March 19, 2024 | Byron Fast

Villainous Facts About Soapy Smith, The Klondike’s Big Cheat


His name may have been Soapy Smith, but this Klondike era entrepreneur was about as far from squeaky clean as you can imagine.


1. He Destroyed Lives

Whether it’s a fake inheritance, catfishing, or email scams, modern technology puts us face to face with con artists almost every day of our lives. But let’s go back to a simpler time. Klondike era con artist Soapy Smith had one really great thing going for him. Countless naive, 19th-century Americans who were gullible as could be.

Sure, he left a heartbreaking trail of destroyed lives in his wake, but watching him do it is such a guilty pleasure.

Soapy Smith

2. He Started Out Rich

Soapy Smith was born Jefferson Smith on November 5, 1860 in Coweta County, Georgia. His father was an attorney and his grandad was a politician who also happened to own a plantation. Let’s just say this family was not hurting for cash and, for his childhood anyway, Smith grew up chomping on a silver spoon.

But in one puff of smoke, Smith’s luxurious lifestyle changed forever.Jefferson Randolph Smith named Unknown Author , Wikimedia Commons

3. He Started Young

A Southern, plantation-owning family in the 1860s? You do the math. Before the decade was out, the Smiths had lost almost everything they had. The now desperate family moved to Round Rock, Texas and Smith immediately missed the luxuries he’d known all his life. At the tender age of 17, he started on his path to being a con artist.

But while Smith was busy relieving folks of their money, tragedy struck.Screenshot of Soapy Smith wearing hat is talking - from Klondike (2014)Discovery Channel, Klondike (2014)

4. He Witnessed A Brutal Event

Just a couple of years after financial ruin, the Smith family lost their mother. This once-wealthy family was literally falling apart, and Smith took this as an omen to get out. As he was planning his escape, he witnessed a disturbing sight. Texas Rangers fatally shot and outlaw Sam Bass right before Smith’s terrified eyes.

Surely, this event would serve to scare Smith straight. Right?

Sam Bass (outlaw) - portraitTexas Ranger History, Wikimedia Commons

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5. He Never Looked Back

Soapy Smith had seen a lot in his short life; Witnessing Bass's demise seemed to have little effect on this cold hearted teenager. Smith headed to Fort Worth, Texas and hit the ground running. He quickly pulled together a group of likeminded—ie. immoral—men.

As a group they prepared to alleviate the citizens of Fort Worth of their hard earned cash. Their first scheme was so legendary that it gave Smith his nickname.Screenshot of Soapy Smith wearing hat is talking - from Klondike (2014)Discovery Channel, Klondike (2014)

6. He Promised Them Cash

Smith started selling soap on the street corner, incorporating an unusual gimmick to increase sales. While his customers watched, Smith wrapped some of the bars of soap in bills, $1 up to $100, then wrapped all the bars in the same plain paper. Smith had certainly grabbed his audience's attention: A chance for free money with soap? It seem too good to be true!

Of course, some remained skeptical, but Smith had a very clever way to convince everyone that his offer was completely above board.Screenshot of Soapy Smith wearing hat and pointing - from Klondike Fever (1979)Klondike Fever Film Productions, Klondike Fever (1979)

7. He Fooled Them All

Eventually, one customer shouted out that he’d found a bill wrapped around his soap and the crowd went wild. The only thing was, he hadn’t won at all. This “winning customer” was one of Smith’s collaborators, and he had secretly produced the bill from his pocket. The other customers were now convinced, and a sales frenzy began.

Smith was raking in the dough. He was also greedily looking for an even bigger—and riskier—payout.Screenshot of Soapy Smith wearing hat is looking at side - from Klondike Fever (1979)Klondike Fever Film Productions, Klondike Fever (1979)

8. He Sold To The Highest Bidder

When Smith had sold most of the soap, he dramatically announced that the sought after $100 bill was still somewhere in the pile. Now, the frenzied customers were willing to pay even more, so Smith “spontaneously” set up a makeshift auction. The last few bars sold to the highest bidders, and the one wrapped up in the $100 bill went safely to one of Smith’s gang members.

