" conned a wealthy visitor who refused to pay his losses on a 3-card Monte game. The visitor caused a scene, becoming confrontational.

Words and tempers flared & a rifle in the hands of a man named Reid was pointed at Soapy, Shot in the heart, Leg & Left elbow he died on the spot from a bullet to the heart. Soapy drew in self-defense and shot Reid. He died 12 days later with a bullet in his leg and groin.

Soapy Smith was buried in what is known today as the Gold Miners Cemetary.

Jen was excited to learn this soap-related local History when we visited Alaska back in May.

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