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Magician shares legend of ‘King of the Con Men’

‘Soapy’ Smith was notorious for fleecing pioneer Denver

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Modern scams often come in the form of poorly worded emails or annoying robocalls, but before electricity made it possible to rip people off from far away, conning was an art.

In the years following the Civil War, the Denver area was home to a mythical grifter called the King of the Con Men, whose daring and audacious schemes are the stuff of legend.

Magician Mark Strivings told the tale of Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith at Littleton’s Bemis Library on Jan. 9, painting a portrait of Soapy Smith as a man of great savvy.

Strivings said that as a magician who employs sleight-of-hand tricks, he was captivated by stories of the adventurous con man.

“It turns out I’m not alone,” Strivings said. “Everywhere I go, I meet ‘Soapies’ — people who are just fanatics about his life.”

Soapy’s heyday was in Denver, Strivings said.

“Soapy’s stomping grounds in Denver were the hellish blocks stretching off from Union Station,” Strivings said. “In the 1870s, you couldn’t walk down 17th Street to Larimer Street without someone trying to fleece you out of your money.”

Soapy gained his nickname from a street-corner con in which he would sell bars of soap, some which supposedly concealed hundred-dollar bills. Of course, the only winners were his own henchmen, planted in the crowd.

Graduating up from the soap scam, as well as shell games and three-card monte, Soapy created elaborate ruses. In one, he and his cronies built and staffed a thriving — but wholly fake — stock exchange in a storefront. Newly arrived suckers would be persuaded to buy shares in the gangbusters mining trade, only to find out too late that the whole thing was a sham, by which time the stock exchange had vanished.

In another, Soapy and company built a lively — but again, fake — bank, complete with a sizable vault. Eastern dudes who started accounts in the bank couldn’t have known that the vault was a theater prop, capable of being folded up and carried away under the arm of one of Soapy’s henchmen.

Soapy maintained his trade by paying off police, judges and others. He also donated generously to churches and civic institutions.

He eventually wore out his welcome and made his way to the boomtown of Creede, in southern Colorado, before heading to the Klondike Gold Rush. Soapy met his end in Skagway, Alaska, in 1898, shot to death outside a meeting to decide what was to be done with him and his band of ne’er-do-wells.

Strivings wrapped up his talk with a demonstration of a couple good-natured “short cons” anyone can pull on friends in a bar — the details of which we’ll withhold, for the benefit of attendees who may want to put them to work against a tipsy buddy or two.

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