Smith had a fool proof scheme going. But then the authorities figured out what Smith was doing and moved in to take him down.Screenshot of Soapy Smith wearing hat is looking at side - from Klondike Fever (1979)Klondike Fever Film Productions, Klondike Fever (1979)

9. He Earned His Name

Officer John Holland saw that there was something fishy about these soap sales and pulled Smith down to the station. Holland had forms to fill out, but had forgotten Smith’s first name. As a joke he filled in the blank with “Soapy Smith,” and the nickname stuck. The downside for Smith was that everyone in Fort Worth now knew about his soapy scam.

He needed to get out of town as soon as he could.

Jefferson Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

10. He Worked Fast

In 1879, Smith moved over to Denver, Colorado and in three short years he essentially owned the city's entire underworld. There was a surprising reason for his speedy ascension to the top. You see, officers in Denver gave him no trouble at all. Smith was paying off the politicians and it was like having a “get out of jail free card”.

Maybe you’re wondering if Smith had any emotion at all. Wonder no more. He’s about to sell his heart for a song.Screenshot of Soapy Smith wearing hat is talking - from Klondike (2014)Discovery Channel, Klondike (2014)

11. She Made Him Stop

One day, Smith was in “Big Ed” Chase’s Palace Theater in Denver and heard a woman singing. Her name was Mary Eva Noonan and there was something about Mary that made Smith stop in his tracks. The ruthless con artist had fallen in love at first sight and within a year of meeting, the two were husband and wife. You’d think that Smith was now ready to settle down.

Nope, his scheming days were just getting started.

Soapy Smith wearing hat is talking - from Klondike Fever (1979)Klondike Fever Film Productions, Klondike Fever (1979)

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12. He Sold Fakes

On the surface Smith’s next enterprise, The Tivoli Club, seemed perfectly law abiding. On closer inspection it was anything but. There were dirty poker games and corrupt lotteries. He even branched out into the stock market. Of course, Smith’s stocks came with a guaranteed return, even though they were, like the watches he sold, mostly fake.

Smith may have thought he was flying under the radar, but there was a very powerful group preparing to expose him for what he was.Men gathered for a drink in the Road House Saloon, Bluff City, Alaska, circa 1906Western Canada and United States Collection, Wikimedia Commons

13. They Outed Him

Soon, an incriminating article in a local newspaper made it crystal clear what Smith was, and who he had working for him. Due to this exposure, the city's mayor got the old heave ho, but this was just the beginning. The government introduced sweeping reforms that put a cap on gambling, and enforced strict control over saloons.

This was bad for Soapy Smith—and things were about to get much, much worse.Screenshot of Soapy Smith wearing hat and talking - from Klondike Fever (1979)Klondike Fever Film Productions, Klondike Fever (1979)

14. He Barely Escaped

The media was scary, but not nearly as scary as the shady characters who wanted to oust Smith from his position as the boss of the underworld. These attempts soon turned violent, and Smith barely escaped the city with his life. He'd had his fun, but it was now impossible for Smith to stay in business in Denver.

It was time for our anti-hero to make a life changing decision.Screenshot of Soapy Smith wearing hat and looking down - from Klondike Fever (1979)Klondike Fever Film Productions, Klondike Fever (1979)

15. He Couldn’t Do It Alone

Mining was a huge money maker, and Smith knew that where there was money, he could trick people into giving it to him. When he heard about a massive silver strike in nearby Creede, Colorado, he devised a plan to take the town over.

As always, he was going to need reinforcements to help him, but this time help came from an unusual place.Screenshot of Soapy Smith wearing hat and talking - from Klondike Fever (1979)Klondike Fever Film Productions, Klondike Fever (1979)

16. He Brought Back Up

When Smith entered Creede for the first time, it wasn’t with scary looking men. At his side was a collection of Denver’s finest ladies of the evening. The plan was for these beguiling women to get cozy with business owners and use their charms to get their leases. The plan worked, and Smith scooped up the town's stores and quickly rented them to people on his payroll.

