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Meet Soapy Smith - Old West Confidence Trickster

Hey, all! Ol' Clementine here is back from a long holiday weekend. Hope your Independence Day celebrations were fun. I spent lots of time at family BBQs, and one of the things I love most about these get-togethers is the storytelling that takes place. Stories about ancestors, stories about crazy townspeople, stories about Clementine when she was a blushing girl of twenty and met a cowboy, and…

Never you mind. That story is staying with me.

Some other stories I like are the ones about characters from the Old West. God knows there were plenty of 'em, right? So today's post is brought to you by Brian McGovern, the "Brooklyn Magician" who is known for his "Hijinx Magic and Fun Show." Even though Brian hails from The Big Apple, he knows quite a bit about old-time tricksters. I asked him to share some stories, and he's gone and done just that below. Enjoy! 

Snake Oil and Bullets

By Brian McGovern

When pioneers and prospectors settled the West, crooked gamblers, quacks, con artists, and shady magicians soon followed. Bunko operations, like phony stock exchanges and fake land deed brokers, flourished. Purveyors of prostitution, gambling, variety entertainment, and liquor set up shop in mining towns. They made good company for the confidence trickster. As long as the crooks bribed local officials and avoided fleecing the town people, they were free to carry on.

One of the most notorious swindlers of the Old West was Soapy Smith. He made a fortune by conning the greedy and the gullible using a variety of small-time gambling tricks on a massive scale. He earned the name “Soapy” because of his famous use of the “Soap Prize Scheme.”

Soapy Smith would gather a crowd with an enthusiastic sales-pitch extolling the virtues of his wonderful soap and its secret ingredients. He’d unwrap a cake of soap and insert a $20 bill in one and rewrap it. Smith repeated the process, adding a $50 or $100 bill into more of the soaps.

Soapy mixed these “prize soaps” with a box full of ordinary ones. He’d give the crowd a chance to buy common soap for the price of a day’s wages. One of Smith’s shills would step forward and purchase a bar of soap. The confederate shouted with joy as he waved a $20bill he just found inside the wrapper. At this, the crowd would step forward and start buying bars of ordinary soap at extraordinary prices in the hopes of winning the hidden hundred dollar bill. Of course, no one ever won any of the dollars except for members of Smith’s gang.

Soapy Smith expanded his empire from Denver, Colorado, to Skagway, Alaska. He’d run fake lotteries and crooked poker games along with other rigged games of chance. Con artists like Soapy Smith used the magician’s secrets of deception to amass great wealth. The gold-fever desire to get rich quick made fools of many and fortunes for others.

Frontier life was a harsh and lonely at times. Folks were hungry for amusements and novelty. Traveling shows headed west to capitalize on the demand. Tent shows featured music and dancers as well as novelty acts like magicians, jugglers, and minstrel acts. Medicine shows offered free entertainment to attract large crowds in order to pitch useless cure-alls.

The show put audiences in a receptive mood but it was essential to keep the suckers in their seats during the sales pitch. To accomplish this, the “good doctor” would announce that in just moments he was to display an act that was unlike anything ever seen on God’s green earth. The more spectacular the promised act, the longer the crowd would endure the snake-oil salesman’s pitch.

A closing act that promised death defying danger was a surefire way to pack the house. The Bullet Catching Trick, in which a magician apparently catches bullets between his teeth, was a crowd stopper for sure. Although it was an entertaining trick, it also killed many a magician since something almost always went wrong with the trick.

In 1880, Curran the magician performed such a convincing bullet catch that the audience demanded an encore. An audience member jumped up and hollered, “Catch one of these,” and fired a bullet at the magician. The bullet hit Curran in the forehead and no amount of his wonder-working snake oil could save him.

Brian the Brooklyn Magician is an award-winning children's entertainer who presents magic all over Brooklyn, New York.

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One thought on “Meet Soapy Smith - Old West Confidence Trickster”

  • Jeff Smith

    Thank you for including the story of my g-grandfather, Jefferson Randolph Smith II. You can find more information about this amazing nineteenth century crime boss on my website and blog.

    Jeff Smith

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