July 8, 1898 - Today was the day that that Soapy Smith died. He was one of the most infamous con artists on the western frontier.
Soapy's real name was Jefferson Randolph Smith, but he got the nickname from one of his most popular con games. He would show up on a street corner with a small table covered with bars of soap. Then he would begin wrapping the soap in paper. Every so often he would throw a dollar bill under the wrapping paper - or even higher denominations as well.
Once he was done wrapping he'd offer the soaps for sale, usually for a dollar each. One of his fellow con men would appear in the crowd and buy a bar. The shill would rip open his soap and (surprise, surprise!) there would be a dollar inside it! Soon everybody in the crowd was buying up bars of soap and sometimes it would turn into a bidding war. Unfortunately for the other shoppers, no other bills would show up under the wrappers.
The con worked like a charm and Soapy grew wealthy and powerful. This allowed him to bankroll similar schemes all across the west. He opened a gambling hall in Denver, where he grew his criminal empire and paid off a long list of politicians, judges and police officials. Later he expanded his operations by employing prostitutes to seduce wealthy property owners who would be conned or blackmailed into signing over valuable leases.
The money just kept pouring in for Soapy, but his enemies list was also growing at an alarming rate. He decided to move his operations to Skagway, Alaska where he could capitalize on the Klondike Gold Rush. In Skagway Soapy quickly paid off the sheriff and began opening bogus businesses. One was a telegraph office in which the wires only went as far as the walls.
Soapy's final swindle was a rigged game of three-card monte in which he cheated a prospector out of a considerable sack of gold. A group of vigilantes set up a meeting with Soapy on the Juneau Wharf and it turned into a gun battle. Soapy and a man named Frank Reid would end up shooting each other.
The con man's last words were, "My God, don't shoot!" Soapy died with a bullet in his heart. He was 37 years old.