Smith now owned most of Creede. Now, he was ready for his huge announcement.Screenshot of Soapy Smith wearing hat entering at bar - from Klondike Fever (1979)Klondike Fever Film Productions, Klondike Fever (1979)

17. He Kept The Peace

Smith gathered the townspeople of Creede and told the astonished citizens that he was now the camp boss. Residents likely prepared for absolute chaos, but surprisingly it was the opposite. You see, Creede was still a very wild town, and Smith’s influence—even though it was crooked—added a sense of order.

Believe it or not, Smith was actually helping people, and his behavior changed in a surprising way.Screenshot of people in saloon - from Klondike Fever (1979)Klondike Fever Film Productions, Klondike Fever (1979)

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18. He Had A New Attitude

Smith got a taste of doing good in the world, and he wanted more. To everyone’s surprise, he started using his dirty money to build churches and help the poor. His heart had warmed so much that he even paid for the funerals of some of Creede’s more desperate, and recently deceased, citizens. Creede residents hoped this was a permanent change.

Sadly, temptation would soon shake him back into his old, demented self.

Screenshot of Soapy Smith wearing hat is thinking - from Klondike Fever (1979)Klondike Fever Film Productions, Klondike Fever (1979)

19. He Faced A Big Decision

While still in Creede, Smith got a message from some of his corrupt cronies back in Denver, saying that the reforms that had ruined Smith’s business were on the chopping block. At the same time, Creede's financial boom from the silver mines was on the decline. Smith had to decide. He could continue the good guy routine in Creede, or return to the more lucrative Denver.

What he didn’t know was that his life depended on making the right choice.Screenshot of Soapy Smith standing next to other man - from Klondike Fever (1979)Klondike Fever Film Productions, Klondike Fever (1979)

20. He Narrowly Escaped

To absolutely no one’s surprise, selfish Smith chose to return to Denver. What was a surprise was what happened just after he departed. On June 5, 1892, a massive fire broke out in little Creede and it destroyed many buildings. Smith’s club burnt to the ground, and that inferno could have taken Smith to an early—and fiery—grave.

This event signaled a change for Smith. But it wasn’t one for the better.

Screenshot of Soapy Smith wearing hat is standing next to wall - from Klondike Fever (1979)Klondike Fever Film Productions, Klondike Fever (1979)

21. He Had A Warped Concept

Once back in Denver, Smith started taking ownership of his position in society. He even went so far as to tell a reporter that his profession was “con man”. He even claimed that scamming had more honor than being a politician! Smith was cleverly redefining what a con man was—but not everyone was buying it.

In fact, there was one politician out there who was preparing to turn Smith’s world upside down.

Screenshot of Soapy Smith wearing hat is looking surprised - from Klondike Fever (1979)Klondike Fever Film Productions, Klondike Fever (1979)

22. He Had To Join

In 1894, Colorado citizens elected Davis Hanson Waite as their new governor. Waite wanted to end the corruption in his state and immediately fired three Denver officials who had joined forces with con men like Smith. The three outraged officials decided to fight against Waite and, of course, Smith had to put himself right in the middle of it.

Smith’s fight against this tenacious governor would quickly turn dangerous.Davis Hanson Waite, eighth governor of the U.S. state of Colorado.Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

23. He Locked Himself In

The three fired state officials decided to take a drastic stand. They locked themselves in their offices and refused to leave. Smith realized that his businesses were at risk, so he joined the men holed up in the city office. Governor Waite now had a volatile situation on his hands.

He went to extreme measures to end it. Measures that would put Smith’s life at risk.Screenshot of Soapy Smith standing next to other man - from Klondike Fever (1979)Klondike Fever Film Productions, Klondike Fever (1979)

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24. He Was The Only One

While Smith and the corrupt officials held their protest in city hall, they may have seen a surprising sight from the window. The governor had called in the militia, and they’d arrived with nothing less than cannons. The situation was far worse than they’d thought, and the terrified officials made Smith a surprising offer to keep themselves safe.Group of men gathered outside the Skagway City Hall - 1898Museum of History & Industry , Picryl

25. He Put Them In Danger

The city officials were nervously looking at the militia and their weaponry outside city hall, and they offered to make Smith a deputy sheriff right then and there. Of course, now Smith had to make the madness of facing a heavy armed militia go away.

Smith took his role seriously and came up with a plan. A plan that would put him and the officials in a very precarious position.Group of men standing on the wooden sidewalk outside Jeff Smith's Parlor in Skagway, Alaska - 1898Webster & Stevens, Wikimedia Commons

26. He Had A Wild Idea

As the newly appointed deputy sheriff, Smith had to act fast. He located some arms and dynamite and then enlisted the toughest of his men. The group of men then began their ascent of the middle tower of City Hall. Smith and his armed cohorts were soon looking down on the militia and their cannons.

The stage was set for a spectacular battle. Except, someone was looking out for him that day.

Group of men outside City Hall - 1898Alaska, Western Canada and United States Collection, Picryl

27. He Saw The Writing On The Wall

From the top of the tower, Smith watched in disbelief. The militia was packing up to leave. Governor Waite had seen the writing on the wall and had no interest in a potentially fatal battle. Smith had beaten the governor without firing a single shot.

Well, hold your horses Soapy. This battle was far from over, and his nemesis still had one trick up his sleeve.Screenshot of Soapy Smith wearing hat is looking at side - from Klondike Fever (1979)Klondike Fever Film Productions, Klondike Fever (1979)

28. He Faced A Judge

To Smith’s surprise, Governor Waite had wisely decided to move his battle into the safety of a court of law. Strangely, the court only called Smith in as a witness—not as one of the accused. But, in a dramatic turn of events, it was actually the governor who faced reprimand. The courts did not approve of his use of excessive force (though they didn't make him give the officials their jobs back).

Smith, however, had gotten off scot-free. But Waite wasn’t through with him. He’d soon wreak his revenge.

Screenshot of Soapy Smith is talking with young man - from Klondike Fever (1979)Klondike Fever Film Productions, Klondike Fever (1979)

29. He Wasn’t Wanted

To make it clear that Smith was no longer wanted in Denver, Governor Waite brought down his iron fist. He closed all the saloons, bordellos, and houses of gambling. This move would destroy all of Smith’s business dealings in Denver.

Luckily Smith, as always, had a back up plan. If he couldn’t beat Waite, he’d join him.Town Hall and Library of Congress ,Picryl

30. He Switched Teams

While Waite was wreaking havoc on Denver’s dens of vice, Smith remembered that he was still deputy sheriff. As a member of law enforcement, Smith did something outrageous. He entered his own gambling establishments and prepared to apprehend some of his own customers.

The reality, of course, was something different. It was Smith’s stroke of genius.Screenshot of Soapy Smith wearing hat is looking at side - from Klondike Fever (1979)Klondike Fever Film Productions, Klondike Fever (1979)

31. He Put On A Show

When Smith entered his own gambling house as deputy sheriff, he only targeted the customers who had lost big time in his own dishonest poker games. On the outside it looked as though Smith was doing his job—apprehending gamblers. The truth was that these guys were happy to play Smith’s little game, just to avoid paying their sizable debt.

Smith was running circles around the law—but it was about to catch up with him in a spectacular way.

Screenshot of Soapy Smith standing next to other man - from Klondike Fever (1979)Klondike Fever Film Productions, Klondike Fever (1979)

32. He Went Too Far

At this time, Smith was hanging out with his brother Bascomb, and the two shared a very hot temper. When an argument with a salon manager turned violent, the brothers found themselves in trouble with the law. Smith and Bascomb had beaten the manager up, and the judge called it attempted murder. Smith turned to his friends in high places to get him off the hook.

Sadly, he didn’t get the response he desperately needed.Screenshot of Saloon scene - from Klondike Fever (1979)Klondike Fever Film Productions, Klondike Fever (1979)

33. He Callously Left Him

As it turned out, Smith’s corrupt officials drew the line at attempted murder. No one stood up to help Smith and his brother, so it was time to pay the piper. But before Smith actually got behind bars, he abandoned his brother and made a dramatic escape. Smith was a free man, but now he had a new problem.

He couldn’t show his face anywhere in Denver. Smith desperately needed a place where he’d be anonymous, and he would go to extreme measures to find one.Screenshot of Soapy Smith wearing hat is talking - from Klondike Fever (1979)Klondike Fever Film Productions, Klondike Fever (1979)

34. He Went Off Grid

If Smith wanted to find a place “where nobody knew his name,” he couldn’t have found a better place than Alaska. To make this remote location even more enticing, some towns were experiencing a gold rush. This was exactly Smith’s kind of scene. There were men who were raking in bags of money and in search of unhealthy ways to spend it.

Smith chose the town of Skagway, but he was in for a rude awakening.Screenshot of Soapy Smith wearing hat is looking at side - from Klondike Fever (1979)Klondike Fever Film Productions, Klondike Fever (1979)

35. He Promised Himself

Maybe Skagway didn’t know who Smith was, but they knew what kind of person he was. When Smith set up one of his typical schemes, he didn’t get very far with it. A committee that represented the miners had a not so pleasant conversation with Smith where they “encouraged” him to leave.

Smith did as they encouraged—but resolved that he’d return and show this town who the real boss was.The Guardians Of Skagway, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, 1898NPGallery, Wikimedia Commons

36. He Couldn’t Forget

Smith traveled to Washington DC and to St Louis, but nothing could help him forget the potential of Skagway, Alaska. He knew he needed to return, but he also needed to “go big or go home”. With a fire in his belly, Smith decided to use what he learned in Creede and Denver to conquer Skagway.

The town had defied Smith once. This time he would leave them no option.Screenshot of town streets Alaska - from Klondike Fever (1979)Klondike Fever Film Productions, Klondike Fever (1979)

37. He Played It Carefully

In 1989, when Smith showed up in Skagway for the second time, he played his cards much more carefully. First he found an easily corruptible US Marshall for help with the law. Next, he decided on a much grander than usual scam. This would be—on the surface anyway—a very legitimate business.

The innocent citizens of Skagway had no idea what kind of trouble was coming their way.Screenshot of Soapy Smith laying on the table - from Klondike Fever (1979)Klondike Fever Film Productions, Klondike Fever (1979)

38. He Gave Them What They Needed

At this time, what Skagway desperately needed was a telegraph service. Smith saw this as a way to make money, so he opened a telegram office. It was an elaborate set up with impressive looking wires that one assumed carried messages to other parts of the country. There was just one little hitch: Smith’s telegraph lines went absolutely nowhere.

It was only a matter of time until someone figured out that this was a complete scam.Screenshot of Soapy Smith wearing hat is looking upset - from Klondike Fever (1979)Klondike Fever Film Productions, Klondike Fever (1979)

39. He Got Them Twice

Smith pretended to send out his customers’ telegrams, but customers started to notice that they never received a reply. Thinking quickly, Smith created false return messages. The funny thing is, they all had one thing in common: They were asking the recipient to send money. Of course, Smith valiantly offered to wire the money, which meant even more cash in his pocket.

Next, Smith would take his scams to an entirely new—and more sinister—level.Screenshot of town streets Alaska - from Klondike Fever (1979)Klondike Fever Film Productions, Klondike Fever (1979)

40. He Played Dress Up

Smith’s fake telegraph service could only last so long, and he needed to find another source of cash. He started a saloon called "Jeff. Smith’s Parlor" and used it as the base of his covert activities. And as always, Smith found new and exciting ways to part the citizens of Skagway from their cold hard cash.Soapy Smith - Parlor Skagway -2009Notyourbroom, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

41. He Pointed Them In The Wrong Direction

Skagway, Alaska had a steady influx of new people looking to strike gold. Smith’s diabolical plan was to use his fake identities to welcome these newcomers to Skagway. As a “trusted friend”, Smith or a member of his gang would point newcomers in the direction of his own nefarious businesses and scams. Before long, Skagway’s newest arrival would be flat broke.

The weird thing was, Smith had no idea how much pain he was causing. What he said next, proves that he was completely delusional.Screenshot of Soapy Smith wearing hat is talking with other man - from Klondike Fever (1979)Klondike Fever Film Productions, Klondike Fever (1979)

42. He Couldn’t See Clearly

When people complained to Smith about his mean-spirited treatment of newcomers to Skagway, Smith had a ridiculous defense for his behavior. He said he was helping the newcomers. His rationale was that anyone stupid enough to fall for his scams had no hope of striking it rich in the gold rush.

Smith was clearly delusional, but that didn’t stop him from doing some actual good.Screenshot of Soapy Smith wearing hat is looking upset - from Klondike Fever (1979)Klondike Fever Film Productions, Klondike Fever (1979)

43. He Was A Positive Influence

Smith was now letting his minions do the dirty work, and he was busy doing things like creating a program to help stray dogs and even opening up the town's first church. Smith was secretly robbing the town blind, but to many citizens he appeared to be positively philanthropic. Next on Smith’s positivity agenda was serving his country.

Of course, he’d also find a way to make it serve himself.Screenshot of Soapy Smith wearing hat and looking surprised - from Klondike Fever (1979)Klondike Fever Film Productions, Klondike Fever (1979)

44. He Was Patriotic

In 1898, Smith heard of the conflict raging between the US and Spain, and he wanted to serve his country. He received approval from then president William McKinley and created an army of volunteers, which he called the “Skagway Military Company”. It looked like Smith had turned into an absolute angel.

Nope. Smith had a plan for his personal army, and it was going to help no one but himself.Jefferson Soapy Smith On Horseback, Skagway, Ca 1898University of Washington, Wikimedia Commons

45. He Wanted Control

Of course Smith knew that his army way up in Alaska would not see any military action. What he wanted these men for was control. As commander, Smith now had the power to call for “martial law” if a need ever arose. An added perk was seats next to dignitaries at parades. Smith was working hard to become a respected citizen of Skagway.

All that went out the window when a big bag of gold arrived in town.The Soapy Smith Gang standing outside a restaurant, Skagway, Alaska, circa 1897Western Canada and United States Collection, Wikimedia Commons

46. He Made A Fatal Error

Douglas Stewart arrived in Skagway on July 7, 1898. His arrival might have been nothing special...except for one thing. He brought a bag of gold with him that was worth $2,700—that’s over $100,000 in today’s money. When Smith’s thugs got word of the gold, they set on Stewart, but he bravely refused to hand over the gold.

Smith’s men grabbed Stewart’s bag anyway and took it to their boss. Accepting this bag of loot ended up being Smith’s fatal mistake.Screenshot of Soapy Smith wearing hat is looking upset - from Klondike Fever (1979)Klondike Fever Film Productions, Klondike Fever (1979)

47. He Crashed The Meeting

A group of vigilantes called the “Committee of 101” heard about Stewart’s bag of gold and wanted to do something about it. The committee came together in huge numbers on the Juneau Co Wharf to figure out what to do about Smith and the gold he’d taken. To the committee’s shock, Smith himself turned up near the wharf. He’d been drinking and was carrying a rifle.

The members took one look at Smith and knew there would be trouble.Dock where Library of Congress, Picryl

48. They Got Him Three Times

Vigilante Frank H Reid blocked Smith’s entrance to the wharf, and the two men argued. Someone heard Smith call out: “My God, don’t shoot” and then a bloody battle ignited. Smith received three hits. In his left leg, his left arm, and a final shot in the heart. Soapy Smith’s devious life had come to a dramatic end at the age of 38.

His legend, however, lives on.Soapy Smith Grave Skagway - 2009Notyourbroom, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

49. They Remain Loyal

The character of Soapy Smith has appeared in many TV shows and movies, but his true fans aren’t necessarily interested in fictional portrayals. To witness the loyalty to the real Smith that still exists, attend one of the five wakes for him that still occur annually. There you can raise a glass and repeat these ominous words: “Here’s to Soapy’s ghost”.

There’s more than just his ghost. Some believe they’ve uncovered an actual piece of Smith.Tour of recently refurbished Jeff. Smith's Parlor Museum at Klondike - 2016National Park Service, Wikimedia Commons

50. He Reappeared

Almost 30 years after his burial, an image of Smith emerged. In 1926, residents of Skagway noticed something in a rock formation. It was a skull made of huge slabs of granite. For some reason, the ones who discovered it immediately assumed it was Smith’s skull and made it into a monument.

I guess they had a fondness for a man who had terrorized their town."Soapy Smith" stands at the barNational Parks Gallery, Picryl


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